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Interview: Russell Allen (Symphony X)

Pure metal...interviews

Things do not always go according to plan when interviews with bands are involved, so I had to wait until eleven o'clock on the night of the 13th of October in order to conduct this interview with Russell Allen - frontman of the US Prog Metallers Symphony X.

Having enjoyed the approval of a predominantly Dream Theater audience a few hours ago, Russell was more than happy to talk about the band's latest studio release "Paradise Lost", its' connection with John Milton's epic poem and its relevance to some of the singer's personal experiences, as well as his willingness to invest a large amount of money in the band's stage performances, providing that someone would be willing to invest, in turn, in the band.

Symphony X

Photo: Ian Pollard

Russell, that was one hell of a show that you performed tonight - much better than the one I saw you while supporting Stratovarious a couple of years ago. What is the reason behind such a phenomenal success in your opinion? It is because of the overall strength of the new album?

Russell: It could be that! I also believe that...the band is rocking, you know? If we have a good show, hit on the note - not the physical note but locate certain 'wholes' in the crowd, then a magic (he snaps his fingers) is there. A lot of people tonight were here to see Dream Theater and we were fortunate that they caught our vibe and they were into our show. It's been like that all over Europe. Tonight's reaction was really great, though, awesome.

Even that show with Stratovarious was a really good show. The venue was small, but the crowd had a lot of energy - a lot more than I ever thought. We've been touring Europe for so many years now going to the south in places like Italy and Spain - places that we knew that were really hot, but on this tour we went to Scandinavia, which was amazing, and Paris was also unbelievable. We've got there one of the longest standing ovations, but there were more people there than were here tonight. This audience here tonight were really special - they were ready to have a good time, you know? It was a real teat for us to be able to rock this place and play at Wembley - it was a big night for us!

English crowds are naturally drawn to bands that have a dark sound. Do you think the fact that "Paradise Lost" is a darker album in comparison to the ones that you've made so far in your career kind of helped in receiving that reaction tonight?

Russell: Hmm...Yes and no. I mean, when we played the new material they were really receptive to it, really got into it and kind of set the note for the set, but not until we did the older material like "Sea Of Lies" and stuff did the show take off on a different level. I think it's just the fact that the new album is very powerful, a very strong's the best produced album that we've ever had! It's a solid album from beginning to end. We've had records in the past where there's always a question of a track that we were not happy with but this album, every song, no matter what style it is in, we were really happy with. Obviously, yes - the album is really strong and it's selling very well. It's put us on this tour and its doing a lot of great things for us, but I think that it's just the fact that people...there are a lot of people in England and around the world that just don't know who we really are!

That I find both strange and in a way funny, seeing as you have quite a few albums in your musical 'arsenal'!

Russell: Yeah but...I mean, at the end of the day it all comes down to who is pushing the band. We've always been with labels who are on a low and independent level. These labels work really hard for you, but they don't have the financial ability to put you in front of everyone's face and when you're dealing with that sort of cap, it tends to be a problem to try to get more exposure on a larger scale.

The band has been fortunate to facilitate opportunities for itself through things like with Dream Theater and Mike Portnoy or like being taken to Gigantour in America - that was a very big thing for us. It's been a blessing to have other artists and our peers appreciating what we're doing and helping us out - to take us along and get us in front of all these people. That's the way it was done in the old days, before all this internet and anything else, you know?

You are lucky if a band who is successful likes you and is able to expose you to their crowd and stuff and get you out there. A major label and these other acts that have this sort of huge exposure are helping us and there is a lot of money behind that. It's great that we're actually getting to that point where we're getting that kind of help. We've got two videos that we've shot and SPV and Inside Out have stepped up and are really trying to help bring the band to the next level. We're psyched, it's going really well and we're ready to make that next step so it's exciting. It's really exciting to be here, even after all this time cause we've been doing this for so long yet we're still taking those steps, you know? (laughs). We haven't gone down, which is good (laughs).

I am really looking forward to the day when you guys will do a proper headline show here in London - do you see that happening in the near future?

