The T 666
The most important thing a reviewer has to keep in mind when doing his job is never to lose his objectivity.
Now, it's much easier to accomplish that when reviewing other fields and activities of human life than when talking about music, it's much more realistic to expect a 100% objective review of, let's say, the food in a restaurant or the performance of two sport teams in a game than to expect a music lover to leave his heart out of the picture and write an article based on pure cold facts. In the end, it's ART we're dealing with here, and, as much as many people try to make it fit molds and rules, art breaks all boundaries and it takes its definite shape not in the mind of the creator nor in textbooks, but in the eyes and ears of the beholder.
With that into account, I face the difficult task of saying a few words about an album that has a special meaning for me, and I'm in true danger of sounding too condescending or too "fanboy-ish" if I am to actually do it and review the record. I'll do it anyway, but, and this should come as an early disclaimer, I don't promise to write a review only using my brain; this time, it will be impossible to close the door to that other muscle, the one that keeps us alive.
This is the record that came after what many fans considered a low point in the band's career (at that time, of course; they hadn't heard "The Glass Prison" yet): FALLING INTO INFINITY. I happened to like that album a lot, but even I had to admit that that record, though very good, was the first by DT that contained a few BAD songs ("Take away my pain", "Just let me breathe".) Also, the famous virtuosism of the group was less evident than in previous efforts, and only in a couple of songs ("Lines in the Sand" mostly) they approached the level they've achieved in IMAGES AND WORDS. Another factor that drove fans away from that record: the keyboardist, Derek Sherinian, though a great musician, departed so far from the style of former marble-hand Kevin Moore that the band's sound was just too different from what they've accustomed their fans to. We can say that SFAM had a lot to accomplish in order to restore faith in the minds of DT fans (not me, as I said, I loved FII anyway.) So they went back to the studio with a new member aboard the ship: Jordan Rudess, who had played with Rod Morgenstein, The Dixie Dregs and Liquid Tension Experiment, among others.
And what were the results like? Well, it's time to actually say a few words about the album itself, isn't it? Let's make a list of what I consider the most relevant elements of the New York outfit's new (in 1999) record.
1. Rudess. - Yes, I put him first on the list because his inclusion was the most obvious change within the DT core. And he delivers in a spectacular way. Not only did he bring the usual virtuosism and speed to the table (two elements that a musician MUST HAVE if he's to be considered for a place in DT), but he also can carry a melody, can create beautiful themes out of nowhere, and can suddenly display his rag-time or jazz influences with the snap of a finger. Whereas Sherinian's style was more atmospheric and lethargic, more effect-driven, Rudess' is more to-the-point, but always making even the simplest of lines sound much more difficult and ornamented than it really is.
2. "Progressiveness".- Let's not start to discuss what the meaning of "progressive" is; I take for granted that DT's music is THE definition of "progressive- metal", that is, metal progressively-enhanced (whatever that meant). And as such, SFAM is the band's most "progressive" record this side of I&W, and in some aspects even more so. For, even though I&W's importance in prog history will never be reached by any other metal album, DT's or not, in SFAM the display of technique, song-writing skills and complexity is much more focused than in that preceding masterpiece, where a cynic listener could even accuse the band of "showing-off" (of course I'd disagree), while in this one that would be almost impossible, as every note, every solo, every harmonic line falls perfectly in place. Take one out, the music will suffer; add one, the music will suffer.
3. Melody. - I love melody. And of that I have PLENTY in SFAM. If there's one album where practically every song reaches my pulse-machine is this one; if there's one album when I see a total equilibrium of brains and blood is this one; if there's an album where I can truly say that I know it from heart, is this one. And no, it's not cheesiness or over-sweetened music; it's just that the band can carry a tune, and drive it home choosing any one of the two paths that music lays ahead of them. Actually, they choose another path, a third one, the one of BALANCE.
4. Musicianship.- Well, this point comes as no surprise. We're talking Dream Theater here, and every one of the band members just dazzles with his performance. Petrucci once again proves he's THE man when it comes to the guitar: lightning-fast solos, accurate scales, but also soaring, enchanting melodies; Rudess, well, I've already talked about him, but let's repeat it: he amazes us; Myung, the eternal underdog, the master behind DT's sound, without him the band wouldn't be what it is; Portnoy, the drum-octopus that at times over-plays a little bit, in this album his usual pyrotechnics actually DO work, and of course we know he can play fills and create rhythms and patterns that make him one of a kind; and last, but for me definitely not least, the vocal-fountain that constantly pours the most refreshing of thirst-quenching delicacies in our ears, the true carrier of DT's melodic-banner, the actual conveyor of emotions, either love or hate, hope or disdain, James LaBrie. This is probably his best album ever.
For further analysis, I guess it's time to do a song-by-song review of SFAM, and I have to say it again: I've rated each song as part of the whole and as a stand-alone track, and the conclusions I've reached are more than unusual for me.
