The release of the new Dream Theater album was shrouded in a Veil of Secrecy on the official web sites and even on the non-moderated Ytsejam mailing list. I am not sure whether this was a marketing initiative or an honest attempt not to cause expectations to soar to immense heights, but there it was. It became especially weird when Europeans more or less had to refrain from writing spontaneous reviews and rants/raves, despite the album being released there four days earlier than in the US.

Well, in any case, that gave me a chance to listen to the album quite a few times and still be quite in time to be among the first batch, well, sortof, officially, anyway :-)

Like several other bands before them (Queensryche, Genesis, Pink Floyd of course, quite a few others), Dream Theater have opted to make "Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes from a Memory", their latest, a concept album. It's a gripping murder/love story set in the 20's. I won't lay out the plot here on account of it not being exactly clear-cut (the discussions on who killed Mary in "Operation Mindcrime" are still rife), but it's well done. Concept albums always have to make concessions, though. You can't have 70+ minutes of sheer bombast (not even in Liquid Tension Experiment :-), you can't have 100 percent of lyrical climax. Stories aren't like that, neither is life.

Initially I didn't like the album at all. The first impression, "Regression", is not a good one: An acoustic track that makes "The Silent Man" sound like a Napalm Death track in comparison. After these two minutes the album really starts, with faint musical themes from "Metropolis Pt 1" occasionally popping up their heads, cunningly woven in the musical texture. "Overture 1928" is a cool instrumental displaying Dream Theater's awesome virtuosity and talent. This smoothly transcends into the vocal track "Strange Deja Vu", an excellent track, with James LaBrie in good shape. The music then takes a more gentle tone as the story unfolds in the past, with basic acoustic piano accompanying LaBrie in "Through My Words", seamlessly culminating in the longer, heavier, even chilling "Fatal Tragedy". One of the best tracks on the album, consisting of multiple segments including a small bit that harkens back to the Queen days of yore (around 2:05).

"Beyond this Life" is the first song that isn't actually better than what went before, displaying a rather more straightforward style of songwriting, probably echoing the lyrical subject matter - the murder. The latter half of its 11+ minutes is primarily instrumental and rather long, bordering on the long-winded. The story's sadness is then reflected in the very slow "Through Her Eyes"; no matter what the lyrical reason behind the inclusion of this track, it removes the momentum and is to me the musically least interesting track. This despite Myung capable using a fretless or stick and Petrucci laying down some of the most soulful Steve Walsh-like guitar playing this side of "Amazing Grace".

The single release, "Home", again cranks up speed and gathers once more my personal appreciation. The initial sadness after the murder is behind us and it's time once more for some expert musical showmanship. "Home" is an 11-minute opus that gently works up to an intense crescendo, with cool oriental influences and functional use of a sitar (I suppose that's Jordan on the keys). After "Home" follows "The Dance of Eternity", a semi-lengthy instrumental that once again contains subtlely intermingled sections reminiscent of the original "Metropolis Pt. 1". Among other things, it also features an LTE-style ragtime section and the first ever John Myung bass shredding solo! Through "One Last Time" the CD then almost approaches the end, slowly but surely wrapping up the story. "The Spirit Carries On" starts laid back but eventually attains an ending that includes a gospel choire, quite a beautiful song. The 12-minute closer, "Finally Free" is another masterpiece, not necessarily because of the musicians showing off but primarily on account of it being a track royally fit to crown a CD the likes of this one.

As a whole, the word 'magnum opus' springs to mind. Although previous albums may have showed more intense musical prowess, "Scenes from a Memory" is a beautifully constructed tour de force. A good story, good music. Jordan Rudess is a valuable replacement who brings back the fluid, guitar-like keyboard work so many fans appreciated in Kevin Moore. The slower and mid-tempo songs have a distinct Pink Floyd feel of maturity about them. My only gripe, as usual, lies with James LaBrie. Although it has to be said that at times he soars to scarcely attained heights, he has this tendency to exhale exaggeratedly at the end of some lines. That bugs me no end.

Although the slower passages do take the momentum out of what is generally an intense and extremely coherent album, I am looking forward to it being played in full on their upcoming tour. Maybe you'll recognise me in Zwolle, The Netherlands - I'll be the one crying my eyes out during "Finally Free".

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Written October 1999


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