Symphony X have long been a band happy to explore big questions. Last album Iconoclast saw them explore the impact of technology on the soul of humanity in a way that Fear Factory would be proud of, and new record Underworld is loosely based (more on emotional level than in a narrative concept) on Dante’s Inferno. A band that have created albums based around Homer and Milton epics exploring another metaphysical tale involving spirituality, hope, and loss is nothing out of the ordinary.
Dig a little deeper into the imagery of Underworld, though, and you find some rather more unusual answers. Hammer asked the band’s virtuoso singer Russell Allen (with tongue slightly in cheek) about whether the different strands of the devil’s music fit into different levels of Hell. After a laugh or two and a discussion on the nature of the Devil/Lucifer and whether we can comprehend it, he says:
“Dante gave us an image of that world that still resonates today. We all know the power of heavy metal and rock. I definitely feel a surge of energy when I’m performing this type of music that’s almost otherworldly. But as to levels? I don’t know,” he chuckles.
“I claim to have offered nothing; I’m merely a channel for stuff,” Russell continues. “It flows right through me. When I’m up there doing my thing, I don’t think. If I think, I fail. It’s not like I’m being possessed or anything – I still feel that I’m here – but I just let go and go to that place, and it just comes out. I guess there’s a demon in there who likes to come out and run around the stage once in a while ha ha! But there’s an angel too.”
The quasi-religious nature of the concert experience should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever lost their shit at a metal show. The euphoria of evangelical megachurches in the USA, where the faithful are whipped into ecstatic outpourings of (to outsiders) bizarre devotion, is not really all that different to the throng who lost their shit having braved the stench at the front of a Watain show. This, apparently, extends to performers too.
“I do believe performing music and understanding the responsibility of how you can influence people is something that artists have to take very seriously,” says Russell. “Whether it’s singing a song or performing and losing ourselves in that moment… whoever is controlling it all, I have no answers, but I know that if I let a certain energy out there, it will have an effect – sometimes very positive, sometimes very negative. There is a power that the performer – especially in heavy metal – has. You’ve seen it, you’ve seen the walls of death, and moshpits. There’s definitely a very powerful and sometimes almost chaotic energy that can be released at a huge concert.
“I wouldn’t conclude that it is that – music is not a religion – but there is definitely a euphoric experience – an almost religious experience – that an artist can have at a concert,” he adds, when the comparison to church is pointed out. “For us on stage, when they’re singing back to us, it’s magical. That’s what I live for, I live for that moment when the music that I have co-created with my band has touched someone that they care enough to sing.”
Living for those moments with Symphony X, however, must be a frustrating experience. The band started out with an extraordinary rate of composition, releasing six albums in their first eight years of putting out music, but have only managed three in the thirteen years since (including Underworld), with four years now the expected waiting time. The band’s fans cannot complain about the quality they get as a consequence; Underworld is excellent, as were Iconoclast and Paradise Lost before it. But for a singer who longs to hear the fans singing one of their enormous choruses back to him, the wait must seem interminable.
If I think, I fail
“The hiatuses are terrible, and I hate the fact that they’re so long,” Russell admits. “But I can’t fault anyone or anything, it’s just the processes and the time [guitarist] Michael Romeo needs to create these records, and that’s just what it is. So I’ve learned to accept it, and it is frustrating. But at the same time, when [albums] do come around, it’s great, I can see how excited everyone is because the music has been crafted, and there has been a lot of love, care and time put into these albums. It’s our legacy, it’s all we have once we’re gone and leave the world. So I understand Mike’s thinking, but it is frustrating. I’m a performer, I want to be in front of an audience and I want to share that experience with people. That whole ‘going to church’ vibe is definitely where I excel the most. But it is what it is. I do miss the people, but when I do finally get out there with this band, it’s an amazing experience.”
The light-and-shade aspect to Russell’s experience – the painful waits followed by the ecstatic moments – perhaps explains the band’s sound. Symphony X could, on the surface, be looked at as a band with groovy riffs and big choruses with not much more to see beyond some highly accomplished musicianship. That isn’t the full story, however. They have always been a band to mix the very uplifting and optimistic with the bleak and hopeless. This is not, it seems, accidental.
“The two masks of the band’s logo is the crux of the whole thing, the light and the dark, the good and evil,” Russell explains. “The music can be heavy and intense, and the subject matter may be heavy and intense, but at times the music is uplifting because it gives you hope. It can be very negative or very dark but there’s always a gleam of hope that balances things out. We’ve always been trying to have a balance on our records. We usually choose literary pieces for subject matter because they have love and betrayal and all these emotional elements that the music reflects. Sometimes it can be very grand and uplifting, and we’ve always chosen things like that so we can cover a lot different emotions, so the message can be varied.”
Part of what has helped make Symphony X is that mixture of darkness and light; this is no twee power metal band singing about dragons with the melodrama pretty certain to end in heroic victory, this is a band that want tonal palette with breadth. Maybe that’s because Russell’s angel likes to come out and play as much as his demon, or maybe the energy he referred to comes from the music first, and the anthropomorphising is just metaphor. It does result in a killer metal band, whatever it is.