Retracing Epic Steps: 20 Years of Symphony X’s “The Odyssey” (Interview with Michael Romeo)
A few weeks ago, I stood alongside my fellow marathoners and half-marathoners, waiting in the chilly Columbus pre-dawn for the starting gun to fire so we could start circulating warmth to our extremities. I tend to find the starting line scene emotionally overwhelming. When I’ve been training alone for months and suddenly see thousands of other runners who’ve been doing the same, the realization that I was never truly alone hits me like a truck. As a lump rose in my throat, fireworks started shooting off over the downtown skyscrapers. “Born to Run” blared from the PA—a fine choice, if a bit on-the-nose. I wiped my eyes and tried to focus on the task at hand. I knew it was time to look within; it was time to unleash the fire. I queued up the first track from Symphony X’s 2002 album, The Odyssey, and then I shattered my old PR.
That wasn’t the first time I’ve used “Inferno (Unleash the Fire)” to dig a little deeper, to find some extra juice. It’s the perfect motivational metal anthem, from its chugging main riff to its life-coach lyrics to the sheer amount of awe-inspiring shredding guitarist Michael Romeo lays down across its five-and-a-half minutes. In an alternate universe where elite athletes listen to neoclassical power metal, it could serve as the pregame pump-up song in locker rooms across America. “Inferno” is just the first highlight on an album that’s chock full of them. The punishing “Wicked,” the medieval-themed ballad “Accolade II,” the magisterial “King of Terrors,” and especially the 24-minute epic “The Odyssey”—all have left their indelible mark on the metal landscape. The Odyssey turns 20 this week, and it remains the shining pinnacle of the Symphony X discography.
It's not just the best Symphony X album, though; for my money, The Odyssey is the best American power metal album ever made. Some nerdy clarifications are in order here: I’m talking about American power metal as in power metal from America, not “U.S. power metal,” the rowdier subgenre defined by bands like Manilla Road, Helstar, and Riot. Symphony X don’t play USPM, and fans of that style might find them a little too frilly for their tastes. Some listeners might even prefer to consider Symphony X a prog band, which is fine by me, but still doesn’t feel quite right. When I think of power metal, I think of shredding guitar, anthemic riffing, belting clean vocals, ambitious arrangements, and the odd dorky proclivity. Symphony X delivers on all of those, but more than that, they give me exactly what I want to hear when I’m in a power metal mood. The Odyssey makes me feel like I could go on an Odyssean hero’s journey of my own.
To mark The Odyssey’s 20th anniversary, I recently spoke to Michael Romeo about orchestral programming, watching Ray Harryhausen movies as a kid, falling in love with the scores of Bernard Herrmann, touring with Blind Guardian, and what the future might have in store for Symphony X.
The Odyssey came out back when Symphony X was still releasing albums every year or every other year. Did you start working on The Odyssey right after V came out?
Oh, man. That was so long ago. Probably, yeah. I know on V we did a little bit of touring. Not as much as [we would] after that, but yeah, we did a couple runs with the V record and then went right back to writing.
Was there anything specific you knew you wanted to do going into writing on The Odyssey?
Yeah, it was doing a long track. That was the thing. I remember – well, I kinda remember, it was so long ago, man – talking about doing something like on Divine Wings [of Tragedy]. There’s this big song, and it was like, “Ah, it would be cool to do something kind of like that again.” A big epic kind of thing, with the orchestra, and it’s prog and it’s metal and it’s all this stuff. And then it was just trying to find something [to write about]. I can’t remember what else we were looking at, but there were probably a bunch of other things. And then The Odyssey just made the most sense. I was like, ‘Well, let’s do a big epic thing…about some odyssey. It’s like, oh yeah, the fuckin’ Odyssey!” [Laughs]
Yeah, that’s a pretty famous one. So, the idea guided the writing? You first knew you wanted to do the song about The Odyssey and then you wrote around the concept?
Yeah, and for me, that’s just always easier. I always like to have a theme. Paradise Lost, for instance. It’s heaven and hell, it’s dark and light, and the music is gonna kind of be a certain thing. The Odyssey, it’s like, “OK, yeah, you’re gonna have this big epic thing, and it’s gonna be heroic, a hero’s journey, so the orchestra’s gonna be doing some of these big thematic things, and you’re gonna get into some different sections, with different things happening along the storyline.” So, for me, it’s always easier to do it like that, to have a goal or some kind of musical idea, that this will be “the thing.” It’s always kind of been like that with the band. It’s easier to start filling in the blanks with music.
Let’s talk about the orchestration a little bit. I think V was the first album where you had a credit for orchestration in the booklet. What was your confidence level going into The Odyssey with programming?
Ah, man. I listen to it now and it kills me.
