012: Yes – The Yes Album
011: Supertramp – Crime of the Century
010: Dream Theater – When Dream and Day Unite
009: Marillion – Clutching at Straws
008: Queensryche – Rage For Order
007: Ayreon – The Human Equation
006: Dream Theater – Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
005: Savatage – Poets and Madmen
004: At Vance – Only Human
003: Fates Warning – A Pleasant Shade of Grey
002: Fates Warning – Parallels
001: Rush – Power Windows
Album: The Yes Album
When I think about a classic Yes album, my mind, like the minds of most fans goes directly to the band’s 1972 effort Close to the Edge. However I feel that two albums prior to that album the band may have very well recorded something that is quite possibly an equal to the much better known Close to the Edge.
Picking up where Time and a Word left off, The Yes Album represents the solid foundation of the band’s future identity, while flawlessly executing the new styles woven into it. One could chalk this up to simple growth as a band, a maturity of musical ideas, but I think, and plenty of Yes fans would agree that the addition of guitarist Steve Howe probably had something to do with it too.
Howe’s presence is felt early on the record, having several leads in the opening track “Yours is No Disgrace” that now people would simply say are “Howe-like”. He has a beautiful way on the album of bringing the guitar to the center of the music without any amount of heaviness, and without drowning out any of the other instruments. The second song, “The Clap” is simply a live rendition of Howe in London with an acoustic guitar performing a diddy that remains a live staple to this day. The man simply has a beauty and technique to his playing that is simply mesmerizing.
The rest of Yes certainly have their moments on the disc as well. Gentle use of the organ by Tony Kaye and soothing yet soaring vocals by Jon Anderson certainly power “Starship Trooper”, while Chris Squire’s bass lays the fundamental groundwork for the Yes classic “I’ve Seen All Good People”. And of course Bill Bruford manages to add his own spark to things throughout the album.
Although many would say that The Yes Album was simply a stepping stone towards greater things I would certainly argue that the band had already arrived at the first of several masterpieces with the record. The album is prog-rock in its purest form, yet it might be the most accessible album the band ever produced, despite obvious attempts at commercialization in their later years. Whether you are listening to the album intently or in the background it will put a smile on your face, as it manages simply to be enjoyed, and does not require the concentration of Close to the Edge, or especially Tales From Topographic Oceans.
While most consider Close to the Edge THE Yes album, and many proggers consider it to be the brightest star in the entire prog sky, if I ran into somebody and had no clue about their musical taste, and I wanted to show them what Yes was capable of, I would be giving them The Yes Album.
Nick’s grade: A+
Album: Crime of the Century
Not everyone will agree that Supertramp was, in any typical way, a classic prog band, however I’d say that Crime of the Century was one of the finest progressive releases of the entire 1970’s. While others tend to focus on releases like Red, or Selling England by the Pound, I tend to think that Supertramp produced a record superior to either of those.
The opening track, “School”, shows keyboardist Richard Davies showing very early on that while other keyboardists at the time were experimenting with new technologies and sounds, he was busy simply taking a classic piano song to an entirely new level within a rock song. Likewise, in the next track, “Bloody Well Right” they band documents how to make something mainstream yet respectable, and John Helliwell plays the song out with a magnificent saxophone solo. John continues his exceptional playing through the next track, “Hide in Your Shell”. While the band through these first three tracks have not done anything individually groundbreaking I can’t help but call the song-writing progressive in the sense that it builds on available ideas in a way that is unique to the band. Although the vocals provided by Roger Hodgson and Richard Davies certainly stand out, there is something about the music that specifically stands out as Supertramp.
This is perhaps most apparent on the track “Asylum”. A beautiful and surreal track, “Asylum” documents how well Supertramp can use piano and string arrangements in their music. Although fans have debated whether or not Crime of the Century is a true concept album, buy the start of the classic track “Dreamer”, one could easily begin to believe that it is, simply because of how well all the music seems to flow, how it seems to connect and build.
“Dreamer” and the two tracks that follow continue to exhibit the excellent songwriting that is in abundance on the record, until finally the album comes to an amazing conclusion with the albums self-titled track. Beginning with a beautiful lyrical section the song then features a simple but effective guitar “solo” followed by an amazing album outro that ranks among my favorites of all time, despite its relative simplicity. It’s not hard to conceptualize, it’s not fast paced, it doesn’t require a music degree to understand, but it does capture the emotion of the album perfectly, in a way that I personally see as progressive, even if others do not.
As soon as an album has a few popular singles people seem to have a problem calling it prog. However, despite my insistence that Crime of the Century is a progressive release, what’s truly important is how good the album is. Call it classic rock, pop, or prog, a rose by any other name will still smell sweet, and this album will still be amazing, no matter how you classify it.
