Reaching the Foundations Doesn't Mean Hitting the Ceiling
144 · 30 October 97
Queensrÿche: Hear in the Now Frontier
As gender oversimplifications go, two of the betters ones are "Women do not like science fiction", and "Women do not like progressive metal". Neither are strictly true, of course, but they capture statistically significant phenomena all the same. In about fifteen years of asking, I have only ever come across one woman who admitted to liking Rush, and even she, after having been cited by me as an example a few too many times, later began to have second thoughts. I've heard various theories advanced to explain this correlation, but most of them revolve around superficial details like the shrillness of Geddy Lee's voice or the unchecked ambition of Neal Peart's mustache, and so fail to account for the striking consistency with which women seem to also dislike other progressive bands, even with lower voices and less facial hair. The last two books I read, though, Scott Bradfield's The History of Luminous Motion and Greg Egan's Distress, have lead me towards, if not a hypothesis exactly, at least the groundwork on which one might someday be constructed, by somebody with more time. Transcendence and understanding can be captured by circumnavigation or direct assault, and Bradfield and Egan square off at opposite extremes of this continuum. Bradfield's approach, in his novel of self-discovery and fugitive dreams, is indirect, to the point of evasion, the language in The History of Luminous Motion so encoded as to seem nearly synesthetic, less like the narrator is explaining himself than like the parts of his brain that organize words are wired directly, if haphazardly, to the parts that perceive his condition, so that each affront maps directly into a phrase, without analysis or interpretation having intervened, translation in the geometric sense, not the linguistic one. The book is most evocative, to me, when it says things I either can't, or don't feel inclined to, disassemble; phrases like "the hesitation of bodies", "filled with hissing and irreducible life", "private temperatures inside yourself", "the progress men and women make alone in the world of light" and "the history of motion" itself linger in my mind, and I feed off of them like I'm harvesting sparks. They are renditions of reality, not descriptions of it. The book's narrative is not what happened, but what seemed to happen; even the characters speak the way they seem to speak, not the way people would actually talk. The History of Luminous Motion is strangest, I think, because it is an allegory of itself. In a way, of course, all stories are allegories of themselves, but they usually pretend otherwise.
Greg Egan's speculative Big Science novel Distress is as dissimilar, in form, as stories come. Egan is a master, perhaps the master, of the theoretical thought-experiment as a near-future plot device, and his idea of plot twists and grand endings makes the Foundation trilogy look like Tom Jones. Distress is a dance through the cosmological and spiritual underpinnings of quantum physics, by way of bioengineering, ubiquitous artificial intelligence and net connectivity, gender politics, cooperative anarchy and conspiracy theory; if Neal Stephenson retold William Gibson's fantasy of cyberspace as an extrapolation grounded in technological reality, then Egan, to me, takes the next step, and recasts a wired future as an arena for human history, rather than a milestone in itself. Language, in such an endeavor, has a very different role. Where Bradfield's story was precisely in its language, like a painting whose image you cannot separate from its brush strokes, Egan's is a novel of ideas, and so aspires to photorealism. His writing must be clear, not atmospheric, a surface that carries you, not caresses you. I don't know that one style is any easier than the other. But at the soul of serious speculative fiction and progressive rock is, it occurs to me, a common aesthetic conceit. The History of Luminous Motion, if it were music, would be Mecca Normal, maybe, or Fugazi, something predominantly oblique and abstract, in which coherent meaning and observation glitter like the jagged edges of shards. Every sound is isolated, and the distinctions between inspiration and technique, or technique and accident, are intentionally obscured. Egan, on the other hand, writes like Rush composes, sketching out ambitious systems that dwarf any individual measure or part. The jump from this observation to an explanation of genre sex-linking is entirely too straightforward. The dichotomy in style maps almost effortlessly, for example, into just about every gender conversational-style opposition Deborah Tannen identifies in You Just Don't Understand, to pick a random arbiter: Bradfield's storytelling entwines the reader in its intimacy, Egan's leaves the reader on the outside, independent; The History of Luminous Motion seeks understanding and rapport, Distress seeks solution and report; one novel is almost entirely without exposition, the other is narrated by a journalist; in one even vanquished enemies live on as ephemeral advisors, while in the other even science and religion are driven by conflict and competition; Bradfield's narrator doesn't even confront all of his own actions, while Egan's confronts the nature of action itself. I'm not satisfied, though, that this is an explanation. Tannen uses gender examples for all her contrasts, but while this is expedient, to me it runs the risk of resigning people to their polarizations, mistakenly substituting causality for statistical correlation. It is one thing to observe the prevalence of these tactics in men, those in women, but it is another to identify some traits as male, and some as female. This presupposes the very phenomenon it's trying to understand. Of course, if You Just Don't Understand had been written with rigorous linguistic neutrality, it would have sold a thousandth of the copies, and if you can sacrifice rigor and take some ignorance down with it, the piece-exchange is probably a good idea.