Russell: Well, we're definitely going to follow up this tour with a tour here in Europe and that's been put together now for the spring, so we'll probably come back later on. We wanna try and get a good bill together, of course - get a good package with another support band that's on a different genre, cause I think that our album is heavier, more dark and it makes sense to get a band to support us that is heavier and more metal...a little different from us, instead of being so specific into one thing.

We're kind of not like that: we are not as technical as Dream Theater and we are a lot more metal and heavy hard rock than we've ever been. I think that's cool. Other audiences are also into what we're doing too, so that's one thing that we're talking about in terms of the show: what kind of audience we would like to bring out. I think it's really fortunate that a lot of kids are into Symphony X. They are really young and that is really great and it's a fresh audience, so we need to find a young band that's got that fire and bring that kind of energy to the show, because we've got that kind of energy! I think that it will be really cool to do something like that!

Much as I love both your band and Dream Theater, I believe that you guys won today's 'match' exactly because you were more straight forward - more approachable to the fans and their reaction certainly proved that. You received a standing ovation from a Dream Theater audience and that is amazing, you know what I mean?

Russell: Yeah, yeah - a lot of people are talking about that, and I think that the real reason is that with Symphony X what you see is what you get - we're not trying to be over the top technical or whatever. We're simply up there playing. We are a metal band that has really good guys in it, you know what I'm saying? We're not trying to be anything more than that.

We're not trying to be the 'cream of the cream' of this or that thing - we're just up there trying to do our thing, give a good show...we're sweating at the end, you know? I am a mess after every show, every show! German show, this show, two thousand people, ten thousand people, it really doesn't matter to me. Sometimes it's even harder in small clubs, as I will undoubtedly find out tomorrow (laughs), as we'll be doing a headline show as well. That battle thing that you talked about...we simply want to go up there and do our things and if people love us, they love us! It was great to get the cell phones out there tonight on "Paradise Lost" and see all that from people that as you said are not our fans...a lot of cool things happened here tonight!

One question regarding the last album - one which also applied for your previous effort "The Odyssey": why did you choose not to make this a concept album based on John Milton's "Paradise Lost"? All songs are of course connected, especially lyrically, so in a way it's like you've created a concept, but not quite having done so, you know what I mean?

Russell: Well, it seems a little too pretentious for me to sit there and try to re-work Milton's book, you know what I mean? I think its very border-line pompous for an artist to do that. I just don't personally believe that that's what it's all about. It's really almost too pretentious to even mention that you will re-create this guy's work. This is a literary masterpiece on one thing and one needs to re-write "Paradise Lost" or a re-telling of it! This wasn't what we were going for. What we tried to do was just get the essence of what he was talking about and the relevance of it between what it meant to him and what it means to us now!

Creation is the oldest story around and in essence it was like he re-wrote it from the bible and he put his own thing on it. It's kind of funny...he wrote it in that grand sort of Epic style and it's very hard to even try to come close on re-creating that. We just wanted to draw themes from the book, like personal experiences that matches what happens with the characters, being Satan, God and all those things and the theme of it all fitted our theme: good/evil, light/dark, heavy/light and the struggle of us in between these two forces. So, it's more like a philosophical thing for us and the whole album is more or less sort of like an expression of that - we never intended for it to be exactly the same in literal terms.

In this battle between good and evil, Milton was 'accused' even by his personal friends like William Blake of being on the side of the Devil and the lyrics that you chose to use did not help me establish who your personal allegiance lies with. When listening "Set The World On Fire", I feel that you are indeed on the side of the Devil, but other times I feel the exact opposite...I'm confused here!

Russell: Well, there's both sides - that's what it is. The first three songs are from the first person's perspective, if you will, of what goes around the mind of a person who is the tempter, or the one who is manipulating other people. "Serpent's Kiss" is all that too, you know? That's the plotting of anyone who wants to take revenge on somebody. It's a lot easier for me as a singer to get into the words when I feel that I can attach myself to them and tell them as if it's me acting that way and feel these emotions. "Set The World On Fire" is actually a betrayal thing, and for me I had a couple of guys that I knew for a long time - lots of years working together and they fu*ked me over, so it was really easy for me to write those words with Michael (Romeo, band's guitarist) and come up with this stuff and then pull from Milton's work all those things that match which happened to me.