Nick’s Grade: A
Band: Dream Theater
Album: When Dream and Day Unite
Very rarely do I go into a review for any other reason than to express my opinions on whatever album I have chosen to write about. However, there is one album that I feel is so underrated and overlooked that it deserves a review simply to defend it and give it some exposure.
It might seem silly to give exposure to an album by Dream Theater, who outside of the radio mainstays is one of the biggest bands in existence, but I have run into more than one fan that doesn’t even know there was an album before Images and Words or a singer before James LaBrie. And right there are two of the reasons that, now, twenty years later, an album that began the tremendous career of Dream Theater is so often bashed or tossed aside. Fans tend to show distaste towards Charlie Dominici not because they really dislike him, but simply because he isn’t James LaBrie, and they tend to forget the album because it doesn’t have the sparkling production of Images and Words.
But let’s look at the album by itself, without considering who and what came after it. What you have is a youthful energy from start to finish, and a group of strong to excellent songs with a singer that despite asked to move outside his range from time to time, delivers a fantastic performance. The album has a special difficult to describe spark that seemed to be somewhat lost as later albums were polished to a fine shine. A song like “The Killing Hand” has so much raw power and energy that it is hard not to admire it. On the other hand simple melodies and fantastic lyrics are often overlooked in a song like “Status Seeker”. Many fans seem to have a bit of distaste for the song because of some commercial attributes, but I say if you really listen to the song you will see everything about it is pure Dream Theater, with a commercial edge done far better than would later be seen on Falling Into Infinity. The song “Ytsejam” I see as a very young brother to the song “Stream of Consciousness”, it showed how well Dream Theater could do a more straightforward, metal instrumental.
When looking at the young musicians on the album that would later become household names amongst prog fans you can already observe the seeds of brilliance. The drumming and general structure of the albums opener “A Fortune in Lies” can compete on a technical level with the rest of Dream Theater’s catalog. Myung’s bass grooves in “Afterlife” are probably some of his most memorable, and it could be argued that Myung has not been fully utilized since this album. Charlie Dominici puts for a passionate performance that really lends itself so very well to the songs, and you really see his strength on a track like “Only a Matter of Time”, a tongue twisting adventure in which you are lucky to understand one syllable of live in the present day with James LaBrie. Despite being so quick flowing Charlie manages to keep a steady melody, and the verses of the song remain some of my favorites from the band. Kevin Moore shines on the track “The Ones Who Helped to Set the Sun”, while guitarist John Petrucci works together with John Myung to give “Light Fuse and Get Away” a solid rockin’ backbone. By the end of the album it is clear you are dealing with a superior group of musicians, even if their style may not be fully refined.
As mentioned earlier though, if there is one major flaw with the album it is the sound of the album. It is raw and certainly suffers from being a typical debut album with a very small recording budget. On the other hand this does not have a significant effect on the final presentation of the album as the style of the album lends itself better to the poor production far better than any later album would have. Let’s compare “The Killing Hand” from When Dream and Day Unite and “Learning to Live” from Images & Words. Both are epic tracks from the band, and both are considered to be one of the best from their respective albums. If “The Killing Hand” had been on Images & Words the polished production would not really do all that much to improve the powerful, energetic, and bombastic song. However if “Learning to Live” had been on When Dream and Day Unite it would suffer terribly.
So aside from the sub-par sound, this album has it all. It lays the foundation for what Dream Theater would become, and it does it while remaining a powerful album in its own right. From start to finish you are treated to a Dream Theater album unlike any other, and if you listen closely you will hear why this album sparked so much interest in five young musicians from Long Island.
Nick’s Rating: B+
Album: Clutching at Straws
Several months before co-hosting a radio show I tried to write my first musical review, but that project ended in complete defeat as I attempted to review an album with which I had such a musical and emotional connection, and I could not find a way to put my thoughts to words properly. However, a few months later I broke the review ice with Dominici’s third album, and now fifteen reviews later I am returning to try and do justice to one of the absolute masterpieces of progressive-rock, Clutching at Straws.
Much like its predecessor, Misplaced Childhood, Clutching at Straws should not be viewed as a series of tracks. It should in my opinion, be viewed as an emotional rollercoaster which rivals any other album ever made. Furthermore, I believe the album is best broken down into three distinct sections.
The first section goes from the mystic opening of “Hotel Hobbies”, to the sobering ending of “Just for the Record”. Lyrically the first five tracks on the album begin to tell a somewhat cohesive story of the butt ends of fame, heartache, and drugs. Musically the album shows Marillion at their strongest. Their neo-progressive style having been refined over their previous three albums matured into a flowing, naturally progressing style that provides the perfect soundscapes to go behind the story. Add to that some of Steve Rothery’s best leads and solos and a vocal delivery from Fish that is as unique, powerful, and emotional as possible, and you have an incredible start to this record.