If this is a war of styles, though, then ironically, at least in music, the side that seeks to obviate the need for winners is actually winning. One by one, the bands that stood most clearly for progressive ambition have surrendered their colors and joined the communal hum. Metallica is now a short-song hard rock band; Rush's last two albums are small-scale guitar records from a band that used to be the planet's reigning arena technocrats. Queensrÿche, once, was the synthesis between these two, a band that managed to combine the disparate histrionics of Queen, A Flock of Seagulls, Ultravox, Heart and George Orwell into a florid nightmare that made The City of Lost Children look like Toy Story. Their 1986 third album, Rage for Order, is, in my version of popular musical history, genre-defining, a cryptic reconciliation of stadium bombast and dissident zeal. Operation: Mindcrime, the Orwellian 1988 concept album that followed, is a sordid, furious flurry of tabloid dystopianism against which Radiohead's OK Computer is merely listless. After that, though, the band seemed to collapse of its own gravity. Empire, the conceptless gathering of breath that followed, yielded their surprise hit, "Silent Lucidity", and whether that song changed their plans, or just reflected them, by 1994's Promised Land they'd managed to contort themselves into an unexpectedly convincing imitation of a classic melodic rock band. This seemed like a loss to me, on one hand, as there were a lot more melodic rock bands than dire valkyries, as it was, but on the other hand, I really liked the album. There are very few bands as diligent and exacting as Queensrÿche, and to me Promised Land's pop song-craft was as meticulously refined as Rage for Order's production or Operation: Mindcrime's vehemence. So I vacillated back and forth, unable to reject an album I enjoyed so much, but unable to accept one that violated so many of its authors' earlier principles, waiting for some additional observation to drag one of these potentialities into truth.
And sure enough, Hear in the Now Frontier collapsed the wave form. The first time I listened to it it so disgusted me that I think I actually shelved it without listening to it a second time. It struck me as an exact Queensrÿche parallel to Rush's Counterparts, a deliberate guitar record that discarded everything that made the band formerly unique. If the Eagles had coalesced in late-Nineties Seattle, even they might have sounded like this. It hardly makes sense to call this album metal, though admittedly this is at least half due to the extent to which bits of metal's dialect have been absorbed into the mainstream over the last decade, and there's certainly no grounds for calling it progressive, unless your intolerance for meter-shifting is so passionate that even "Lick It Up" and "She Drives Me Crazy" worry you a little. I didn't want this. This album found me in a desperate, vulnerable state, and I unadvisedly invested wild hopes in it, even as I was peeling the seal off the spine, and when it failed to rescue me from my becalmed oblivion I felt profoundly and irrationally betrayed. Okay, so Queensrÿche can make an album like this. Why would they want to? Maybe Umberto Eco could write like Ann Beattie, too. But actually doing it is either bullying or redundancy, and who needed more of those? I wanted to rip the umlaut off the band's ÿ like a general tearing the stripes off an officer's breast as a final gesture of disgust before having him executed for treason. Somebody must be accountable -- if not the bands themselves, then how could Peter Collins, who produced both Operation: Mindcrime and Power Windows, assist in these euthanasias? One album couldn't contain my loathing; it leaked back into Promised Land, poisoning that, too. It leaked back to Empire, which can now be seen as the beginning of the decline, where we should have seen the signs. Did I ever really love this band? Really?
