Purveyors of heavy metal always seem to be obsessed with epic literature.Take Russell Allen of Symphony X. He's fronted New Jersey's progressive metal act for nearly 20 years, and in that time, Symphony X has released albums based on both The Odyssey and Paradise Lost. Last year, they released Iconoclast, a concept record concerning technology taking over the world. None of Symphony X's albums make for light listening. Each effort is intricate and intense.
Speaking from a tour stop in Salt Lake City, Allen discussed metal's obsessive nature and how Symphony X fits into that tradition.
Being from New Jersey, are you a supporter of your Governor, Chris Christie? I'm not much into politics. My wife's a teacher and that's all I have to say about that.
What does she teach? Third grade.
Symphony X has been around for almost 20 years, yet the band's most recent album, Iconoclast, has sold better than any other effort. Is there a reason for that? I think the fans really dig it and they have helped spread the word. We make records for our fans and we made a record we are really proud of. We believe in ourselves and what we do. We will always be consistent for our fans. We will always be aggressive and intense. In this day and age, it's an amazing accomplishment to last 20 years.
You were not the original vocalist, but joined the band after the first record came out. Was it odd learning to sing songs you had no part in creating? No, I'm a singer and I don't have to write a song in order to sing it. It wasn't strange for me at all.
I was told you are a huge Van Halen fan. Have you heard the new record [with David Lee Roth]? I think that the music is awesome, but I am not too thrilled with the way the singing came out.
What's your favorite Van Halen album? Fair Warning.
The band has toured Russia, South America and the Middle East. How different are those places and those audiences to what you're accustomed to in America? They're different because the people there are very passionate about their music, especially in South America and Europe. People there just feel every note and sing every word. I don't know if that's because they do not get as much entertainment as Americans, because we can get anything we want in this land of convenience and excess. I mean, there are 300 channels of crap on every day. In other parts of the world, access to music isn't as easy.
Your band has always been more successful in Europe and Asia, just like a lot of other metal acts. Why is that the case? Metal is taken seriously in those places by whole generations. Here, we become a victim of trends and we want to subdivide everything and categorize everything. What was your dad's band isn't culturally relevant anymore. That's what it is here, the flavor of the month. We want what's hot now and we don't care if it was good five weeks ago. That's the mentality. The rest of the world is totally different. They stick with something. They love it. They pass it along to their younger friends and family. Metal is like a family affair. It can be that way in America, too, but the scene is way oversaturated.
Your band has a entire album based on Homer's The Odyssey and there are some American kids who only know about Homer Simpson. Do you think in other parts of the world, the audiences may be more literate? Yes, you're right, but then again, we are not a mass appeal band. The fans in America, that's all they chant every night, The Odyssey. That's what they want to hear. I don't think they are less literate than any other fans.
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The band tackles some major literary works. Is there a reason why you choose to write music based on epic works? It obviously creates an interesting soundscape when you have great literature to reference. Those messages are timeless. Some may argue they are cliché, but I believe firmly they are timeless and true.There's love, there's loss and there's betrayal. There are all the primal human emotions. Attached to these tales are the consequences of these characters who succumb to these emotions. It's a lot for people to chew on. I didn't read this stuff growing up, but I did know about it. I'm a big fan of themes because themes carry on. For example, there's a lot of Paradise Lost in Star Wars. There are these melodramas playing out that have already been told in great literature. There's a link between Odysseus and Luke Skywalker. These are classic tales that inspire us and we tell these stories in our own way.
With Iconoclast, you moved away from literature and addressed a future world where machines control everything. Is the album kind of a soundtrack to the Terminator movies? You could say that. When you say machines, you can think one-dimensionally, but technology really goes beyond machines. It's about genetic food altering. It's going to make or break us. The album is about the uncertainty of our future and whether or not technology will be our savior or our demise. We've let the genie out of the bottle. Everyone is on Facebook and everyone is on Twitter. The social media component is enslaving the population. It's already happening. That's a real thing that can cause a huge pitfall in someone's life.