Allen / Olzon – Diamonds in the Rough

Tuesday, 4th October 2022

The days of artists only sticking to one musical outlet for their entire career rarely exists – especially if you want to remain relevant plus pay the bills as a working musician in today’s society. Although there are times where you establish your niche and desire to scratch creative/musical horizons under other templates or genres. Such is the case here for Allen/Olzon – both singers best known for their work in the progressive metal realm for Russell with Symphony X, or the symphonic metal arena for Annette through being the ex-Nightwish vocalist. Add in multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer Magnus Karlsson (Primal Fear, Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall) and its easy to understand how these artists can strike gold. Army of Dreamers is the second Allen/Olzon record, another sterling album chock full of melodic metal songs that capture these singers in the best light possible.

We recently got the chance to talk to Russell Allen who was happy to discuss the differences between records, his respect and admiration for Magnus Karlsson and their working relationship when it comes to this project, how he handles band versus project efforts, plus plenty of talk regarding Symphony X and listener expectations versus his wide body of work.

Dead Rhetoric: Army of Dreamers is the second Allen/ Olzon record. How would you assess this set of material and where you see the differences on this outing compared to Worlds Apart, your debut?

Russell Allen: Probably the biggest difference is that it’s all duets. There are no songs where I sing solo, or she sings solo, and then we do some together. And I like it a lot better, it’s way cooler that we are singing together in this duet format. That’s a good move and a good progression for this project. It opens up the songs to have more lyrics that we can use, stories we can use together and work together on. It was very engaging for both of us.

Magnus always comes to the table with great songs and good melodies, that’s going to be there. This one is separate because it’s duets all the way through. We are both featured in every song.

Dead Rhetoric: “All Alone” seemed like an obvious choice to create a video for from this album. What are your thoughts on this track, and the visual medium these days when it comes to promoting records through social media platforms versus the 80’s/90’s-era where major media channels like MTV and VH1 ruled the roost?

Allen: It’s always… something about eggs, six in one half, a dozen of the other. (laughs). The old days, the good thing about the old days, and not to sound like a grumpy old rock star, the great thing about the old days is you only had those outlets, so a lot of people got to see and experience your music. It was the cool kids club thing – you had to be on a label, you had to have the support, you had to have all these things. The artists that were fortunate enough to get that exposure, a lot of people saw your stuff and that’s why you had such big bands back then compared to now. There are a lot of great bands out there, a lot of successful bands out there, but all those 80’s bands that are still huge, some are now stadium sellers. The reason is, you had radio and MTV, they were the only ways to see and hear your favorite music.

The upside today is, there is no gatekeeper anymore. You can get your material out there and the whole world can see it. But the whole world can’t watch everybody all the time, so you are limited in reach. Good music always finds its audience. I like the new approach, not just labels but independent artists can get out there and get stuff going. I am a football coach when I am not touring, singing, and all this stuff – one of my favorite things is hearing some of the stories about the players that I’ve coached over the years. I had a kid who was a linesman, six foot tall, seventh grader, nobody really thought he could be a quarterback. He had a good arm, his mechanics were a little rough, but he showed up every day, early to practice, learned everything he needed to do, he really had the heart for it. He is the starting quarterback for his varsity team in high school. That makes me feel really good – there’s always a diamond in the rough out there. Musically, having the ability to be heard, and not having to go through the process of being approved by a record label, it’s great. There are a lot of diamonds in the rough out there. I do like the new world that we live in. It’s just success comes a little slower, and you have to work a little harder for it. If you are on your own, you are the master of your own ship, sailing the high seas of heavy metal.

It’s very cool to see younger artists succeed. And it’s very cool for me too. We are able to do this through Frontiers which is great – they have a solid team there. It’s a familiar format for me to work with. They also have to abide by as you said to your point of getting the media out there in a new way. I like this lyric video thing where we actually appear in it, there is a lot of visual artwork along with the presentation of the artist in that framework. It’s better than let’s go rent an empty warehouse building, put some amps in there, play guitars that aren’t plugged in (laughs). It’s cooler for the song, you focus more on the message by having the artist in the video, the format of the lyrics. People can see the words, feel the emotion of the performance from the artist, I think it’s cool.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been collaborating with Magnus Karlsson since the Allen/Lande albums back in 2005. How would you describe the chemistry and working relationship you have with Magnus – do you believe he understands how to put you and Anette in the best positions with your range and capabilities through his songwriting and performances?