The second section of the record contains the next two tracks, “White Russian” and “Incommunicado”, and provides a strange emotional release before the albums conclusion. “White Russian” is perhaps the strongest standalone track on the album and is as emotionally charged as the rest of the record, but takes a turn off the topics of the rest of the album. Next, “Incommunicado” provides a musical and lyrical uplift that prevents Clutching at Straws from being a completely depressing and dark album. I’ve always wondered about the inclusion of these two tracks on the album. Certainly two of the stronger standalone tracks, but many claim, and are reasonable in saying that it breaks from the rest of the album. However, I believe with their decision to include them they included them in the right place, in the right order, with “White Russian” lyrically distracting the listener from the tones of the album and then “Incommunicado” providing a brief reprieve from all aspects of the album. Because the second section is wedged right in the middle, the third section of the album is strong enough to bring everything from the first section back into play without ever getting the feeling that you got sidetracked for a moment.
“Torch Song” kicks off the third and final section of the album, bringing back into focus the importance that alcohol played lyrically throughout the first section of the album. Once again the listener is treated to one of the most emotional performances a singer could put forth as Fish pours his heart and soul into the album. This trend continues through the somewhat anthemic “Slainte Mhath” and the touching ballad “Sugar Mice”. Finally, the album concludes with the single greatest closer I have ever encountered. I say closer because it implies more than simply being the last track on an album. “The Last Straw” is an emotional and musical whirlwind, perfectly summing up the emotion and the feel of the album in a few minutes. To me, that song represents the finest moment in Marillion’s career. Strong by itself, the song becomes magical at the end of Clutching at Straws, and leaves me in awe every time I listen to it.
Drummer Ian Mosley recalls that, “The tracks offer subtle as well as obvious references to excessive antics. Antics and abuses that ultimately (if not intentionally), forced the band to regroup, retreat and recognize the need for reformation.” Although musical differences are certainly part of the reason Fish left Marillion during the writing of Marillion’s 5th album, one can also simply look at the words Fish left to us in Clutching at Straws to gain a deeper understanding of what would happen. A man, and a band burnt out on fame and alcohol would record their masterpiece around those themes before they would have a “reformation” that would show both Marillion and Fish never again reaching the levels of success that they had achieved together.
Nick’s Grade: A+
“And if you ever come across us don’t give us your sympathy
You can buy us a drink and just shake our hands
And you’ll recognize by the reflection in our eyes that deep down inside we’re all one and the same.”
-Fish in ‘The Last Straw’-
Album: Rage For Order
Rage For Order is the reason Queensryche is classified as progressive metal. The bands first full length release, The Warning, was very well received and an excellent record. However Rage For Order would maintain the quality with the addition of more complex song-writing and arrangements, and a very good use of synthesizers in general, let alone for the mid-80’s. The album features soaring vocals with precise phrasing, interplaying guitar work that shows how deep chemistry between two musicians can go, and a solid rhythmic backbone. To this day the record has only been topped by the band’s masterpiece, Operation: Mindcrime.
Opening with what has become a fan favorite, “Walk in the Shadows”, the album seems to slowly expose you to what Queensryche would become with this record. More experimentation is seen with “I Dream in Infrared”, and finally you are fully submerged in the new sound with “The Whisper”. After only these three songs I am in awe of both the composition and musicianship of the album. There is an early balance between the two that many bands have failed trying for, Queensryche did not. “Gonna Get Close to You”, certainly one of the riskier tracks on the album, and oddly its only single frankly creeps me out. Musically there are many aspects of the song I really enjoy including one of the simpler guitar solos that works very well with the song, but Geoff Tate can only tell me he’s going to get close to me so many times before I’m ready for the next track!
“The Killing Words” shows off how subtle use of the keyboards would be fully utilized to add an extra dimension to the album, and also shows how complex some of the arrangements and composition could get. “Surgical Strike” is a bit of a flash back to The Warning in the best of ways. An interesting drum rhythm under the verses, a catchy chorus, guitar solos that you wish you wrote, and a very short yet remarkably memorable instrumental section make the song one of my favorites. Next, “Neue Regel”, and later “Screaming in Digital” are direct descendants from The Warning’s “NM156”. Much like “Gonna Get Close to You” they feature the heaviest use of synthesizers, and are certainly two of the oddest songs on the album. Definitely both growers, after a few listens I think most will come to appreciate all the subtleties of these songs.
Next we come to my favorite track of the album, “Chemical Youth”. This song exemplifies all the best qualities of the album done in about four minutes, kicking your ass in the process. Although it is one of the heavier songs on the album, it shows off all the progression that Queensryche brought with them on the album. Complex arrangement, unusual drum beat and accent phrasing throughout the verses, awesome riffs and guitar work throughout, and a chorus that makes you want to head-bang uncontrollably. Finally, “London” and “I Will Remember” seem to continue the trend that “Chemical Youth” began. Both continue to showcase the near perfect merging of Queensryche’s early dominance of traditional metal with their more progressive leanings. This merging would be more refined and less obvious on the follow up album, Operation: Mindcrime, and would show its face once more on Promised Land, but after Rage For Order it was never again so precisely achieved.
