Russell Allen of Symphony X
On June 21st Symphony X will release their eighth studio release titled Iconoclast, their first release since 2007’s Paradise Lost. Iconoclast is being referred to as the band’s manifesto “a commanding declaration of an inventive blend of classic rock, straightforward heavy metal and ambitious prog.” That seems like a lot to live up to but if anyone can deliver, leave it to Symphony X.
The band is currently out on a short tour run and I got to catch up with “Sir” Russell Allen before their show in Worcester, MA at The Palladium. We talked about Iconoclast, their new relationship with Nuclear Blast, side projects with Mike Portnoy and the one question I couldn’ t leave without asking…how does one become a “Sir”?
Interviewed by: Roger Scales
Your new album Iconoclast (out on June 21st) was once again recorded at “The Dungeon” with guitarist Michael Romeo handling the engineering/recording aspects as he has done in the past. What was it like having Jens Borgen (Opeth, James Labrie Solo, and Soilwork) handling the final mix and mastering?
He’s an extremely talented engineer. He’s a big part of our sound now (ever since Paradise Lost /2007) so we gave him the master of this record and he dug in and put out maybe his best work to date. The album sounds big yet raw at the same time. We here in the states like a crunchy real raw in your face kind of sound. Getting down to business and kicking people’s teeth is the American rock metal sound. Europe has a more bombastic epic sort of sound that they prefer. Jens did a great job of balancing the sound so it still has the punchiness that we like as an American band but it has an epic sort of feel to it too. I think fans of both will be pleased.
Symphony X is known for having some very unique album covers on past albums. Did you use the same artist – Warren Flanagan – for Iconoclast?
Yes we did, another genius of an artist like Jens. We are very fortunate in that because we create very artistic very grand in nature (both lyrically and musically) music it attracts all kinds of people from the entertainment industry. Warren has been the lead artist for films like I, Robot, Watchmen, 2012, X-Men: The Last Stand and many others. Warren is also a big Symphony X fan. We just give him an image of what the music is and what we are thinking and he gives us back a Hollywood level interpretation of the music visually; It’s stunning. I’m always amazed at his work. He does it all by hand using a digital brush. He is our good luck charm.
Iconoclast is your first album with Nuclear Blast. How has that relationship been so far?
It’s been great; they are very enthusiastic. They are pushing us a lot harder than we have been used to so that’s exciting too. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but we’re happy to learn! They are happy to provide us every opportunity that they possibly can to be successful. We’re an interesting group because we are far from the new kids on the block but we are also not the oldest either. We are at a very crucial point in our career and it’s awesome to have the kind of support from Nuclear Blast who really loves what we are doing and truly believes in us. It looks as if they are willing to take that extra step to help the band get bigger and grow more. That’s an important aspect at this stage in our careers to keep growing.
Based on the imagery I have seen online Iconoclast seems to have a theme of technology and machines and how they affect us in our daily lives. Is this a fair assessment?
It’s dead on; it’s totally centered around that one theme and it touches upon everything from social networking to an unmanned military “Terminator” sort of scenario where we take ourselves out of the equation in military action which I think is very frightening. The big computers finding out how far man’s intelligence goes before it finds out that it’s alive. That’s the basis for the song “Prometheus (I Am Alive)”. We are kind of pushing the boundary for what we normally do with this because (for the most part) we have centered around classic literature, or mythology or events from the past. Now we are looking to the future which is a new thing for us. There are lots of industrial sounds in the music which is also something we have never done before. So it’s still Symphony X still doing what we do but adding a new color to the canvas sort of speak by allowing us to produce this very modern futuristic sort of theme.
Russell we live in a society that feeds off of instant gratification. Does it concern you and the other members of Symphony X that the average length of time between your last few albums has been about 4 years?
It has made it difficult to move up the ladder. We have always had a problem in getting albums completed in a timely way. It’s mostly due to perfectionism. Both Michael (Romeo) and I are perfectionists. We ran into a few unforeseen problems this time around which did delay things even more than normal. We are not trying to be too crazy about picking part each track this time around and how perfect it had to sound. Perfect for us doesn’t mean the perfect pitch or the perfect timing but more that it feels right. Perfectionism would be different for everyone I think but for us it is that it feels right. It sucks because we want to get albums out and tour and give our fans more of what they want but at the same time we have to be happy ourselves with the finished product. We are not the kind of band that can tour and write; it’s impossible. Mike needs his time to write the music and I need my time also to see what direction we are heading in. We are already talking about a few ideas I have for the next record in terms of what the theme would be. We do realize and want to get a new product out there in a timely manner so we can keep the ball rolling this time and we have a good momentum going I don’t want to lose that due to inactivity.
You have been on record as stating that Symphony X would like to undertake a live DVD concert production complete with a full orchestra. Is this true and how close are we to this becoming a reality?
