Symphony X: The Great American Symphony

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Symphony X are on a mission, it seems: a mission to save the album. Taking heed of the likes of Rush’s free‑flowing 1980 opus Moving Pictures, the prog metallers set out to make their new record Underworld an engaging whole, with each track standing equal. It’s an album made for listening to from start to finish, each song infused with similar merit – an antidote perhaps to today’s throwaway digital culture.

But, you say, what about the lyric video for the track Nevermore, or the YouTube clip for follow-up tune Without You?

“Yeah, I suppose…” guitarist and principal songwriter Michael Romeo coyly replies when asked if he felt uneasy about the label picking tracks to promote, despite Symphony X’s desire to plug directly into the power of the album. “It’s the way it is. But I think every song on the record is strong – they could have taken any. The problem is that every track is so different; it’s a tough call. It could have been something really heavy or one of the more progressive songs. But you can’t judge on one track. It’s a necessary evil.”

The New Jersey quintet are now nine albums into their career – a career that burst into life in 1994 with debut release Symphony X. Their last studio effort, 2011’s Iconoclast, was a weighty, metallic behemoth that explored man’s relationship with machines.

It hasn’t always been a bed of roses but we still have a genuine love for the music we create and it inspires us to keep going.

This time around, Symphony X decided to “fine-tune” their songwriting, labouring over each melody with a magnifying glass and ensuring the track structures were on point. The result? An impressive record, inspired by Italian poet Dante and legendary Greek creative Orpheus, that carries the band’s traditional elements – swashbuckling nods to prog, metal and classical – but with more concise, potent writing.

“This one does have a lot of elements of what we’ve done in the past,” Romeo reflects. “There might be a song with sections that could have been on The Divine Wings Of Tragedy, our third record, or there might be a heavy song that sounds like it could have been on Iconoclast. It’s pretty diverse. It’s a good balance of everything we’ve done, but also a little bit different because we’re trying to fine-tune the songwriting and really pay attention to the melodies and the arrangements and flow.”

Vocalist Russell Allen, however, is a tad more forthright. “I asked Romeo from the beginning to write songs that I could sing on,” he says. “I told him I missed the older style we used to do and wanted something deeper and more meaningful to sing about. I need a song to sing, and a story to tell – then I can express my emotions through the melodies and transfer the message. Great musicianship is a waste if the song doesn’t translate.”

So, that album mission. Lyric videos or not, Romeo – whose superbly named home studio The Dungeon conceived the record over what Allen calls “eight days of bliss” – says Underworld was the manifestation of trying to give a fuller listen in an era where people are more inclined to stream two tracks and move on to the next artist than cross palms with gold for the full product.

“There’s so much emphasis now on getting a single and just making one song good, with the rest ending up as filler,” he says. “I’ve seen some documentaries that are saying there’s never going to be another Moving Pictures or Dark Side Of The Moon. And I was like, yeah, let’s really concentrate on being true to that and try to write a record where every song gets the attention, where every song has its own thing. Which we always do anyway, but this time, between that, the songwriting and the performances, those are the big things.”

Romeo’s comments might actually do a bit of disservice to the band’s back catalogue, which, on the whole, contains some glittering songwriting. For every neo-classical shred convention, there will always have been a grand, sweeping chorus, or a myriad of riffs underpinned by intoxicating chord progressions.

Symphony X have benefited from a line-up that’s remained consistent for over 15 years: Romeo and Allen are joined by bassist Michael LePond, drummer Jason Rullo and keyboardist Michael Pinnella. They haven’t been without their battles, though. In 2013, Rullo was forced to sit out of the band for months after suffering heart failure.

“At the time it was scary, and scary for the band,” Romeo recalls. “There’s always a point where you’re a little worried about what’s going to happen, not so much as a band but as a person. We’ve all been friends for so long that the band kind of becomes secondary. But Jason has been doing well. He sounds like he’s really feeling better. His doctors told him that keeping his heart busy and healthy by building up its strength is good.”

Allen, meanwhile, admits with honesty that he faced battles of a different kind. “Our biggest obstacles? Momentum and fear of change. But we’re conquering those fears and are ready to take on the world. We’ve grown together in a way that only bands with a long tenure can. It hasn’t always been a bed of roses but we still have a genuine love for the music we create and it inspires us to keep going.”

While the band are a dependably solid unit, with each member providing their own unique flourishes, it’s Romeo who holds most of the songwriting cards. The 47-year-old is a founding member, an ever-present reliably forming the foundation of each record. Allen is often the focal point, lording the stage and promo photos with Popeye-armed presence, but Romeo is the lynchpin behind it all. So does he feel any added pressure being Symphony X’s chief music writer?

“Yeah, of course – we all feel it,” he admits. “There’s a little pressure, but you want to do something for yourself and you always want to improve, or even just make it interesting in a different way. Sometimes you might get a bit of writer’s block and you start getting burned out, but I enjoy what I do. It’s the whole thing of being creative and wanting to do something for yourself, as well as the fans.”

Every album is different – one might be more prog and one might be heavier, or more epic.

Later, at the end of the phone call from his home in the States, Romeo asks for Prog’s thoughts on Underworld. They’re positive.

“As long as you don’t think what I write is awful,” he quips, but you can tell there’s a shred of anxious truth behind his words. Maybe there really is pressure out there, even if you are one of prog metal’s most celebrated guitarists.

Over 20 years since forming and with a ninth album coined, however, it seems it’s business as usual for Symphony X. They’re still fiddling with odd time signatures, wading into menacing movie soundtrack‑esque neo-classical hues, undertaking serious instrument gymnastics and producing grand, multicoloured epics.

Underworld ranks pretty highly when compared to the band’s back catalogue. There’s the brooding, choral-led Overture for starters – it’s as if a ghost of their early material is making its presence felt. Meanwhile, Run With The Devil lets the musicians run loose on a roller coaster of metal hellery. Oh, and there’s some fist-clenched pseudo-balladry lobbed in too, and why the hell not?

It’s fair to say, then, that the quintet aren’t shy of channelling prog inspiration – and then some. Underworld, for example, plays on the recurring theme of the number three that’s found in Dante’s iconic poem Inferno. The record is peppered with sneaky references – in some instances there are groupings of three syllables or notes, or a time signature that develops through a multiple of three.

“It’s subtle, and if you’re not looking for it, you wouldn’t notice it,” Romeo says. “It’s mostly just for fun and us goofing around. We didn’t go crazy with it because the music and the album are more important than some silly thing.”

It’s certainly a very prog idea, but how do the band feel about being given that prog tag? “It doesn’t really bother me,” Romeo says, “but we do a lot of metal stuff too, as well as the prog and classical. I guess you could roll all that up into prog. Every album is different – one might be more prog and one might be heavier, or more epic. I guess that’s progressive – trying to move forward and do new things.

“I love all of the old prog bands and I grew up with them, but at the same time, I also grew up with the likes of Pantera, and as a guitar player I always liked the heavier stuff. But we’re just a band, dude,” Romeo smiles. “We’re just playing music.”

Underworld is available now via Nuclear Blast. For more information, see the band’s website at www.symphonyx.com.