36 · 5 October 95
Dream Theater: A Change of Seasons
There is an alternate universe that exists coextensive with our own, a shadow reality in which one key development in our musical history happened differently. The point on which the bifurcation turns is the rebellion of raw punk rock vitriol against ornate arena-prog excess. In our universe, this uprising struck a fatal wound into the heart of popular appreciation of progressive rock, and baroque musical ambition hasn't stood much more than an incidental chance here ever since. In the universe next to ours, though, it recovered. Punk's rhetorical point was a valid and important one, establishing that Keith Emerson didn't have to be the model for the modern musician, but in this other universe the masses didn't extend the argument to hold that overwhelming technical mastery and compositional sophistication were inimical to rock and roll. Green Day sold millions in this other universe, as well, but so did Marillion. Over there Clive Nolan is a millionaire, Yes never had to make Big Generator, Queensryche didn't use "Silent Lucidity" as a single, and Rush even has some female fans. Progressive and symphonic rock flourish, and there are even more prog fans than there are bands.
Dream Theater is probably the most prominent interloper from this other universe at the moment, especially as Queensryche have moved into more conventional song structures of late, and become naturalized. Intimidatingly accomplished, technically, Dream Theater still has an aggressive metal edge that wins them converts among the otherwise intolerant. John Petrucci's blistering guitar parts partially conceal the complicated musical arrangements and tricky rhythmic contortions, and though their songs do have the telltale tendency to come in at around eight minutes more often than three, they rarely sound epic in the protracted way that a Yes album side or a cohesive Marillion song-suite can. "Lie", the lead single from their 1994 third album Awake, sounded surprisingly like a straightforward rock song, especially in its 5:00 edited form.
This five-track EP, released to fill the time until the next proper Dream Theater album comes out next year, confirms both Dream Theater's relative accessibility and their essential progressive core. The latter is in clear evidence in the title track, a sprawling twenty-three minute opus that was apparently a staple of the band's live show for years before incessant pestering from members of the band's email list finally convinced them to commit it to record somehow. It's got every essential aspect of a timeless prog-rock masterpiece, including roman-numeraled sections, instrumental passages with titles like "The Crimson Sunrise", "The Darkest of Winters" and "The Inevitable Summer", lines like "Tripping through the life fantastic" and "I've lived my life, but now must move on", and stilted bits of spoken verse. I'd never seen this live, but it's easy to see why fans would have latched onto it. It's pretty clearly the band's most ambitious work to date, and a superb showcase for their myriad virtues, from Petrucci's flamboyant and bruising guitar to John Myung's lithe bass, Mike Portnoy's breathtaking drumming, James LaBrie's rich voice and new keyboardist Derek Sherinian's atmospheric synthesizers. It's expansive without ever seeming to meander, complicated without ever sounding arbitrary, aggressive without ever losing track of the guiding melodic themes, and it takes itself seriously without getting mired in pretension. It's nothing short of astonishing to me that the band is capable of playing this thing all the way through, without the benefit of sheet music. Actually, most of the individual parts are astonishing to me, as well, even in isolation. For anybody who thinks this variety of progressive metal is regrettably underrated, this is quite possibly the song of the year. Go now, and buy.
Historically, twenty-three minutes of music would have been quite enough for a plausible "EP", but Dream Theater has taken the very CD-centric stance that even fifty-eight minutes, which would have necessitated a double-album on vinyl, can be seen as a minor interim release if the conditions are right. The four other tracks they fill the disc with are live recordings from a unique cover show they did at Ronnie Scott's in London, back in January. The first one is a long medley of the Elton John songs "Funeral for a Friend" and "Love Lies Bleeding". Sherinian does play piano on this, but even without that overt reference, this cover does a remarkable job of being true to both Elton's original spirit and Dream Theater's own nature. Elton ought to do more heavy metal.
The second cover, the one isolated non-medley of the set, is of Deep Purple's "Perfect Strangers", from their 1984 album of the same name. To old-time Deep Purple fans this may seem like an odd choice, but Perfect Strangers happens to be the only Deep Purple album I have, and I'm thrilled to hear the song given such a rousing updating here. LaBrie even manages to avoid making me miss Ian Gillan, which is quite an accomplishment. Next they run through a Led Zeppelin medley of "The Rover", "Achilles Last Stand" and "The Song Remains the Same". I was never a Led Zeppelin fan, so this part isn't as interesting to me as it probably will be to others. The final track, though, called "The Big Medley", returns firmly to my musical youth. In an inspired series of segues they manage to cram into ten minutes pieces of Pink Floyd's "In the Flesh?", Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son", Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", Journey's "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" (that they manage not to slip into parody during this section is pretty phenomenal, and leads me to very disturbing thoughts that maybe I ought to pick up Journey's greatest hits one of these weeks), Dixie Dregs' "Cruise Control" and Genesis' "Turn It On Again". Hearing such often-dismissed end-of-the-Seventies fare reverently resurrected as a past one doesn't have to be ashamed of really pleases me. Not, mind you, that I bought any of these records at the time.
