Redemption – Interview 2018 – “…there is a lot of good material on here and the best is up there with the best we’ve ever written”
Picture the scene: It’s a Saturday night and I’m sitting in the back of a plush Mercedes, being driven to the O2 to catch the final night of Iron Maiden’s ‘Legacy Of The Beast’ European tour. And who happens to be sitting next to me? That’s right, none other than Nick Van Dyk, the founder, principal song writer and guitarist for progressive metal band Redemption.
We’d chatted like friends all evening having only properly met that very afternoon, so much so that we were almost certainly going to miss the start of the show. However, the quiet surroundings and diabolical London traffic meant that it was a perfect time to quiz Nick ‘on-the-record’ about all things Redemption, particularly given that their latest record, ‘Long Night’s Journey Into Day’ has only just been released.
‘High octane progressive metal’ – this no-nonsense description of Redemption’s music seemed as good a place as any to start the most formal segment of our evening.
“We might revisit it because it has been about 12 years since I coined that phrase”, Nick begins in his quiet but rich timbre whilst a certain mirth dances on his face playfully, momentarily eradicating his chagrin about our lousy timekeeping. “There is a fair amount of progressive music that doesn’t keep the metal and I wanted to emphasise to people who might think we’d turn into some widdly, wanky contemplative acoustic band, that we are fundamentally a metal band. There are some progressive elements to it and it tries to be highly melodic but the music has a sense of urgency to it and if you listen to the opening of this record, I hope it still kicks your ass. So it is probably still an apt description, but I might revisit it and see if I can maybe be a bit more nuanced about it.”
I then take a step back and invite Nick to take a trip down memory lane to fill me in on exactly how one of my favourite bands sprang into existence.
“I suppose it’s a lesson in possibilities and being good to people”, Nick replies honestly, a theme that develops throughout this interview. “I grew up playing music and was a fan of the genre. I had fiddled around and written a bunch of music over the years, but didn’t think anything would ever come of it. I was a huge fan of Fates Warning and I bumped into Ray Alder (vocalist) at a Flotsam & Jetsam show in LA. I did the fanboy thing, ‘Hey, I love your music, thank you so much, blah, blah, blah.’ We connected. Two nights later, Saxon were playing in the same venue and my buddy I was supposed to go with cancelled on me. I thought, ‘God, how big a loser am I going to a Saxon concert by myself?’ And this was not when they were at the peak of their popularity. But I decided to go and I saw Ray there. I don’t know what possessed me, but I went over to him, and said ‘hey, I saw you two nights ago at Flotsam, can I buy you a beer?’ We started talking and we hit it off. I gave him my business card, not thinking he’d contact me. But a couple of days later, he contacted me, we went to a basketball game together and we wound up being friends.
“Ray mentioned he wanted to do a solo album. I said that I had all this stuff written, but he wanted to do something that was a big departure from Fates Warning. So most of my stuff wasn’t a good fit for what he wanted to do on his solo album,’
‘Long story short though”, Nick continues, “Ray said that If I ever wanted to do anything with my stuff, he’d love to help. Because of that, I wound up actually recording the music. We brought together some musicians and I recorded the first production record. Ray was gracious enough to sing vocals on one track. I went from pure hobbyist to having a renowned vocalist helping to produce a record simply by good fortune and because I was nice enough to buy him a beer and have a conversation.”
For long-term fans, news of Ray Alder’s departure from Redemption was a bitter pill to swallow. Some may have even walked away from the band as a consequence. For the rest of us, the pill has been sweetened somewhat by Ray’s replacement, none other than Tom Englund of Evergrey. For me personally, this is the best possible outcome, as Tom remains my favourite voice in heavy metal. I ask Nick to explain how Tom became the new Redemption vocalist.
“One of the most important elements of our music is the subject matter of the lyrics and the human connection that is established through delivering them with passion and conviction. We sing about the human condition – fear, anxiety, love, frailty, all the complicated parts of what it’s like to be a person. If we had a singer that wasn’t able to invest emotion and conviction in those lyrics, it wouldn’t work. There are any number of really competent, technical vocalists that would not bring home what our music is about if they’re not sufficiently passionate.”
“So we need to have a vocalist who can sing well, but it also has to be someone within that family. Now Tom has written and performed music over the past 20 years in Evergrey that very much comes from the same place. He is not only one of the pre-eminent vocal talents in the genre because of his vocal capabilities but also because he sings with tremendous emotion and passion. I think he was a perfect fit from that standpoint. Of course the fact that we have been friends for a long while and have a mutual respect for what we have accomplished musically, it certainly helped as well. At the end of the day, I’m not going to get rich off this – Evergrey might do fine – but for me, this is about creating with people that I love and respect. The fact that we are friends is very important because this should never feel like a job because it won’t pay like one. It has got to be friends having fun creating together.”