Although I do consider Mindcrime the better album at the end of the day, Rage For Order certainly deserved credit for bring Queensryche to a level were they would be ready to deal with a monumental concept album. It is also important to note that a title track would be dropped from the final record, and later surface in instrumental form as “Anarchy-X”. After seeing the bands comments on the album and comments from the man himself, I can only thank Neil Kernon, the albums producer and mixer for both this positive evolution of Queensryche, and the merging of the old and the new. It’s no surprised that Neil was credited with additional keyboards on the album, considering from what I’ve seen, as a producer he was open to and was a catalyst for the evolution of Queensryche’s sound in so many ways. Neil also did a fantastic job with the sound of the album. The album was obviously recorded in the 80’s, yet even if I could, I wouldn’t change a thing. The guitars are subtle when they have to be and up front when that’s what the song needs. Everything seems in its place and even if the album sounds “dated”, for lack of a better word, I wouldn’t want the overall sound tampered with at all. This album shows Queensryche at or near their zenith in many different respects, and we are very lucky that they’d stay at the top for several years to come.
Nick’s Grade: A
Album: The Human Equation
As with most concept albums one can not simply approach The Human Equation song by song. The album is a sprawling two disc journey taken along with a man in a coma struggling with his emotions to come back into consciousness. The man is voiced by James LaBrie, while composer and primary instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen voices his best friend, and the wife, and nine emotions are voiced by a talented and diverse cast of singers. The album would stand alone musically, or with almost any of the singular vocalists, but it is the amazing way in which Arjen throws everything together that makes the album truly special.
The album begins with a soft track, medical machines heard in the background to signal the state of the man as Arjen, playing best friend opens the dialog wondering about the state of the man. Although he said he was originally intending someone else for the part, listening back I can’t imagine anyone except Arjen playing the role of best friend, sure, he is not an overly talented singer, and he surrounds himself with the absolute best, but there is a special character and emotion found within Arjen that makes his roles special nearly all the time. For the second half of the song we are treated to the then unknown Marcela Bovio. Arjen sent out a call for unknown talent to appear on his next record, and out of a myriad of tapes sent in to what might as well be Dutch Rock Opera Idol, Arjen pulled out what was truly a diamond in the rough. Hailing from Mexico Marcela’s voice is as close to an angel as I can imagine. Soft and beautiful yet strong when required she outshines any female who attempts her style.
Through the second and third tracks we are further introduced to the varied and talented group of singers that are showcased on the album. The songs feature some of the heavier material on the album, music always accenting the emotion and singers of the time. Fear and Rage are introduced, voiced by Mikael Akerfeldt and Devin Townsend respectively, and they give performances to be remembered. The strong emotion of the album and their parts within truly justify and make all the better the growling seen throughout the album. Never overdone they simply display their parts as best they can. On the other hand several parts of the album feature softer sections, often with thick warm synthesizes more reminiscent of long gone progressive rock giants than of a band putting out albums in the new millennium.
“Hope” points out one of the albums strongest points. The song shows how Arjen perfectly crafts the music to fit the mood and lyrics of the piece. “Love” is another example with the music reminiscent of the type of dance where the man and his wife met. And a review of Ayreon is never complete without comments on how well Arjen uses the vocalists on his album. Each person seems perfectly suited and yet molded for their role, as Arjen once again shows his knack to always bring out the best in any singer. James LaBrie is seen using a low, deep and emotional side of his voice which is so often overlooked in Dream Theater these days. The beauty of Irene Jansen and Heather Findlay is so very apparent, and singers like Devin Graves and Magnus Ekwall are used to the extent of their particular niche.
Also appearing on the album are many unusual instruments including the violin, cello, and even a didgeridoo. That in itself is not all that amazing, what is however is how well Arjen uses each in his music, incorporating perfectly every instrument (or instrumentalist) he can get his hands on. The album also features one of my favorite closing tracks of all time. “Confrontation” sums up the theme of the album while the music powers forward ever faster and more intense until James LaBrie lets out one final shriek which leaves your heart pounding and wishing there was more.
Although the album features so many wonderful individual talents and songs, what it is as a whole truly makes it shine. From the concept to the music to the interplay of voices the album comes together as a masterpiece, only helped by Arjen’s beautiful engineering and mixing work. From the heavy to the atmospheric this album covers everything with beauty and precision, and it stands out as Arjen’s crowning achievement to date.
The album is available as a 2CD regular release, 2CD/1DVD special edition, and a very special limited edition that has the album shaped like a book. With the DVD in one cover, the 2CD’s in the other cover, and an extended booklet in book type binding in between it is the nicest packaging for a multi-disk set that I’ve ever seen. The DVD contains a very nice and lengthy documentary on the album, a brief explanation on the concept, a video for Love, and a few other small goodies.
