Redemption – Lightning in a Bottle

Sunday, 26th March 2023

For over twenty plus years, Redemption has been a benchmark act for those that love progressive metal – incorporating a variety of genres influence-wise, developing versatile songs of short to epic lengths, yet never forgetting amidst the serious musicianship that people need melodies and hooks to hang upon. The latest album I Am the Storm is another jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring affair – equally breathtaking for the musicians as it will be for the listeners. We reached out to guitarist/keyboardist Nick Van Dyk who was very happy to bring us into the realm of Redemption – discussing the evolution of the band as players/songwriters, the many challenges they’ve faced over the years and overcome them, deep thoughts on their approach to covers, special guests, the universal human condition content they pull from on the lyrical side, plus important lessons learned coming out of the pandemic.

Dead Rhetoric: The latest Redemption studio album is I Am the Storm – the eighth for the band, and second with this current lineup. Where do you see this set of material sitting in the discography of the group – and is there a certain sense of confidence established with where you choose to go direction-wise because of the stellar musicians within the group and versatility?

Nick Van Dyk: Too early to judge. I’m not one of those musicians who just says with every album that this is our best album as a marketing ploy. Too early to tell where it sits in terms of being my favorite. We kind of know when we think we catch lightning in a bottle. “Indulge in Color” was like that on the last record, and I think on this album “Remember the Dawn” when people look back at our body of work that will be near the top I think. People have really responded to the song “The Emotional Depiction of Light” which is a little bit different of style for us, and a little bit of a risk, actually.

I have unbelievable musicians within this work. Vikram in particular, he is more involved in this album compared to the last one, he’s a remarkable composer, arranger, and producer in addition to being a great musician all around. But I’m never confident. I consistently think that certain songs aren’t good enough, it’s really not until we start reading the opinions of outsiders that I can breathe a sigh of relief. Every musician is like this – I remember reading a quote by Geddy Lee from Rush saying an album is never finished, it’s just taken from you. I constantly go back to thinking I would change this, I would change that – but I’m happy with what we’ve got. I feel like we made a statement that stands with the rest of the (discography) that we’ve done, I’m proud of, and happy that the people seem to be enjoying.

Dead Rhetoric: Are you meticulous as songwriters and perfectionists? In this genre of music, do you think that a song or album is never fully finished, because of the fact that you want to get all the details right?

Van Dyk: 1000%. Also there is a famous quote, from somebody hundreds of years ago, that said if I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter. A lot of times it’s addition by subtraction. It’s really hard to make a good four-and-a-half-minute song. It’s also hard to write a good eight-minute song, or twelve minute song. I have never wanted to write a long song, only when I was twenty I may have wanted to do that to see if I could as an exercise. The band has always tried to be in the service of the song – some songs are better off short, some songs need a little more time. All songs, I’ve never written a perfect song – and very few people think they probably have. There are some out there that I think might qualify, you can always change something, or find a new way of performing something. If it’s done well, you can always find new wrinkles. That’s part of being creative, you are never really satisfied, and you never really think you are done.

Dead Rhetoric: Were there any songs on this new album that were a bit more of a challenge in the writing or the recording stages?

Van Dyk: Yeah, every record seems to have its problem child. In this case, the song “Action at a Distance” was probably the biggest collaboration. Vikram and I collaborated more on this than in some ways the previous records. He will send me ideas that are ¾ done, and vice versa for me to him. That one was a collaborative process, as I had a big chunk of it, and I had the ending – and I didn’t know how they were going to fit together. I would have eventually figured it out, thankfully Vikram was schooled in theory and composition. I needed him to figure out how to get me from point a to point b, going through key changes, going through tempo changes, time signature changes – and he was able to bring his theory to bear. All the orchestration was in the middle, and then we were left with the beginning. I had the quiet part, but the opening riff he had proposed something I wasn’t too keen on, I threw out something he didn’t think was that great. We went back and forth to contort that riff together ten or fifteen times before we settled in on something that we really liked. That was the one that gave us a little bit of angst this time around.

