This time, I will be listening to Metropolis Pt.2: Scenes From A Memory by Dream Theater, a concept album that was released in 1999 by arguably the biggest band in the traditional-progressive-metal subgenre. Traditional Progressive Metal may sound like an oxymoron but there actually is such a thing.
Prog Metal is a term that is so lose and subjective that it can be applied to a million different bands from Mastodon (who started off in the Sludge end of the spectrum) to Tool (who started at the grunge/alternative end of the spectrum) to Opeth (who started off in the Death and Black Metal ends of the spectrum) but was originally used, and some people get defensive about it still being used, to describe a particular sub-genre of bands including Psychotic Waltz, Savatage, Fates Warning, Queensryche and of course Dream Theater, many of whom started in the 80s and got big in the 90s.
My knowledge of the matter is theoretical only however, from talking to serious Prog Metal fans and reading a lot about Prog Metal due to my enjoyment of both Metal and classic 1970s mostly British Progressive Rock. If I like both of those types of music it should logically follow that I would probably like Prog Metal and so I looked into it a little but have never actually got around to getting into any. I think I’ve heard three Dream Theater songs, one Queensryche song and not much else.
It is fair to say that Dream Theater are a band which I don’t know that much about. I know that Dream Theater have Keyboards (one of their Keyboardist is in the fantastic band Black Country Communion) and I know their drummer Mike Portnoy is always listed among world’s best drummers in the just like Danny Carey, Buddy Rich and Neil Piert. I also know that sometimes they cover entire albums by other bands live (Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Metallica, Iron Maiden etc) and I know that their current singer isn’t their first singer.
Other than that, I am a blank slate as far as Dream Theater are concerned.
I was surprised when the intro track was a Self-Help/Meditation style recording that the likes of Paul McKenna would make, before evolving into an unbelievably Roger Waters inspired acoustic number. It may be naïve but I didn’t expect any Pink Floyd homage, especially since I had read over and over that what I should expect is essentially Metallica with Yes’s keyboard solos.
When the melody is used over a metal song in the next track suddenly everything makes sense. I can honestly see how things got from Thick As A Brick and Larks Tongues In Aspic to here more clearly after having heard ‘Overture 1928’ than just imagining the idea with my minds eye (which seems rather obvious, I’ll admit)
Scene From A Memory is much closer to a classic 1970s concept album in its construction than the many concept album inspired albums which metal bands have produced since. The idea of a theme and variation approach, the idea of tracks blending into one another and the cohesive story told through music are all things which I enjoy from 70s Prog bands, but have never heard a Metal band use all of before.
Mudvayne had a flowing cyclical album with LD.50, Fear Factory had a rock opera story to lyric relationship with Obsolete and Messugga have used the theme and variation idea, but to my knowledge no one in Metal has ever taken the whole lot and made something so similarly structured to classics like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and The Wall.
That being said Dream Theater aren’t just as Metal as I would have expected. I still understand that this is a metal release and intended as much for the head banging types as for fans of Genesis and ELP, but in this case the metal contains way more of a 1980s super-commercial sound than I’d have imagined, the kind of Top Gunn soundtrack stuff that inspired the soundtracks of NES games. This is what I imagine Dream Theater would sound like if they came out as a heavy band in the 70s and then sold out really badly in the 80s.
Of course, by the end of ‘Strange Déjà Vu’ I can hear that the band are as much inspired by Rush as by Poison and Van Halen and that the big clean melodic approach isn’t all about the 1980s pop–metal ideal, but still… the much touted Metallica similarities which I had often read about in passing are very much absent.
When I thought about what I wanted from Dream Theater, it was essentially a Thrash Metal band, writing long and complex songs which mixed acoustic moments with driving Metal, that were full of virtuosic solos and which had evocative lyrics. Then I remembered that Metallica already released And Justice For All. That is an example of a Metal band writing Progressively but not as it turns out, what a Progressive Metal band sounds like.
The actual reality of the Dream Theater listening experience was going ‘Oh, this bit sounds like Pink Floyd, this bit sounds like Rush, this bit sounds like ELP,’ while a commercial sounding metal song starts and stops amid the 70s homage. ‘The Spirit Lives On’ for example sounds so remarkably like it should be on The Wall that I am expecting to find amazon reviews about the album absolutely littered with Wall references.
