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Redemption - An Interview with Nick Van Dyk

Redemption's Snowfall on Judgment Day was my favorite album of 2009 and back then I got the opportunity to send main songwriter Nicolas Van Dyk a few questions about it. This article originally appeared on the old RevelationZ Magazine site.

Steen: Happy New Year and congratulations on the new album! It has been a long while since an album made such a deep impact on me. Did the album turn out to be everything you wanted it to be?

Nick: First, thank you for the kind words. I think Geddy Lee of Rush said "albums are never finished, they are simply taken from the artist" and that's in a way how I feel about everything we've done. There's ALWAYS changes that I would continue to make, and being a perfectionist, I always seem to gravitate towards the one or two things that I'd like to tweak, whether they be performances, composition, production, or whatever. Now, all this said, we've very happy with the record.

I do think it's the best sounding record we've done, it's got more variety than previous releases and it contains both our aggressive stuff and and our epic, progressive stuff, plus the deniablye "gelling" that happens between band members that have been consistent over albums and had the opportunity to tour extensively. So it's not yet everything we want, but we're making progress!

I read something about your health issues on the web. I sincerely hope you are in the clear now. Did this have any effect on how the album turned out, on the songs or the overall feel of the album? In connection with this can you describe the production process for the album?

My health situation is currently much improved - time will tell if I've been cured or if it will come back. In almost all cases, it does come back, however I opted for the most aggressive treatment in the world in the hopes that it will be gone forever. We'll see - I'm optimistic.

My health didn't have any impact on composition, nor did it have an impact from an emotional impact as performance were more or less finished before I had a real diagnosis. I think I just had to track James LaBrie when I had an inkling that something was wrong, and I didn't tell him at that time because I didn't want to impact anything.

But there was a practical impact during the mix. We'd built a very successful relationship with Tommy Newton over the past two albums, and started working with him again. But unlike the previous situations, I couldn't be with him as I was trapped in Arkansas getting treatment and he was 5,000 miles away in Germany. So I would send rough notes, he would mix, I'd download the mix and try to listen to it. But I had nothing good to listen to it on in Arkansas - just a crappy boombox that I purchased, or my computer speakers, or my car. None of these are good listening environments. When I finally got the finished mix and was able to go back to Los Angeles during a break in therapy, I listened to it a bunch as did the band and we felt there were a lot of changes that needed to happen.

This is totally normal, and we'd normally have made these changes in the studio during the mix, probably set levels on the first track and gotten the basic sound there, and then it would have been easy to adjust the others. The problem is, this whole thing took a lot of time and Tommy's schedule was now booked up. We needed the mix done in eight weeks in order to make a deadline to have the CD released by the ProgPower festival in Atlanta in September, which was a critical promotional opportunity for us. But Tommy was already booked for the next TEN weeks and couldn't even get started.

Reluctantly, we had to choose a producer to finish the job. We came close with a couple based on talent and schedule and we selected Tommy Hansen, who has known Tommy Newton for a long time (they both worked on the first Keepers album from Helloween many years ago and have remained friends). I thought this would be a good solution, Tommy was energized to help.but he wanted to remix the entire CD. We went with this, and I was meticulous about everything. I think I damn near drove him crazy, but as I was still in the US and he was in Denmark, I wanted to be damn sure it was working! So we emerged, with about ten days to spare, with a finished product. There are things I would change given more time - I think the vocals are a tad overcompressed and could be a hair louder. But at the end of the day I think we have the best drum sound and the best guitar sound that we've ever had, and the levels are just about right for everything with the tiny exception of the vocal.

So given the situation, we got a great sounding record that is getting closer to the one I have in my head. It's a work in progress, always, but we're proud of this CD and all things considered the production process, while long and costly and logistically nightmarish, was something that we emerged from just fine.

As I mention in my review of Snowfall... I found about half the songs on the album instantly captivating while the other half took a while to get to the same level. How do you feel you balanced the heavier songs with the more melodic ones? Was it a balance you set out for when you wrote the album?

I have always had a range of material that I think works for this band, and that is essential to the band if it is not to sound like everybody else in the "prog metal" scene. We play unapologetically melodic prog metal, and we don't want to sound difficult-to-access for the sake of doing so, so that would already put us in danger of being called a clone of Dream Theater or Symphony X or Vanden Plas or Threshold if we didn't have something different to offer.

One of the major differences is that we are heavy metal with a progressive outlook rather than the other way around. And growing up on bay area technical thrash as well as the NWOBHM, writing the heavier material was something more obvious to me than writing the prog material as I started learning to write. So there's always going to be that side for me. This comes through in songs like Peel, and Leviathan Rising, and Fistful of Sand, and in the solo section of Keep Breathing which to me sounds more like old-school Megadeth than any of the prog bands I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

At the same time, we've always had an epic aspect to our music, and some of the long, building progressive songs are what make this band special, whether it be Sapphire off Fullness of Time, or Memory off Origins, or Black and White World and Life in One Day off Snowfall. Plus we have a melodic side that isn't necessarily expressed in 10 minute long pieces - so you have songs like Bleed Me Dry off the last CD, and we have Walls on this CD which I daresay is a pretty killer song and not a "single" type song in terms of brevity but it's good songwriting, highly melodic, very hooky, and adds additional balance to our CD.

