Dream Theater's classic album "Scenes from a Memory" is widely considered to be a high watermark of the band's career. It featured a full-album concept, something they had never done before, and pulled out all the stops in the traditional Dream Theater fashion, an album bulging with long songs, vocals and lyrics based around a central story, and musically, the band has never executed more difficult passages. Armed with new keyboard virtuoso Jordan Rudess, the band made easily the most mind-numbingly complex music they or any other band had ever put to tape, making SFAM one of the most revered albums in the DT catalog.
It's unbelievably strange to me how their next album, "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence," gets glossed over so much by fans, then. SFAM definitely pulled out all the compositional stops, but for me and many others it was exhausting and just stacked with so many time changes and keyboard/guitar unison lines and breakneck speeds that I found it hard to enjoy as the full concept it was meant to be. I would even argue that SFAM is one of their least accessible albums, whereas "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence" is one of the most.
Perhaps this is just the stubborn Rush fan inside of me, but I'm going to insist on one very important thing throughout this album review that pretty much defines my opinion of DT: I have long passed the stage where complexity for complexity's sake impressed me, and I hold this album in such high regard because it is easily the most tonally, compositionally, and musically complex work Dream Theater ever turned out (more so, in my opinion, than the virtuosic but compositionally weaker Scenes From A Memory), and yet retains a huge amount of accessability in the true fashion of prog-rock pathburners Rush. Dream Theater wrote tons of music for this album and came with one of their best 2112-style songs in the title track, the 46-minute "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence," and they still managed to come up with five almost highly experimental tracks for their first disk, which I am about to dive into. Scenes From a Memory exhausted every last possible niche they could find for a time change or a 32nd note passage within a sprawling concept, and for that it deserves acclaim to a point, but here, Dream Theater really deserves respect for coming up with an album that is in every way a maturation and growth of the sound of SFAM, and yet retains a beautiful simplicity that makes it easier to understand and deconstruct for everyone from the casual listener to the obsessive fan.
WARNING: THIS IS A LONG REVIEW FOR A VERY LONG ALBUM
Dream Theater is:
James LaBrie - vocals
Jordan Rudess - keyboards
Mike Portnoy - lyrics and drums
John Myung - bass
John Petrucci - lyrics and guitars
1.) The Glass Prison
A classic of the Dream Theater catalog, this song is a continuation of themes explored by Mike Portnoy on "Awake's" song "The Mirror," and deals with the "glass prison" of alcoholism. Featuring brutal lyrics and a 13-minute length divided into three parts, "The Glass Prison" is probably the most consistently heavy song Dream Theater has ever played, and it's certainly the most furious, period. Opening with ominous bass and guitar riffs, Jordan Rudess shines especially by utilizing his vast technical facility and musical knowledge to craft some of the best background sounds for the heavy bits in this song. Quickly spiraling into uptempo riffing with crushing low-register guitars and a very sophisticated atonal sweep-picked arpeggio solo from Petrucci, a vigorously grooving 6/4 section marks the entry of fantastic vocals from LaBrie, who for one of the first times in DT's career does not sound forced over a single section of this song.
This song is filled to the brim with fantastic riffs and great playing, but highlights include: the breakdown at around 5 minutes, where Petrucci and Portnoy play a polyrhythmic passage with a guitar in 12/8 and the drums in that signature's half-time straight cousin 3/4, launching into the furious atonal riffs of the middle section of the song; the drumming of Portnoy, who manages nimble double-bass blasts throughout and retains his great metal feel; the guitar and keyboard solos and the riff underneath it (rare moments of perfectly executed and yet very motific solos--Petrucci and Rudess both had some of their finest solos here, in a career filled with accusations of robotic, shreddy, soulless playing); and the bass parts John Myung plays under the frenetic keyboard sections immediately following. The only bad thing about this song is that the buildup at the very end goes on a little bit too long for me, but on the whole this deserves its place as a DT classic and the perfect opening song.