Dead Rhetoric: How does your approach differ on some of the more compact arrangements for “Seven Minutes from Sunset” or “Resilience” versus the longer epic tracks like “Action at a Distance” and “All This Time (And Not Enough)”? Is it always a balancing act between the technical, intricate displays of musicianship while also injecting the right hooks or melodies to retain overall interest not only for yourselves, but the Redemption followers as well?

Van Dyk: One of the things we’ve always tried to do from early on is to have hooks. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a catchy melody. I try to do it… believe me, if I could write a melody like “Don’t Stop Believing”, I’d have a lot more money. It’s good to have a hooky song, it’s good to have a strong melody. I remember even when we were on tour with Dream Theater, Mike Portnoy was singing the melody to one of our songs, so I know there is a point to having a catchy melody.

But within that, there are some songs… an awareness. We have three sides to our music. There’s the longer, more progressive rock influenced stuff. There’s the shorter, melodic metal with progressive touches, which is “Seven Minutes from Sunset” or “Someone Else’s Problem” from the last record. And then there’s the in your face, “I Am The Storm” style, meant to counter the impression that we may be a wimpy, prog band. I want to have a couple of those on a record, particularly if we are going to take a chance with “The Emotional Depiction of Light”, which sounds provocative like latter stage Anathema, which I love. If we could pull that idea off, we thought it would be really cool. I knew I wanted to follow that up with something that’s pretty in your face, like the previous album we had a song called “And Yet…” which is pretty mellow, and we followed that up with one that’s very in your face.

It’s a roller coaster ride of the flow of music that’s on a record, that we try to construct. Like “Seven Minutes from Sunset”, I had a couple of other riffs I knew I wanted in there that could be expressed without needing eight minutes of exposition. That song is pretty organic, and it felt like the right time to stop the song.

Dead Rhetoric: Once again the choice of covers for this album is intriguing – “Turn It on Again” from Genesis circa the Phil Collins-led area when they were straddling commercial waters, and the Peter Gabriel solo track “Red Rain” for the digipak edition. Can you discuss how those choices came about, and your outlook when it comes to paying tribute to artists like this as well as making them more Redemption-esque?

Van Dyk: Another good question, that’s deserving of an answer that’s going to be a couple of minutes because there are several different topics that I want to cover here. The first is people are wondering why there are two covers. Well, we have always done one cover per album, and I’ll get to the why’s and wherefores’ of that in a minute. We thought we were going to do two full albums of music; we were writing so much music so quickly at the beginning of the pandemic. We knew we wanted to do “Red Rain”, because so many times in the recording of the last record, even when we were playing out, I remember Chris Poland listening to it and saying, ‘this guy sounds like Peter Gabriel, you have to do a Peter Gabriel song’. As it happens, Tom does sound a bit like Peter Gabriel, that song “Red Rain” has been a favorite of mine and Tom’s for a while. And also, the live treatment in particular, there’s a six minute drum solo. Chris our drummer is phenomenal, he always plays so tastefully and restrained, I told him on this one, drumming 101 I wanted him to just Redemption-ize it. Pushing him to do more and more.

And then we had tried to do seven or eight years ago I had sketched together “Turn It On Again” in a different version. The song has always been great, so I tried it again, and it sounded cool. We sent it to Tom, he sent back his vocals, and we thought it was pretty awesome. We liked that even better than the Peter Gabriel track, which is why we dropped that off. If we had two full albums, it would have been one for each. There was no thought given to the fact that Peter Gabriel was in Genesis, it was two different statements about the arc of that band’s history. It’s just great songwriting.

Why these songs? If I had to pick one song with a gun to my head, my favorite song in heavy metal of all time is “Hallowed Be Thy Name” from Iron Maiden. Nobody needs to hear another version of that song – it’s been done to perfection. And so, I’ve always gravitated to songs that are great by songwriters in a different style. What was popular, or accessible rock music on the radio twenty years ago, is so different than what is pop today. And I think Lady Gaga for example, she’s so talented with more in her pinky than most other performers have in the world, but to hear her by herself with a piano and voice, it’s the strongest voice I’ve ever heard, she can write her own music, she sings her ass off with emotion and passion. By the time that gets pushed through the machine of modern pop music, it’s stripped of all that greatness. There was a time thirty years ago when you had a band like Queen write music that was really popular, it was really strange to think that a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” could be a staple of radio. Or “Turn It On Again”. It’s a pop/rock song that is commercial, for the musicians out there, the verse is in 13. That is a very odd time for a verse, and there’s no chorus. In and of itself, it’s songwriting that happens to be accessible, but it’s only accessible because it works, not because it was done in a way that was designed to be easy to grasp.