There’s stuff you would have done differently?
Yeah, and even back then. [There were] limitations of computer power, limitations of the software that was available. I was still just getting into it. Some of it, I had on paper, and it was like, “Oh, yeah. All this stuff’s got to be planned.” And you start putting it in and programming it, and you’re like, “I’m out of RAM, shit, I can’t do anymore.” It was like anything in the early stages. You just have to deal with the libraries and the sounds that were available and what the computer could handle. Now, I know I need a shit ton of RAM, I know I need a shit ton of friggin’ processing power, another machine as a slave and all that. Back then, 25 years ago or whatever, I was still learning, still kind of testing the waters. So, I listen to it and it’s like “Oh, man.” But that’s all I had at the time.
The overture of the song “The Odyssey” was probably the farthest you’d pushed it at that point. Was that challenging? That’s so densely programmed, I feel like.
I mean, compared to what you can do now? You can go bananas and have a fuckin’ thousand tracks. But back then, it was just, stick to the main parts. And then, there’s guitar and the band and we’re all playing, so it’s okay if we’re thinning out the string part,because we’re running out of juice on the machine. But it’s like I said, it’s what I had at the time. I made do with what I had.
With your recent solo albums, the arrangements are still such an important part of what’s going on musically. Do you still think of yourself primarily as a guitarist, or do you prefer to think of yourself as a composer?
I’m both. It can be both! You can be a musician and a composer, a producer. You’re doing all these jobs. But I was always like that. I love guitar, and that was always my thing, and still is my thing. But I always loved that other stuff too. I always loved a lot of different bands. I love prog, but I love heavy stuff, and I love classical stuff. So, I always tried to write in these different styles. If I heard something and thought it was cool, I’d be like, “What is that? Stravinsky? What is this?” When I’m trying to write, all that stuff is in my head. Back in the day, in high school, I’m playing metal and it’s like “I know my barre chords and some Sabbath riffs, and that’s cool.” But I always just wanted to do a little bit more.
When you’re working with orchestral instrumentation in a metal band concept, it still has to sound like a metal band, at the end of the day. You have to leave room for the band to do what the band’s gonna do. Was that a challenge at first as you started incorporating more and more orchestral stuff?
Yeah. There is that balance thing. But now, just from doing it, I know maybe to lighten up on the low strings if there’s a guitar thing, and you don’t want these things to fight, and you don’t want this clash to happen. You’ve just got to kind of keep it in mind.
The other thing with The Odyssey is it was also getting heavier. I think it’s a little bit of a heavier record than V. Those chugging, bottom-heavy riffs are coming in a little bit more, which would continue to be a more important part of Symphony X. Was heaviness something that was also on your mind?
Yeah, I mean, a little. Not as much, I don’t think. Again, man, it’s so long ago. I think Paradise Lost was the one.
Yeah, that certainly cranked it up.
I remember us talking about writing and coming up with riffs, and I’m just thinking back to when I was in high school, junior high, and it was like, “Oh man, did you hear the new Priest?” I kind of wanted to get back to that. I remember being a kid, and how excited I was when a new record [would come] out. Sabbath, or Maiden, or Rush, any of that stuff. But mostly the heavier stuff. And Paradise Lost was [getting back] to the stuff when I was young where I was like, “This is cool.” But still, keeping some of that orchestral and some of the prog elements.
I think some of the seeds of that heavier side are in Russell’s voice on The Odyssey, where he’s starting to lean into the gruffer quality of his voice.
The verses on “Inferno (Unleash the Fire)” are an example of that.
What were your impressions of his performance when you started hearing what he was doing for that record?
I think Russ, he just knows what’s right. If the riff is a heavy kind of riff, Pantera-ish a little bit, and the guitar tone a little more friggin’ beefy, a little meaner, he just knows. He’s like, “Man, the band’s digging in, I gotta dig in.” He’s always great. And then, again, if it’s an acoustic guitar or a piano, he’s singing very clean. I think all of us, too, just from doing it for so long, we just kind of know what’s the right thing and what works. And we’ll try things, too, and maybe it doesn’t work. But 90% of the time, it’s like, “OK, hit record, go, hope it works,” and usually it does.
Yeah, that makes sense. Another relationship within the band I wanted to ask about is you and Pinella, because that guitar and keyboard interplay is a key ingredient of the Symphony X. How do you work out the writing of a more keyboard-driven song? Are you working together on those?
In the early days, the first four records, me and Pinnella always were writing all the time. I think it’s because the band was new, we were trying to figure out our direction, and we both had that classical influence. We could relate to each other on that kind of thing. So, a lot of those records, a lot of that neoclassical stuff, that was our common ground between us. And then we started to get a little heavier, bringing in some of the orchestration, but still trying to keep the progressive element. So, maybe a lot of Paradise Lost is guitar riffs all over the friggin’ place, but then there’s maybe something with piano. So, me and Pinnella, we’ll get together and hammer out a couple ideas and see. It depends on the song. It depends on the record, too.