Nick’s Grade: A+
Band: Dream Theater
Album: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
Reviewer: Nick Andreas and Kevin Martell, edited by Jeremy Hefner
Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence would be an important mark in the band’s history for a variety of reasons. It was their first double album, so questions would be raised on whether or not that was justified. It was a follow up to Scenes From a Memory, the first album featuring Jordan Rudess and considered by many fans to be the band’s finest work, and finally, Six Degrees would feature Dream Theater’s longest song to date, the forty-two minute title track.
The album opens with the heaviest, most aggressive track Dream Theater has ever attempted, and the risk in such a song certainly paid off. “The Glass Prison” is easily Dream Theater’s best opening cut to date, its constant energy keeping the listener in a tight grasp throughout its fourteen minute duration. The track features beautifully worked recurring musical themes, an instrumental intro that will have anyone’s blood boiling, memorable riffing, and some of the best vocal trade-offs Portnoy and LaBrie have ever managed. The next track, “Blind Faith” better represents the overall sound of the album. Heavy at times, however the primary focus being on experimentation, and softer more uplifting musical patterns. “Blind Faith”, as well as pretty much everything on the album after it, contain a lot of moments of subtle beauty that can often be lacking from other Dream Theater material. Especially haunting is the piano solo that is the center of the song, and the pickup after the solo that to the unfocused mind can be confused with a choir of angels who have descended from heaven simply to sing to you. “Misunderstood” perfectly nails the experimental nature of the album, succeeding in both its softer and heavier halves; however this triumph is often overshadowed by the overly long outro.
“The Great Debate” is a gem on the first disc that is often overlooked by fans. An epic in many respects, the track builds in a fashion that can often be underrated. The song goes from a sample driven intro, to parts that feature the new sound of the album, and others that give a more traditionally driven Dream Theater sound. Well written from beginning to end the song keeps you interested in an odd way in which most other Dream Theater songs of similar length rarely do. Only Trial of Tears really manages as many subtle hooks throughout such a long duration. Finally we end disc one with “Disappear”. The song features the best lyrics James LaBrie has ever written, and the best lyrics on the album. They lend themselves to the music well in creating an aura of beauty throughout the piece. However for the first two thirds of the song the music simply is not that impressive. Near the end however, the song shows a saving grace. The final third of the song prior to the outro is the most hauntingly beautiful piece of music since the oft disputed Space-Dye Vest. The guitar added in the end section takes the music to an entirely new level, the lyrics climax bringing the song to an amazing close. Then another unnecessary outro once again detracts from what had just happened.
All of this seems to lead into the grand piece of the album, the self titled, forty-four minute long epic “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”. The track’s beginning certainly lends itself heavily to the experimentation of the album, relying Jordan Rudess to recreate an orchestra by recording multiple tracks with his keyboard. This creates something new for Dream Theater, something that standing alone may be seen as simply amusing or different, but as part of the whole is brilliant. One later realizes many of the musical styling of the overture in the rest of the song, and “Overture” flows into “About to Crash” as well as all the songs flow together. The flow is perhaps the greatest strength of the song, the transitions can be both abrupt yet natural, and never once in forty-four minutes do you feel bored, nor do you think things are getting repetitive. The song delivers everything, softer moments, heavier moments, soulful instrumental passages, shredding, and the kitchen sink. The chorus’s to the movements “War Inside My Head”, and “The Test That Stumped Them All” manage to catch both with the music than with the vocals. The intro to “Solitary Shell” remains one of the simplest yet beautiful introductions Dream Theater have ever done. And the song ends on an emotional note that is tough to match, forty-four minutes coming to an end in an incredible release of one breath from James’s mouth.
The production of the album can best be summed up as meeting Dream Theater’s standards. Ever since Images and Words the band has failed to produce a bad sounding album and this is not exception. Although the music may be a tad subdued compared to other albums, everyone is still there. Petrucci delivers amazing solos, Portnoy lays complex patters, LaBrie powers much of the music forward with his voice, Rudess takes care of the atmosphere, and Myung sits as the backbone for it all to center on. Together this formula created an album that was, and still is the most exploratory in Dream Theater’s catalog. It is the album that finds them going, “What haven’t we tried before? Let’s give that a shot!” And the boys pull off this challenge with ease, creating a first disc that features five tracks that range from very strong moments to fantastic, and a second disc which manages to encompass a forty-four minute track that is fully deserving of its length.
Nick’s Grade: A-
As good as Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence is, it is a frustrating album because it signaled the start of a trend in Dream Theater’s music that has remained popular to this day. With the success of songs like “The Glass Prison” and “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, two tracks that pushed the boundaries of their respective genres to the fringe, the band was given the false impression that being bombast and epic all of the time was a good idea. It is for this reason that the record’s greatest strength – its disregard for conventional, subtle (DT) songwriting – is also its greatest weakness.
