Dream Theater's Two-Decade Journey to the Top
When Dream and Discipline Unite
By Mark S. Tucker
Definitions of prog-rock are usually propagated by English Majors and Music 101 teachers, pontificating in stilted and nasal terms on how critics must conduct themselves, on the categorization of prog-rock's innumerable genre splinters, and finalizing with a unified field theory that's so broad and inclusive as to render the whole process moot.
And are we tired of all that yet? Oh hell no! We love it! The urge to not only listen to the music, but to read about it, is tinged with a measure of masochism. So let me venture a proposition that's so self-evident, only a complete psychopath would abjure it and which God himself, in his weekly discussions with me, when and if I have the time for such things, has blessed:
If there's a formative wellspring to prog-rock, it's five-fold: rock, classical, psychedelic, heavy metal, and jazz music. All these forms preceded the emergent style, two of them immediately (psych and metal, the truest bases for comparison). Those of us fortunate enough to have been present at the genre's birth know this intimately. We heard a wealth of radio fare come together to form a magnificent new hybrid, the most important yet. Where once Carl Perkins, Little Richard, and Richie Valens held sway, Iron Butterfly, the Electric Prunes, Jimi Hendrix, and the Strawberry Alarm Clock strutted and fretted their hour upon the strobe-lit stage, far removed from the hillbilly, soul, and ethno-influenced sounds that sired the fundamental rock genre. These latter, starry-eyed, and colorfully bespangled groups – and many others not mentioned here – led directly to the founding triarchy of prog: the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson.
What was occurring was the integration, and perhaps completion, of a consciousness shift, away from the strait-jacketed militarism of the '50s, which still echoed in metal, and into a new mental landscape that also had strong roots in psychotropic drugs. Prog-rock, more than any other side-pocket, perfectly expressed the elan, adventurousness, and cerebral qualities of the '60s and '70s; it showed how industriously renaissance movements tend to capture new territory.
However, in the godfathers we also see the genesis of categorical strife. Though the Moody Blues Days of Future Past is obviously the first real prog LP, King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King is constantly cited as its defining moment, despite the same-year advent of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. Why? Because Crimson took such an immensely powerful step forward, it inadvertently brushed aside the competition, towering above the nascent, growing pack. The Moodies had dithered with blues and radio-rock prior to Days, Pink Floyd was smelting psychedelia and a colorfully demented piss-take on bubble-gum, along with side-order prog ramblings, but Crimson fell like an anvil on the scene, impeccably crafted in every aspect, defining what would occur, showing the world what was meant by the term "progressive rock," as mercurial as the definition still is today. But this is often what happens: the true pioneers open the floodgates and are overshadowed by the immediate second wave, which has had just a bit more time to frame the argument.
And that's what happened with Dream Theater. Metal had been one of the most adventurous genres existent. From Michael Schenker's still unmatchable lyrical solos in UFO's first gasp ("Prince Kajuku" and so on) to Gun's first LP to Uriah Heep's magical epics and short stories to Black Sabbath's grim and funereal marvels, metal, more than any other form, was brash enough to damn convention with sword, gun, and howitzer, forging ahead on a very narrow baseline while pushing back the walls. This gave rise to the epochal founding of what's now called prog-metal: Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Savatage, Fates Warning, Mercyful Fate, etc. Though Fates Warning and Queensryche may rightly be hailed as the godfathers, who was it that truly nailed the "movement," providing focus and resolve? Dream Theater.
Their debut When Dream and Day Unite immediately started a buzz. Here was an ensemble who'd put the form and content of the style in its best perspective. Their blend of prog and metal was seamless, issuing from a quintet of lads physically poised between hair-farming and grunge, but musically, tearing the envelope to get back to the heart of disciplined, far-flung creativity. The most obvious keystone to their progressive side was the upfront inclusion of keyboards as a lead voice, not as the sweetening background that almost all metal-heads of the era favored (save for pseudo-prog tweedlings in weenies like Angel, about whom...the less said, the better). Kevin Moore vaulted his expansive, heavenly refrains high above the grit, turmoil, and complexities grinding away below. Charlie Dominici's semi-operatic vocals joined him and cemented the relationship. Each song on the LP was arranged to provide stories and atmospheres leading toward John Petrucci, erupting into dizzyingly labyrinthine solos, pealed off like molten lava, rhythmically grounded in Mike Portnoy's drums and John Myung's basswork.
