Slouching Towards Bedlam, Redemption Keep their Prog Shreddy and Heavy
Nick Van Dyk is not the kind of guy who answers his own phone when you call him at work. After several minutes on hold (during which Nick’s secretary surely asked who names their kids like that??!!), Nick’s lively voice comes through the other end:
“Dude, I wasn’t sure if it was you or the drummer from Armored Saint.”
That’s Nick in a nutshell: corporate hotshot to those who work with him, and fun-loving metalhead to those who actually know him. It’s an unexpected dichotomy that he proudly takes to absurd extremes.
Redemption started life as a few demos Nick had recorded with his trusty Petrucci edition Ibanez. He eventually assembled a crew of prominent musicians – Joey Vera, Mike Romeo, and Jason Rullo, among others – to bring his music to life. But he soon turned Redemption into an actual band, bringing in drummer Chris Quirarte of Prymary, guitarist Bernie Versailles of Agent Steel, and a singer named Ray from some band called Fates Warning.
The second Redemption album, 2005’s The Fullness of Time, was a game-changer nobody saw coming. Holdover traits from the debut – complex arrangements, tight musicianship, and other prog-metal staples – were honed to a frightening degree, while Nick moved away from the oft tiresome themes progressive and power metal bands cover. “I can’t write about dragons and trolls and the penetrating mists of the Carpathian forests,” he bluntly explains, barely controlling his laughter. “It’s silly to me, though I’m sure it’s meaningful to the Board of Tourism of Carpathia!”
The massive, four-part title track does touch on familiar territory: self actualization and the struggle to transcend one’s own shitheadedness. But rather than pontificating like a philosophy dropout, the orator in “The Fullness of Time” speaks from the refreshing perspective of an average schmo just trying to better himself after realizing how badly he’d fucked up. And this trait has defined Redemption as a band more than any other: these prog metal masterpieces do not force-feed the ramblings of a pseudo-intellectual hothead. Instead, they document the daily longings of the Everydude as he deals with the consequences of his errors. Nick Van Dyk does not cloud his lyrics with conceits or Hawthorne-inspired metaphors. His lyrics are uneasily personal and terrifyingly direct, and they leave zero room for interpretation. It’s almost like country music, but bearable.
“But I am capable of using metaphor and extrapolation,” he argues. “People shouldn’t mistake my lyrics for a diary. Unless you’re Anne Frank, nobody wants to read your diary. It’s more about touching on common elements of the human experience. Everyone can relate to falling in love, falling out of love, having dysfunctional family and friends, having to make difficult decisions, having people betray you, losing hope, regaining hope…”
“If they were overly personal,” Nick reasons, “the lyrics wouldn’t reach people. This is part of the ugly but ultimately transcendent side of the human experience.”
About that ugliness…Nick and his bandmates were continuing on their path, alternating great albums with amazing ones every couple of years, when he got an unexpected diagnosis while working on Redemption’s career-defining 2009 album, Snowfall on Judgment Day. It was, in a word, cancer. In two words, it was multiple myeloma.
Without going into dizzying oncological details (which you can find on Nick’s blog anyway), the disease and its treatment derailed every aspect of Nick’s life. How he found the energy to perform ‘Still Remains’ with Fates Warning at that year’s ProgPower USA is beyond me completely. The upside, though, was that he found himself with a shit-ton of fodder. “It was hard to go through cancer and not write about it while making This Mortal Coil,” Nick says. “But it wasn’t so much therapeutic as it was a cool subject for a heavy metal record. And I involved my bandmates on writing lyrics for that record because I didn’t want it to be a woe is me, I have cancer thing.”
“The message there,” he continues, “is that we will all face moments where we have to wrestle the idea of our own mortality and what it means to be alive, and the fact that this is all temporary. While This Mortal Coil was definitely motivated by personal experience, I wanted to make the themes common enough where they would not just appeal to me, my friends and my family.”
These days, Nick’s feeling pretty good, as evidenced by his jovial and self-deprecating disposition. “I wish I just needed to be tested for something a lot more fun,” he bro-ishly admits, “but my most recent test came back negative. I need three to four more years of clean living before they tell me I’m cured. Then,” he reflects, “I can grow old and die of something else.”
