Thursday, June 25, 2009

Album Review: "Black Clouds & Silver Linings" by Dream Theater

Fair notice: This review is written by a fan of the band. It's going to be constructively critical but overall very positive. Skip it if that bothers you.

Dream Theater has, to their credit, found the musical equivalent of the late fantasy author David Eddings' path to fan-pleasing stardom: Their songwriting and touring has become the musical equivalent of peddling dope. Dream Theater's latest offering, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, is made up of what has become an excellent par vintage of their particular crop.

Eddings made his literary mark with the Belgariad and Malloreon series, in all a ten-book tale that blended well-established swords-and-sorcery fantasy tropes with humor, folklore, and a lighter tone than most books in the genre. Suitable for all ages, Eddings' books were a hit, and his deeply-developed characters became beloved of his readers to a greater degree than the denizens of his other novels. After fan demand prompted Eddings to write more of the story of Belgarion & Friends, Eddings crafted two prequel books as stories-within-stories. The bookending story continued following the lives of the characters after the BelMal, while the substories were the actual prequel material, ending right at the spot the Belgariad begins. By creating an endless loop of sorts, Eddings enabled his readers to continue to enjoy the full story over and over ad infinitum. He then commented that his readers have been running around in that circle for years since, making his writing "the literary equivalent of peddling dope."

So turned the career of Dream Theater after a near-miss in 1998 during which drummer Mike Portnoy contemplated hanging up his octobans and walking away. Dream Theater, before that turning point, had experienced the sudden and vacuous stardom offered by the MTV-centered pop industry, survived some personnel changes, and struggled for creative control with their label. The suits wanted nothing more than for Dream Theater to shed their progressive leanings and become reliably-profitable arena metal -- after all, they had the arena metal look, and that was all that mattered, right? From 1989 to 1998, the band struggled to maintain a balance between creative productivity, the more mundane facets of music industry work, and interpersonal and family relationship time, all in the face of a merciless calendar that had them on the road for years at a time promoting Images and Words, Awake, and Falling Into Infinity. After the latter tour, the band finally recovered creative control over their work, and on a roughly biannual clip thereafter, have released albums that allow them to publicly and professionally embrace their role as flagbearers of the progressive-metal genre.

Dream Theater's 1999 magnum opus Scenes from a Memory, a CD-length concept album, is as much a reaction to the band's previous musical constrainment as anything else. Most fans consider it their masterpiece, despite the record being close to worthless commercially in mainstream-rock-radio terms. The 2001 interval was covered by Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (technically streeting in 2002, but only barely), a two-disc progressive feast with even longer, even more exploratory prog-metal, including The Glass Prison, the first part of Portnoy's five-album-spanning epic Twelve-Step Saga about alcohol abuse. Sated that their legacy in progressive circles was no longer in question, Dream Theater flipped MTV a mighty bird in 2003 with Train of Thought, a mostly straightforward metal album that brought them back to radio and welcomed in a newer and younger generation of fans hungry for something more substantial than Maroon 5 and Franz Ferdinand. Train contained This Dying Soul, part two of the Twelve-Step Saga.

Dream Theater settled into a comfortable blend of metal and prog by 2005 with Octavarium, their final album on their original label. The album's title track is the very essence of prog, spanning 24 minutes of scintillating virtuosity, and the album opener, The Root of All Evil, covered part three of the Twelve-Step Saga with a flourish. The heaviest track on the album, Panic Attack, drew notice on the Gigantour concert bill, and introduced yet another new wave of fans to the band by appearing in the video game Rock Band 2. Dream Theater signed with a new label and released Systematic Chaos, seizing the momentum that Octavarium had continued from Train of Thought. With so many new fans accepting Dream Theater "as they were," Chaos saw unexpected mainstream success with new music video clips and a Rock Band downloadable-content appearance, this time for lead single Constant Motion. Chaos' contribution to the Twelve-Step Saga, part four: Repentance, was a bit understated, but the song's more mellow dynamic set the stage for the thrilling conclusion to come... and it worked.

Black Clouds & Silver Linings closes the Twelve-Step Saga with part five, The Shattered Fortress, and Fortress is every bit the dope Dream Theater's fans hoped they would peddle. It quotes and reprises every other song in the suite, it runs 12 minutes but does not seem that long, and it practically blasts its way off the page, aggression and emotion at every measure. Fortress suffers somewhat in that it sounds at times like more of a patchwork of the previous songs in the suite than a truly integrative finale, like Dream Theater did with Finally Free, Losing Time, and The Razor's Edge, Rush did with 2112 Grand Finale, and Queensryche did with Eyes of a Stranger. Even in the absence of an integrative finale, a thematic denouement or "epilogue" could have worked as well, like Rush did with The Sphere, Spock's Beard did with Made Alive Again/Wind at My Back, and Schonberg & Boublil did with The Sacred Bird. Still, the gallery-of-reprises style has been used to great effect: Down Once More/Track Down This Murderer, Andrew Lloyd Webber's finale to Phantom of the Opera, is a masterpiece of patchwork conclusion composition. Time will tell whether Fortress, in hindsight, closes the Twelve-Step Saga as brilliantly as Down closed Phantom.