Allen: Without a doubt. Magnus is very, very good at what he does. Some people will say he’s catchy, he’s a pop guy, he’s a hook guy. Well, he’s all those things but what he really is he’s a songwriter for singers. And that’s something that’s a really special gift, for him to be such an accomplished guitarist, a lot of times that mix isn’t there. He’s a rare breed of guitar players that’s able to craft songs for singers and understands the nuances. It’s not how many notes you play, but how much you mean what you are playing, and with what you are saying. His lyrics are solid, I like the fact that they are very direct, not overly complicated. It really is the singer’s job to translate the message, it’s not what you say it’s how you say it. It’s how you say the words that touches people, so there is a lot of room for the vocalists to emote those phrases that he writes down. He’s very good at putting the songs together that singers can do in their range and keep it in the wheelhouse.

I never really have to tweak anything he sends, except maybe some grammatic things. His pronunciation with certain words may be a little off, because he’s from Europe, but other than that there’s nothing that’s really off. The guy knows exactly what he is doing, he’s very talented, and he’s a really sweet guy. I have had the chance over the years to hang out on tour with him a few times, I really liked his energy and he’s a very humble person. That’s an endearing quality about him that makes him fun to work with because when you are trying to make great art, I know there is sometimes friction within a band, that chemistry can create great art. You have very strong opinions, but there’s something to be said for that other side of that coin, when you have people that truly respect each other, and really care about the final product. He is willing to be a slave to the song, for lack of a better term, it’s a great thing to be a part of. I am a team-oriented person, and I love it when I am on a great team. Everybody knows their role, and also knows what their limitations are. They know what their strengths are, and everybody accepts their limitations, and rely on the strengths of others in their group. That to me is the sign of a great working environment and a great collaborative thing, and I have that with Magnus and with Annette as well. That’s my sort of mantra and it fits very well.

Dead Rhetoric: Does your approach and comfort level differ when developing material in band situations versus the projects or guest appearances you make?

Allen: Without a doubt. I’ve had everything from flat out screaming matches to what I do with these guys, and sort of everything in between. Bands are different, certain people are different, but the projects are really fun because to your point, there is no drama. They are just there to do the material – and if it’s good material… I get offered a ton of things to do, I turn down way more than you ever had heard me do. I have to feel something – I don’t care if it’s a famous person, I’ve done stuff with guys you’ve never even heard of before. If I like the song, if I like the energy of the person, I’m excited to work with them. Like I said, diamonds in the rough. I’m not a prima donna like that. My one criterion is, it’s got to move me. I have to feel like I can relate to what’s being produced and put a personal touch to it. There has to be this current of emotion, we all have to relate to the human experience of love, loss, or betrayal, whatever it is. If I can find those notes within that piece and apply that to a personal experience of mine, and it reminds me of something, I’m motivated and inspired to work on it.

That’s what is great about projects. And every time I’ve worked on one, I’ve always learned something new. And I love that. It keeps me motivated. Symphony X for example puts out records I don’t know, every decade (laughs). To the band’s credit, we just came off of a really successful tour in the US, South America. We are playing in places that we were in our peak in certain markets, and other places where we have never had that much success. You can’t argue with the fact that whatever sort of crazy strategy, it works for that band. That group is completely obsessed with a perfection that is so hard to achieve. We scrutinize the crap out of everything, and maybe it’s the prog thing, I don’t know. Romeo, myself, and the rest of the guys, it just has to be really good. We don’t rush anything, there are plenty of songs that you’ve never heard that this band has worked on. That’s the process with that group. It’s tedious, draining – so doing projects like this appeals to my rock and roll side. I don’t have to think so much in terms of what the grand design of the music is, I just dig into the simplicity of the emotional message and deliver that. That’s been a great thing for me.