“Wither and die?”, interjects Nick with a wry smile as I probe into whether he ever thought of putting Redemption to bed after Ray left.
“We had more music in us, so I knew I didn’t want to stop in that sense. Some people have very kindly suggested that we have underestimated why people like our music. I did feel like we needed a vocalist of consequence with a name and a body of work and a following. Not only because I wanted to maintain the popularity of the band, but also because it was an answer to people who might be concerned that we wouldn’t be able to generate our core sound anymore. When you lose someone who is as iconic as Ray, to have someone who is also iconic step in, you have momentum. Instead of us withering away, saying ‘lets just get someone who can sing’, having somebody with Tom’s capabilities step in and do it, it was more of an affirmation of our continued intent.”
Ok, so Nick never thought to quit writing and creating music, but did he ever consider putting ending Redemption and starting again under a different name or via a different band altogether?
“Interesting…I never really thought that”, comes Nick’s considered and thoughtful reply after a moment or two of contemplation. “That’s an interesting perspective. It reminds me of the band Kansas who broke up and then reformed. They went under a different name when they shot their demo because they didn’t think anyone would be interested in it being Kansas when Steve Morse joined the band. I’m glad we didn’t consider that because we might have done something.
At this point, I can feel the daggers from Redemption fans the world over for putting this treasonous idea into Nick’s head. So I’m relieved when the conversation moves on without dwelling on this point too much. Nick continues, allaying any lingering fears in the process:
“We don’t have a huge following but we have a very passionate following and I think the people who have been invested in us deserved us to try and continue. I felt an obligation to Bernie (Versailles – guitarist) and even Ray I think would not have wanted us to necessarily hang it up. I’m glad. I’m a huge fan of Ray and Ray is a large reason why many people heard of us in the first place, so I can understand peoples reticence to embrace that change. But the only ones that bother me are the ones that wrote us off without listening. The ones that listen and don’t get it, it is what it is. Evergrey have fans who aren’t fans of Fates Warning, just like there are fans of Fates Warning who don’t care for Evergrey. So I’m sure we’ll have new people come to us because of Tom as well.”
“There have been a few bumps”, Nick laughs warmly when I suggest that Redemption’s path has not always run smooth to say the least, and that perhaps this might have given the band greater resilience to Ray’s departure.
“That’s also pretty insightful”, he continues kindly, albeit more seriously this time. To be fair, the subject matter demands it at this point. “Look, the reality is – and I don’t seek to portray myself as some brave warrior – but when you get knocked in the head with a potentially fatal diagnosis, you realise that there is not much else in life that should rattle you. And then seeing what happened with poor Bernie and realising how fragile all of this is, at the end of the day, losing a vocalist is maybe not as big a deal as other things. And because it’s not what I rely on to put food on the table for my children, we sort of trundle along. I suppose if people had completely written us off, we may have actually fizzled out but I don’t think they have and I don’t think we will.”
Speaking of Bernie Versailles, I am compelled to find out how the diminutive guitarist is, and whether he may ever find himself in good enough health to return to the Redemption fold.
“I’m not sure that’s in the cards”, Nick sighs with genuine regret. “We haven’t really spoken about it but he was in a very bad way. For those that don’t know the specifics, he had a brain aneurism. First of all, it wasn’t lifestyle related – Bernie was very healthy. He was a vegan, exercised every day, didn’t drink to excess and never did any drugs. He was fit. It must be hereditary I suppose, he had a weakness in a blood vessel. You don’t get any warning signs. He felt nauseous and had a headache. He was with friends who thought he had a migraine and were going to let him sleep it off. If you’re brought to the hospital within a couple of hours, it’s almost like a nothing thing. But it was 36 hours before he was brought in. So he was in a coma for a month and we were concerned he might not emerge from it. And if he did, he might have no mental faculties whatsoever. So the fact that he is not dead first of all and he is able to have a somewhat functioning life is a triumph. He plays guitar recreationally from what I understand – I’ve not spoken to him recently because he has a lot of issues with short-term memory. I don’t know that he’ll ever be able to play again at the level he used to but he is continuing to recuperate in the care of his family who love him very much. He is doing better and he is happy, so I think that is probably about as much as we can expect from the situation. It is terrible and just goes to show how delicate life is.”