That’s something I think the band really needs to do. We do have an agreement with Nuclear Blast but no real details about when or where this will happen. It makes total sense because we have been around for so long and we are finally going to do a live DVD the Symphony X music would just be enhanced so much by a live orchestra. It’s just such a huge undertaking. I would like to announce the show to the whole world that it’s going to happen and film it at a central location therefore making it easy for our fans to get to. I would love to offer for our fans a travel package and make it affordable as possible. For fans coming a great distance offer some sort of VIP experience for them, make an event of it. Possibly multiple nights with a few different songs thrown in. It really needs to be planned so it’s special.
There is a rumored project involving you along with Mike Portnoy and Mike Orlando . What can you tell me about it at this stage?
At this stage the songs are pretty much recorded. Most of my vocals are done and Portnoy’s tracks are done. Orlando right now is doing some rhythm guitar work over and Paul Dileo is the bass player and he has completed his tracks as well. The record is now looking for a home. It’s at a couple of places right now that we are talking to but have not aggressively looked for the right place yet. I think it should be done in another month or so. My schedule is pretty full right now as is Portnoy’s. We have been talking about whether we will go out on the road with it or not. I do have a break coming this summer so if they can get it out quick you may see us out with it but right now other than that the recording process is pretty much completed. It’s not mixed yet, we are hoping that wherever it finds a home will be involved in the final mastering. Oddly it’s not a progressive album at all. It is a song based project. I think it’s going to be a shock to some folks because of all of our past works. People expect Mike Portnoy and I to do something crazy..well we did. It’s just straight ahead good ole boy rock n roll.
What is the real and true origin of the story involving you being referred to as “Sir” Russell Allen?
Well that all started with Arjen Lucassen, a composer musician friend from of mine from the Netherlands whom I have worked with over the years singing on some of his solo projects. It’s a reference to my past work as a jouster at the Medieval Times Dinner Theater before joining Symphony X. I worked 14 years with them and it was my full time job. Stunt work, movies, training a lot of the new talent that was brought in over the years I worked there. I managed the lighting and technical departments as well so I was very involved in this prior to Symphony X. Arjen was so impressed with my sword work one day after recording at his house he started to refer to me as Sir Russell Allen. I needed to practice back in the early days in case I needed that gig to fall back on. It’s a very physically demanding job but also one of a muscle memory thing. Again if I ever needed to go back I could get right back on the horse and fight really fast and not get hurt or hurt another performer! I have not been knighted by any country but what’s ironic is I’m probably better fitted (with my background and training) to be one than the guys that are! I have tons of great memories from that experience. I met my wife there and have some lifelong friendships as well.
Symphony X is currently out on the road for a month long tour in the US after having played several shows in Europe earlier this year. Are you glad to be home?
Ya..of course. It’s always fun to get back home and reconnect with family and friends after having been away for a stretch and spending some quality time with them. It’s been a blessing for us at this point in our careers because for years we had nothing going on over here at home. Over the past few years we have been fortunate enough to tour here in America successfully especially with the space between album releases. It’s very rare for an American audience to stay with a band when you put out only 2 records in a decade!! I’m very proud of our fans here in the States and Metal fans in general. I think Metal has really and truly come back here and is making a run at the championship of Metal fans throughout the world. I think for years Europe has been the haven for Metal when the US was going through all the alternative stuff in the early to mid 90’s. It’s also great to see so many young people out here at the shows wearing the black t-shirts and throwing the Metal horns up! It’s great..I love it.
Are you playing any new tracks off the new Symphony X record Iconoclast due for releases in Europe on June 17th and the US on June 21st on this tour?
We are playing two tracks off the new record. “End of Innocence” and ‘Dehumanized” both of which are available for streaming on our Facebook page and they are also available on ITunes. We did play one other track in Europe “Prometheus (I Am Alive)”. All seem to have been well received so far judging on the reactions we have been getting from the crowds.
Symphony X is on tour through the end of May, check out their remaining dates below:
05/02/11 Station 4 – St. Paul, MN
05/04/11 Ogden Theatre – Denver, CO
05/06/11 Showbox – Seattle, WA
05/07/11 Hawthorne Theatre – Portland, OR
05/08/11 The Grand Ballroom – San Francisco, CA
05/10/11 House of Blues – West Hollywood, CA
05/11/11 Marquee Theatre – Tempe, AZ
05/13/11 Trees – Dallas, TX
05/14/11 Scout Bar – Houston, TX
05/15/11 Backstage Live – San Antonio, TX
05/17/11 The Club at Firestone – Orlando, FL
05/18/11 Culture Room – Ft. Lauderdale, FL
05/19/11 The Masquerade – Atlanta, GA
05/20/11 Volume 11 – Raleigh, NC
05/21/11 Tremont Music Hall – Charlotte, NC
05/22/11 Jaxx – W. Springfield, VA