Symphony X has been the poster child for progressive metal. The band recently released their eighth studio album, “Iconoclast.” Read our interview with vocalist Russell Allen, an in-depth discussion on the band’s sound, the theme of “Iconoclast” and the decline of power vocals.
Headbangers India: First of all, Iconoclast’s releasing soon. Could you tell us more about it?
Russell Allen: The record is a departure from what we have done in the past in terms of lyrical content. We’ve always had more of the classical history sort of theme, classical literature influence in our lyrics and songwriting; like Greek or Egyptian mythology or historical stuff about the Knights Templar [The Accolade]. It was always the early source of inspiration. For this album, it’s more current, it still revolves around good and evil as all our records have. This time we present a theme based on future and current status quo, which is on technology and how we rely on gadgets, the internet and social networking and what could go wrong with that. Since we’re metal, we focus more on the bad than the good, you know?! It’s more fun! In one of our songs we talk about “Dehumanize”, which pretty much says it all. It’s pretty much the breakdown of us as individuals, becoming a part of a bigger machine like an ant in an ant-hill. “The End of Innocence” is the opposite in a way, the end of being together, alone. The music is us, the usual Symphony X, of course. It’s got a little bit of everything from the past. Crunchy riffs from Paradise Lost, but musically it’s the next step. I think it’s a little more progressive in some aspects, the new album. It has the same elements as the older albums like the V record, but with a new flair and intensity. My singing is of course, pretty heavy and intense. I’m not screaming or growling, but just what the music requires it.
HB: As you brought it up, obviously your sound’s always evolving. It never stays the same.
RA: Yeah, I think it is part of the progressive thing. I mean, for me, it has to do with…
(Knock, Knock, Knock)
Hey it’s Jason Rullo! You guys heading out in a bit?
JR: Maybe for some air
RA: Go around the block or something? I’ll grab a jacket.
Errr, where were we?
HB: The evolution of your sound.
RA: The evolution of our sound really stems from us wanting to be progressive. To be progressive, in my mind, is to be forward thinking and trying out new things, it’s not just about time signatures. I’m probably the least progressive guy in terms of musical taste. I’m more interested in rock, heavy metal and classical. The progressive thing is the least influential, for me. You can pretty much hear that in the way I present my vocals. I always find a pocket full of singing in an intricate part because I feel it helps a listener carry through the song if you don’t really know much about progressive music. I don’t really believe that everyone in the audience is a musician, even though a large part of our fanbase is musicians. I always thought it was important to deliver good melody lines and that people should understand and feel what I’m talking about, with the rest of the band painting the canvas with all the colours of what progressive rock/metal really is, you know? That’s how we’ve always done it. That part’s never going to change, the chemistry of the band is dependent on how we are, as a group. A lot of people ask why bands like ours don’t have a singer like me. Now you kinda accept it, ‘cause you’ve heard us for so long and bands that now come out have what we have going on. For a long time, it wasn’t a norm for the prog scene; it was the theatrical singer, the staples like Tate, James LaBrie – They were the top of the heap for this kinda sound. I was always more of the Dio guy, more of the power metal influences. I’m more of a power singer, and there weren’t many of those around at the time, at least to my knowledge. The sound just evolves because it just has to, there’s no choice. You are either growing or you’re dying.
HB: You know, a lot of our readers would like to know more about The Dungeon.
RA: You have to ask Romeo about that. We built it in his house and it’s basically just a control room for a recording area, in his house. He’s developed it up over the years. We pretty much are Steinberg guys, we use a lot of Cubase 5. I have my own studio that I built in my place now. It’s actually in an old shed that I had on my property which I gutted and put hardwood floors in. I like to do construction, I just enjoy it. I built my own place too, but it’s just a project studio. It’s for what I need, to record vocals and do some engineering in there and I can record anything but drums there. A lot of the magic happens in both the places. Everyone can have their own “Dungeon”, so to speak. If you are passionate about what you’re doing and have a creative space that you find inspiring, that’s all. That’s what we have done to Mike’s [Romeo] space; we’ve got stuff hanging on the walls. I’ve got pirate swords. My place is a pirate shack! Pirate flags and skulls and what not, lying around. Mike’s more into dragons, the Medieval thing and Asian. He is into the Oriental stuff, so the Dungeon has a lot of Oriental artwork that he has collected over the years. Whatever can fit next to the sea of guitars that he has!
HB: You just mentioned your own place which you use for side projects. One of my friends really wanted to know more about the next Allen-Lande album. Could you indulge us?
RA: We just put out the third one. I think it came out last year? I don’t know, I don’t have anything on the table with him at themoment. I have a solo album that I’m working on, with the same company – Frontiers. That’s all I have for the moment. There’s another band that I’ve been working on, with Mike Portnoy. So we’ve been doing a lot of work on that. I’ve done all the vocals, he’s done all the drums. I’ve done all the vocals at the “shanty shack” if you might. Mike Orlando’s the guitar player. He and I pretty much wrote all the material. I don’t see anything with Allen-Lande in the near future, but I’m hoping y’know? I like this stuff, I really like working with Magnus. He writes some nice songs and Jørn is a fabulous singer, everybody knows that. That’s about it with side-projects.[Blackguard begins their typically harrowing set]
HB: On a lighter note, there are three Michaels in the band. How do you get by that?
RA: We pretty much just go by last names; Pinnella’s P, Michael LePond’s LePond and Michael Romeo’s just Mike. LePond, P and Mike or Romeo. I got the same fucking problem with the other damn thing I have going on! Portnoy’s like, “hey! I got this friend Mike Inez we could have on the bass. You could be in another fucking band with three Mikes!” To which I said, “dude you suck! Don’t do this to me.”
HB: Personally, one thing that really upset the both of us [Harsha Nilakantan, formerly of Corrode] was – We were supposed to see Nevermore today as well, and a few hours ago we heard that Jeff quit the band. What do you think about it?
RA: Umm, they have got a lot of issues that they need to sort out. It’s a shame. Jeff is a dear friend and I really feel for him and Van right now; both of them I’ve known since I met them in 2005. I really hope they can sort it out and get through their issues, but it now seems like it’s not going to happen. So I wish them a lot of luck, I really do, and I’ve got nothing but love for all the guys.
HB: I’ve always wanted to ask you this – You’re one of the few vocalists today, who still actually sings clean vocals in a prominent metal band. Metal seems to be progressing towards growls, right? What do you say about that?
RA: Well, I’ve never been a “trendy” singer. I’m just me; I like what I like and sing what I sing. Some say that I’m one of the “dying breed” of power singers, but I hear a lot of young guys singing their asses off. I think it all comes around. I hate to say it, but it gets to a point where a trend branches out so much that it dilutes itself so much that it doesn’t have steam anymore. And then a good old solid singer comes along with a good song and everybody goes, “oooh this is the coolest thing again”. What it really is, is that it’s the first time the next generation of metal-fans hear it. That’s probably the reason why we are kinda successful in terms of having “staying power” or being relevant to guys your age, and I don’t really need to go there to get my point across. I think it’s really cool what some of these guys do. There’s this band that I’ve been listening to lately, Protest The Hero. It’s a killer band and I really like what they do. The singer’s kickass, but he can really sing y’know? He really mixes it all up. He’s got the screaming thing going, the growls and then breaks out this really lush The Mars Volta kinda vibe with his singing.
Why is it so? I dunno, I’m just as baffled as you! I just do what I do; sing my ass off.
HB: Alright, to wrap this up I just have one last question for you. We are of course, “Headbangers India”. Do you have anything specific to say to your fans in India?