The songs “Disappear” and “Misunderstood” are two prime supporters of my argument. The former is phenomenal at times, in particular its heart-wrenching chorus, but it’s hindered by sound effects and herky-jerky vocals in abundance. The latter is half great, half boring. The final three minutes of the song stray so far from where they were going in the first place that they become less bearable than nails against a chalkboard. Heck, they sound just like nails against a chalkboard.
“The Great Debate”, unlike the aforementioned two compositions, is devoid of any redeeming qualities (except for perhaps its instrumental section). It starts off with samples, and then it tries out some annoying vocals that are over-ridden with effects, and to finish up, it revisits more samples. Oh, and did I mention that the work as a whole clocks in at just under 14 minutes? It’s an insufferable bore, one that’s placement near the end of the first disc of the record doesn’t help matters.
I cannot stress just how close Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence came to failing. Its two discs comprise what has to be the ballsiest hour-and-a-half of music in the Dream Theater catalog, music that comes close to being too ballsy for its own good. However, because of this recklessness on the part of the band, the album finds a way to work, and demands respect. In particular, there are three songs that not only save the record, but define the most remarkable aspects of Dream Theater’s new millennium sound.
The openers “The Glass Prison” and “Blind Faith” are two of the most interesting pieces of weaponry in the band’s arsenal, and have served as blueprints for many of their more recent outputs. For example, “The Glass Prison”, with its relentless, thrashing nature, was an obvious influence on Train of Thought. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that that entire album metamorphosed from “The Glass Prison” and the fun the band had playing it live. “Blind Faith” also, with its big jam section and ever-changing tones, is structured a little bit like “Endless Sacrifice” and “The Ministry of Lost Souls”.
Where the SDOIT songs go right and their imitators go wrong is in the utilization of Jordan Rudess. Throughout the record’s running length he churns out stunning melody after stunning melody, his soloing still a little shreddy for my taste but undoubtedly memorable. In particular, his piano work on “Blind Faith” might be his signature moment with the band, a rambling of notes that is as elegant as anything I’ve ever heard inside of the progressive metal genre (although, that might not be saying much).
Rudess’s most famous contribution to the album is it’s title track, which he wrote a substantial portion of, and spans an overwhelming 42 minutes. The song is not perfect – its length makes it a chore to get through and some of it’s movements feel out-of-place, in particular “Goodnight Kiss” and “Solitary Shell” – but it’s solid enough to resonate with you. In particular, “Overture”, “About to Crash” and “About to Crash (Reprise)” are great, their free-flowing essence shining through every note, and “The Test That Stumped Them All” and “War Inside My Head” kick all kinds of ass. “Grand Finale”, the final movement of the epic, is excellent as well, although the long fade-out at the end always annoys me.
It has been well publicized that, had Scenes from a Memory failed, Dream Theater would’ve broken up. Thankfully, they didn’t, and the result of their success with Scenes was their best JR-era effort to date. Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence is a wonderfully mysterious album, one that rewards the listener after each successive listen and consistently reveals new elements of its craft. Still, I cannot stress enough just how close the record comes on numerous occasions to jumping the shark; reaching a point of ridiculousness that is so far-fetched one wonders whether or not Dream Theater has become a parody of themselves.
However, in almost going too far, the band succeeds tremendously, showcasing a willingness to take chances and no concern over cosmopolitan perception of what they should be. It is because of this that Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence divided the DT fanbase upon its release, but has since become one of the group’s most heralded works. The risks that they took in composing it, I think, were clearly worth it, and would be welcome in the future.
Kevin’s Grade: C-
Album: Poets and Madmen
Alright, I’m a huge Savatage fan, particularly of the later stuff from Gutter Ballet to Wake of Magellan. Poets and Madmen is a bit different from the albums which proceeded, though it is similar at the same time.
The first thing to notice about this release is that for the first time since 1993’s Edge of Thorns, Jon Oliva is back on lead vocals for the duration of the album. I personally have always preferred Zak Stevens to Jon, so this takes a few points off right from the start, especially because I feel the album loses a lot for his absence. If this album had been a true return to form of mid 80s Savatage, Jon would sound very at place on it, but the music leaves me really wanting to hear Zak’s voice as it’s more reminiscent of the 90s stuff.
Another thing I feel this album loses points for is the Jekyll and Hyde quality of the writing. The songs can’t decide on what mood they are. There’s very many melodic interludes more reminiscent of Zak’s Savatage… piano and softer more melodic vocals, but at the same time, they randomly burst into more aggressive riffs and angrier rougher vocals. For some of the songs it increases the mood but for others it nearly ruins it.