Grey Lady Down: Forces
Where progressive rock moves firmly into the alternate world, though, is where it abandons the protective company of metal. An entire subculture of bands exists whose seminal texts remain Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi, angular epics of bristling wordplay, burbling keyboards, jagged percussion and legato guitar. It's possible, and in many ways justifiable, to write off the lot as misguided retreads of an early glory that even Marillion themselves have long since move on from. It's also possible, though, to lose yourself in the earnest assiduousness of it all, and give bands like this credit for resuscitating a style that was far from exhausted by its initial practitioners.
Grey Lady Down's first album, 1994's The Crime, left me with sympathies toward both of these positions. On one hand, the Marillion resemblances were almost painfully evident. Keyboard Louis David often seemed to be playing Mark Kelly lines verbatim, and guitarist Julian Hunt appeared to have reconstructed Steve Rothery's guitar tone closely enough to fool a spectrum analyzer. A part of me couldn't help frown at this slavish imitation. On the other hand, though, I liked Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi a lot, and Marillion themselves aren't making albums like that any more, so why shouldn't somebody else?
Forces does little to distance GLD any further from their inspirations. The yelps of "Game On!", in "The Nail" are especially reminiscent of Fish's cries of "The game is over!" in "Script for a Jester's Tear", and the slow crescendo of "Battlefields of Counterpane" could have been lifted from any of a dozen Marillion songs. But somehow I can't find it in my heart to resent this any longer. Grey Lady Down are so unapologetic about their style that you either grant their right to occupy the territory or you ignore them. And their homage is so delicious in its own right that I quickly adopt the former attitude without any reservation or apology. Sure, these songs sound like early Marillion, but they're good enough to have been early Marillion songs! And I'll buy another album of early Marillion music any day.
(One small note: after the thirteen minute mark on the final track, go ahead and punch Next Disk. The extra ten or so minutes on the end of it are pointless and annoying. If bands don't abandon this regrettable practice quickly, somebody is going to have to make a CD player that can be programmed in seconds rather than just track by track.)
Arena: Songs from the Lions Cage
In the world of Marillion imitators, Arena has a unique excuse for their behavior: drummer Mick Pointer is an actual ex-member of the band, a legitimate alumnus of Script for a Jester's Tear. This doesn't explain why singer John Carson sounds so much like Fish, or why omnipresent prog keyboardist Clive Nolan chooses to wear his Mark Kelly mask while serving in Arena, but at least this band has some personal knowledge to work from. In fact, Steve Rothery himself even makes an appearance, contributing a little trademark guitar to "Crying for Help IV".
"Mick Pointer's new band" was a kind of shaky recommendation to me, I'll admit, as my perception was that replacing Mick did Marillion quite a bit of good, and that he was hardly a central creative figure even during his stay. It's been over a decade since he left Marillion, though, and he appears to have spent the time well. His drumming here justifies itself admirably, and if the writing credit "All songs written by Pointer/Nolan" is really indicative of the way these songs got created, Mick learned Marillion's lessons as well as just about anybody.
Of the nine songs, the four even-numbered ones are all versions of "Crying for Help". The first one, establishing the song's basic theme, is a short solo acoustic guitar piece. The second version switches to keyboards, and expands the short guitar sketch to about three minutes. The third version starts to fill out the arrangement, adding some ethereal voices and more synthesizers, and extending the song to over four minutes. For the final version everybody pitches in, the singer makes his appearance, and we get to hear the embryonic earlier forms solidify into a complete song. This progression is fascinating in itself, and it also serves to give the album a pervasive overall coherency greater than what the loose thematic links between the other five songs would have provided on their own.