The second-best track on Black Clouds is definitely The Best of Times, a song Portnoy wrote about his recently-departed father. Even in Dream Theater's more somber, emotional moments, such as Take Away My Pain, Goodnight Kiss, Medicate (Awakening), and Vacant, they have never produced music as moving, authentic, and absolutely heart-rending as The Best of Times. It may be difficult for anyone who has not lost a loved one to understand how completely Portnoy hit the nail on the head with this one, but trust me: he did. I don't see Dream Theater topping this one, as far as songs of this style and content are concerned.

It was a pleasure to see Dream Theater returning to a more experimental, eclectic mode of songwriting for the album's opener, A Nightmare to Remember. In a similar fashion, Awake's 6:00 and Infinity's New Millennium stood out from their respective albums and offered a distinctly different flavor of Dream Theater while remaining essentially progressive and true to the band's style. On the other albums, the opening tracks have served other roles, either introducing epic or concept pieces (Regression, In the Presence of Enemies part 1), presenting a piece of the Twelve-Step Saga, or laying down a straightforward opening anthem (Pull Me Under, As I Am). Nightmare is textured, yet percussive; twisted, yet smooth. John Petrucci's nights poring over literature and channeling Walt-freaking-Whitman paid off with a vivid, flavorful bridge: "Hopelessly drifting / bathing in beautiful agony / I am endlessly falling / Lost in this beautiful misery." Nightmare stretches in multiple directions, even giving Portnoy a chance to do some cookie-monster growling at one point, and in most cases, the stretches hit paydirt. This song is no Scarred, but it certainly belongs at the feast.

Wither is the outlier at this point -- unless this song starts to age amazingly well, I will be consigning it to the "meh" bin with Prophets of War, Never Enough, and Just Let Me Breathe. Songs about writer's block just don't work on a very fundamental level, because the audience is interested in the composer's ability, not the composer's inability. Musically, Wither is sound enough, not covering new ground but not laying an egg either. It's a shame to waste such a great song title -- there are only so many simple but evocative verbs out there that work as song titles -- but I suppose there's that to redeem the song, at least. It has the potential to be a single down the road, due to length and accessibility, so it could succeed on that level also.

A Rite of Passage is Black Clouds' radio and video cut, and it was well chosen as such. The song is absolutely accessible, contains a nice instrumental interlude, and is planted thick thematically with the kind of mysticism that stokes the curious minds of most younger prog fans who are still developing as aficionados of music. Your average rational older adult will dismiss everything about the lyrics and just enjoy the instrumental aspects of Passage, and the song stands up capably on that level. This is mainstream metal with a touch of prog, very much in line with what we've heard lately from Muse, Lacuna Coil, and Metallica, and if it had been subtitled "The Dark Eternal Night, part 2," I don't think anyone would have blinked.

The remaining track on Black Clouds, the sprawling, 19-minute epic The Count of Tuscany, is a Petrucci-penned sweepfest with about the thematic depth of Forsaken and all the musical gymnastics of The Dance of Eternity. I'm sure the hardcorest of the hardcore are having a blast with this one, but I'm not sure it stands up compositionally to some of the other tracks on the album or in Dream Theater's wider stable. Oh, fear not: Count will get raves from concertgoers and will add points to Dream Theater's ever-growing well of Prog Cred -- it's not a failure on any level -- but this is no Octavarium or In the Presence of Enemies; it's not even In the Name of God. Count is absolutely the brand of dope that Dream Theater has learned to peddle to their fans, and their fans find that flavor satisfying, so why shouldn't the band do likewise?

Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a genuine accomplishment for Dream Theater, concluding a decade-long suite, reaching new heights in both new and old directions, and serving as a pleasurable listen even in its weaker moments. The album gives fans exactly what they want, and more of it. The future promises a year-plus of touring, half a year of writing, and a new tome of tales in 2011 that are right up the fans' alley, and hey, why shouldn't Dream Theater proceed exactly that way? Capitalism works, after all. But if, instead, they take a chance and it falls flat, at least we'll know full well what their posture was, and we can appreciate why they rolled the dice instead of commencing the scheduled harvest.

Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll find out what's been happening on Faldor's farm...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Today's Chemistry Lesson: Drama Dissolves Music

Things have been pretty political here lately at the House of Exuberance, so I figured I'd offer a sorbet to clear the palate. Aaron (linked at left) and I recently found a musical project to join, as I'll explain shortly, and it got me thinking about the concepts underlying band chemistry.