But a group desiring to survive in the belly of the beast had better have its artistic shit together and lay down the staples decisively. Dream Theater did so in the trademark instrumental "The Ytse Jam" (a reversal of their previous band's cognomen), a furious and sophisticated tune revealing the boys' backbone: immense compositional ideas, monstrously adept chops, and a willingness to go wherever the song needed to in order to tell itself. Petrucci flew though a catalog of numbing pyrotechnics within a perfectly illustrative framework, while Portnoy trotted out a brand of skin-pounding that only Neal Peart had been the true master of to that point, a style that would broaden and deepen immensely as the years rolled by, earning Portnoy unprecedented honors amongst audience and critics. These two, along with the co-founding presence of Myung, embodied Dream Theater, and it was their intelligence and unerring acumen that guaranteed the group would climb to the top. We can now see that it was inevitable.
Eighteen years have passed and Dream Theater's waxed ever more articulate, ever more erudite. They had to follow on the heels of earlier precedents, and weren't the initiators of the recent sparse fusion of metal and prog in touring situations; Tool grabbed that honor fairly definitively when teaming with King Crimson a while back, but DT redefined it, joining Yes on a leg of their latest world tour. The Tool/Crimson pairing generated much controversy, mainly due to it being a somewhat clumsy welding of two groups with a good deal more in contrast than in common, but the DT/Yes card was hard to argue. Both rosters boasted immensely talented players; they both composed contrived, epic songs. Both adhered to what could be perceived as classicist standards, and both were progressive as all get-out. The audience partisanship – inevitable granted the generation gap – was also handled well, though it was nowhere near as pronounced as the Tool/Crimson gambit. Yes-ites not already steeped in DT's kindred material were intrigued, while DT-heads unfamiliar with Yes' seminal sounds discovered that aging prog-rockers were by no means ready to join Perry Como on the Geritol trail. In some ways, the very idea of this meeting of the generations harked back to the '70s, when one could go to Monterey and see Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix in the same purview.
As DT flourished, the band inevitably branched into the video market. Though never invited by TV or radio's mainstream, they strove to cut straight into the market, turning out whatever would bring their music to larger audiences. The first stab at a full-length video, Images and Words, documented a 1993 Tokyo gig; it was a decent but haphazard affair. Grainy cutaways detract from the concert, reducing the immersive experience with somewhat jarring looks at the mundane real world – it's not the sort of thing an engrossed audient really wants to be subjected to. It was welcome withal, but not without myriad failings; DT aficionados were more than happy, as Images and Words, was paired with spliced-in, folksy day-in-the-life interludes and a trio of TV video clips, but overall the video fell far short of what the band really deserved.
Dream Theater long ago made amends for Images and Words, and have recently issued a 2-DVD set of a gig at the famed Budokan Theater in Japan, the same place Cheap Trick first brought to the public's attention, and which Dylan and others have since capitalized on. It's meant to be the portraiture of Dream Theater, and succeeds spectacularly in this capacity. Finally, the group is showcased in all its splendor; the intro pens the affair as a movie, with a slow-moving series of credits and sustained-chord serenity, Myung prepping the audience in damped harmonics that soon explode into DT's sinewy metal baseline. La Brie takes the stage and initiates rebellious anthemics with the group, developing a melody that leads into one of Petrucci's mind-blowing solos, an inarguable demonstration of why he was fit to be called up for G3 tour duty not long ago. The camera complements the group by not indulging exclusively in MTV's penchant for rapid-fire dissolves, cross-fades, and panning, instead imbuing the sense of panoramic majesty the group's music imparts, then firing off quick-takes, and then only in time with the music.
Budokan also shows why DT once trekked alongside Queensryche: there is a strong Mindcrime/Livecrime ambience. Where Mindcrime was one of the first-water releases of the '90s, with Livecrime an entirely fitting re-evocation, it was also one of the more dramatically literate pounder videos ever released, pregnant with hubris, pathos, thunder, and narrative; Budokan sits just under it. Dream Theater is not Queensryche, though: their concentration is far more skewed to the numbing complexities of the music, rather than the necessities of a chaptered narrative conveyed via crystalline songs.