Like a curse, the other half of Redemption’s Midget Guitar Duo was afflicted with health issues of his own when Monsieur Versailles suffered an aneurysm in the Fall of 2014. “Bernie continues to make a lot of progress,” Nick reports. “Our initial concern wasn’t I hope he can play guitar again, it was I hope he doesn’t die. He is reaching the point where he can walk without assistance. I’ve seen him pick up a guitar. He’s not what he once was or what he’ll be again, but for me the most important thing is for him to be himself, be with his family, and be able to use music as a means of expression. And he’s making good progress there. We’re lucky that he got to the hospital when he did.”
Meanwhile, music is pouring out of Nick’s whatever, and somebody’s gotta play it, right? And who better to do it than not one, not two, but three former Megadethers?
“It actually happened organically. Chris Broderick knows Ray and Bernie pretty well, and I know him from his Jag Panzer and Nevermore days. Ray asked him if he’d be interested in contributing something; he said sure, but he’d have to get back to us. So I shot for the moon and started putting a list together. I knew I did not want neoclassical shredding to be the dominant sound, even though by then I’d already met Simone Mularoni [the dude from DGM, not the gal from Voyager].
“I didn’t just want great guitarists.” Nick is emphatic on this point. “I wanted to push the music in interesting directions. I’ve been a huge fan of Marty Friedman forever; his note selection is so weird. He took a long listen to our music and he wrote back several pages of notes. It was really flattering, because he invested a lot of time into that. We got the ball rolling, but then I realized that he’s not just a session musician in Japan. He’s become a pop culture celebrity, like a Simon Cowell. He’s on game shows, he’s a pitchman… he’s very busy, such that a smalltime band would find it very uneconomical to have him play on their whole record. But I wanted him, dammit!
“I was then talking with a friend who works with a lot of session guitarists, and he just happened to ask if I’d considered Chris Poland. He didn’t even know that I’d been talking with Marty!” Nick stresses. “Those first two Megadeth records are fantastic, but when I think of Chris, I think of the guy who plays fusion in the context of heavy music in Ohm. That’s exactly what I want in terms of pushing music in a different, unexpected direction. So Chris and Marty were already working on stuff for us when Chris Broderick let us know that he had some time to do a solo.”
Nick pauses. “I’m not an idiot. I’m aware of the unique appeal of having those three guys on one song [‘Thirty Silver’]. But it happened serendipidously. It’s pretty damn cool. And for all the press that we’ve gotten from having three former Dave Mustaine compadres on this record, it’s Simone’s guitar solo on ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ that really got to Ray.”
Oh yeah? Do tell.
“Ray doesn’t like guitar solos,” Nick confides. “He can’t stand them. He thinks they should have been left in the 80s. But Ray’s listening to Simone’s solo, and he bursts into laughter! He made me play it for him three times. Simone’s solo is comically, ludicrously awesome, and if there’s any justice, it would be be in the Top 100 Guitar Solos of All Time.”
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also notable for its bizarre tale of a long-dormant beast wreaking havoc in the Levant, rendered in unsettling Victorian diction. Is this a commentary on “post”-war Iraq? A diatribe against al Asad, the murderous dictator of Syria? An account of the hideous rise of the so-called Islamic State and other fanatical religious groups?
“None of that,” Nick corrects me. “Everyone thinks it’s either that, or a religious song. It’s actually based on a William Butler Yeats poem called ‘The Second Coming,’ which he wrote after World War I about the sorry state of the world. But since you mentioned the Middle East, it does seem like things aren’t much better a hundred years later.
“Dude, could you imagine if we’d actually just named the song ‘The Second Coming?’ Everyone would think we’re a right-wing, religious band!” Nick laughs. (I choose not to tell him of one Christian-themed rock band from the South also called Redemption). “It’s just circumstantial that the poem refers to Bethlehem. Maybe we should have called it ‘Slouching Towards Buenos Aires.’”