I feel the need to get the conversation back on to more positive subject matters, and I feel the best way to do that is by welcoming Vikram Shankar into the Redemption fold, as the new keyboardist. Nick is only too pleased to fill me in on the details.
“Vikram was introduced to me by Tom. I think Tom became aware of him because he had created these videos of piano arrangements of Evergrey songs. They are not just well performed but they are arranged with vision and real ingenuity. They preserve the character of the original songs including some of the bombast whilst being done in the mode of delicate classical piano. I think Tom had probably wanted to work with Vikram”, he chuckles, “and so he gently nudged the two of us to meet.”
“I had an incredibly talented keyboardist in Redemption for a few years called Greg Hosharian but he decided that he wanted to focus on classical music composition and conducting. He is of Armenian descent and his father conducted an Armenian orchestra in Los Angeles. I think he wanted to dedicate himself to follow his father and preserve the heritage of that music. We carried on because I’m a reasonably capable keyboard player but we started thinking in the wake of playing live shows that it is hard to pull it off without an actual keyboard player. It can be done but having somebody competent playing with us adds more richness and versatility to what we can do. So I liked the idea of having a dedicated keyboard player and frankly Vikram was so talented from both a performance and compositional standpoint that I knew he could really elevate what we were able to do. We sat down, talked and brought him to meet the rest of the band. He was game to do it, so we are really excited to have him and look forward to even bigger contributions from him on future records.”
“He came in and did a solo and a couple of other background parts”, Nick explains in terms of Vikram’s involvement on ‘Long Night’s Journey Into Day’. “He did some other really subtle things that you might not even notice unless you heard the song without those things added in. Tiny little things, adding some texture here and there. He was actually really helpful when it came to mixing the record because he is very analytical and he studied music and music production. He is also very helpful when it comes to arranging our music for live performances and the things that he is capable of doing all by himself are pretty astonishing.”
At this point, I feel it is high time to discuss the brand-new record, ‘Long Night’s Journey Into Day’, starting with the response from the public, critics and fans alike.
“Almost uniformly positive”, Nick responds, “which is somewhere between validation and a relief”, he smiles somewhat self-deprecatingly, before continuing.
“People have generally been accepting of the biggest change, which is Tom. I think by and large, people recognise it as a continuation of what we’ve been doing, but with probably better production than we’ve ever had as well as some pretty strong song writing. So far, the critical reviews have been great and hopefully our label deserves commercial success commensurate with the critical recognition. I appreciate Metal Blade giving us their confidence and in return, I hope people buy the new record.”
As with all Redemption albums, this new disc is something of an intense rollercoaster emotionally. I invite Nick to comment on this and then request his explanation of the specific lyrical content on ‘Long Night’s Journey Into Day’.
“If we’re good, they are all intense emotionally”, he responds. ‘Art of Loss’ wasn’t a concept album but it had a common theme about the notion of love and fear being opposites, and the idea that most decisions we make of consequence, are really decisions between love and fear. Do you love what you do or do you do it because you fear of failing at something else? Do you love the person you’re in a relation with or are you afraid of being alone?”
“There is no one unifying lyric that pops through on this new record”, Nick continues after a short pause for thought. “The title is a wordplay on a play by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill who wrote an autobiographical play called ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night’. It was about his childhood and his mother’s struggle with heroine addiction. I liked the idea of flipping that title on its head. We’ve always had lyrical content that looks at both sides of the human condition and how there is fear, anxiety, failure and pain; all these bad things. But there is also love, beauty, triumph and resilience; all these wonderful qualities. If there’s one consistent theme through all of our work, it’s that life can be frightening and hard to get through but it’s almost always worth it. So turning the title on its head, calling the record ‘A Long Night’s Journey Into Day’, was a nice way to acknowledge that. All the music fits under that big banner theme, but there is no real concept this time around.”
As we enter a dark tunnel somewhere in East London, Nick references a fundamentally important aspect of Redemption’s music. It is something that I had overlooked to a greater or lesser extent up until now, but having been flagged up, it makes perfect sense: “Make sure you make it through to the end of the last song because it’ll end on a high note.”
“However, there are a couple of songs on the record that end in places that are less positive”, Nick reveals as he explains further. “Take ‘And Yet’, which is a companion piece to ‘Someone Else’s Problem’. ‘Someone Else’s Problem’ is a recognition that when you’re in a relationship, be it a familial one, a professional one, a romantic one, you tend to make excuses if you’re infatuated and you put the bad things out of your mind. But when that relationship comes to an end, you might miss aspects of it, but all the stuff that would have bugged the hell out of you if you’d been intellectually honest, is someone else’s problem. But it’s not always easy not to miss that person, so ‘And Yet’ is the recognition that even though I know it was a toxic situation that was bad for me, ‘and yet’, I still miss them.”
