Symphony X gets more epic and has no plans to change

Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo gave the crowd chills at the band’s Feb. 14 show at The Commodore Ballroom. (Jacob Zinn/The Runner)

By Jacob Zinn

Ranked #91 on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time, Michael Romeo has accomplished a lot in 18 years since starting the progressive metal group Symphony X. The 43-year-old New Yorker boasts 10 studio albums with the band (the most recent being 2011’s Iconoclast) and remains one of only two static members within the world-touring group.

He tells the Runner’s Jacob Zinn about the band’s double-billed North American trek with Iced Earth, recording their new album in his basement and mankind’s dependence on technology – but not robots taking over the world or anything like that.

Jacob Zinn: Symphony X is one of the more well-known neo-classical metal bands out there. When you founded the band in 1994, did you foresee the progression and evolution of the genre reaching its mainstream popularity today?

Michael Romeo: You always kind of hope that more people will embrace what you do, but honestly, I never really thought too much about that. It was always just about doing what we like to do. That’s really all it was in the beginning, but it’s good to see where it’s at today.

Jacob Zinn: Feb. 14 was Symphony X’s first performance in Vancouver. How was your debut performance in our city?

Michael Romeo: Any place for the first time that we’re at is definitely a cool experience. We hadn’t ever been there and it was a good show. The fans were really cool, everybody was really cool. It’s always a good thing to get to a new place you haven’t been, get to see the fans, do the show.

Jacob Zinn: You performed at the Commodore on Valentine’s Day. Did the band discuss playing any symphonic power ballads?

Michael Romeo: Nah. [Laughs] We didn’t want to do something cheesy, y’know, some silly love song that has no place there. There were a couple couples there that we talked to after the show and they said, “My boyfriend brought me to the show for Valentine’s Day,” so that was cool enough for us.

Jacob Zinn: Warbringer is opening for you on this tour and you’re co-headlining with Iced Earth. How have they been as supporting acts?

Michael Romeo: Everything’s been really great. We’ve met [Iced Earth] in the past, but this is the first time we’ve been on a tour with them and we get along great, man, good times. Same with the Warbringer guys. The tour as a package is definitely cool too because we’re all metal bands but we’re different enough that each band offers something.

Jacob Zinn: You’ve been trading off on the headlining spot with Iced Earth. Does your set change depending on when you take the stage?

Michael Romeo: They do 90 minutes, we do 90 minutes, it doesn’t matter who’s in what slot. No stress, no worries.

Jacob Zinn: After this tour, you’re playing a few festivals in Europe. What do North American fans need to do to get these amazing metal festivals on this side of the Atlantic?

Michael Romeo: I really don’t know. Somebody would have to kind of step up and put one together and really organize something like that. We did the Gigantour years back, and actually that was really cool. I think that did a lot for us here. But it’s not like Europe where all summer long, there’s festivals every time you turn around. The more of these that there are, the better, and we would love to play all of them.

Jacob Zinn: The new album, Iconoclast, has a theme of technology taking over the world. How did this idea come about as inspiration for the album?

Michael Romeo: With every album we do, we try to find some kind of a theme or an idea, something to kind of guide the lyrics and the music a little bit without maybe telling a story or getting too complicated. One day, I was just in my studio hanging out, listening to some different music. I like a lot of film music – all the big orchestral, Star Wars stuff, Lord of the Rings – the big epic stuff. I think it was The Matrix soundtrack I had playing and it kind of sparked the idea, “what if it was this man and machine and technology kind of thing?” And the next day or two, I just started banging out a couple ideas and some riffs. More textures within the music that kind of had that technology vibe or a sci-fi thing. That’s pretty much where it started.

Jacob Zinn: This album, as well as your previous two, was recorded at your home studio named The Dungeon. Where did the name come from and can you describe the atmosphere within it?

Michael Romeo: Where the hell did that come from? It was probably my family, the wife and kids. “Where’s Dad?” “Oh, he’s down in his Dungeon.” I guess that kind of stuck. It’s in my basement and it’s a good atmosphere for us to work. I have some really good gear and the rooms sound good. We definitely do take our time with these records and it works well that we can have a place where we can just kind of hang out and experiment a little without freaking out about the time and losing money. There’s no real schedule, we’ll just go until we need to sleep.

Jacob Zinn: Recently, you’ve been playing a lot of new songs in your set lists. How have the crowds responded to your latest work?

Michael Romeo: Really good. When the album came out, all the press that we saw was really positive, and like with every album, we really put a lot into it. There was just so much music that we had, it turned out to be a double record. A lot of times, the fans want to hear some older material or whatever, and we try to get some stuff in there, but usually that first tour right after the release of a new record, we just want to get the new stuff out there. Sometimes we’ll take it to an older song that some of the older fans that have been with us for a while, they love it, they go crazy.

Jacob Zinn: You’re known for some lengthy orchestral songs like “The Divine Wings of Tragedy” (20:43) and “The Odyssey” (24:14). I take it you don’t release your albums on vinyl?

Michael Romeo: The last two [Iconoclast and Paradise Lost] have been on vinyl, and honestly, I don’t even have a record player. I have them at the house and I still haven’t even listened to them. I really haven’t had a chance to go out and find a turntable. I wouldn’t even know where the hell to look.

Jacob Zinn: Do you perform those marathon songs live often, and if so, how have crowds responded to them?

Michael Romeo: There’s been times in the past where we’ve done “Divine Wings”, and “The Odyssey” we’ve done a pretty good amount. We were in Greece for the first time a couple months back and we just thought that would be the right place, if we were going to play “The Odyssey”, to do it in Greece. We actually pulled that out that night. We were even talking about the next album what we could do and maybe this time we’ll bring back a long, epic kind of thing.


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