Over nearly 20 years, the New Jersey quintet Symphony X has been churning out a unique brand of music that seamlessly blends the relentless fury of Pantera with the progressive prowess of Dream Theater and the Bach rock of Yngwie Malmsteen. Comprised of a classically-trained pianist, a jazz drummer, a shred-metal guitar hero, a singer who sounds like Ronnie James Dio without the “look outs!” and a bassist who can’t read music, this quaint little ensemble will decimate Backstage Live to pump up its fans for the midsummer release of their new CD, Iconoclast.
“A lot of the ideas came from the 300 and Matrix soundtracks,” says guitarist extraordinaire Mike Romeo of the new record. “They have cool, mechanical textures. So we started layering different keyboard textures and sound effects to what we’d already written, and added some weirder rhythms.”
Lyrically, the album considers the growing conflict between man and machine. “‘Children of a Faceless God’ takes a look at how we interact these days, with all these kids texting and Facebooking all day. It’s part sci-fi, part commentary on the darker side of how technology has changed our lives. It’s subtle, like the orchestras and choirs on the song ‘Iconoclast,’ much like our previous album, Paradise Lost — it’s big, epic, and thematic, but with clanky metal stuff underneath it. It’s not overbearing or industrial. We didn’t want to overdo it.”
Listening to Iconoclast, the band’s eighth album, seemed to show them breaking new ground with the use of a full choir and orchestra, but Romeo corrected me. “Those choirs are all me, man. I’ve got some great software to make myself sound like a full choir. Same with the orchestra. Ironically, it’s technology that allows that. The quality of these samples that emulate a real orchestra has gotten ridiculous! I love doing that stuff, but it’s a lot of work! ‘’ `off Paradise Lost` took a week for those two minutes of music. The riffs and music on Iconoclast are really heavy, and `singer` Russ `Allen` is great.”
A genuinely nice guy who takes adulation with aw-shucks humility, Romeo forgets to mention that Allen is one of metal’s most respected vocalists. “Russ always tries to find the right thing to do, and tries all sort of different ideas until it sounds right,” Romeo says about fans who were upset with Allen’s unusually aggressive vocal delivery last time around. “He simply tries to find the right vibe to bring the lyrics across. Russ’s vocals have never been death metal, but the dark ‘good versus evil’ theme of Paradise Lost lent itself to harsher vocals.”
With all this talk about choirs, orchestras, and something called “Symphony X,” some might forget that we’re discussing rock ’n’ roll. “This is heavy metal,” Romeo stresses. “The guitar comes first; the choirs and stuff are just icing, but it all adds up to the big picture.” And the big picture adds up to 12 songs spanning over 85 minutes. “When we realized how much music we had, we decided to make it a double album. The double disc is the real record, but it was agonizing to decide which songs would end up on the single-disc edition.”
Lamenting the cancellation of co-headliner Nevermore from the tour after the group’s drummer and guitarist left the band, Romeo said: “We’ve had some great times with them. We decided to continue on when we heard that they had left the tour. So now we’re playing close to two hours!”
Before he breaks off the interview to dig into one of those two-hour shows, I ask for his thoughts on a recent news item. “Bin Laden? Fuck that guy! It’s about time they got that cocksucker!”
Long live American metal.
Symphony X w. Powerglove, Blackguard, Imminent Descent, and Immortal Guardian
$26 (HEB stores)
5pm doors, Sun, May 15
Backstage Live, 1305 E Houston