By Marc Garrison
Led by guitarist/composer Nick van Dyk, American progressive power metal band Redemption have had an already storied career in their short few years of existence. Since their debut the band has enlisted members from several prominent progressive metal acts including Steel Prophet, Fates Warning, Symphony X, and, most recently, Dream Theater. With four albums and a DVD in a mere six years, they are quickly climbing through the ranks and going toe-to-toe with the best of the genre. Nick was kind enough to talk with Goldmine about a wide variety of topics, including the most recent release "Snowfall On Judgment Day."
I first discovered Redemption while searching for other projects involving Rick Mythiasin, being a huge fan of Steel Prophet. Given that you only worked with him for one album, what kind of experience did you have with him, and how did the search for a new vocalist come about so soon?
Nick van Dyk:We hired Rick as a session musician for the first CD. Ultimately, while I think Rick's performance on that CD is some of the best work of his career, he is really a power metal vocalist at heart, and I knew I wanted to work with somebody who was more comfortable with prog metal. When we were asked to play the ProgPower festival in 2003, we took the opportunity to find a vocalist more suited to this style of music. Bernie and I listened to a bunch of CDs and decided to ask Corey Brown, who was with Magnitude 9 at the time, to join us in Atlanta. When recording for the new CD commenced, I suppose Corey would naturally have been our choice for a full-time vocalist, but Ray [Alder] heard the pre-production materials and really wanted to sing on it, and so we had the discussion about Ray formally joining the band.
I came across your debut and was instantly hooked, and naturally I was thirsty for more. This led me to purchase the first album I could find in the local music store, which happened to be "The Origins of Ruin." There was a drastic difference i n the sound, with the superb Ray Alder on vocals. He seems like such a natural fit for your sound. How did you guys originally come together?
Van Dyk:We became friends first because I had seen him a couple of times at some small shows in LA and struck up a conversation with him. After I knew him pretty well, I played some of the music that I'd been tinkering with. I wound up co-writing a song for his first Engine CD, and he offered to help produce the first Redemption CD, and to appear as a guest vocalist on a track. As I mentioned, when he heard the pre-production materials for "Fullness of Time" (Origins' predecessor) he wanted to join the band which was a tremendous compliment, and also a pretty wonderful thing for the band. His voice has a ton of emotion and a unique character to it insofar as he doesn't sound like just every operatic vocalist. Both aspects of that are critical to Redemption sounding the way it does.
One aspect of each album that always sticks out is the sheer depth of emotion involved with each song, musically and vocally. What are some of the inspirations you draw from when writing the music? Does Ray take the finished music and add to it or is there another process involved when composing?
Van Dyk: I do think it's one of the things that makes Redemption what we are. Musically, I continue to be intrigued by combining very heavy, riff-oriented metal with strong melody and big choruses, and by having technicality but subjugating it to the needs of the song. My influences range from classical music to classic prog rock (e.g. Kansas, Genesis, etc.) to NWOBHM to technical thrash to prog metal. There is a certain amount of "urgency" to the music that I think is created through harmonic tension -- like an ascending scale played against the same root note. It creates a need for resolution. It's hard to describe but it's a key part of our sound and I think it contribute to the emotional aspect of it, as do the melodies.
Our lyrics are about human frailty: fears, regrets, and the like, but also hope and triumphs. All of these are done in a way that people can relate to, which is critical to establishing the emotional link with our audience. Our songs, in a sense, are all relationship songs: they either deal with how we relate to ourselves or to others. Even "Leviathan Rising" is about how people relate to each other in the context of society and government.
As for the compositional process, I'll have a pretty good idea of what I want the melody to do, and have an idea about the lyrics. Ray will occasionally tweak one or the other in the studio. Over time, I've gotten better at writing with Ray's voice in mind so there's probably a little less of that than there was in the early days, but Ray will also come up with ideas for a harmony here or there, or a particular way to treat a vocal, so his contribution is more than just singing what I tell him to sing.
It has been fascinating to listen to your albums back to back, as there is really a drastic improvement with each release, while the earlier songs remain just as impressive. I have been told by some musicians that this is more a natural evolution, rather than an intended one. Is this concept of improving on each piece as time goes on important to you?