As many of you know, I am a musician. I got my first guitar 19 years ago. Back in the mid-1990s, I performed as a bassist and backing vocalist in local cover bands such as Scoobacca and Parallax. A few years ago, I played bass and sang lead for Sonogasm (there's a band name that hasn't aged well) and experienced morsels of local success with SG performing a set mostly made up of my own original songs, a blend of grunge and progressive rock. I was in college during the grunge years, so I cut my adult musical teeth on Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and the Stone Temple Pilots, and that influence integrated with the Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Rush, Metallica, and Dream Theater that had dominated my formative years.

Unfortunately, having musical ability and even a stable of written material is not enough to get a person on stage even at the local level. Being on stage is what it's all about. Even performing at a dive pub for a handful of disinterested barflies is great fun, and performing in front of a more substantial crowd is an incredible adrenaline rush. I have been associated with several other bands over the years, but only the ones I cited above made it to the stage and stayed at that level. To stay at that level, a band needs a unifying vision that gets buy-in from all members, discipline and a good work ethic from all members, and compatible personalities. It is not entirely unlike a marriage in that a band is only as happy as its unhappiest member.

A wise, experienced musician will bend over backward to get on stage and stay there, because he knows that's where all his practice, devotion, and discipline are rewarded. The problem is that most musicians are neither wise nor experienced. Mostly this is because they are young, but immaturity shows up even in older musicians, eccentric as the musically-inclined often are. This immaturity leads to band drama, and band drama corrodes band chemistry and destroys otherwise promising projects. Pub stages everywhere are mostly filled with two types of bands: talented bands who have not yet imploded, and untalented bands made up of friends who have great chemistry but little potential. A tiny fraction of a fraction are the third type of band, which manages to stay together and move on to bigger things. Given the choice between the two more likely outcomes, I'll take the band full of good buddies with a low success ceiling. At least they're having fun.

I am going to develop this thesis anecdotally, but first, here are some better-known examples of where drama has impeded music. Black Sabbath never had the same "spark" without Ozzy Osbourne. Pink Floyd: Roger Waters. Faith No More: Jim Martin. Queensryche: Chris deGarmo. Evanescence: Ben Moody. And those are just bands that survived losing a member to drama. Most drama implosions lead to disbandment. Soundgarden. Warrant. Drain STH. Galactic Cowboys. Ratt. Even when a band thrives after a chemistry replacement, their fan base is divided -- a contingent insists that the original line-up can never be topped. By far the benchmark example: Van Halen. They were a better band with Sammy Hagar commercially and creatively, but the specter of David Lee Roth will never leave them alone. Dream Theater has emerged as the absolute flagbearer of progressive metal today, but some fans still carry a torch for Kevin Moore. I'm sure there are even some hardliners sitting in a Cleveland pub who will never forgive Rush for losing John Rutsey and replacing him with Neil Peart.

Band drama starts internally when a band member's expectations, reasonable or unreasonable, are not met. In Sonogasm, Jeff (guitar) and I were often frustrated with Chuck (drums) because Chuck struggled with timing, having been out of the musical scene for many years. Chuck and I were frustrated with Jeff because Jeff, while very talented, tends to be undisciplined in his approach to practice, hindering band development. Jeff and Chuck were frustrated with me because I wouldn't stick to a focused musical direction for the band. We had started alt-prog, very Tool-esque, and all was well. Then, as I developed as a composer, I was writing grunge, southern rock, alt-mainstream a la +Live+, and even hybrids of pop and nu-metal. That wasn't what Jeff and Chuck were interested in playing.

The three of us had the talent and dedication to hold Sonogasm together for a while, but eventually the problems reached critical mass. Chuck would whiff badly a few times in a live show. Jeff would show up to practice not having learned a new song element... again. Our portfolio stagnated because I wasn't bringing in enough viable material, and the band couldn't agree on which covers to add to freshen things up. Our internal frustration from having our expectations unmet by our bandmates eventually became a catalyst for clashes with one another, and we wound up putting the band on "indefinite hiatus." That is a euphemism that means the band will probably never re-form, but since nobody had sex with another band member's girlfriend or wife, the members are still at least on speaking terms with one another. The last of Sonogasm's 20-odd performances was by far our best, and perhaps we were able to relax and enjoy it more knowing that we had already decided to move on afterward, and our band problems were no longer a weight on our shoulders. We remain good friends.