Scene One: Regression (10/10) The tick tock, the psychologist induces us into what is to become THE dream created by The Dream. The mood is light, melancholic; suddenly, an acoustic guitar serves as background for LaBrie to introduce us to what is obvious is going to be a journey of love, sadness and pain. Perfect intro for the album.
Scene TWO: I.Overture 1928 (10/10) The mood changes. We hear echoes of Metropolis Pt. 1, and at last the main riff of the song unfolds. It's like the opening of a bright gate that leads towards a garden of an unknown nature; a gate made out of beautiful notes, of the melody that LaBrie used to sing at the lyrics "There must be a third and last dance, this one will last forever, Metropolis watches and thoughtfully smiles, she's taking you to your home" in I&W, some hope even before the actual battle has started. Then, of course, Petrucci plays with the feeling that only he can achieve. (I just don't understand people that accuse him or this band of "coldness"). Rudess appears to join Petrucci and steal some of his thunder. And that was it, a magnificent overture with elements that we will find again in the rest of the album.
II.Strange Deja Vu (10/10) The main theme is one of doubt, of worry. Of a man not sure of what he sees or feels. Of haze and fog that stops the adventurer from going any further. Portnoy is on target here. LaBrie announces that he's seen the woman, and then the pre-chorus, the Canadian in falsetto, love, nostalgia, and the chorus, sadness because of finding oneself far away from oneself. A metallic section speaks of anger, of a desire to break free, but the melody comes back again, this is a sentiment that it will be hard to get rid of. Defenseless against something. love? Is it cheesy? No, it is TRUE. For he who hasn't felt weak in the face of his desire deserves not to be listening to music. or any kind.
Scene Three: I.Through My Words (10/10) Only two instruments, the Piano and the Vocal Chords, the little steel strings being hit by hammers and the air going through someone's throat. That's all it takes to make music.
II.Fatal Tragedy (10/10) A burlesque, tragic-comic theme marks the defeat of whoever is telling us this story of love and hate. Then the chorus, an anthem to the need of love. It's in the wrong tempo, in a slow tempo that doesn't re-affirm that it is the energy that drives us through the dark tunnel of life. Calm down, it will be on the right tempo later. We have a repetition of the main themes and then the chorus strikes back, now in the right tempo, in the tempo that cries the virtues and drawbacks of love at the same time. Suddenly the mood gets darker: Rudess goes crazy with chords over very heavy riffing and drumming. Every note, every musical-ornament here is in the exact place on the exact time. Rudess just blows us away and sends the memory of Sherinian to a far, distant limbo. One of the best instrumental parts in all Dream Theater, reason enough to have some respect for the musicians even if the music is not to one's taste.
Scene Four: Beyond This Life (10/10) We're on heavy mode; a fast powerful section leads to the news: death; tragedy; mystery; what happened? This is the kind of riff that DT couldn't repeat in TRAIN OF THOUGHT, simple yet so precise. The cloud of suspense lies high above the listener, and suddenly we enter the land of dreams again, of gray, watery, foggy dreams, that is, when a distorted LaBrie explains something over just effects. An acoustic guitar playing the main riff announce us it's time for some change. Or not? The atmosphere grows more violent, more blood-stained, the black and white letters of a newspaper story, over yellow, faded paper. The chorus comes again, this time lasts twice as much, and abruptly LaBrie takes us over a weird garden of flowers in the middle of all this murder. It doesn't last much. Another outstanding instrumental part will finally explode in the final chorus, this time the second melody played with as much emphasis as the first one. The song ends. It's such a relief when near the end of the track we don't hear the haunting theme again, but the voice of.a woman.
Scene Five: Through Her Eyes (10/10) Yes, this is cold, emotion-less music of course. And the world is a perfect place, too. A soaring guitar with the beautiful voice of a women introduce us to some simple piano chords and guitar. And we forget all of that when James LaBrie SINGS, not yells. One can feel every emotion going through his mind, through Nicholas' mind and, more importantly, HEART. One can hear his breath, the problems he has to tells us of his tragedy without letting his voice break into a endless cry and tears. This touches me so hard, I've heard countless tracks that haven't reached the place this one has inside of me. When I first heard the album, I thought the album could only go downhill from this point on. But no. the first real pause between tracks is upon us. What would the second half bring us?