All things aside, I do like several songs on this album quite a bit. I feel like The Morphine Child and Back to a Reason are two amazing tracks, and for the most part, most of the rest have very good parts to them. I just feel like this album was not really taken to it’s fullest potential. As if the band were rushed when making it. I feel this is especially bothering when it comes to the story, which I think is weaker than all the rest of theirs. It has good parts, but really isn’t the same caliber of Wake or DWD, let alone the godly Streets. The other thing that bothers me is that this album comes off has a half-assed return to form. I personally feel that the band didn’t need a return to form to begin with, but it bugs me that this album couldn’t go the full nine and just leaves me wanting the full blown rock opera that they’re come to specialize in through time.
As I said, this is still worthy of picking up, especially for the die-hard Savatage fan. It’s got a few gems on it, but if you’re new to the band try any of the albums from Gutter Ballet to Wake of Magellan before this.
Jeff’s Rating: C+
Band: At Vance
Album: Only Human
I’ve been a fan of power metal for a few years now and in that time I’ve discovered that there’s a few crimes in the genre when it comes to which bands get all the glory and which bands go unnoticed. For those of you who don’t know, At Vance has been releasing albums almost every year for 9 years straight now, and just about every one of them rules. However, I feel that Only Human is probably their crowning achievement, which is both good and bad considering it serves as original vocalist Oliver Hartmann’s final effort with them.
This album brings a lot of different elements to the table, some of which many power metal bands don’t focus on. One aspect that this album keys in on that may seem a bit overused in power metal is the neoclassical aspects of the music. It’s no secret that Olaf Lenk (guitarist, primary writer, founder) is big into both classical music and neoclassical players such as Yngwie Malmsteen. The presence of this style is not only in Olaf’s solos but also in the chord structures and melodies of the guitar leads. However, despite how cliché the idea is for most bands, At Vance manages to pull it off in a unique way that’s not near as trite.
Another thing this album offers up is the vocals. Oliver Hartmann is probably most well known for his work on Avantasia, but that’s not nearly a good indication of what he’s capable of, which is brought completely to the table here. Hartmann’s voice is both powerful and melodic. He doesn’t get too engulfed in the overly melodic cheese vocals like some other Melodic Metal/AOR singers tend to, yet he really has an amazing set of pipes that seem to be the best when tackling more emotional vocals.
Possibly the biggest thing this album brings to the table than many other power metal albums seem to leave at home is amazing songwriting. Every song on this album is a keeper, and that’s a rarity in this genre. I can listen to this album from start to finish and honestly say I love every song. The choruses are strong and memorable, the soloing is quite tasteful and the songs never drag yet never seem too short.
All in all, if you’re a fan of melodic and power metal, this is an album you simply need. I’d probably consider this one of the top 15 power metal albums ever released, and certainly the crowning achievement of At Vance’s career.
Jeff’s Rating: A
Band: Fates Warning
Album: A Pleasant Shade of Grey
I really love Fates Warning, and love almost all their albums, but this is one of the few exceptions. When I picked this album up I had just heard Parallels and No Exit, and was expecting something quite interesting and memorable, and much to my disappointment, I got neither.
The album starts off slow and almost morose sounding, with just some bell-type noises and an almost spoken word passage from Ray Alder. This didn’t scare me at first, because I figured “concept album, slow, building intro”. As it turns out, the slow, building intro of this album takes nearly 5 tracks before it really gets going. Each of the first half dozen songs seems like it’s really going to go somewhere, but it just doesn’t. They build up only to die down again, but it’s not really an enjoyable rollercoaster ride to be on. Track 6 was really the first thing that grabbed me, and 7 was interesting as well, but after it all seemed to blur together until I came to the last 2 or so tracks.
While the band probably named the tracks simply “A Pleasant Shade of Gray I – XII” because they wanted to give a flowing conceptual feel, it may have just as well been due to the complete lack of identity most of these songs have. Many of them simply drift by leaving you unmoved and uninterested, wondering whether or not they’re even going anywhere.
Despite it’s downfalls, the album still can be enjoyable when you’re in the right mood for it, but as a whole it’s just quite unmemorable.
If you’re looking to get into Fates Warning I would NOT recommend this album and tell you start with something like Parallels, No Exit, Inside Out, or the Spectre Within first. Well, unless you’re into taking long musical naps.
Jeff’s Grade: D
Band: Fates Warning
Listen after listen as more and more time goes by, I really can not find a single thing wrong with this album, not one complaint at all. Regardless of how many ways I analyze it, I can’t find anything I don’t like or even think could be improved upon. Let’s take a look at the specifics.
