Who knows? Maybe that’s what I’ll do today,” Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo surmises at the end of his chat with Prog as he talks about finding inspiration for the band’s next album. “I’ll maybe look at some Poe and Lovecraft. If I find it, I’ll know. Or I could just write about Star Wars. That’d be easy.”
It has been seven long years since the prog metallers’ last album, Underworld. Some restless fans have grown impatient, but there are valid reasons behind the wait – not least singer Russell Allen being injured in a serious road crash in 2017. But during this time Romeo has been simmering away in his home studio in New Jersey, affectionately known as the Dungeon. New solo record War Of The Worlds, Pt. 2 follows up his 2018 first-parter, and with the customary epic grandeur interlaced with cinematic orchestration, Symphony X fans should get their fill.
“When I start writing for something, I just keep going,” Romeo explains. “I usually have too much. I had enough for two records, so I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll do half now and put half on the back burner and at some point figure out when I finish it.’”
Romeo’s …Pt.1 took Symphony X’s familiar, melodic aura and twisted the edges, adding fresh nods to more untapped genres like electronica. Having largely been written at the same time, it’s pretty similar fare this time around – virtuoso wizardry remains a key element – although there’s the introduction of a new singer, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s touring vocalist Dino Jelusick, while a growling seven-string guitar makes a cameo too.
Instrumental opener Introduction – Part II is John Carpenter-meets-Edward Scissorhands, while Divide & Conquer is turbo-charged, fretboard-frazzling melodic prog metal at its best. It continues to be loosely based on HG Wells’ classic novel War Of The Worlds, focusing at times on an ‘us versus them’ theme.
The album also features drummer John Macaluso, who has performed with James LaBrie as well as Norwegian prog metallers Ark, and Black Label Society bassist John
“The guys on the solo record are awesome dudes, good friends and great players,” Romeo says. “It was great writing everything and having that passion, but then having some guys who kind of understood what it is and what is the right thing to do. There were no problems or nothing, it was just seamless.”
Carving out a relatively modest solo career – there’s been no touring – has allowed Romeo to delve further into his long-held penchant for cinematic music. Symphony X benefits from that too, alongside the neo-classical indulgences, but the guitarist now has something of a free rein.
“How much time have you got?” he says with a smile when asked if any particular soundtracks shaped his love of cinematic music as a youngster. “Obviously Star Wars – that was huge, and the music was friggin’ huge, and to this day it’s like my favourite thing,” he continues.
“I just remember being young and those old science fiction movies or monster movies or Ray Harryhausen with the clay, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and The Cyclops – even the music to that… otherworldly epic kind of stuff. As a kid, it always stuck with me, and now I understand what it is. I like a lot of [John] Williams, [Hans] Zimmer and all these guys. You take some guitar riffs, and you take some of that, and you smash it all together.”
Alongside the movies there was a growing love of rock in Romeo’s youth, which morphed from the more conventional AC/DC and Led Zeppelin to Rush, Kansas, Zappa and ELP. “I still love all the metal stuff, but I liked all that [prog] too. And it’s the same thing with classical music too. I wasn’t into Stravinsky or some of the more… I don’t want to say dissonant, but a little bit of the more complex stuff. Early on it was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s kind of too much’, but now it’s like I fucking love it. So I think everything is a natural progression.”
It feels a little peculiar that Romeo’s life is so enveloped in notes, melodies and rhythms considering he didn’t emerge from a particularly musical family. “No one was really into music except me. Everybody thought there was something wrong with me,” he laughs. “But I did play piano when I was young. It was cool, but it wasn’t really my thing. I think I got an acoustic guitar at a garage sale when I was 14 or 13. And then that was the end of that.”
In latter years Romeo presided over a fairly significant rise to notoriety for Symphony X after forming the group in the mid-1990s, releasing nine albums so far including the stonking The Divine Wings Of Tragedy and the rocket-fuelled The Odyssey.
So, what about that seven years and waiting? Russell Allen’s accident while on tour with side-project Adrenaline Mob – which resulted in the tragic death of a bandmate and the tour manager – initially raised question marks over the future, and the C-word-that-shall-not-be-named has taken things off-track in the past couple of years too.
“It’s been a while, and there’s just been a lot of things that have happened,” principal songwriter Romeo says as he reflects on where Symphony X are at right now. “We did that record [Underworld] and then Russ was with his other band, the Mob guys, and then they had that accident. We weren’t even sure if he was going to keep doing it.
“That’s like a pretty frigging traumatic thing. I remember him saying, like, ‘Dude,
I need time to sort shit out.’ I guess something like that just puts everything in perspective. We gave him a little time, so everything just kind of stopped for a minute.”
Romeo also hints, with a dose of angst, that the lack of action in the last couple of years has left the band in a bit of a funk – despite a 25th anniversary tour lined up this year for the US and South America. They’re discussing new material, but as Prog chats nothing is off the ground.
“It’s just slow. Even for me. It’s, like, uninspired a little bit, just because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Romeo, though, is fairly chuffed with the band’s well-appointed CV after nearly three decades. The goal is fairly simple: to “keep having that fire”. He cites a support tour with Dream Theater in the 2000s, bringing neo-classical metal to arenas, as a highlight, as well the band’s first official show, which happened to be in Japan in 1998: “It’s like, wow, half-way around the world and people are having a good time.”
Romeo is speaking on a video call from the Dungeon, with an army of guitar heads lined up on racks behind. A cauldron of inspiration it may be, but over the stagnant last couple of years the need to, putting it plainly, “get the fuck outta here”, has simmered to the surface like a sore pimple.
But, with a new Symphony X album in the sights the studio is likely to see some magic again. Romeo reveals the band have talked about an Odyssey part two, but the group are keen to hit things from a fresh angle.
“Maybe it’s time for some kind of more grand piece,” he adds. “We still haven’t landed on what the topic is going to be. We’re going back and forth with some ideas. It has to be something that is kind of epic, kind of grand, big scope. But I think we’ve picked through everything that’s out there. What the hell else is there? We’ll find it…”
This article originally appeared in issue 129 of Prog Magazine.