Scenes From A Memory is a unique Dream Theater release in many ways. Firstly, it marks the appearance of keyboardist Jordan Rudess in the band. Secondly, it is the first album produced by John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy, meaning for once the band had full artistic control over the album and its sound. Thirdly, vocalist James LaBrie has thankfully recovered from his down period – the horrible "Falling Into Infinity" where he spent most of the album sounding like a strangled cat; but on this album we can see he sounds fresh and recovered. Finally and most importantly, it is a concept album - every song is there for a reason, there are no fillers, and the album flows from one song to the next painlessly.
"Regression" kicks things off with the albums main theme. A psychotherapist is talking to a man we learn is named Nicholas. He is going to put him into a hypnotic state; Nicholas will go to 'a safe place where nothing can harm him', and he is assured that if he wants to come back to the present, he just needs to open his eyes. Sound confusing? Well, yes the whole concept is fairly intricate and confusing, and even after multiple listens I still have not been able to fully understand and grasp everything.
Jordan Rudess is accused by many DT fans as being an emotionless shredder, who the band would be better off without. Now while I am not one of those people, I still do prefer Kevin Moore. But enough about him, he is irrelevant to this album, so therefore to this review. Something about Rudess that I do appreciate is his ability to keep up with John Petrucci. He is equally technical, if not more, and he also has vast musical knowledge of his instrument. The result of these two great musicians coming together is several extended, complicated bridges and solos found throughout SFAM. Some people obviously point out that this album has too
many solos, and verges on a 'wank fest'. I however strongly beg to differ. "Beyond This Life" is my personal favorite on this album, and is also the perfect example of intelligent and technical musicians gelling together. The result is one of the most satisfying, bone chilling bridges in all of DT’s history. James LaBrie is not to be undermined here either – his vocals are superb.
Mike Portnoy’s skills as a producer, drummer and supporting vocalist are all continuing to improve with each successive album, and SFAM shows this. The last few minutes of "Finally Free" is some of the most ridiculous drumming I have ever heard; he really does deserve to be alongside such drummers as Peart and Carey. He is very good in "Fatal Tragedy" also. I am no drummer, but even I could tell his fills are executed with near inhuman precision. The production was also crystal clear, which really helped to improve the overall feel of the album.
John Myung, along with so many bassists out there does not receive the credit he deserves, which really is a shame. I have heard many people say he goes by unnoticed in DT albums, which is ridiculously untrue. I particularly enjoy his work in "Home"; which serves some of his best work since A Change Of Seasons. His bass has a different, almost middle eastern sound about it which I really enjoy. He also does a good job in pushing "The Spirit Carries On" along, with serves for some of LaBrie’s finest vocals. That song no doubt is a DT classic; it acts as their anthem – the song they can always rely on to get crowd involvement.
Scenes From a Memory also sports some female vocal samples from Theresa Thompson. I have heard some people claim DT would benefit from having a female vocalist as a lead to increase their male fan base. Now while I disagree with that, I do feel that the high, female voice helps to give the album a beauty it would not possess if only James sang the vocals. It works particularly well in "Through Her Eyes", and the aforementioned The Spirit Carries On.
Unfortunately, with praise generally comes criticism, and this album is no exception. Like with most DT albums, the lyrics quite often fall into the realm of cheesiness, and as a result you can’t take their music quite as seriously as you otherwise would. Now while I admit the band does a much tighter job with lyrics here, particularly Petrucci, they are still often unforgivably lame. Here is a sample from Track 8, Home: Shine- lake of fire. Lines take me higher. My mind drips desire. Confined and overtired.
Another issue with Dream Theater is that vocalist James LaBrie is shoved to the back, and it is mainly Mike and John who have the creative control. There is no doubt James can not only sing, but write very good lyrics. Let’s just say they are generally not nearly as lame as John’s lyrics, and I generally enjoy them quite a lot. But other than those two nagging criticisms, this album is nearly flawless in my opinion.
So to conclude, this album is definitely a high watermark in DT’s career. Mike Portnoy in 5 Years in a LIVEtime stated that the band was going for all or nothing in this album; if it didn’t work out so well the band would resign. Well thankfully for the fans, this band has proven that Queensryche and Pink Floyd are not the only two bands capable of coming up with a concept album. No doubt in my mind, a classic.