With The Odyssey, it’s “Accolade II” and “Awakenings.” Those are the big keyboard songs.
That’s typically where, P would come down — we call him P, because there’s so many Mikes, LePond, P, and me. But he would come down, and we’d need some longer kind of progressive song, that’s maybe a little Rush, maybe a little Kansas-y kind of thing, and we’d hammer out exactly those kinds of songs that you just mentioned.
Let’s get back to the song “The Odyssey.” It’s the one song from this record that’s currently in your live set. It’s stuck around as this live staple. How’d you decide to start playing that song live?
I don’t know. We fuckin’ must have been crazy. I do remember that when we started to put it together, figuring out what Pinnella would do, and what I would do, and “Oh, I’ll take the cello line.” There was some arranging that had to be done. The first time we did it, I don’t remember. I honestly don’t remember. I don’t know if we played it that first Odyssey tour.
I don’t think you did on that very first tour, because you were out with Blind Guardian and I don’t think you had time.
No, then there’s that, yeah. [Laughs] So it must have been later, down the road. I do remember though, the rehearsals, us spending a lot of time just trying to figure out how we could do it.
Did you think about chopping it up at all, like when Rush just does the overture from “2112” or something?
There was one part in the beginning that we did [take out]. It’s just a short little piece. Maybe there were just so many different things happening that it was hard to do, for whatever reason. But no. We were like, “we’ll make it work. We’re gonna make it work. We’re gonna figure out a way.” And now, the way we’ve been playing it is pretty much the same way we always have. We might noodle and try something different, but it’s like, “OK, yeah, I’ve got this melody line that the strings play, and P is gonna play this trombone part,” or whatever, and we make it work.
How’s the crowd response for it today? Do you sense that it’s a fan favorite at this point?
Oh, yeah. It’s always like [chanting] “Odyssey! Odyssey!” Thank God we learned it, you know. Because then what the fuck are you gonna do? But they enjoy it, and it’s fun for us, too. I like the set with “The Odyssey” in it at the end, because the whole first part of the show you can have all the freakin’ rockers and uptempo stuff, and then you sneak in a softer or mellower kind of song, and then it’s heavy stuff right ’til the end, and then here’s “The Odyssey,” and you settle into this big journey, and it’s cool. I like playing it. I do like playing that song.
I mentioned it briefly, but the first tour you went on for The Odyssey was with Blind Guardian. What do you remember about that run of dates with them back in ’02?
It was so long ago, man. I do remember the tour. It was kind of our first one, so it was cool actually going around [America], because we had been to Japan, and we did some stuff in Europe, so actually having a thing here was kind of cool. I think it was their first time, too. It wasn’t like this big, gigantic tour. It was all of us, just being like, “Let’s get things moving here.” For the most part, the tours are pretty easy. We always try to find bands that are cool. Everybody gets along good. We have a good time. So, I think that one, from what I remember, it wasn’t the biggest thing on the planet, but it was still cool.
This is the goofiest question I’ll ask you, but they were out supporting A Night at the Opera, and that album has the 14-minute song “And Then There Was Silence,” which is based on the Iliad, and I wondered if you guys ever talked about the fact that you both released these orchestral power metal epics based on Homer at the exact same time.
You know what, I didn’t even know that, dude.
It’s one of my favorite weird metal coincidences. There’s one big song about the Iliad, and one big song about the Odyssey, and they came out at the same time.
That’s cool. I didn’t even know. Or maybe I did, and I forgot, who knows. Again, it was so long ago.
Were you a Homer head? Were you a big fan already when you decided to write about the Odyssey?
Not really. I like mythology. I do like that kind of stuff, but I’m not a total nerd about it. I’m more of a movie guy. I do remember thinking about, and I still do, these movies when I was a kid. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad with the Cyclops and fighting the dragon, and Jason and the Argonauts with the skeletons.
All that Ray Harryhausen stuff.
Ray Harryhausen! Fuckin’ yeah. Right on, dude. I was a kid, and I just thought it was the coolest thing. And Bernard Herrmann’s music for all those things. You’re watching these stop motion monsters, and there’s something not quite right. It’s very fantasy, but there’s something weird about it. Something different. And his music was always that otherworldly quality, that mysterious [quality]. And to me, I think that was a part of where I’m at now. Because I’ve always liked this stuff, where it’s a cool story, if it’s mythology or science fiction or whatever it is, and the music is really punctuating that feel. Yeah, to this day. Of course, you watch some of those movies now and they’re fuckin’ terrible. [Laughs]
Well, you’ve got to kind of watch them through the lens of how they must have looked when they came out, which must have been fucking mind-blowing.