I think back to my own childhood. I remember buying the picture disc to Piece of Mind, I was probably fourteen, and they did a cover of a Jethro Tull song, “Cross-Eyed Mary”. I never heard of Jethro Tull, I sought out the original. They had a guy with a flute, are you kidding me? And then I started to realize that was amazing, and it led me to discover an amazing body of work. The fact that they were able to take that song and repurpose it, making it their own while still acknowledging and doing justice to the quality of the songwriting, making it as recognizable as the original, that was such a cool thing to do. That’s what we try to do when we do covers ourselves. When we did “Love, Reign o’er Me” by The Who, it’s one the most iconic performances in the vocal history of classic rock. John Bush sang the hell out of that song for us, and the duet between him and Ray is pretty special. We were able to do justice to that original performance, and the song, but beef it up and let our vocalists put their stamp on it. I think these two new covers work.

Dead Rhetoric: You mention in the bio that the lyrical content has a positive attitude as you deal with human existence, including aspects of pain and suffering, fear and worry, hope and disappointment. Do you draw from the pool of personal experiences plus worldly observations when it comes to the lyrics, and do you believe this also gives Redemption a bit more connectivity to an audience that may be used to more heady fare in the progressive landscape?

Van Dyk: The answer to both questions is yes. We could leave it there, but I will expound on this a bit. I’m sure there are people that may perceive my lyrics as a bit cheesy. I can’t write songs about dragons and swords and not think that’s cheesy. I’m not going to write songs about the tragic mists of the Carpathian forest. Not that there is anything wrong with any of that stuff, that’s just not what I feel to be authentic expressions of where my mind is at.

There is a lot of fertile material in how we as human beings perceive ourselves and our relationship with others, relationships with the world around us and how we are influenced by those things. That allows a lot of different jumping off points to write about, things that I think are accessible to people. Even something with an album called This Mortal Coil, which is influenced by my cancer diagnosis, the treatment, and everything that came from that. Even then, I went to our drummer who is a lyricist, and I didn’t want this to be ‘woe is me’ and too personal that it’s only about my journey. I wanted this to be a meditation on mortality, and what it boils down to, what we as individuals have to confront, our life is finite. What does that mean? When you become aware that you don’t have an infinite amount of time, does that change your perspective and how you relate, how you think about these things? In that way, we wanted to make it accessible for everybody.

We sing about stuff that fits in the universal human condition. I don’t want it to be pablum that is just nothing but uplifting, baby food. Life is hard, and life is frightening, and unfair. All these other aspects of existence that can make it a struggle, but it’s also many, many wonderful things. I think to just wallow in the misery of it as a misanthrope is a fundamentally wrong way to go through life. If I am able to have an influence on how things end on a record, we try to end on a high note – not because we don’t acknowledge the challenges and the darkness, but we also recognize the opportunities and the hope. If I had to distill this record down to one expression, it’s not how you are knocked down that defines you, it’s how you choose to get back up that defines you.

Dead Rhetoric: As expected, you have a number of guest guitarists appearing with Chris Poland, Simone Mularoni, and Henrik Danhage. What do you enjoy most about their techniques, playing abilities, and the coloring they bring to Redemption with their skillsets?

Van Dyk: It’s very interesting. It wasn’t necessarily done by design, although Chris Poland, with whom we’ve worked with on the last three albums – his style is so unique. When I learned he was available to do some session work, I just knew he would elevate the musicianship. The people that do play like him are called Allan Holdsworth. Those people aren’t usually playing metal, and that’s something so unique and so cool, pushes the envelope in such a way that’s strange but organic, and melodically fits perfectly with what we are doing. He’s a great friend, a great collaborator, and a great musician.