Van Dyk:I do feel an obligation to myself and to our fans to continue to make excellent music and to try to raise the bar with each release. It gets more challenging all the time, of course! With the first CD, I knew we had room for improvement in several areas. After Fullness, I knew I could improve the production somewhat and hopefully tighten the songwriting, both of which happened with Origins. With Snowfall I wanted a slightly more varied record, and to continue to push the production envelope, which we did. The next CD is just starting to come together in my head, but I have some ideas for how to make it pretty special and I hope they come together.
I am not one of these guys that thinks a band needs to reinvent itself, by the way, just to be relevant. There's not a huge variability in Iron Maiden's sound from "Number of the Beast" through "Powerslave" but all of those albums are killer.
The newest album "Snowfall On Judgment Day" has a wide range of styles on it. I feel it is certainly your heaviest offering, and while it retains much of the technical, progressive elements of previous releases, it seems very focused in comparison.
Van Dyk: Yes, that's part of what we were going for, absolutely. As I've mentioned, combining strong melodies with heavy riffing is one of the things we go for and I definitely tried to push the heaviness envelope on this CD, both from a compositional standpoint and also from the production standpoint. I also wanted the songs to be very organic, rather than feeling composed, and they do have that organic feel to them. Striking a balance between that and the technicality that makes them interesting is very important to me.
When composing, how much of it is time spent dedicated specifically to writing music versus coming up with ideas on the fly?
Van Dyk: They can come from anyplace, really. This last CD, as I said, was less about the art or science of composing and more about what a song felt like it should do. I do keep a library of riffs and sections and I go back there occasionally to find something that works, but most of those ideas come about through fooling around rather than trying to do anything. Often I'll be driving around and hear a melody line in my head and I'll record it. I'm fond of telling the story of how the chorus to the song "Memory" came to me while playing golf by myself one day. So the ideas can come from anyplace.
A lot of your lyrics appear to be about the complexity of human emotion, some of it pretty dark. Yet, even so there is often musical hooks that sound brighter, happier, even hopeful. I think this kind dynamic really reaches out to me in a very personal way. Can you comment on this?
Van Dyk: I'm generally a pretty positive person and I think it's important to acknowledge the positivity of life and to generally approach it without too much cynicism. At the same time, there is a lot that happens to us as humans that is difficult, dark, emotionally painful, etc. To deny either the positivity or the negativity of life is a short-sighted view. And frankly it's heavy metal — there's not going to be a lot of vapid, silly, light-hearted Lady Gaga type lyricism going on. A lot of people listen to heavy metal for cathartic reasons in the first place, so I think that people can generally relate to a lot of our lyrical topics. At the same time, I don't want to be a fundamentally negative creative force — and here I use the force not in the sense that Redemption is particularly influential — just in terms of being a contributing factor to one's worldview. I want to be positive. While at the same time not denying a lot of the pain and challenges that we go through.
Tell me about the song "Leviathan Rising." As complex or brief a synopsis as you like.
Van Dyk: "Leviathan Rising" is about the role of government in society. The title comes from the book "Leviathan," by Thomas Hobbes, which is one of the most famous books in political philosophy. It asserts that life without government would be a dangerous place where people’s worst instincts resulted in a great deal of enmity, and as a result we should be glad to surrender a large amount of our freedom to the state in the interest of maintaining order. As you can imagine from the sound bites in the song – which come from the movie "V for Vendetta" and from news footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre – I don’t agree with this point of view. Government has overstepped its bounds both socially and economically and we are operating, in the US, with fewer freedoms than we have ever had. The package of economic reforms that has been pushed through over the past couple of years is financially disastrous and wrong-headed. Meanwhile the civil liberties that were wiped out with the prior administration moved the country in the wrong direction. What’s saddening is that very few people draw the connection between the two. The problem isn’t the agenda of a President. The problem is the nature of government: the bureaucracy exists to grow, and Guantanamo Bay and the proposed healthcare legislation in the US are just two sides of the same problem.