While I am enjoying playing ‘Spot-The-Influence with this album, I am not entirely won over by it on a Metal level. The music is very bright, very sweet and is never the sort of Metal I like until the four minute mark of ‘Fatal Tragedy’ and even when that does happen, I don’t particularly like the guitar solos over the top instantly as the tone of them is the same so-good-it-sounds-like-a-video-game tone that stops me enjoying DragonForce. I am sure repeat listens would win me over but this article is about first impressions and my first impressions are a sort of mental ‘yuck’ effect whilst metaphorically jerking my head away from the speakers.
I think the members of the band would’ve made an amazing Neo Prog band, had they gone down a similar route to The Flower Kings and am equally sure that Transatlantic and the member’s other side projects and spin off bands, which play “truer prog”, are great.
My main problem is that I just don’t think that the majority of Dream Theater’s ideas are tonally appropriate for Metal, at least as I understand it at present. I do understand intellectually that it is great music, especially in the Pink Floyd Fan fragment of my splintered musical personality, but there is a level of discomfort I feel on an animal level coming from the Testament/Exodus fan in me when I hear the album.
I had heard that the length of songs and indeed the length and sheer amount of guitar solos were also barriers to enjoyment, but luckily my existing prog fanship rendered me not only prepared for that but downright perceptive to it.
Interestingly, the singer James LaBrie who I have also been informed is widely regarded as too cheesy and as a potential barrier for fans is actually wholly tolerable and even enjoyable, especially when doing a Geddy Lee impersonation or later a Sebastian Bach impersonation, such as on ‘Beyond This Life,’ which has holistically been the most enjoyable track on the album.
The metal on this track is more acceptable to my palate, the acoustic guitar section reminds me of the parts of Radiohead that I like and there is a great Freddie-Mercury-sounding moment at 5.40 that should sound horrible in a metal song but doesn’t for some reason. The song is somewhat spoiled by a keyboard solo eight minutes in that features lots of the best keyboard tones from Yes and similar bands being used, but which unfortunately feel completely unsuited to the song and so feel totally jarring and out of place.
I love classic Prog, and I love Metal, but that section sounded (and I stress that this is a first impression only) like just playing two completely mis-matched songs at the same time with no thought given to blending them properly. When Mastodon used classic Prog staples on Crack The Skye they only used elements which they could successfully blend with their metal style and so musically it worked a lot better than this does. Crack The Skye sounded instantly perfect to me on first listen, whereas I can tell that it would take a lot of listens to stop hearing this as jarring.
Something else that I found interesting was that for a band who are so famous to me for having an amazing drummer with a million-piece drum kit there hasn’t been anything in the entire first half of the record that seems particularly beyond the remit of any modern metalcore drummer; only the album closer ‘Finally Free’ seems like anything out of the ordinary. Admittedly, if he was overplaying all the time it would be a negative and so I don’t really find this to be a fault, but just a curious aside.
At this point you may pick up on the fact that while I don’t wholly like it, I am hesitant to actually criticize the record or anyone on it. That is because I’ve been here before many times, I am very experienced in hearing something new and finding it unappealing because it doesn’t match my current musical tastes enough, only to be saying that is why I love it a few weeks later. For example I hated the melodic clean vocals of Killswitch Engage when I first heard them because of how jarring, cheesy and un-metal they sounded to me before ‘getting it.’
When I listen to ‘Dance Of Eternity’ on this album I can’t help but feel that the separate elements that the band switch between just don’t fit together as well as they would have liked and doing things like breaking into a jaunty little Pian-y moment doesn’t work the same in a Metal song as it does when Keith Emerson does it . This could however be an example of me not ‘getting it’ and the second or third time you listen to the track, it all fits perfectly.
Often I have found myself in a similar situation, I hated almost everything about Yes and Deep Purple before giving them a chance and allowing myself to get used to their distinctive singers and keyboard personalities. I hated half of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s output until their Country and Honky Tonk influences settled with me, and I hated Biohazard until I accepted the exact ratio of hip hop to thrash to hardcore that they used.
Dream Theater are something I could easily love if the bright red ‘otherness alarm’ in my head ever stops lighting up when I listen to them, and in my experience this is usually something that happens when I listen to something enough times to understand and mentally forgive the aforementioned specific ratio of influences.
I have been told that I should like Scenes From A Memory. Maybe this is the case, but I am a firm believer that you cannot choose what to like, and why you like something and not something else similar is completely undiscernable. I believe that you can chose to pretend that you like something and that you can influence what you like and dislike by deliberately ignoring or exposing yourself to it more, but at the end of the day whether you like or dislike anything is out of your hands.
At present I don’t like Dream Theater, but they are exactly the sort of thing I would like and if given enough exposure I am fairly certain that I will like them, even if they aren’t subtle enough in their mixture of retro and modern tones and timbres at first glance.