Simone, I think for my two cents may be the best guitar player in the world. What he does is just mind boggling. Henrik has been a friend for twenty years. He’s close enough to me that he gave me grief for not letting him do a solo on the last record – all three guys are friends, they all play stylistically differently. With Simone, I’m like – this part is in 11/8, it’s fast and it changes, good luck. He’ll be like, ‘ugh’, and then two days later, send me something that I can’t even believe he would be doing this. With Henrik, the song we picked with him was the opposite. Very sparse, simple, and it allowed him to stretch out – almost a Stevie Ray Vaughn thing if he was playing European power metal with some technicality there, that’s what he’s doing. It’s fun to work with musicians of that caliber. A different flavor to what we are doing. Simone is essentially the sixth member of the band at this point, I will collaborate with him as long as he is willing and able. He’s really special.

Dead Rhetoric: After years on various labels like Sensory Records, InsideOut Music, and Metal Blade, you joined AFM Records for the 2020 live album Alive in Color release. What are your thoughts on their work, their staff, and their knowledge / insight into promoting Redemption given the numerous changes with the music industry landscape today?

Van Dyk: In my day job I’m a businessperson, so I’m probably inclined to appreciate how hard labels have it, how they work. I’ve never had a bad relationship with a label, and I don’t think we ever will. My heart goes out to them, it’s tough sledding in this business. They did a good job during a difficult time with the live record. Now this is our first experience with a studio album, the help is available, it’s gotten good press, it’s charted on Spotify, I think they’ve done a good job. It’s hard to make a living anywhere in this business. We don’t have a bad relationship with anyone in this business. Metal Blade, they are good friends, wonderful people. They didn’t want to do a live record, and we had an eleven camera shoot that I put a lot of time, money, and effort into doing. We needed to be with a label that was prepared to support us and put that out, and AFM has been great.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you look at the career arc for Redemption from the early days to the current incarnation of the group? What are some of the goals or bucket list items you would like to achieve that haven’t been accomplished to date?

Van Dyk: It’s funny. If you were to tell me back when I started recording music for the first time what we would accomplish, I would think you were crazy. If you go even further back into my youth, when I was watching Megadeth with 300 people in a small club before Peace Sells came out, that one day I would be on stage with Chris Poland, I’d think you were crazy. We’ve done some really neat, bucket list stuff. Maybe this is metaphor for the band, we’ve had our share of challenges. Bernie got sick, I had that terrible illness, we’ve had to weather a couple of different major lineup changes for different reasons. The music industry has changed from under us pretty dramatically in the past twenty years – but we keep chugging on because we are friends who enjoy creating together. We really enjoy the ability – the most rewarding thing is when somebody outside the band appreciates what we do and connects with the music. We don’t have a huge fan base, but the passion among our fan base is wonderful. It’s great to experience that exchange of energy. As long as we can keep doing that, that defines bucket list for me.

I’d love to go back and play Europe again. That was a phenomenal experience. There’s not that much that we haven’t done. There’s a lot more I’d like to keep doing.

Dead Rhetoric: The prolonged global pandemic has changed the outlook of many when it comes to priorities of life and how they choose to spend their time between careers, family time, and relationships. Did the pandemic have any serious impact or implications on your priorities – musically or otherwise?

Van Dyk: At the time my daughter was a junior in high school, and she’s now out of the house, with my son a few years behind her. I work pretty hard in my day job, so for me although it was a time of uncertainty, I left my previous job and hadn’t settled on a new full-time gig yet, that was stressful but the opportunity to spend more time with my children was special. You find there’s a King Crimson lyric about being happy with what you had to be happy with. Life is a journey, and you find how to be in the moment and enjoy things. I learned the hard way from the cancer stuff, you can’t really live every day like it’s your last, that robs you of the joy of planning ahead and thinking about your bucket list or where the roads might take you in the wonder of opportunity. You have to live in such a way to enjoy whatever the day brings you, if you can. I know it’s not always possible, I had a really lousy day a few days ago. I started practicing this by finding one thing to look forward to each day – today is the interviews. That certainly works during the pandemic as well. Life is busy, you never really have enough time to do everything that you should. Nobody’s tombstone ever said they should have spent more time at the office. But at the same time, spending time at the office is what enables me to make music, go on vacation with my family, detach and spend quality time, and helps pay for my kids schooling.

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