2.) Blind Faith
This song was my personal favorite off the album for a very long time, and again it has to do with the incredibly organic feel Dream Theater manages to get throughout. DT songs are often pretty clinical, but this and pretty much every other song here is loaded with fantastic, ambient layerings and excellently composed passages. I cannot emphasize this enough: a band so constantly criticized for being obsessively technical has managed here a crowning achievement for prog-rock--retaining the sophistication in the ambience of their harmonizations and layerings while keeping the harmonies simple enough for a majority of music listeners to "get it." This is no different. Featuring a great sense of buildup and ebb and flow, the vocals and lyrics are consistently great. Again, their are too many fantastic sections to mention here if this review ever hopes to end, but some highlights include: the great, melodic bridge following the second chorus, and the instrumental jam in its entirety - Petrucci's guitar solo is my favorite one of his whole career, and Rudess' piano/organ jam and subsequent solo is a mind-bloggling display of incredibly musical dexterity and beauty. Their unison jam is very good as well, as it has a feel of a Celtic hornpipe taken to incredibly fast extremes. Beautiful song and excellent musicianship placed at the service of excellently composed parts.
Heading into slightly odder tonal territory here, this song isn't exactly my favorite to listen to a whole lot, but I give it a lot of respect for being a great attempt at experimentation and expansion of the Dream Theater palette. On the whole, I think this song gets unfairly slammed a lot. Once again featuring that great sense of dynamics and organic feel of the earlier songs, a fantastic acoustic guitar part provides a stepping point for increasingly sophisticated, moody, and tense music. Great vocals and keyboard parts make this trascend the embarrassment it could have been, given the dissonances and sometimes derivative playing. Moving through awesomely moody and calming sections, we move into a heavy rock section with heavily vibrating and quaking riffs with a truly odd solo with a HUGE level of dissonance, which descends into blatant wah and whammy noisemaking. I actually like this a LOT, even though it lacks a little originality. A great experiment for DT and very musically rich.
4.) The Great Debate
This song catches a LOT of flack for stealing musical ideas from Tool, but to be honest, I would love it if people would reserve that criticism for the main riff of SFAM's song "Home" (which was obviously stolen from "46 and 2") and leave this one alone. What matters here is how Dream Theater handles those musical ideas, not whether they're totally original (I mean, Dream Theater was never really that original anyway). Dream Theater shouldn't be criticized for taking influence from what is arguably the most organic band EVER in the prog-metal world, they should be ENCOURAGED. Just look at what they accomplish here! A totally orgasmic buildup with a beautifully moody E-Bow riff, and a very interesting lyrical concept centered around the stem-cell research debate. The usual organic feel is present here, although to be honest, the only overt Maynard-ism I can detect is in the bridge between the choruses and verses, and I don't like that so much. The instrumental section has always bothered me too, because the guitar solo is a very odd shred over the EXACT chord progression from the Santana song "Do You Like the Way." So on the whole, I generally appreciate the continuation of the great feels and harmonically rich music DT gets up to here, but it's not one of the many highlights of the album.
This is also really sort of like DT trying to purge the band's Kevin Moore keyboard ghost: while it's generally accepted that Moore had a compositional sense that Derek Sherinian couldn't surpass, it seems that considering Rudess' ability on the melodic piano, not used to full effect on the previous album, the band wanted to try another "Space Dye Vest" song that was harmonically odd and stripped away of typical Dream Theater conventions to show, perhaps, everything that Rudess was capable of. The result isn't bad, but it harkens back to that amazing song too much for its own good. However, as another "experiment" with the typical convention of DT music, I like it and greatly appreciate it, especially with the totally bald derivativeness of songs on the later albums "Train of Thought" and "Octavarium."
DISC TWO: SIX DEGREES OF INNER TURBULENCE
1.) I - Overture
This is what I'm talking about when I say the music here is more harmonically and tonally rich than it has ever been. Taking a huge amount of cues from 19th century classical music and the generally bombastic feel of a lot of marches and such things, this is a Rudess-driven piece. People have complained that the "orchestra" sounds fake and that as a piece it goes on too long, but clearly these are the words of people who are unaccustomed to hearing overtures to lengthy pieces, because it accomplishes precisely what an overture is supposed to accomplish: it establishes the piece's main themes so that they can be embellished and developed as the piece develops. And as a piece, I'd say this works VERY well. Although I have to say, a lot of the more "happy" themes remind me of "graduation songs." :D
2.) II - About to Crash
Leading into this perfectly from the end to the great Overture, here is another highly multifaceted, melodic victory for Dream Theater in the "organic songwriting" department. Great lyrics about teen depression and insanity establishes the song's major concept (a series of parts centered around various types of mental illnesses), there's a lot of great ideas here. I've always thought that the vocal melodies here are a little "out there," in terms of sometimes-grating highness, although LaBrie is surprisingly conservative and controlled throughout. The solo is really cool and anthemic, and the harmonies and layerings from all instrumentalists is fantastic. The level of different and varied sections the band moves through while retaining all its accessibility IS the essence of prog rock. Kudos to the group for accomplishing this.