But strange metamorphoses take place inside your beliefs sometimes, when you aren't looking at them. One day I woke up and buying a house sounded like a good idea. For at least six years I've worn nothing but black jeans, but last weekend it suddenly occurred to me that a pair or two of corduroys would be warm and comfortable for the winter. Somewhere in the last two years I lost track of why I used to hate eggplants. In Queensrÿche's case, Hear in the Now Frontier could have sat on the shelf until the end of time, but Dream Theater put out a new album, and although it shares some of Hear in the Now Frontier's abstract flaws, I found myself enjoying it. The histories of Dream Theater, Fates Warning and Queensrÿche are inextricably linked to me, however, so any explanation of Falling Into Infinity had to begin with Hear in the Now Frontier, and somehow rationalize the fact that I liked one, but hated the other. I put them both on, sat back, and strung a net to snare the observations that tumbled out of the contrast. I must have left the jewel case ajar all this time, though, as whatever it was I hated so much about this album the first time has drained out and evaporated. It hasn't changed nature, obviously; it's still a deadpan guitar-rock album that, except for the unmistakable sounds of Geoff Tate's voice and Eddie Jackson's harmonies, could be nearly anybody's. But I retain the right to like deadpan guitar-rock albums, too, occasionally, and this one strikes some of the same nerves that once made me listen to Law and Order's Rights of Passage for a week straight. Queensrÿche play with a square resolve that keeps even the most old-fashioned songs from descending into stoned boogie or blues jam, and Tate's soaring melodies rescue even the worst turbulence from Soundgarden brutality. The acoustic breaks in "Sign of the Times" sparkle, "Cuckoo's Nest" lumbers with "Godzilla"-like impassivity, "Get a Life" scales its verses with a dancer's grace before lurching through its fractured choruses, "The Voice Inside" resurrects a little old-Queensrÿche bass throb, "Some People Fly" sounds like a cross between "Closer to the Heart" and "Sister Christian" and "Saved" rings with martial shouts like Dio fronting Rage Against the Machine. "You" struts like an update of Ratt's "Round and Round", "Hero" has hints of "Major Tom"-era Bowie, the sighing "Miles Away" could probably sound like Badfinger with some small arrangement tweaks, the guitars on "Reach" could sound like Lenny Kravitz with a little EQ adjustment, and "All I Want" could be Elton John's if the piano and guitars switched levels. "Hit the Black" is strangled and furious, "Anytime / Anywhere" is surging and propulsive, and the finale, "spOOL", rises slowly to a moody catharsis. No genres are defined, no convictions are threatened, no governments are overturned, but Queensrÿche make a peace, of sorts, with their city, their time and themselves, and surely nothing that hopeful can be wholly pointless.
Fates Warning: A Pleasant Shade of Gray
Fates Warning are doomed to a life, at least when viewed from my perspective, in Queensrÿche's shadow. Like Triumph tagging along after Rush, or IQ tracking Marillion, they always seem to arrive at their discoveries just after Queensrÿche has been through and moved on. I've never been too sure whether this is an unfortunate coincidence or deliberate imitation. Queensrÿche's shrill early period spanned their 1983 debut EP and 1984's The Warning; Fates Warning's began with 1984's Night on Bröcken, and continued with 1985's The Spectre Within and 1986's Awaken the Guardian. Queensrÿche's 1986 shift to Rage for Order started to bleed into Fates Warning's style on the 1988 album No Exit, and by 1989's Perfect Symmetry and 1991's Parallels had soaked in completely. After that, though, Fates Warning seemed to me to be left at a stylistic loss. They weren't inclined to follow Queensrÿche into the mainstream, but they didn't appear to have a clear idea of an alternative. 1994's Inside Out seemed like a delaying action to me, 1995's retrospective Chasing Time even more so. By last year at some point I'd acquired the impression that the band had dissolved. This turns out to be wrong. Long-time co-guitarist Frank Arresti has departed, along with founding bassist Joe DiBiase, but the band claimed keyboardist Kevin Moore off waivers from Dream Theater to fill in the timbral range Arresti would have occupied, acquired bassist Joey Vera from what was left of Armored Saint after John Bush defected to join Anthrax, recalled longtime Rush producer Terry Brown (who also produced Parallels), and carried on. The resulting album, however, maintains such a deliberately low profile that it's easy to imagine they intended for us to think they'd ceased to exist. A Pleasant Shade of Gray, as a title, brandishes its own blandness like a wooden sword, and the hazy gray cover, without a track listing, mutely declines to protest. Once you open the booklet you find that the album's twelve tracks are not titled, only numbered (which does make the fact that they aren't listed on the cover less perplexing), and the lyrics are printed as one album-long run-on. The prospect of a fifty-four minute concept album about a blood-warm stupor can hardly be called electrifying. Ray Alder's distended phrasing always made Fates Warning sound a few steps slower than Queensrÿche, even when the musicians played just as fast, and here, where they actually slow down for long stretches, things can easily become becalmed. This may be the easiest album Metal Blade has ever released to nap to.