Those other songs cover a range of Marillion-esque modes. "Out of the Wilderness" reminds me strongly of "She Chameleon", from Fugazi. The edgy "Valley of the Kings", with its spoken interludes, reminds me of both "Fugazi" and "Forgotten Sons". "Jericho" opens with a guitar figure that's nearly identical to the beginning of "Beautiful", from Afraid of Sunlight, and then in fact does sound quite a bit like what "Beautiful" might have been if Fish's version of the band had recorded it in 1983. "Midas Vision"'s verses sound like a Fish solo track, but the metallic choruses actually sound more like IQ than Marillion. And the debt that "Solomon", the 14:37 finale, owes to "Script for a Jester's Tear" itself is staggering; I quickly lose count of how many times I expect the song to break into "I'm losing on the swings, I'm losing on the roundabouts".
As with Grey Lady Down, though, as imitations go this is the very best sort. If you like this sort of music, then I'm pretty sure the only way you'll dislike this album is on principle. Put the principle aside and another ecstatic hour in the mirror world awaits.
Enchant: A Blueprint of the World
The state of neo-progressive rock in the US is pretty succinctly summarized by the fact that Enchant, who are from California, put this fine album out back in 1993 in Europe, and despite being very well regarded among prog fans, it is only now being released here in their own country, thanks finally to the diligence of NYC prog loyalists Magna Carta. The literal Marillion connections continue, as Steve Rothery produced five of these ten songs, and plays on two of them. The stylistic thread starts to fray dangerously, though, as to me Enchant sound much more like a slightly less metal-heavy version of Dream Theater, with some additional Rush influences, than they do like Grey Lady Down or Arena.
The band formation is the prog-standard five-person vocals-guitar-bass-keyboards-drums set. Singer Ted Leonard's voice isn't powerfully distinctive, but he handles a melody with aplomb (which is about what I'd say of James LaBrie, too). Guitarist Douglas Ott and supple drummer Paul Craddick share most of the writing duties. Their songs rarely break into full-out speed metal like Dream Theater's are wont to, more often substituting disarming rhythm shifts where Dream Theater would settle into a sprint, but the overall effect is still similar. It's possible that the differences in the two bands sounds are more due to production than playing; A Blueprint of the World's production is understated and unobtrusive, with the drums, especially, treated very dryly and simply, while Dream Theater tends to apply production gloss with equipment originally meant for installation in automatic carwashes. I ought to route this CD though my Quadraverb to see what that would do to it, but my stereo system isn't rigged up that way, and I don't have the patience to rewire it.
If you aren't devoted to the genre, there's probably not much here for you. Dedicated prog-metal fans, on the other hand, should be well-enough pleased, and we need to give the few American progressive bands we have all the support we can muster.
Tristan Park: A Place Inside
And if I'm inclined to support any American progressive band, I'm even more pleased to buy a progressive album largely recorded right here in Massachusetts, by a band that appears to be from New Hampshire. I wouldn't even really insist that it be particularly good, but as it happens it's excellent. There are stylistic similarities to echolyn (though Tristan Park are nowhere near that florid) and IQ, and the inevitable traces of Marillion, but the frequent inclusion of trumpets, flugelhorn and sax give the arrangement a distinctive flair. Tristan Park also have an instinct they aren't afraid to indulge for the classic ballad, and can even slip into a slinky groove when it suits the occasion. The resulting album thus actually sounds like an American interpretation of the idiom, not dependent on its British originators, and not obsessed with the insular neo-progressive movement's rigid expectations. Progressive purists will probably object to the number of songs that rely on straightforward drum parts, and thus veer dangerously close to the mainstream, but I find the band's mixture of richness and simplicity refreshing.
Not all these songs quite take off, but I really like the way "One Word Away"'s gritty guitar churn gives way to a galloping chorus with nice vocal harmony; the rain-like piano arpeggios that patter through the quiet parts of "A Day Away" are lovely; I like the plaintive chorus of "Hollow Inside", as the narrator asks "Do you feel the emptiness that comes from walking out on faith?"; the interplay of the Rothery-like guitar part and the burbling synth line in "The Search" is a nice touch; I wouldn't mind hearing the subdued, atmospheric keyboard and trumpet instrumental "A Well Lit Place" expanded into a long ambient piece; the parts of "The Closest I've Come" that remind me of a TV theme never fail to make me smile, and I'm fascinated by the way Chuck Dyac's voice manages to sound like Mark Burgess, Midge Ure and the guy from Vigil in the space of a single song; and the instrumental concluding track, "Porn Jazz", despite the awful title, shows that Tristan Park could have an interesting future in soundtrack work. I don't expect this album will make my year-end best-of lists or anything, but it's a record Tristan Park can be fiercely proud of, and if they put out another one I can promise sales of at least one.