Review Summary: A two-part plunge into culturally relevant topics and intrapersonal issues.
Dream Theater were already on a musical roller coaster during their first decade together. Much of this had to do with (outside) pressure to replicate past successes, which resulted in one of the band’s best efforts, followed by one of their worst. Fortunately, the band quickly recovered from Falling Into Infinity
with an album that ultimately topped Rolling Stone’s reader-voted Top 10 Prog Rock albums. With that kind of acclaim, it would seem the band had played yet another trump card and that the next album would be an inevitable step down.
Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
is Dream Theater’s longest album, comprised by two parts/discs that, together, span nearly 100 minutes. The approach taken with splitting the album, in addition to its name, is rather crafty. Disc one features five tracks and the second, though technically comprised by eight, is really a 42-minute behemoth of a song (the album’s title track). And just to play up the six factor, “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” describes six individuals, each with a certain mental condition. If nothing else, Dream Theater at least had a neat structure in mind for their sixth studio album.
The static noise which concluded Scenes from a Memory
returns, introducing us to one of the band’s best songs in “The Glass Prison.” As far as sheer sound, the album opener is one of Dream Theater’s darkest songs, especially at this point in their career. The first half features aggressive guitar playing that would make any nu metal musician blush; the second half has a barely catchy chorus to hold things back until the band hits overdrive during the final stretch. It also begins the Twelve-step Suite conceived by then-drummer Mike Portnoy, continuing on Train of Thought
’s “This Dying Soul.”
One of Scenes from a Memory
’s fundamental flaws was the on/off (though usually off) lyric quality. Not the case here; Six Degrees
features some of Dream Theater’s best, most consistent songwriting. This is in no small part thanks to the album’s serious subject matter. While Scenes
was far from light-hearted, Six Degrees
feels like a significant maturation. All one has to do is look at the concept for each song; themes range from alcoholism to religious uncertainty, stem-cell research and death. And that’s without the mental notes from disc two.
There’s no way to pitch Six Degrees
without making it sound like a daunting, heavy-handed experience. Yet in spite of the aforementioned aspects, Six Degrees
isn’t a difficult album to indulge in. The first disc could’ve used less meandering and more tightening, but the 97 overall minutes don’t feel so long when the final note is struck. In particular, the motions “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” takes us through are varied to the point of alternating outright heaviness (“War Inside My Head,” “The Test That Stumped Them All”), mellow calms (“Goodnight Kiss”) and quirky upbeats (“Solitary Shell”). These sudden transitions work more fluently than they probably should, making the album’s final 42 minutes feel remarkably short. If the idea of a song this far into the double-digits intimidates you, give it a chance anyway. You might be surprised.
Along with its immediate successor, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
has mostly slipped under the radar. This is just as understandable as it is unfortunate, since the band tackle a number of unifying and, depending on who you are, personally empathetic issues (“Solitary Shell” right here). There’s a lot to appreciate too, especially since the band miraculously avoid bludgeoning us with any of the individual themes. You may go in expecting to feel overwhelmed, but resolute listeners will find themselves either hitting the repeat button, or seeking out the band’s next chapter.