But instead of flaws, all these things can be seen as elements of audience selection. Nobody is going to blunder into this album thinking it's Cannibal Corpse or King's X; if you buy it, it can only be because you know what Fates Warning sounds like, and are patient enough to find out what they make of an hour-long elegy to numbness. It is a slow topic, and they don't rush it. Moore is their first full-time keyboardist, but it always took a bit of mental effort for me to remember that they didn't have a keyboard player, anyway, so it seems to me that little about the band's sound has changed. Where Inside Out seemed undirected, though, A Pleasant Shade of Gray's organizational coherency gives it a focus that ties together its long, evolving passages, not quite like a symphony, but like a meditation, at least. As their peers turn to pop and rock, Fates Warning holds true to their progressive roots, with angular tempo shifts, intricately cantilevered instrumental flights and complex, drifting compositional structures whose track borders you're only likely to note if you're watching the CD player's readout while you listen. As Solitude Aeturnus has demonstrated, in another corner of metal, as well, playing slowly can be as radical a departure as playing quickly. It takes a little discipline to gear my listening metabolism down to the right rate to enjoy this album, I find, but I'm sure the exercise has all sorts of other heath benefits.
Dream Theater: Falling Into Infinity
When Dream Theater's Images and Words came out, in 1992, I completely misconstrued what it meant for progressive metal. It seemed to me to be a striking advance of the genre's state of the art, and a bold challenge to Fates Warning and Queensrÿche, which they would have to respond to by making even more astonishingly proficient albums themselves. I thought the presence of Dream Theater would turn the triumvirate into a self-fueling engine, each band spurring the other two to outdo themselves and each other. When 1994 saw all three bands produce albums that didn't do this, I returned, frowning, to my calculations, but I never did figure out where the flaw was. Images and Words is one of the most over-the-top albums of instrumental pyrotechnics and maze-logic hyperactivity I've ever heard, and five years later it still sounds, when I put it on again, like the cacophony of a thousand doors of possibility slamming open approximately at once. I didn't expect it to have the popular resonance of Nevermind, but I did think I'd be hearing echoes of it in the corners for a long time. The echoes turn out to be elusive even in Dream Theater's own later work. 1994's Awake had just as many long songs, but somehow they didn't feel to me like they were on the same scale. 1995's mini-opera "A Change of Season" was enthralling, and the EP's sideshow of covers was amusing, but the title song was an older concert staple finally committed to disc, so the EP couldn't represent the band's future. The joke of covering Journey's "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" also seems less facetious in retrospect, when I realize that at several points on Falling Into Infinity the band actually reminds me of Journey. As it happens, Dream Theater have largely ended up following Queensrÿche and Fates Warning, not leading them, and this album is their version of rock straightforwardness.
The specific self-transformation Dream Theater attempts, however, seems very different to me from the ones Queensrÿche and Fates Warning subject themselves do. Queensrÿche's metamorphosis seems like an act of ritual abnegation, intended to purify them of their own history. Hear in the Now Frontier is not the album of what Queensrÿche wanted to sound like, it's the album left after they peeled away everything they didn't want to be, a declaration not of intent but merely of freedom. A Pleasant Shade of Gray, on the other hand, is a tortoise-like retreat within its own shell, a band reacting to its unfashionability by walling itself inside smaller and smaller worlds, until it finds the brick to go in the last chink that separates the infinite universe they don't belong to from the fog-enshrouded catacomb in which their existence seems not only noble but inevitable. Dream Theater's third path, instead, leads towards a revision of their own self-image that makes it seem like they were some other sort of band, all along. What I feel, listening to Falling Into Infinity, is not that Dream Theater have managed to make an uncharacteristic album of soaring stadium ballads, but that Dream Theater have always been making soaring stadium ballads, only before now I didn't realize this. Where this album reminds me of Journey, it is not as if Dream Theater have changed courses, it is as if I have only just now become aware of the threads that connect "Pull Me Under" to "Separate Ways", and Dream Theater's arena bombast not to the apocalyptic spectacles of heavy metal but to the shameless populism of Boston and Foreigner. This is pretty dense of me, I guess, since A Change of Seasons contained covers of Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Kansas, Queen, Journey, the Dixie Dregs and Genesis songs, which should have been more than enough clues, but how a band sounds when they are trying to play like the bands they grew up on and how they sound when they are trying to play like they have grown up themselves are rarely the same, and if you could deduce one from the other, the Connells would be the new Jethro Tull.