Perhaps the largest surprise is the preliminarily clear visual evidence that John Myung, too often neglected in the music press, is riffing his ass off. Think about it: what would it take for a bass player to keep up with Petrucci? The mind aches just contemplating it, yet Myung tracks the guitarist every step of the way, quietly zoned in on the crucial task he and Portnoy undertake, providing the ground the band stands upon, the sky and earth that gesso the entire picture, and endow it with dimension.
James LaBrie, the singer, when dropped athwart the dubious patter of critics, is the other member who comes in for a bit of assassination, yet it might be a bit improper to expect him to be a Dio, Oliva, or, to take the example to its extreme, King Diamond. Not everyone expects a full-blown screamer or theatrician...more to the point, not every pipester wants to be one. The giveaway to what may eventually prove be LaBrie's ace card is in "Hollow Years" (and later in the down-tempo portions of "Endless Sacrifice"), where he demonstrates a breathier mellow side in a crooning, wistful ballad, bringing forth images of the Twin Steves Hogarth and Perry. It's an affecting amp-down from the stratospheric heights of the band (here unfortunately jazzed up at the finale), and one can only suspect that if a solo CD ever comes to fruition, this is what we'll see. Dangerous, that, because it just might go over fabulously in the mainstream, and what then?
As expected, the DVD is loaded to the eyebrows with the group's famed interplay. In one duet with Rudess, midway during "Beyond This Life," Portnoy executes a sonorous aside that will have Muir freaks wheeling in somersaults, which then turns into a small jam-tribute to Frank Zappa (whose irascible image flashes on the screens behind them), with Rudess executing impossible runs, the kind Zappa went ape-shit over. Always, though, Petrucci is at the forefront with his sizzling patterns and change-ups, guiding the ensemble through the endless mazes of the compositions. Blending the ultimate in tech and prog metals, he demonstrates the sort of depth not often seen in fret-burners, taking scalar and arpeggiated regimens into the picturesque and mathematically-mutating forms discerning listeners pine for.
It's often said that the centerpiece – and there can easily be more than one – of any DT affair is the instrumental jam-song somewhere in each release, and concert. Here, in "Instrumedly," that lie is put in its place (even as the Liquid Tension Experiment logo blazes in the background). While a good, full, instrumental breakneck workout is a pure pleasure to listen to, many of the rest of the songs have equally interesting progressions, asides, and "middle eights" – even though an eight-measure improvisation could, for DT, be considered a rest. Where "Instrumedley" stands out here is in its length and variety, no one glorying-up, the entire band chasing each other through daunting structures, blending into the Floydian "Wish You Were Here" refrains of "Trial of Tears'" opening bars.
Live at Budokan is a three-hour extravaganza. It was meant as a complete canvas for what DT do live when unencumbered by the aegis of more famous groups, who they sometimes tour with. It's probably heresy to say so, but they're much more aligned with the Flower Kings than the multi-bills they find themselves on so often. Tech and prog metal have non-dogmatic approaches to music-making that, while not classical in the way of, say, Beethoven, are nonetheless modern rock-neoclassicist in their rigors, demands, and aesthetics; these, then, match what the Flower Kings are doing over in neo-prog (one of that normally pejorative branch's few shining lights, along with Porcupine Tree). A tour of the two, though, would be more than even the most fanatic prog-head could take; at the gig's marathon end, there'd be nothing left of the listener but bone, hair, and eyes. Even Marilyn Manson would agree that some surfeits are unfathomable.
Live at Budokan's second disc is loaded with extras: a tour documentary, the opening film used on the tour, a retake on "Instrumedly" from multiple angles, and featurettes with Portnoy, Petrucci, and Rudess (leaving Myung and LaBrie somewhat out in the cold). The whole package is selling for as little as $18, and anything bringing the outrageous prices of DVDs and CDs down gets applause all around.
Also see Mark S. Tucker's Dream Theater interview
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