“So that one doesn’t end on a particularly high note”, Nick grins wickedly, “but most of the songs do. I started noticing that one of my favourite bands, Rush, ended their albums with more of an epic song with an affirmational quality to it. I like the way I feel when I’m finished with a Rush record and I’d like to make people feel the same way if we can. So we try to end on a positive note.”
Most bands will get drawn into the ‘this is our best record ever’ trap during interviews, eager to demonstrate that their latest endeavour is worthy of as much attention as possible. In Nick’s case, he is much more reserved and considered in his response. In fact, I have to gently prod him before he will entertain the thought that ‘Long Night’s Journey Into Day’ might represent his finest hour.
“You never really set out to not make a great song”, he responds measuredly and typically honestly. “Every time you want to write a great song. But it’s an artistic endeavour and you don’t always know when you’re going to catch light. I had the feeling when we were writing ‘Indulge In Colour’ that ‘this is the stuff’. It reminds me of the best stuff we’ve ever done and it’s as good a song as I’ve ever written. That and the title track, which has the same kind of feeling. The end of that song took on a life of its own and kept building and building. Some of my band mates have other high points, but there is a lot of good material on here and the best is up there with the best we’ve ever written.”
“Every song is different”, Nick continues on the song-writing theme in answer to my query about his personal process to creating music. “Generally speaking, I will have the riffs and when the song is stitched together, I will sing a melody with nonsense lyrics to it, one time through. Usually, that’s 80% of what the melodies will be. But on the song ‘Memory’ (on the album ‘Origins Of Ruin’) for example, I had the chorus stuck in my head on the golf course one weekend. I remembered it enough when I got home, so I sang it and built the song around that. So it can happen any number of ways and you’ve just got to let inspiration strike when it wants to.”
And what of the comparisons between ‘Long Night’s Journey Into Day’ and my previous personal favourite Redemption record, ‘Snowfall On Judgement Day’?
“First of all, I’m glad that people do compare this record with ‘Snowfall…’ because it is probably the best record in our catalogue prior to this one. That record did a very good job of capturing that light and dark, plus I like the production on that one. So I get it, I appreciate it and I’m flattered that people think of this new record in the same way.”
It is interesting that Nick mentions the production of ‘Snowfall…’ and ‘Long Night’s…’, a subject that I’m keen to pick up on, especially given that most fans seem to agree that this album affords the band their best ever sound.
“We’re always struggling to get the record we hear in our head to come out of the CD player”, Nick once again grins warmly as he answers. “I love Jacob’s (Jacob Hansen) mixes – they are very contemporary, they have a punch and urgency to them without sounding cold. I knew that done right, that’d be the closest we could come to what we wanted to hear. The thing is, we’re a tough band to mix because we have an awful lot going on. We have a bass that has six strings and doesn’t follow the guitars, so the frequencies are stepping on the drums and the low end of the guitars. The guitars are tuned down, so that exacerbates the problem. And on ‘Indulge In Colour’, there are 60 tracks of orchestra. You can’t just hand it over and expect the mix to work automatically. The music had to be deconstructed very carefully and patiently. It was trial and error until we got what we wanted. It is, frankly, a testament not only to Jacob’s skill, but to his professionalism, patience and his flexibility that we were able to work together as well as we did over a long period of time to get these results. He was fantastic and I’d work with him again without hesitation.”
“If we stop having fun or stop thinking that we’re creating something of value, we’ll stop”, comes the response to my query about the longer-term future of Redemption. “But to use that phrase again, I know there’s more music in us. I’m very energised to write with Vikram and Tom and involve them in the process more. I think that’ll help our musical growth and take us to new places whilst still sounding like us. So I’m really excited to get to work on our next record. But I don’t want to lose sight of this record, one that I hope we get out to play some shows to support.”
Speaking of playing live, and as the O2 looms into sight over the horizon, Nick has a final word to say about ProgPower USA, a festival I shall make it my mission to attend one day.
“ProgPower USA really feels like a family and we’re going to pull out all the stops and do some really cool things for the family.”
And with that, the car pulls up to the O2 and we hurriedly head off to the venue, eager not to miss a moment more than we have to of the mighty Iron Maiden.
‘Long Night’s Journey Into Day’ is out now on Metal Blade Records – and, should you still be awake, you can read my review here.