I often thought "oh yeah, I really would like this thing to have happened to these guys, fu*k these guys", and first time you put vanity in there, that's the whole first line (note: here Russell sings the first few lines of "Set The World On Fire" for me). I should be the one on top of the situation, you know what I mean? All the vindictiveness and power that I felt are in there, you know? It's from the perspective of Satan, if you want to look at it in those terms from the book, but it's my perspective that I'm singing from when I relate the lyrics in the recordings. There is some evil there because hate is evil, vanity and all the other trappings of the seven deadly sins are also there - that's what it's all about.

You have the light side of things in "Paradise Lost" with sacrifice and's just a great medium for us to touch on both sides, be heavy and be aggressive and talk about evil...sympathy for the devil, you know? Still, we always come back and show the lighter side of the band, the angelic and noble.

Symphony X

Photo: Ian Pollard

A beautiful paradox that I noticed was that, though Milton famously wrote this book in blank verse, and in doing so allowed certain freedoms in his work, you did the exact opposite with respect to the construction of your lyrics. I would be really interested to listen to Milton's opinion on your approach, if he was alive today.

Russell: That's the thing with this paradox - that's what makes it great, that's what makes it art! It's also the whole paradox between good and evil, leaving you with a question in your mind "is this album good or evil"? And then to totally reverse the epic poetic style and sing it more in relation to the Iambic Pentameter or something that's more familiar to people nowadays - that is the fun part of it all, you know what I mean? You can't go out using lyrics like "thou art..." - you cannot sing like that, you know what I mean? (laughs). I mean, you could, but... would not have received the reaction that you did today

Russell: Yes (laughs). It needs to be accessible and the whole point is to bring all these themes out and make people realize that these things are still going's the same sh*t, you know? We love know the band's career and our obsession with Greek mythology and all these things, true or not true, legend or fact, they all have the same emotional connection. You can feel or characters like Marc Anthony...

I think you are trying in a way to say that history does indeed repeat itself, right?

Russell: Yes, that's exactly it. You can feel for Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. Even though they're slaughtered because of their love that turns them against the Caesar...

...and similarly Adam turned against God for the love of Eve...

Russell: Correct! You see, these are the same stories - it's the same thing! For me, that's always what I am trying to get to the root of that and get that into our songs - that's the human factor, something that we can all relate to and that's what translates the best and gets that kind of reaction.

Tonight as a support act you were only given forty five minutes on stage - not enough time to cover your rather extensive repertoire, so hopefully you will play many more of the older songs. In terms of stage presence, should we expect anything special that will relate to the new album?

Russell: Yeah, we will bring a full screen with the artwork on it and we will definitely bring our own lights and a much better production. Same applies to the sound, of course. Dream Theater tonight had half a million of dollars of gear up there on stage, you know? That's a tough thing to compare against, because we don't have a full PA system and they've got all the stuff going on up there. With all out stuff up there you will mange to both see and hear us properly and be more powerful, especially with better lights and all.

If someone was to come to you tomorrow and say "Russell, I will give you a vast amount of money to put up a production that's appropriate for an album like "Paradise Lost"", what would you have done? How mental would you have gone with that money?

Russell: I'd have a full orchestra on stage, of course - without any doubt!

Stage actors perhaps?

Russell: No stage actors, no - you don't need stuff like that! You just need the music and a good light show. I need some good lights and perhaps a screen...I don't know...set the whole stage on fire, you know? (laughs). Having a rotating three hundred and sixty degrees stage that will rotate from hell to paradise...that would be cool (laughs). That would be the perfect show for us, because this is all about good and evil and if the show should be able to transform these two opposite sides of the same coin - that would be great! That's what I would have done without any doubt! For the album "The Odyssey", I would have used a full scale ship surrounded with water that would enable us to go out in the crowd - that would be great!

Well, it certainly sounds like you have some good ideas and I did promise that this interview would last ten minutes and I have already exceeded twice the promised time. Russell, Thanks for the opportunity to ask all these questions, I hope that the rest of the tour will be as successful for you as tonight's show was and also hope to see you back in the UK soon!

Russell: It's great to be back in Europe man, thanks for having us!

Interview © October 2007 John Stefanis

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