Scene Six: Home (10/10) Another ambiguous theme announced by the acoustic guitar, the electric ones join to declaim the kind of arabesque, oriental-flavored main theme of this, one of the tracks of all tracks. The music grows restless, we feel something coming, suspense, and then the whole main riff announced with utmost violence. The second theme is the arabesque one. The main riff of the song reminds us of the first riff in Metropolis Pt. 1. Violence, despair, hopelessness, fate, fate that haunts us. Another theme tells us we have to expect the arrival of yet a third one, we can't take it no more, we are going to explode. Petrucci climbs to the heavens and he and Portnoy lead us into one of the choruses of all choruses, one of the moments that made me a progressive rock/metal fan, after years of only listening to another kind of music. After the chorus, the atmosphere turns even less welcoming, and all happens again, the first theme, the pre-chorus, Portnoy playing a weird pattern in his ride-cymbal and china cymbal over double-bass. And, thank DT, again Petrucci rises with ethereal scales to all the glory of the chorus. A brief recollection of the "Metropolis watches and thoughtfully smiles" hits us, this time the word "Victoria" instead of the original song' name. The middle instrumental section is one of pipe-scent, sand, the desert, a snake coming from a pot after the notes that a flute sends into its mind, a women dressed in green, red, yellow, silk. Rudess stops all this opium-dream with some scales that try to take us back to the harsh reality. But no, it's like the rest of the band insists that they have to stay in the oriental region; now it's Petrucci the one that tries; he gets closer but fails; but in the end, all of them join and for one last time ascend the stair that leads to our HOME. A musical HOME. If there was a way to give a song 11, 12, or 13 over ten, this would be the one. PERFECT.
Scene Seven: I.The Dance of Eternity (10/10) This instrumental track is like an altered version of the original Metropolis, with many sections reminding us of the original, the order and structure of the sections pretty much the same as in the original uber-classic. There's even a moment for Myung to play alone (a few seconds) much in the vein of Metropolis famous "Let's give John M. a chance to shine" moment. Rudess has his moment to show us he could be playing on a bar down in New Orleans were DT to fire him for any reason. An authentic "showing-off" piece, perfect where it is, and a necessary moment of relax in the midst of all these heart-wrenching emotions. Yes, this track may be the only one with a little bit of "coldness" to it, but it's in the perfect place at the perfect time. Magnificent. The song starts down a tension path, and what an explosion we have.
II.One Last Time (10/10) Not a pyrotechnics explosion, but an implosion into a ultra- beautiful melody that rudess plays in piano and that the Master carries with more than skill with his voice. The chorus, what can we say but.beauty? LOVE? Give me one last time, don't let this opportunity be the last, don't fade away without seeing the truth behind all these masks. The theme of "Strange Deja-Vu" comes again, it's so obvious we're reaching the end of this tragic story. The music let us know that. It's so well crafted, we can sense the end is coming.
Scene Eight: The Spirit Carries On (10/10) Resignation and nostalgia. Resignation leads to acceptance of reality. Acceptance of reality leads to the discovery that, after all, it's just that, reality, nothing we can't face. Hope. Just that. I would know LaBrie is telling me that even if the lyrics were just "blah-blah-blah". A certain naïve, foolish happiness lies behind this resignation. The music is ending. We can feel that. We can also feel that the tragedy is coming to an end, we can get ready to die. We can accept it. Now all that's left is to know what kind of music will play over our body will it ascends. And The Dream doesn't failed me.
Scene Nine: Finally Free (10/10). The psychologist want us to open our eyes. Yes, it's not a fictional character eyes but our won eyes, so good is the music that makes us LIVE and BREATHE this rather simple story. But when all was resignation, low, very low strings announce the final theme. Their sound is interrupted by some arpeggios by the masterful hand of Rudess, quickly joined by the Vocal Chords. And then, finally, free. The theme of all themes. Hope, Love, Happiness, Trust, Devotion all in one theme. The drums and guitars and bass join the music and what's ahead of us is just the best closing ever to any album. Death is not the end, just a beginning. Never had I believed it so much than after this. A brief moment of chaos and terror, violence, murder, it seems it's going to ruin our dream. But the melody of "One Last Time" comes back to utterly kill the monstrous feelings. Petrucci sings, yes, sings with his guitar. The mood is turning bright again. It was just a moment of pain, now we're where we want again. Finally free. Because a life has been found. Because Love has been understood. Because music has been created. The coda of the song closes the masterpiece in the best fashion ever. The haunting theme that once was declared by the low strings plays till exhaustion, till the band can't play no more. And it ends.
Of course I have to say that many people could find this review a little bit too full of hyperboles. But it's how I understand music. There's music I can dissect, there's music I can talk about without ever giving in to my emotions. That's 99% of what I like in all metal. The other 1% is THIS disc. No wonder it is my favorite. I think I've given reasons and arguments to my feelings. This review was not a matter of judgment but of love.
The lyrics? Once I though the story was absurd and rather soap-opera-ish. Maybe so. But it deals with the most important emotions. And I'm glad the New York greats chose such a theme for the album. Political analysis? Deep introspection into the human mind? Good things to talk about. But once in a while I want my heart to be seduced. And this once, it was overwhelmed.
The only album ever that I immediately liked since the first time I heard it.
For me, the top prog-metal masterpiece of all time. One of the best albums in all rock, period.