Writing: I don’t think you can ask for anything better than this when it comes to songwriting that is very emotional and well thought-out yet still definitely has a metal edge to it. There’s a couple “half ballads” on here, in the form of The Road Goes On Forever, Eye to Eye, and about 50% of The Eleventh Hour. These tunes offer up a very heartfelt side of the band, expressed through Jim Matheos’ amazing guitar work and Ray Alder’s unique and expressive voice. There are also however several tunes that are certainly more of a metal variety, such as Leave the Past Behind, Life in Still Water, Point of View, and Don’t Follow Me. These songs generally feature enough harmonized guitars and complex rhythm section stuff to keep just about anyone happy. (Mid to late 80s Queensryche anyone?)
Playing: I can’t fault the musicianship on this album at all. It’s obvious from just a single listen that a lot of the playing is definitely more complex than your average metal record, but on the other hand, this album does not do something many, many prog metal albums do, which is basically trip over their own feet by trying to write the most complicated music they can. The playing is very tasteful. The solos are flashy but only when the music calls for it. The vocals perfectly fit the mood of each song and passage, the drumming is very technical yet along with the bass delivers a much needed bunch when necessary.
Production: When I think of the greatest produced albums of all time, this is quick to come to my mind. Not a single thing is wrong with this album’s production. Every end of the sound spectrum comes out very well, and the album sounds great any way you want to play it, loud or soft, on speakers or in headphones, it doesn’t matter. The sound quality is immaculate, and in no ways leaves you desiring anything more.
So yes, it goes without saying that this album is a must have for fans of anything along the lines of traditional or progressive metal. This album appeals to a lot of different people though it’s stylistically hard to classify. When I think about this album, it makes me actually realize what “the big picture” of metal and music in general is all about. You need this.
Jeff’s Grade: A+
Album: Power Windows
What happens when re-invention meets near perfection? The answer lies within Rush’s 1985 release, Power Windows. The album is one of two Rush albums to follow a theme within every song. The front of the album is a boy sitting at a window, the back is the same boy looking out at the viewer with binoculars, and both images fit the theme of observing power.
The opening cut, “The Big Money” quickly leads into the concept of the album and delivers an intriguing new look at Rush of the time. On Moving Pictures synthesizers began playing large roles in a number of songs, and during the next two albums they would take over. On Signals and Grace Under Pressure the synths were thick, heavy, and the force of the music. With “The Big Money”, as with the rest of Power Windows we finally see the balance between synths and guitar, between adding depth and overuse, and we see Rush come into the 80’s musical movement with the same awesome force that it dominated the 70’s with. The producer on the album is Peter Collins, who at the time was known for working with British pop talent. With many acts this would have ended badly, but for Rush he would certainly prove to be the best producer they would ever work with outside of the famous Tim Brown. (Later produced Counterparts) Instead of turning Rush into a cheap pop act he served to smooth out Rush’s sound. The album sounds balanced, keyboards not dominating the album as on the previous record. And although the album is certainly more subdued than Grace Under Pressure, it is every bit of Rush as a fan would have come to expect. It delivers odd time signatures, funky grooves, and odd guitar tones, all to a rockin’ backbone.
“Manhattan Project” follows the famous story of the first atomic weapons and tells a haunting tale of how military forces, or more properly, simple tension around the world drive the innovation of deadlier and deadlier weapons. All this in front of some of the best music Rush produced in the entire decade. Although I rarely pay attention to lyrics at large, I must say that the track “Territories” shows what a genius Neil Peart is, not simply with a pair of sticks, but also with a pen. Through the course of human history few lines can be pondered as much as the following excerpt from “Territories.
We see so many tribes – overrun and undermined
While their invaders dream of lands they’ve left behind
Better people – better food – better beer
Why move around the world if Eden was so near?
Observations of power and motivation like the one above are scattered throughout the album and move it near the very top of Rush’s albums lyrically. “Middletown Dream” maintains for an entire song what many of the other songs on the album do in different sections. The song almost reaches out to your heart, taking hold, forcing you to listen as the atmospheric melodies dance in your head and Alex Lifeson’s scattered guitar bite at you like dozens of needles on your skin. The final song on the album, “Mystic Rhythms” manages to create a similar sensation. A difficult and atmospheric drum beat forms the backbone of the song while synthesizers and guitars weave their way in and out of the song delivering an emotional tour de force that has not been duplicated many times in Rush’s entire career. Not only is it an appropriate closer for Power Windows, in my opinion it was their best closer since Cygnus X-1, and seven studio albums later Rush have never created an equally amazing ending to an album.
My complaints of the album are minor and few. The tracks all run between five minutes, and six minutes and twenty seconds, mainly due to a more traditional verse/structure pattern that many prog fans may not take well at first. Also although “The Big Money” makes a good first impression for new listeners, being very accessible for more seasoned Rush fans the song certainly becomes overly poppy at times, however this track is luckily the only track to suffer from such a shortfall. Power Windows showed that Rush were able to adapt to a new sound in a manner few bands would ever be able to accomplish, and it continued the measure of quality and originality fans had come to expect, even while it took on some of the more obvious sounds of the 80’s.
Nick’s Grade: A