3.) III - War Inside My Head
Moving into a more atonal "metal" territory, the guitars duplicate one of the tensest themes from the overture and expand on it very well. I find the lyrics to be a little overwrought though: I somehow doubt that sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder would appreciate these lyrics as particularly insightful, which seem to be confusing the type of stuff in "The Glass Prison" with the actual effect war has on the mind. Also, this is really not my favorite piece compositionally.
4.) IV - The Test that Stumped Them All
Aside from having possibly the best title of any song ever, this piece is considerably less of a "throwaway" than the previous song. Lyrics are clearly inspired by similar work such as "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" by Metallica, but the music here retains a disconcerting sense of urgency and brutality that that song lacked. In particular, the odd shifts from the thrash-style verses and the almost Pink-Floyd-type vocal catatonics of the choruses, with the quirky instrumental passages and alternation between doctors and nurses are highly uneasy and therefore very effective. The solo is awesome. The outro goes on a little too long, though, focusing as it does on the breakneck ensemble playing that I was never really a fan. Portnoy's got some great drumming here, though, boy.
5.) V - Goodnight Kiss
Dream Theater was never very good at writing ballads, and they don't do much of a better job here with one of the album's only (and biggest) lyrical missteps: having Labrie sing from the perspective of a little girl. The line in question ("I'm just a poor girl, trapped in this cruel world") only makes a confusing lyrical content more confusing (is the song about a stillbirth? An abortion? Leukemia? What?), but the song is saved by very pretty piano and guitar interplay, the sweetest sampled baby talk I've ever heard anyplace, and a very upsetting solo with sampled screams and weeping of women interspersed with clicking hospital sounds and a faraway and very raunchy emotional solo from Pertrucci.
6.) VI - Solitary Shell
Compositionally, I'd say this is the best section of the whole song. Featuring Rush-style chord voicings, always-amazing keyboard layers and melodies, and some of the best lyrics of the album with the descriptions of autism. The instrumental section shows a lot of other sides to the playing of the band members, too, Petrucci in particular, as he launches into Celtic-style guitar riffs and Al DiMeola-style acoustic, jazz-flavored solos. I love this section.
7.) VII - About to Crash (Reprise)
A expansion upon the previous section of this name, this one features a "rawking" riff and a very thorough reprise of the song's major themes, which are given alternately uneasily heavy or very melodic, Zappa-like treatments, all building up to the very last section of this long and excellent song, the Grand Finale.
8.) VIII - Losing Time/Grand Finale
Closing this album is a half-time reprise of the Overture's main theme. As an ending to this epic piece of work, I think I agree with an opinion I've heard on it: it builds up and up and up and up into what we think is going to be the most amazing ending ever, and then all we get is a keyboard chord that rings for a minute and a half?! That said, the lyrics here are some of the best, providing an overarching theme and message for the song, and the buildup, while it happens, is very extensive, orgasmic, and emotional. A great closer to a mind-blogglingly amazing and highly satisfying album.
I know I've gone on and on and on saying little more than how "great" or "amazing" this and this section of every song is, but I hope you can understand WHY I think that. On the whole, this album gets too much of a short shrift. This is Dream Theater at their best, the true peak of their career, where they took the achievement of the virtuosic nature of "Scenes From a Memory," and did the best possible thing: they took influence from some of the most organic bands working in their genre, such as Rush, Pink Floyd, Queen, Yes, and Tool, and turned out one of the most sophisticated compositions by any rock band ever. Fantastic stuff, and it comes with my highest recommendation.