One of the few complains about Origins is that it is a little "samey" in terms of tempo and aggression throughout, with some minor exceptions like the brief title interlude, and the intro to Fall on You. It was even moreso before Tommy Newton told me we needed something with a different tempo, so I wrote Blind My Eyes to give us something to make the record breathe just a tiny bit. So on Snowfall, I knew I wanted something a bit more varied. So we have it: two very heavy songs on seven string, two epic tracks, one building prog song, one heavy prog thrash opener, three melodic metal tracks, etc.

There are some deep emotions on the new album, on all Redemption albums actually. Personally I completely relate to the lyrics in a positive way and I think it is rare for music to evoke such strong emotions. Walls, Black and White World, Keep Breathing, What Would You Say? and Love Kills Us All/Life In One Day are personal favorites. Can you say anything about the inspiration for these songs? And how do you write the lyrics for songs like these? I imagine it is both hard and cathartic?

I'm glad the lyrics resonate with you. It's something I have tried to do since our second album, after our first self-titled CD was based on lyrical themes coming from books, mostly. I think that was a little amateurish, lyrically, although some of the music still stands up pretty well. But since then, I wanted to create an intimacy in the lyrics that would pull the listener in, and complement the emotion of our composition, which almost has a film-score aspect to it at points.

That meant lyrics weren't going to be about trolls, or dragons, or fighting for metal, or wandering the Carpathian forest in the dead of winter. This is all silly stuff, really. Our lyrics have focused on human trials, human failure, and human triumph vis-à-vis ourselves, our relationships with others, our relationship with the outside world, and occasionally vis-à-vis external event that challenge us. As human beings of a certain age, we've all had situations that are similar to these and that's what creates the emotional connection (for those who get into our lyrics, that is). Ray is relating, singing from a first-person perspective, all the feelings that one goes through when one is struggling to resolve these situations.

As for the songs you mention: Walls is about two people struggling to communicate and fight together to save their relationship. Black and White World is about reflecting on how important someone can be and how the prospect of losing that person is devastating and then ends with hope for the future. In contrast to these general situations, Keep Breathing is a very specific reaction to my daughter's eye condition and how difficult it is, as her father, to cope with it, but it pledges her my love and support. What Would You Say is a reflection on the eve of a dying relationship. Love Kills Us All / Life in One Day is an epic progressive metal love song. We've done a couple of those and I think this may be the last one, at least for quite some time.

In relation to the above, what does your wife say when she reads your lyrics?

As these are general lyrics intended for everybody to be able to relate to, they aren't about my long marriage to a great woman hat has produced two wonderful kids. I don't mope around living in the world described by the relationship songs - I tap into different relationships that I've had over the course of my life, in relationships that I observe elsewhere, in relationships that are inspired by film, etc. For example, in the case of Memory from Origins, that was based on emotions evoked from the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and addresses the question raised in that movie: better to have endured love that ended painfully, or erase it from your memory as though it never happened? So my wife understands these songs are not about us. Other than the ones about our daughter, of course.

It seems to me that there is a thread(s) running through the previous Redemption albums in the following songs: Sapphire, Memory, Black and White World and Love Kills us All / Life in One Day. Both in lyrics and music these songs provide an amazing journey. I like to see Black and White World as concluding the trilogy which Sapphire and Memory started while Love Kills us all / Life in one day, to me sums up Sapphire, Memory and Black and White World with the final passage of the song. Is this intentional or am I simply rambling off some far fetched theory?

They all touch on the theme of lost love, and I would say there is a loose linkage between Sapphire, Memory and Love Kills Us All / Life in One Day is kind of a trilogy exploring this theme. Black and White World is separate from this, although I can see why you would link them as it is another relationship song, but it's more coincidence than intent on that one.

I absolutely adored the Redemption debut and was both sad and joyous when Rick Mythiasin was exchanged for Ray Alder. How do you compare these two incarnations of Redemption and what has Ray Alder brought to Redemption?

With all due respect to Rick, who is a good singer in his own right, he was a power metal vocalist that wasn't the right fit for Redemption. I think he gave one of his strongest performances on our debut CD and there are some soaring melodies on some of those tracks, but it didn't come very naturally for him. Ray is more used to dealing with odd times. But what he really brings is a connection between the lyrics, the emotional delivery of the vocals, and the rest of the music.

Ray's voice is truly unique and it conveys the emotion of our lyrics in an extremely compelling way. Being very close friends, it's easy for him to channel the words I write. And of course over time I've learned what works the best with his voice, so it continues to be a work in progress but I think we're getting very good at it. Of course, obviously, Ray also brings his legacy of work from Fates Warning, along with the hopes and expectations of Fates Warning fans, which I consider both to be a responsibility and a benefit to awareness of Redemption.

How did it feel to write the lyrics for a song like Keep Breathing? To hear it being recorded and finally listen to Ray Alder sing the finished version?