While This Mortal Coil sometimes felt like an examination of mortality, Nick is quick to point out that The Art of Loss is not a concept album. “If there is a theme, it’s that most decisions that we make in life come down to love over fear. You have to choose love. You’ll live a closed-off, unfulfilling, shitty life if all you do is react based on fear. It applies to career decisions, interpersonal relationships, forgiving someone for screwing you over, or being forgiven yourself.”
It’s not all life lessons that The Art of Loss explores, though. “’Thirty Silver’ is an angry song about being screwed over by a mentor at my old job, as was ‘Rage’ from The Fullness of Time. I’ve learned that every ten years or so, I can count on getting hosed in business!” he admits with a hearty chuckle. “Things happen, though, and I’m in a better place now [see sidebar].”
“’Hope Dies Last’ is the most fully realized song on the record. I love the build to the big finish, and Ray’s performance is great on it.” Expanding again on his approach to lyrics, he adds “I know some dudes like writing disturbing stuff, but I’d rather make people feel a little better. Life is hard, but life is wonderful.”
Nick is also excited about Redemption’s second-ever music video, to the new album’s title track. “The video is already on Metal Blade’s YouTube channel, and it stars Chris Poland and a Desiccated Old Dude who I hope will replace the Desiccated Old Dude who was on the cover of those Fates Warning albums, that Sanctuary album, and the ‘Enter Sandman’ video.”
Wait, what? Those were all the same guy?
“I’m pretty sure it’s the same guy,” he admits nanoseconds before his entrepreneurial spidey-senses kick in. “There should be a website called Old Dudes in Metal!” he laughs. “Anyway, I think the Parallels Old Dude has gone to the Big Ampitheater in the Sky, so I’m throwing my bandwagon behind this new Desiccated Old Dude. I hope we’re kicking off a new career for him.”
Redemption fans have long noted the band’s unique way of tipping their hats to the music that inspires them. “Threads” from The Fullness of Time, for example, borrows a piano melody from the Symphony X song “Communion and the Oracle,” and “Memory,” from the 2007 album The Origins of Ruin, quotes from Marillion’s “Beautiful.” The Art of Loss continues this tradition.
Excluding that bitchin’ cover of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” (where Ray duets with Armored Saint/ former Anthrax singer John Bush), there are three nods on The Art of Loss. “The obvious one is to Stravinski’s ‘Firebird’ suite at the intro to ‘At Day’s End.’ There is an unintentional nod to Savatage [not the first, either – see “Life In One Day,” from Snowfall] in the bridge to ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ that reminds me of The Wake of Magellan. The third one is in ‘Hope Dies Last,’ where I borrowed a chord progression from the soundtrack to V For Vendetta.”
Nick pauses for a moment before his inner mad scientist rears its hideous, misshapen countenance. “That particular piece spoiled the magic of my compositional brewings!”
“The nod to Dream Theater [starting at 8:42 on ‘At Day’s End’] is completely unintentional,” Normal Nick continues. “That syncopation actually sounds like classic Megadeth to me. But the way I tip the hat to/ rip off Savatage is usually the overlaying of different lyrical themes. I also borrow that from Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story, and they both stole it from classical sources, I’m sure.”
Nick stops for a moment, as though a realization is dawning on him.
“Man,” he sighs. “I’m learning that all good music is theft!”
OF WOLF AND MOUSE
Van Dyk’s storied CV includes such unlikely stints as Executive Veep at Artisan Entertainment and (I’m not making this up) Senior Veep at Walt Disney. Gamers may have noticed that Activision Blizzard is trying its hand at making game-based films; you won’t believe who’s behind that.
“Our first project is a kids’ video game called Skylanders,” Nick tells me, “and we’re making episodic television out of that. And I had the tremendous pleasure of casting James Hetfield to voice a werewolf who plays guitar! There’s an episode where we learn that the good guy and the werewolf used to play in a band together. The good guy has been hypnotized by the werewolf, and when he starts to come to, Hetfield says ‘I’ll just pretend that we never broke up over artistic differences, and everything’s fine. Also, your name is not Dave.’ I literally went from filming a video with Chris Poland to recording that Hetfield line about in about twelve hours.”