By David E. Gehlke
New Jersey progressive metal masters SYMPHONY X have earned the right to take as long as they want to write and record albums. Since their 2002 breakout "The Odyssey", the band has been on a near-METALLICA timetable between albums, but founding member and guitarist Michael Romeo never expected to take this long to record the follow-up to 2015's "Underworld". There are several factors in play: Vocalist Russell Allen was injured in a 2017 bus accident while on tour with his other band, ADRENALINE MOB, which also killed bassist David Zablidowsky. Then the pandemic struck right as SYMPHONY X had gotten their road feet under them to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Their dates this May will be the first time the band has been together and played a show in over two years.
To account for SYMPHONY X's inactivity, Romeo went the solo route in 2018 with "War Of The Worlds Part I", a heavily-orchestrated sci-fi romp through his trademark riff and shred tactics that sounded more like an actual band than a one-man venture. The same applies to this year's "War Of The Worlds Part II", which finds the guitarist teaming up with new WHITESNAKE member Dino Jelusić, who is handling vocals. And for now, it rather capably fills the void left by SYMPHONY X while they steadily regroup and think about a new album, something Romeo was happy to divulge while speaking with BLABBERMOUTH.NET from his home studio.
Blabbermouth: What made now the right time for "War Of The Worlds Part II" instead of a new SYMPHONY X?
Michael: "A lot of things happened. Looking back at 'War Of The Worlds Part I', the year before I started working on that, Russ was in the accident with the ADRENALINE MOB guys. He said, 'Dude, I need some time.' I can't even imagine going through something like that. You start thinking about your life and get a different perspective on things. I said, 'Okay. The band will have some downtime and let Russ sort some things out.' I've known Russ forever. I knew he'd come out okay. Obviously, everybody needs some time to do what they need to do. I was like, 'There is some downtime to do this 'Part I'.' Not even 'Part I', it was 'I'm going to do a solo thing.' I had the time to do it and started working on a bunch of stuff. Once I started and the wheels were rolling, all the ideas kept going and going. A couple of months down the road, I thought, 'Wow, I have way too much stuff.' Right from the beginning, I said, 'I'll take half now and finish those. Then I'll take the other half in sometime in the future when there's some downtime, I'll get back to those.' 2019, we started touring. Things were good. Russ was like, 'Yeah, let's do this.' There was a moment there — is this it? All of us were waiting to see what would happen. Sure enough, everything was cool. 2019, we're touring and things are feeling good. At the end of 2019, we're in Europe, South America, then we get into 2020 and we had tours booked starting in April, then for Europe and South America. I said, 'Beginning of the year, I have a couple of months; maybe I'll go back to 'Part II' and try to bang it out. Once SYMPHONY X is touring, we'll be talking about a new record.'
"Then the Covid thing happened. Any scheduling or any kind of plans, it went to shit. It went to hell. Luckily, I had a lot of that stuff written. All the crap going on didn't affect me creatively because most of it was done. Even that took a little longer because the studio was closed down. I still managed to get it done. The record has been done for a year and I've been sitting on it. The label was looking at the best time, thinking 2021 was when we'll get back into it. Then 2021 was more of the same. With the solo stuff, luckily, a lot of it was done. Now, we've talked to the SYMPHONY X guys and we have a tour coming up in May and it looks like everything will be cool. As far as Europe and other places, I'm not sure what will happen. And we've been talking about a new record for a while. I talked to Russ last week; I talked to [bassist Michael] LePond the other day. For me, I'll come down here and go, 'Let's work on some stuff and see what I got.' It's slow. It's slower than normal and I think it's because of us not playing for two years and all the hell the whole world has gone through. It's like, 'Let me be all inspired and creative now,' but it feels like the 'Twilight Zone'. Two years just gone. I'm not worried about it. We'll do what we do. This is what we do. It's just that initial thing. Usually, it's pretty quick. It takes us forever to do a record. [Laughs] Once the idea is there and they are flowing, then there's a lot of time refining it, but right now, that initial starting point is harder than normal. I know it's from all this stuff. I'll be down here and I may have something and Russ is like, 'What about this as an idea?' I go, 'Maybe.' I'll take a break and put the news on like a freaking idiot, then turn it off because it's making it worse to clean my brain of all this bullshit. For musicians, just friends of mine that I know, it's the same thing when trying to write stuff — it's a little hard to get back into that groove. We all will. Once things start moving again, we'll be fine. Mentally, creativity-wise, I definitely noticed it did something."
Blabbermouth: When you get together for tour rehearsals, will it be the first time the band has been in the same room in two years?
Michael: "Yeah. I see the guys. I see Russ once in a while and LePond just moved, but before he left, he was around. [Keyboardist Michael] Pinnella is floating around sometimes, but since we're all spread out — Jason [Rullo, drums] is in New Mexico. Just for us to go to the rehearsal place, it's a big to-do. All the flights were canceled, so all that happening was tough. Again, a lot of the guys I know it was the same thing. Not being able to do 'band stuff' like being on the bus, doing goofy things, joking around. And playing a show and the audience and you see everybody is having a good time and you go, 'This is great, let's start writing.' Two years of none of that, now it's like, 'Let's go!' I'm not worried about it, though. That first rehearsal thing will be like, 'Here we go!' The first rehearsal might be a little rusty, but we're all playing, but as a unit and getting it tight and that kind of thing — the first rehearsal may be a little rough around the edges. [Laughs] But I'm not worried about anything. We'll be fine. But that first show, getting on the stage, that first micro-second is going to be 'Oh my god!' Then it will be, 'This is what it was like. This is great.' It's like riding a bike. The same thing."