To be honest I was so devastated by the diagnosis (my daughter's) that it's not like writing the song made me sad. We talked a bit earlier about the cross-CD linkage of a few songs. Keep Breathing, though I never intended to need to write it, could be considered a continuation of the songs Parker's Eyes and Fall On You. The song is ultimately about hope for my daughter, so it's not a particularly tragic song - her condition is tragic but the song isn't. Of course the sample of her voice is a little tug on the heartstrings, though. :)

Black and White World is a profound experience each time I listen to it. How long did it take to write that song and can you tell something about how the song evolved from idea to music and lyrics? (It is okay if you bring Sapphire and Memory into this as well :))

As this is unconnected to those other songs, I'll speak about this songwriting separately. There's a movie called Wings of Desire - a beautiful film by the director Wim Wenders. It's the concept of an angel fallen to earth that falls in love with a human. This has been redone in several other films since. In one of those remakes, called (I think) City of Angels, Nicolas Cage plays the angel. The angel loses his wings and he finds that food has no taste for him. He's lost sense perception. Now I didn't want to use this angel storyline, but I did find the notion of sensory perception being lost an interesting metaphor to relate how nothing matters when you've been in love and that's been taken from you. So the first half of the song describes this emptiness. I had the melody in my head and the riffs formed around it, but the lyrics definitely came first in this case.

The end came together shortly thereafter, as a "happy ending" of sorts to what would otherwise be a pretty depressing song. It's hope in the face of fear, or faith in the face of desperation if you prefer (referencing back to the notion explored on our self-titled album, as proposed by Stephen King's book Desperation, that faith and desperation are opposites). This lyrical concept lent itself well to a couple of things I like to achieve musically: the layered build of a "big finish" to a prog piece, and multiple vocal lines. I think it's done to good effect and Ray's performace here is arguably the best he's done on a Redemption record to date - his vocals soar and the song culminates in a great deal of emotion.

The song took quite a bit to write - because I didn't want to force it. Three months, maybe, on and off as the ideas percolated?

You may already have answered this but can you say anything about the inspiration behind your lyrics for the songs on Snowfall.? Are there any songs in particular you are proud of?

The lyrics, in general, are again pulled from human relationships: with ourselves, with others, and with the world. Peel is about understanding yourself. Walls is about communicating with others. Black and White World we've discussed. Unformed is about fear of the unknown - imperceptible dread. What Will You Say is a reflection on one possible aftershock of an ended relationship. Love Kills Us All / Life in One Day we've discussed as well.

That leaves Leviathan Rising, which is a political statement about the over-encroachment of government into our political, civil and economic freedoms. Its title comes from the famous book of political philosophy by Hobbes. And Keep Breathing is about my daughter.

As for favorites, Black and White World and Love Kills Us All / Life in One Day are my favorite songs, but I like the lyrics to Walls and to Leviathan Rising, as well. I'm pretty passionate about the political concepts expressed in that song.

A shed is shown in the background of the lyrics for Walls. Do you own a garden shed and did you write any of the songs in the shed?

No sheds, sorry. :) That was a piece of artwork, our art partner Travis Smith took that photo and incorporated it in there.

Are you inspired by other bands and are there any bands or music in particular you listen to?

I listen to a wide variety of music, from classic to fusion to classic rock to of course old and new metal. Honestly, though, there are very few "new" groups that really inspire me. The only fairly "new" band that I'm into these days is Fair to Midland. Occasionally I'll hear something that strikes me as cool, but most of the time I find myself going back to the old standbys, whether that be old catalog material or new material from old bands that are still creating great music. The most recent Dream Theater record is an example of this.

On the same note, how do you find inspiration for writing music?

I have a library of ideas that I constantly add to. Mostly this will come from fiddling around with no particular goal. I very rarely sit down to "come up with a riff." If I get a new effect or a new keyboard patch or something like that, I inevitably wind up tinkering and as something interesting comes of that, whether it be a guitar idea or a chord progression or what have you, I'll write it down. Then when it comes time to put something together, there will hopefully be a linkage between a couple of good parts, and I can fill in the rest.

Inspiration can come from anywhere.self-reflection, reading the news, watching a movie, talking with friends, etc. My own health situation has provided significant inspiration that will find its way to our next CD.

A new year has begun. Do you have any special wishes for 2010?

I'll start with my health, and with the hope for advancement in the potential treatments for my daughter's eye condition which are being pursued by The Foundation Fighting Blindness, which I'm hoping to join in some capacity. Beyond that, I'd like to see a healthy economy for everybody and some political resolution to a few things that I don't want to argue about here - but people can get an idea of where I'm coming from in the lyrics to Leviathan Rising.

Thank you for answering these questions. I wish you all the best for the future and I sincerely hope that Redemption will make it to Denmark on the forthcoming European Tour. If you have anything you wish to say then the rest of the page is intentionally left blank.

Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you again! I'd like to thank you readers for their interest and support, and I hope we get over to Denmark soon!

Written By Steen
Online: Saturday, May 17, 2014