The biggest difference between Dream Theater's alteration and Queensrÿche's and Fates Warning's, though, to me, is that Dream Theater changes what they touch, as well as being changed by it. Queensrÿche have lost the power to move the world because despite their earnest study of levers, they have neglected to secure anywhere to stand; Fates Warning have lost the power because from where they stand, you can't reach anything. Dream Theater finds the compromise that lets them reach out, without losing their own footing. Falling Into Infinity makes the case that Dream Theater is an heir to the legacy of Styx and the Moody Blues, but it also makes the converse case, that the bold, glorious world in which all these bands once lived still shares crossover points with our own. To say "there's still great music like that being made", and mean Dream Theater, is significant in a way that saying it, and meaning the new Night Ranger and Loverboy albums, is not. These days the embalmers are prying at the jaws of musical eras by the time they finish introducing themselves, so the dead are rarely departed, but it is still possible to distinguish, I think, between the living and the merely animate. "New Millennium" roils with Deep Purple-like organ washes, Lifeson-esque guitar flutters and Pink Floyd-like machine noises, but it also surges on John Myung's foundation-shaking bass rumble. The chorus of "You Not Me" growls with a Def Leppard-like languor, but the verses mix Stone Temple Pilots guitar churn, Stabbing Westward synthesizer simmer and a Mike Portnoy drum part that sounds to me like what Lars Ulrich's early Metallica style might have evolved into if Lars had chosen to sacrifice velocity, instead of articulation. The swirling "Peruvian Skies" (though no self-respecting Journey song with a woman's name in the chorus would have resorted to geography for a title) has hints of "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys", but the massed-guitar hook that the chorus turns on is big enough to skewer Paul Bunyan's ox. The pianos and acoustic guitars on "Hollow Years" give it the Adult Contemporary reserve of Bruce Hornsby or ballad-mode Extreme, but James LaBrie's voice holds his notes in the chorus just a few beats too long, too close to the microphone, and mars the song's glossy sheen. A rattling Portnoy/Myung rhythm track and a viciously pitch-bent keyboard solo from Sherinian undermine the throaty old-school metal aggression of "Burning My Soul". The instrumental "Hell's Kitchen" touches on precedents from Yes to Rush to Marillion to Black Sabbath. The legato "Take Away My Pain" builds a coliseum torch anthem out of pieces of Marillion's "Kayleigh" and "Slainte Mhath", bits of Drama-period Yes and a touch of what might be Chris De Burgh's "Don't Pay the Ferryman". "Just Let Me Breathe" (an incendiary excoriation of MTV and the kinds of icons it breeds, if you take the time to extract the sense of LaBrie's perhaps wisely obfuscatory delivery) scrubs White Zombie-ish thrash to an unfamiliar polish. "Anna Lee", an augmented piano ballad, could be Dream Theater's answer to Kiss' "Beth". And lest you forget that all this was supposed to lead somewhere, the twelve-minute gallop "Lines in the Sand" (with King's X singer Doug Pinnick doing an impassioned Paul Rodgers impersonation) and the three-part album-closing odyssey "Trial of Tears", dense with whiplash syncopations and post-"Eruption" guitar heroics, roll up the long roster of bands whose ghosts watch from the faded T-shirts of the stagehands, and launch intently into Dream Theater's own proud contribution to the form. As many sources of wonder as there are, immanent in the words and surfaces that bisect the open spaces in our lives, it's comforting and inspiring to see that somebody still believes in the awe of pyramids and suspension bridges, of canals and encyclopedias and every other renegade ambition that nurtures nothing but a shared, inexplicable hunger, still believes in breathing life into imagination in the most unmistakable grammar possible, firing rockets at the sky to make sure the stars are still afraid of something.