Blabbermouth: How do you view your solo albums? Are they to complement SYMPHONY X? Are they an extension of SYMPHONY X? Or are they something you do for fun?
Michael: "It's mostly for fun. The reason for starting to do some of them was that the band had the downtime and we weren't really sure what was going to happen. That's what started the whole thing. Then doing it, there will be similarities like my kind of riffs; I can't help that. But, with the solo thing, I can do whatever. If I want to throw this dub-step metal thing in there, I'm going to do it. I'm a clown. I'm just goofing around down here and having fun doing silly shit. I love all the big cinematic stuff and the big film music and John Williams, [Hans] Zimmer, those guys. I'll put more of that, the orchestra and the guitar and there's more synth and sound design, and maybe some different instruments. I do things that maybe the band wouldn't do."
Blabbermouth: How did Dino end up being a part of the record?
Michael: "On the first one, I had a friend of mine, Rick Castellano. An unknown guy and a friend of mine. I thought it would be good for him to come into the thing and give a new guy a chance. Somebody once gave me a chance, so that would be cool [giving Castellano an opportunity]. At the beginning of 'Part II', I thought it would be good to try someone else, maybe try a different singer on every song, a whole bunch of singers, but I'm not going to do that. I thought about who we could get, and I was on the phone with Simone Mularoni, who helped me with recording and mixing. He's a good friend; we're pals now. I was on the phone with him and he said, 'I'll just ask my buddy, Dino.' I knew a little bit about Dino. Simone said he'd definitely do it. He put us together and Dino said, 'Count me in. I'm down.' Then you start the process. I sent him some songs and he sent back some vocals and immediately, I thought he was exactly what it needed to be. He did such a great job. He really did."
Blabbermouth: You made a name for yourself in guitar-playing circles early on for your solos, but it seems like you're more about the riffs these days. Has great riffs and arrangements taken precedence?
Michael: "Yeah. When I first started playing guitar, I think any musician, or any of us, had Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen, then Yngwie [Malmsteen] and Allan Holdsworth, all these guys. You're young and trying to learn all this stuff and you're trying to get better and improve your chops and technique. For me, it was, 'Okay, I feel pretty comfortable with that.' Then you start to think about the other stuff, like the composition, songwriting, or riffs — all the other ingredients. It's like 'This guitar solo thing. I'll do a solo. I'm not worried about it, so maybe I'll concentrate on this riff and the chorus. How are we going to get into the chorus? What's the melody? What are the notes?' As we get a little older, I think we all think there's more to the picture. For me anyway, I'm thinking of more things.
"When I was younger, I probably didn't put as much thought into those things. [Laughs] But sometimes those guys or those records with a lot of shredding, it's great. I'll listen to some stuff and go, 'They're going for it.' Now, where I'm at and the band, that stuff is all good and it's always going to be in there. It's not like, 'Here comes the guitar solo!' And I'll put some freakin' slop in there. No, I'll do what's right and go for it. But, the riff and everything else around it has to have the same amount of attention. That's my gig. Trying to make everything interesting and put a little thought into those things."
Blabbermouth: This November will mark the 20th anniversary of "The Odyssey". It was such a big record for the band. What sticks out most for you about that time?
Michael: "Oh man…that was so long ago. [Laughs] That record and 'Paradise Lost' , maybe for me 'Paradise Lost' I remember more things. The thing about 'The Odyssey', I remember, is the title track. These things were always there on previous records, the orchestral stuff and some classical things. Pinnella and I had this common ground on the really early records — he's a classical piano guy. I like Randy Rhoads and Yngwie and all these guys; I was a big classical music fan. We had that common thing, so it was easy to throw things together. As time went on, maybe that classical stuff was starting to get into a late-Romantic thing or maybe a film kind of thing. There was always a little bit. But 'The Odyssey' was 'Okay, we had some long songs before, but we're pushing it…'"
Blabbermouth: It's over 20 minutes.
Michael: "Yeah, some insanity, but it works. I remember I was in the car listening to it with either Russ or Pinnella, and I knew the song was 20 minutes. I remember just thinking, 'That was 20 minutes?' It didn't feel like it. I think just the flow of everything and there are not parts where it's like, 'Let's go. It's dragging on.' It propels the pacing of it, which is good. You could listen to it and go, 'This is long as hell, but it keeps your interest.' At least, I would hope so. I do remember that about that record. 'Paradise Lost' I remember putting together some riffs and definitely, my thing was thinking about when I was young and how I couldn't wait to get the new [JUDAS] PRIEST and learn those riffs. There was something about that energy. I was trying to think about when I was younger. 'Paradise Lost' was trying to capture that thing when we're young and learning those new records and going, 'Did you hear that riff? Did you hear that PANTERA riff?' I was trying to get some of that."
Blabbermouth: Do you have any timetable for the new SYMPHONY X?
Michael: "We've been going back and forth a while now, shooting different ideas to each other. I've been coming down here almost every day just to work out a couple of riffs and try some things to see where it leads. It's just slow. This initial starting thing, I don't ever remember being this difficult. Not that it's difficult, but it's slow. But once we find that thing and get over that hump, things will be rolling. We'll definitely have some stuff. Then if we're into rehearsals and they're happening, it will be, 'Now it feels normal again. Here we go.' As far as a timetable, it's impossible to say. I'm just hoping this tour will be cool. I think it will."