Band drama can start externally as well, when circumstances force a change in a band member's ability to fulfill his mates' expectations of him. After Sonogasm broke up, I briefly joined Aaron's band Ekosphere as lead vocalist. Ekosphere had just lost their second female lead vocalist in a row, and the guys were hoping that eliminating the gender issue would lead to better chemistry. There was still drama brewing in that band that might have killed us eventually, or that we might have overcome, but we never got to find out. After a few months of developing the Ekosphere songs that survived the departure of their lyricist and introducing some of my songs that had worked well in Sonogasm, we were ready to gear up and hit the stage. Then, one of the other guys hit financial trouble, and I ran face-first into my 1L law exams. Neither of us could put our full attention on the band, and the project unraveled from there. A sad ending to a band that had, at one point, earned an opening slot in support of an international act (Tears for Fears).

In 1996, Scoobacca was in amazing shape. I played bass for three one-hour sets as the band entertained parties and keggers, looking for a more relaxed atmosphere than we had encountered at our few pub shows. We were college buddies who all loved music, and we were democratic enough that our cover portfolio had extensive input from all members. We even allowed members a plenary veto on any one song, to avoid dragging down our performances with tunes that, for whatever reason, one member hated to play. (My veto, in case you're curious, was Ugly Kid Joe's "I Hate Everything About You." That song is just plain not good.) We hit all the rock and metal subgenres and had something for everyone to enjoy.

Then, Scoobacca threw it all away. Our drummer, Squirmy, left to go be a photographer for Sports Illustrated (can't blame him) and we brought in a sketchy guy who had drumming skill but didn't work well with us personally. We kicked out our vocalist, Mikey, because we didn't think we could make it to the next level with him. In retrospect, this was an unrealistic expectation; Mikey's vocals were above average for a local party band, and he could have developed if we had been more patient. Our vocalist auditions were an agonizing ordeal of wannabes and washups and junkies, none of whom had as much character in total as Mikey had in his little finger. We languished for an entire summer without being able to perform. Band practice became a job, but we weren't getting paid. I quit, and though I didn't realize it, that would turn out to be the killing stroke because I owned most of the band's gear. We were so busy dreaming of fortune and glory that we traded our most solid assets for shit in a shiny wrapper. I am still friends with Johan, the guitarist, though we rarely get together because our lives went in different directions. I never hear from Mikey or Squirmy anymore.

Finally, earlier this year, two guys put together a band project called Flapperwax and found a guitarist and bassist through a Craigslist ad. The bassist, Aaron, worked out great with them, but the chemistry wasn't there with the guitarist, and the drama began. Long story short, they ended up auditioning me and replacing the guitarist with me on lead vocals and second guitar. (Their lead singer was a lead guitarist at heart, so he favored the transition.) My audition was a little rusty, but they liked the band chemistry with me there, and we had a discussion right away about the band's expectations of one another. We are all in our thirties, all working family men who have to prioritize accordingly, and this put us into a compatible state of mind right away. I feel bad for the guitarist who was booted -- I've been booted too, and it's no fun at all -- but band chemistry is just that important. Even though Aaron and I had other band projects floating around in the planning stages, such as a long-term study with Chuck and a movie-theme covers project with Jeff, we knew that joining Flapperwax gave us a rare realistic opportunity to get back on stage -- and stay there -- sometime in the foreseeable future. So far, things are going well. My material is blending decently with theirs, and practices are productive. Here's hoping.

Even without drama, it's difficult to get a band to go anywhere. Aaron and I comprise the all-acoustic "Bumpus Hounds," whose performance of April 2008 is recounted on this blog. It's great fun and Aaron and I have near-perfect chemistry (as is not hard to accomplish when two friends make up the entire band). The problem is that the Hounds have a very low ceiling. Most of the material out there is beyond our ability to perform with only two acoustic guitars and a singer. Though there are venues for acoustic small-band performances, most of them are dead ends and not much better than just jamming at the occasional party, park, or street corner. The desire is there and the chemistry is there, but the Bumpus Hounds aren't likely to go anywhere, because there's not very much they can actually do.

So there you have one man's "musical journey" teaching the resounding lesson that getting a viable project together is rare, and getting it to go anywhere is rarer still, even when there are talented and willing musicians who are interested and ready to go. It still isn't worth it to stay in a band that is infested with drama and isn't fun anymore, but a musician has to have the wisdom and perspective to know when a problem is worth being patient enough to fix, and the maturity to know how to diminish drama rather than catalyzing it. When a band has a hit, more than enough external drama arrives to test the limits of the members' endurance. There is a time limit on this sort of thing. I am 35. I only get to play at being a "rock and roll star" for so much longer -- after that, I will remain a musician, but the settings change to somewhat more staid and conventional opportunities. I intend for music to be a positive creative outlet, and that means the chemistry has to be there. Hopefully, in whatever creative hobby you pursue, you will enjoy that hobby's analogue of good chemistry and the rewards that follow.