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Michael Romeo: “There’s always some Randy Rhoads in what I do, but I throw in a little Van Halen, too”

Michael Romeo
(Image credit: Danny Sanchez)

Mixing mythological and fantasy literature with progressive metal is nothing new to Michael Romeo. Since 1994, the guitar star has guided his New Jersey-based band Symphony X through a series of albums based on the classic works of Homer (The Odyssey), Milton (Paradise Lost) and Dante (The Divine Comedy).

“I always wanted to say something a little more interesting than ‘Let’s get up and party!’” Romeo says. “Some of the themes in classic works are just as relevant today as when they first appeared. Plus, when you’re dealing with heavy concepts, it gives you a roadmap for writing music. You don’t have to just do verse, chorus, verse, chorus. You can do whatever you want and write stuff that’s really big.”

Back in 2018, Romeo took time away from Symphony X and released a wildly extravagant solo album based on H.G. Wells’ sci-fi masterwork, The War of the Worlds, only the guitarist rather cheekily stuck a Pt. I at the end of the title.

“That was kind of subtle, huh?” he laughs. “I always planned a two-parter. For the first one, I wrote so much music, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. So now it’s a few years later, and we have the companion piece.”

War of the Worlds, Pt. II features performances by bassist John “JD” DeServio and drummer John Macaluso, but it marks the first time the guitarist worked with Croatian singer Dino Jelusick (best known as a touring member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra). 

“I go way back with JD and John, and they’re awesome,” Romeo says. “Dino came recommended to me, and he did a great job. Everybody got what I was going for right away.”

As he did on the first set, Romeo blends his prodigious shred guitar skills with elements of EDM alongside orchestral flourishes reminiscent of film score giants such as Bernard Hermann and John Williams. 

“On paper, it might look crazy,” the guitarist says, “but all of my influences are on this record. I grew up on guys like Yngwie Malmsteen and Randy Rhoads, but I also spent so much time as a kid watching sci-fi movies. Of course there was Star Wars, but I go back to those great Ray Harryhausen movies like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I connected with the music in those movies as much as I did with metal bands.”

Anybody curious how all this sounds will have their questions answered on the new album’s opening cut, Introduction – Romeo weaves doomsday riffage and searing prog-metal soloing with dramatic blasts of symphonic orchestration that will have listeners looking toward the skies for attacking aliens. 

But it’s not all a visit to your local AMC; on blistering tracks such as Divide and Conquer and Maschinenmensch, he goes full damage-mode metal, dishing out passages of blinding sweep picking likely to evoke feelings of shock, awe and disbelief.

“Some of my solos are more straight-up, but there’s a few places where I really went for it,” Romeo says. “There’s always some Randy Rhoads in what I do, but I throw in a little Van Halen, too. When it comes to sweep picking arpeggios, I have to give it up for Frank Gambale and Allan Holdsworth. Frank has always been the king, and Allan was so smooth when he played those wide intervals.”

All of Romeo’s guitar tracks were performed on Caparison models – he’s been aligned with the Japan-based company since 2005 and has collaborated with them on several signature guitars

For WOTW2, he sought a little more grit on his rhythm takes, and the folks at Caparison sent him a seven-string model to try out. “It took me a minute to get used to that extra string,” he admits. “For a while, I was like, ‘Where the fuck am I on this?’ But now I really like it. I might see if I can design a couple of them.”

Since the Covid pandemic hit in the early spring of 2020, Symphony X has been off the road. Their planned tour for that year was rescheduled for 2021, then promptly nixed. 

With an air of cautious optimism, Romeo reports that the band will resume gigging in the spring of 2022. “Fingers crossed, we’ll be wheels up and playing the States, then Europe,” he says. “We’re all antsy to play, but we’re not going to get totally excited till we’re at the first show with real people in front of us.”

It’s been six years since Symphony X issued a proper studio record (their last was 2015’s Underworld), and Romeo hints that the group might finally get together to work on some new music. 

“It would be great to put something out before we tour again,” he says. “Once again, the scheduling of everything just killed us. I did the solo record, and then the band would get ready to tour, only to have things fall through. To be honest, it takes the wind out of your sails. But we’re talking a lot, and we all know we need to do it. So I’m hopeful. In times like this, you have to stay positive.”

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Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.