“It might take a few people by surprise". Michael Romeo and his second solo album War Of The Worlds Pt. 1

Michael Romeo
(Image credit: Danny Sanchez)

There’s a certain irony that even those who claim to be progressive-minded and musically prejudice-free will no doubt have preconceptions about a solo album from Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo. There will be an expectation of shredding guitars, bombastic, operatic vocals and perhaps, as with many solo albums and side projects, an album quickly thrown together in a brief sojourn from the day job. 

Although such attitudes may prevail with those who find progressive metal a touch predictable, critics will be making merry fools of themselves if such negativity is transferred into the public domains of internet forums and Facebook pages. That’s because War Of The Worlds Pt 1 is a varied recording that may surprise even Romeo’s more ardent fans. 

The timing of the solo album is strongly linked to the appalling events of July 14, 2017. Symphony X singer Russell Allen was touring with his other band, Adrenaline Mob, when their bus was involved a collision that took the lives of that band’s bassist and their tour manager. Although Symphony X had decided to go on a hiatus prior to that incident, it’s clear that this has now been extended.

“We did a lot of touring in 2016 and then Russ had said that he wanted to put a lot more time and effort into his other band Adrenaline Mob,” he says. “The other guys in the band were working on other things, so I had started to think about writing a solo album. Unfortunately, those guys had that accident and Russ has been through a lot with that whole thing. I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago and I think he’s just trying to sort things out, so there are no plans for Symphony X. I just told him to take some time out, sort everything out in his head and let us know. Whatever he decides to do, it’s cool with me. 

“I think if you go through such a tragic time, it puts your life into perspective. We all have families and kids. It probably changes your whole outlook on things. So, we’re still on hiatus but we’re all talking and just trying to figure out the next move.”

Michael Romeo

(Image credit: Mascot Records)

The break has allowed Romeo to spend around 18 months writing and recording an album that’s far removed from his previous work. Seemingly, this was a deliberate attempt for him to move into fresh musical areas and, quite simply, enjoy the freedom that a solo album can offer an artist. 

“When I first decided to do it, I knew that I really wanted it to be a little different from the band,” he explains. “Of course, I still wanted it to sound like me. With a solo record, you can get outside of the box a little bit, experiment and have fun. I was just being creative and trying different stuff. 

“I knew I wanted to have orchestral and cinematic elements added to the guitar,
but of course retain the heavy and prog elements. So I was just trying to do some different things. There’s even some electronic music in there.”

The “electronic” element that Romeo proudly mentions appears on a track called F*cking Robots (sic) and although not overbearing, might cause some alarm with
his usual fanbase. 

“It might take a few people by surprise and I think it’s cool,” he laughs. “It’s something that the band would never do. I like some of that electronic stuff. I wouldn’t say that I’m an über fan but when I hear some of it, it’s clear there are some talented guys in that area and some of that stuff is cool.”

Wisely, Romeo has added a certain grandeur to the album by including orchestral sections which enhance its flow. A self-confessed sci-fi and movie nut, the guitarist has added elements that call to mind the works of film composer John Williams. Given that Williams has composed the scores for numerous science fiction movies, that influence is a natural fit for the album.

“I love all that stuff,” he enthuses. “I’m a big Star Wars and John Williams fan, and I knew I wanted to have a little bit of that flavour in there. I had a direction and a goal, and it was just a case of moving towards it. 

“I’m also always writing anyway, even if it is just orchestral stuff or something different. You never know when you might use it. You might go back and listen to it and say, ‘Shit, that’s kind of cool,’ and it starts something off. Maybe it was the melody and you can then build upon it. I always keep everything because you never know when it will come in handy. But the final track Constellations was tricky to write. That one took a while because with a lot of the orchestral stuff, you have to do it instrument by instrument. That means a lot of programming to make it as realistic as you can.

“The technology now with some of these libraries for these classical instruments is pretty high-tech,” he continues. “They’ve really got some great-sounding stuff. That was what ate up most of the time. It might take a week to do the guitar solos, but on a song like that, it really took an age because of the orchestration. I even had to get the pen and paper out to work out how things would fit.” 

Michael Romeo

(Image credit: Press)

Deliberately avoiding using any Symphony X musicians for his solo album, Romeo selected a band who were both musically adept but also already known to him. Bassist John ‘JD’ DeServio is an old school friend of the guitarist, and drummer John Macaluso has also been a close friend for a number of years.

“They’re all friends of mine and I’ve known them for years,” he explains. “With JD, we’ve always said we should do something together, but I’ve been busy with Symphony X and he’s been out with Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society, so we never really hooked up. The new guy is our singer Rick Castellano. Every so often, I’ll get together with some of my old friends from high school. We’ll just hang out, have fun and jam for the whole day and drink a couple of beers. One of the guys said that his buddy Rick Castellano was going to come down and that he was a great singer. I remember that he was really good, that he was a cool guy and we stayed in touch and that was how it worked out. They’re all guys that I knew and felt were great players. It was a pretty easy thing for me to set up.”

Then there’s the rather sizeable elephant in the room. Depending on your age, the title War Of The Worlds will either call to mind Jeff Wayne’s 1978 progressive masterpiece of the same name, or the movie featuring Tom Cruise being pursued around New Jersey by otherworldly tripods. Does Romeo believe that this concept album may attract criticism for the lyrical direction?

“Not really,” he argues. “If I remember rightly, that Jeff Wayne album was pretty much the exact story of the book. I didn’t want to do that as I knew it had been done. I also felt it might get cheesy if there was singing about ray guns, spaceships and Martians. I didn’t want it to be a retelling of the story, so we’ve done something a little bit deeper with this. The music on the Jeff Wayne album was pretty much straight rock, and this is rock, but there’s some metal stuff going on as well. I was looking for titles and a concept for the album and saw a copy of The War Of The Worlds. I thought that it would be cool, especially as there are many meanings to the phrase. It could be a war of worlds in politics, religion or so many other areas of conflict. That’s the thrust of the lyrics, so at least they had a little variety and every song was a little different.”

With Symphony X’s future uncertain, there’s an opportunity for Romeo to develop his solo career. He has already partially recorded War Of The Worlds Part 2 and is even thinking about the possibility of touring. All of it, as you might expect, depends on how this new album is received, and whether there is the public demand to see War Of The Worlds in a live setting. 

“Going into this solo record, I wasn’t thinking about any kind of live thing at all. It was all about fun and making it sound the way I wanted,” he says. “I will see how the album is received, though: maybe it’s a possibility. If it did happen, getting a pretty large orchestra and a choir isn’t cheap. It would have to be done on a reasonable budget and not off the chart. But it’s all about how the record does and with the music industry these days, who the hell knows…”

This article originally appeared in issue 90 of Prog Magazine.