I bring this always back into whatever other band that I’m working with – it’s helped me develop. Taking notes a certain way, whatever I develop, I’ve always loved to learn as a performer – the investment of my time in these things has always been a good one, I think.

Dead Rhetoric: When assessing the scope of your discography beyond Symphony X, what do you consider some of the highlights of your work over the years – and do you think there is an underrated effort or two in there that people need to investigate more and appreciate?

Allen: Well, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything underappreciated. Music is like a kitchen in somebody’s house, you brag about it when somebody is going to sell it – but everyone will change things around. It’s a very personal space, nobody wants to eat off the countertops that somebody else did. I feel that music is like that in a lot of ways. People attach themselves to their own thing that they like. My solo stuff got a lot of recognition, but it was overlooked in a way because at the time I was at the peak of being a progressive singer in Symphony X, and I put this totally raw, no sort of cohesion at all rock record with no reverb on anything in the production, I did that on purpose. Because I had been singing underneath a wall of sound with Symphony X, it was burying me – on the older records sometimes, you can barely hear me singing. At that time, I needed to get that solo record out there. The Atomic Soul record over time grew into something, I sign a shit ton of those all over the world, I’m surprised to be honest. I’m proud of this and could be a little more something people could check out.

I have some acoustic stuff I’ve been working on with friends in Brazil, there will be a new song coming out soon. It’s a whole different side of me. I’ve never done full songs like this. Those are some things I am interested in doing now. It’s a lot more challenging to sing these kinds of songs. You really have to deliver the goods, you can’t just hit the high note, you have to talk to people more. And that nakedness is a great challenge for me, I love it.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you think is difficult for the average music follower to understand about their favorite artists when it comes to specific decisions that have to be made over the course of one’s career?

Allen: The difficult thing is that they put expectations on you. That’s the difficult thing – when you are in that position, because they have gotten used to something about you, a sound, a song. They expect to hear that again. We as creatures of habit like to have things in boxes, labels have known this forever. They do this on purpose because people are like that. Unless you are an eclectic sort of personality that loves all types of music, a lot of people like different styles of music but not necessarily the artist to do different styles of music. They like familiarity, and that’s the hardest thing for fans.

I’ve been blessed that I can sing in so many different styles, musically. My voice has a distinct sound, my delivery is according to the song and the emotion I am able to convey. My fans – Symphony X fans just want more Symphony X; they could care less about anything else. They are in that box, and I am happy that they are, and I love them for that. Some of them realize that Symphony X is not just double bass, odd time signatures, there is vastness and other types of stuff in there. When I branch off, fans do enjoy that. Artists are always challenging that; they want to evolve. Think about your favorite artist over the years and that evolution. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Genesis was a great band with Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins. We wouldn’t have them without Genesis, but man, what great records those two have made beyond that. Evolution I think is a great thing, but it doesn’t always work out for everybody. I love artists that are brave enough to take the chance, to try and reinvent themselves and bring out something they truly believe in. It always hits. If you are doing something that bleeds for the heart and soul, it resonates with other people. There should be more of that to be honest with you.

A lot of us are very uncomfortable with change. We are living in such a vast changing world these days. MTV had these standards, we could come home from school, and you could talk about with your friends the next day, about the music video. Now it’s what you saw on Tik Tok two minutes ago. And then the next thing, we live in this constantly changing environment with media. The challenge is to be relevant. I am happy to still be able to put out music and have some sort of relevance in today’s market.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for anything related to Russell Allen activities over the next twelve months or so?

Allen: I have that acoustic project with my friends from Brazil. It’s vocals, piano, guitar – we will release more soon. I have some acoustic songs that are very personal for me, some of the challenges I have gone through in these past five or so years. There are some projects I am looking at that are different than I’ve ever done. I’m evolving, sort of finding the ways to express things. Especially how to express losing my friends in Adrenaline Mob, a lot of that pain has been lingering. The best therapy for me is to address it. I lock it all in, my wife tells me I am going to die with all this inside, she tells me I need to let it all out. It’s hard for me to talk about it. I’m in a much better place now, I feel like I can talk about, I hope it helps other people. I hope this will help other people who may have had to deal with similar tragedies as well.

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