“High concept” metal can be pretentious crap.
You know it’s true, because you’ve heard “high concept” metal, too. Think of all the times you’ve heard one of Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s attempts to classy-up his albums with a bit of classical noodling. Yes, he’s stellar at arpeggios and I like some of his more straight-forward songs (“I Am A Viking!” Yea!) … but every time Yngwie tries to reinterpret Johann Sebastian, Schubert, Sherbert or Stravinsky through his Strat, I fall asleep.
High mindedness doesn’t always translate well to metal lyrics, either. When it comes to concept albums, for every “Tommy” there are 20 “Mr. Robotos” out there. Sure, Queensryche pulled if off with their rock opera, “Operation: Mindcrime” … but W.A.S.P.’s attempt at rock opera, “The Crimson Idol” sounded … well, it sounded like exactly what you would have expected from the auteur who gave us “Animal (F**k Like A Beast).” Hell, even Queensryche couldn’t make lightning strike twice.
So I get a bit nervous when a band goes all high art on me, but the band that did it better than anyone else in 2011 is New Jersey’s Symphony X, with their dystopian, machines-destroy-mankind magnum opus, “Iconoclast.”
“Iconoclast” works because Symphony X — unlike, say, Queensryche on “American Soldier” or the second half of “Operation: Mindcrime II,” doesn’t try to run away from their metal roots. Rather, “Iconoclast” is filled with blistering riffs and brutal musicianship.
Guitarist Michael Romeo is considered on the top guitarists in metal for a reason; the man shreds — but only in the service of the songs and never in a “listen to how clean my sweep picking is” sort of way. He’s got Yngwie’s chops, but he’s no Yngwie — and I mean that in a good way.
The rest of the band — multi-octive bellower Russell Allen, drumming machine Jason Rullo, bassist Michael LePond and keyboardist Michael Pinnella — are equally as powerful. Symphony X are thinking man’s metal with balls and “Iconoclast” is both thought-provoking and heavier than an dinosaur killing asteroid.
Don’t believe me? Then I suggest you hear for yourself.
The band recently wrapped up a sprint across the U.S. with buddies Iced Earth and Warbringer. If you missed them on that particular U.S. jaunt, you’ll have to wait — the band will be playing National Open Air Brazil on April 20 and then will cross the pond for the summer Euro festival circuit before returning home to play the ProgPower festival in Atlanta in September.
Given the choice, bassist LePond would spend much more of the year on the road.
“I’m the guy who likes touring the most,” LePond said, during a quick phone interview on the second-to-last stop of the Iced Earth tour. “As long as I can stay healthy and well, I could tour constantly. The other guys have wives and kids.”
The ominous concept for “Iconoclast” — machines replace, enslave and destroy humanity –came from a rather innocent twist of the knob in the recording studio while the band was working on song ideas, LePond said.
“Michael Romeo was messing around with these robotic little sounds — not industrial, but almost,” LePond said. “We experimented with that. As we put the songs together, we came up with a concept where technology goes too far in striving for perfection and the machines take over.”
But are we already slaves to technology, even without a “Robopocalypse” style machine takeover? LePond said the argument that we’re already enslaved by our electronic “helpers” could easily be made.
“It seems that way. Things have changed so much; when you go out to dinner with your friends, everybody is staring at their phones,” LePond said.
Those kinds of questions come readily to the Symphony X fans LePond meets on the road. While broadening minds is not explicitly the band’s goal, LePond said he appreciates fans who take the band’s interpretations of “The Odyssey” and “Paradise Lost” and then do their own research.
“A lot of them will hear an album and read the lyrics and go back and read Homer and John Milton,” LePond said. “Our fans like to be challenged. They like to learn and listen to the music. They’ll always ask questions.”
Musically, the band is every bit as intricate as the literary sources of inspiration.
“People come to me and say, ‘wow, I’ve listened to that album and I have to keep listening, because every time I hear something new,” LePond said. Considering the amount of music packed into each song, it won’t surprise fans when LePond say the music can be difficult to play.
“They’re very challenging. It takes a lot of practice,” LePond said.
National Open Air Brazil — which also features heavyweights like Exodus, Megadeth and Venom — will put Symphony X on stage in front of 80,000 screaming metal fans.
“It’s going to be the biggest show we have ever done in our career,” LePond said. Over the summer “we’ll go and do Europe for about 10 days; then in September, we’re going to do a show in Mexico City and them we’re playing ProgPower. Then we’ll be in full writing mode for another record.”
“Iconoclast” was released in 2011; before that, the band released “Paradise Lost” in 2007 and “The Odyssey” in 2002. Does that mean fans can expect the band’s next album in 2016?
“I certainly hope not,” LePond said. “What we’re shooting for is, hopefully, this summer we’re going to start working on songwriting. I think the next recording will come out in 2014, hopefully.
“Just putting together the songs takes a lot of time,” LePond said. “That’s the thing we feel bad about — we’d like to put out the albums quicker, but we don’t want to put out any filler.”