Yeah, I mean, when I was a kid I loved all that stuff. And that music always stuck with me, and then as I got older, I was like, “What else did he do?” And he did Psycho, and all of the Hitchcocks, and then that leads you to John Williams, and Jerry Goldsmith, and some of these film guys. And it’s like “OK, that kind of sounds like Holst or Stravinsky.” So then all these things start to progress, and you start to learn more.
I’m glad you’re mentioning movies and movie composers, because I do think you have a cinematic feel to what you do. Have you ever scored a movie before?
Yeah, I’ve done a couple horror movies for some friends. I’ve worked with a couple composer guys who do film and TV stuff, so I have some “additional music by” credits and things like that. I do it from time to time if something pops up. Because it is cool. The cool thing I think is, since it’s so different than what we normally do, there doesn’t even need to be any guitar or drums. If it’s a horror thing, it can just be an out-of-tune violin, just scratching away. It’s a texture thing. So, it is kind of cool to step out of the box of the shredder universe and go into this other thing where you’ve got to serve the picture. I like talking about Bernard Herrmann and those movies, where the music adds to that feel. There’s something cool about that. It is a fun thing to do. And again, talking about the records and having a theme, that’s all in my noodle all the time. If there’s a story, the music doesn’t write itself, but you have a pretty good idea of where you’re going with it.
And that goes through the lyrics, too. I feel like you write your lyrics in a very visual way. I’m always picturing what’s happening in a Symphony X song in my head.
Again, it’s that thing. The music and the lyrics are trying to paint this picture. Not every song needs to be like that. Maybe some are just a little heavier and a little tougher, and I still love all that stuff. But a song like “The Odyssey,” you have to tell this story. “Paradise Lost,” even though it’s not really a story, there is that theme throughout. You’ve got to paint the picture a little bit.
20 years on, what’s one thing you did on The Odyssey that you’re most proud of?
Or several things! It doesn’t have to be one.
Probably just attacking a song like that. I had always known about music, and I’d always studied my theory, but back then I was still learning about things. So that was a big jump, to do something like that with the orchestration. Again, 20 years ago, if I could go back in time and do it with what I know, fuckin’ forget about it. It’d be freaking tremendous sounding. But it still works. I’m definitely proud of doing it, thinking about the limitations, the parameters that I had to work within at the time.
Have you considered going back and doing it the way you know how to do it now?
You know, we talked about that for a minute, and it was like, “No, it is what it is.” It’s a moment in time, and that’s what it was. Don’t fuck with it, you know? I mean, who knows, but I think that’s how we’re all looking at it. So then, moving forward, it’s like, “Now what?” Like with the solo record [War of the Worlds, Part 1 and 2], there’s a lot more of the cinematic thing. And we’re working on a Symphony X record now. Well, trying to. It’s so slow.
I was gonna ask, how’s it going?
Dude, things are just weird. With COVID, I don’t know if I have some kind of…I just lose track all of a sudden. My brain fog is like, “What was I just writing?” I’ve got something going on. And some of my guys, too. I was talking to Russ the other day. It’s hard to get inspired, and usually having that idea of a theme or something is when shit starts to go. And I think all of us are just trying to find that thing. The last couple days, maybe there’s a couple possible ideas, but it just seems like everything’s slower now. But I’m down here every day, working, and maybe there’ll be something. It’s always there. There’s always some of these little orchestral things, but something like “The Odyssey,” we haven’t done anything like that in a while. We’ve just got to find that thing. We did the mythology thing, and then we did the heaven and hell thing, and we did the man and machine thing, and it’s like, “What the fuck’s left?” It’s hard to try to find something that hasn’t been done, and something that musically would work. Like, I love horror stuff too, but can you do a 20-minute, big, long epic? I don’t know how that would work.
Do you have some shorter songs that are further stages of completion, or are you still waiting to see what happens with the big epic?
Yeah, dude, I’ve got a ton of shit. I’ve got a bunch of miscellaneous things. But usually, the album really takes focus when it’s like, “This is the thing.” And maybe we won’t find anything. Maybe it’ll just be a bunch of tunes. Fuckin’ nothing wrong with that, either. But it is nice to kind of paint a picture, and have some kind of cool thing.
Well, I hope it reveals itself to you soon. Good luck with everything.
I fuckin’ hope so too, man. I hope so too. It’ll happen, man. Like I said, we’ve been talking, the band guys, and we’re trying to dig deep and find something cool.
The Odyssey released November 4th, 2002 via InsideOut Music.