I feel compelled to mention how unbelievably incredible the song "Black and White World" is. Despite his enormous resume, this is without a doubt Ray's finest performance in his career. Was it given any special attention in the process of writing the new album?
Van Dyk: There was no special attention given to this song, but I knew as it was coming together that if we pulled it off well, it was going to be spectacular. In writing the lyrics, and in the arrangement which is pretty sparse as the song beings it's build-up at the end, that's not a typical heavy metal song — so it was going to take a lot of conviction to make it work. But I'm very proud of it.
There are a few instances in our songs where there's a complex vocal arrangement, and the overlapping lines here at the end are one such example. Ray usually has more difficult than I, at first, envisioning how it's going to sound when it's finished so he usually takes it on faith that I have some vision that hopefully will work out. There was a moment when Ray got it and I could see he believed it was going to be pretty special. That was a good moment in the recording. We're able to pull it off live, too, and it comes together nicely.
How was it working with James Labrie [best known for being the lead singer in progressive metal band Dream Theater] on "Another Day Dies"?
Van Dyk: When we were touring, James was particularly gracious and told me he really liked what Redemption was doing. I asked him if he’d be interested in doing a guest appearance and he was totally fired up about it. I didn’t write that song for him, and I didn’t really even know what type of guest appearance would work, but when the songs were all finished, I knew the verses in "Another Day Dies "would sound great with James’ delivery, and the idea for the duet during the chorus came to me as well, and I sent him the pre-production demo and asked him what he thought. He loved the idea, and here we are.
Working with him was a great experience — he's a complete professional, a very nice guy, very collaborative and a true friend. We spent a few hours in the studio, he brought the goods and delivered a great performance. I'd love to do more with him one day.
With so much going on in your world, what kind of activity can we expect from Redemption in the next few years?
Van Dyk: We will be playing some dates in the US, and had hoped to do some European dates this summer but unfortunately that's not going to be in the cards. Ray has some shows to do with Fates [Warning] and it would have been too much for him to try to do both. So come this fall, I will probably start working on new music. The bar has been raised again, so I'm going to spend a lot of time on the music — as I always do — to try to make this next CD even better than the last.
On another note: While there is a thriving community for progressive music in the US, the market for music as a whole is at an all time low, with albums sales decimated by piracy and bands getting less support than ever before. How do practical considerations like this factor into the continuing existence of Redemption?
Van Dyk: Well, the reality of the music business today is that it's terrible. A band like ours breaks even, if we're lucky, on recording, and loses money touring, so frankly there's not a lot of point to it, but for the fact that we want to create. It does mean that it's difficult for us to play out extensively — there's no way to mount a tour as the labels are under financial pressure and cannot offer much support, and tours no longer sell CDs. It's a pretty awful time, frankly. Ultimately everybody loses — nobody more so than the music fans who, through downloading, are ensuring that the only type of music to be successful is pop.
How well does your sound translate to a live setting? There is some seriously intimidating and impressive musicianship that goes into your sound, with the epic orchestrations, long songs, and so forth. Is there any material that is particularly challenging to replicate in concert?
Van Dyk: I've been very pleased with how well they translate. We have a DVD out that faithfully captures our live performance, and we do our best to maintain the orchestrations as they are pretty important to the song. We also choose the material that works the best in a live setting — but most of it is fair game. I will say that the music is extremely difficult to learn and memorize. We worked up a cover that we ultimately didn't end up playing, and I will say the whole band learned the cover to perfection in about 20 minutes. I compare that with literally ten hours of practice to get one of my own damn songs down – it's pretty taxing!
I'm particularly pleased with how well the new songs work live — we're doing three of them and they are all very different, and they all seem to go across well.
Lastly, since everyone has influences and people that inspire them, I'll throw one more question out: Are there any specific bands you would like to share the stage with above all others?
Van Dyk: Opening for Dream Theater was a pretty surreal experience and it would take a lot to top that — I think opening for Rush might be the only thing that could top it. Although it'd be a lot of fun and a tremendous honor to open for somebody like an Iron Maiden or a Bl ... uh ... Heaven and Hell.