Dream Theater In Metal Maniacs Magazine
by Jeff Wagnere
However you want to classify the music of Dream Theater (and related bands like Fates Warning, Queensryche, and Psychotic Waltz), they reside in a secluded abode significant and separate from the rest of the metal family. Like the eccentric uncle, perhaps, proudly independent of the rest: curious, respected, often shut out by those outside the immediate family. Its genealogy can be traced to Nektar and Gentle Giant, and if you´d listen to any of these bands next to, say, King Crimson, you´ll easily be able to cite certain parallels of innovation, adventure, and bravery. Thankfully, none of them sound like any of the other.
Dream Theater exemplifies musical brilliance without constantly wanking away at 1,000 MPH to prove it. Remember how Yngwie´s musical masturbation burned everyone out years ago? Dream Theater has no permanent home. It is simply Dream Theater. Take it or leave it. The new album, Falling Into Infinity, makes no effort to meet modern mainstream qualifications (as Queensryche´s new pile of crap has), despite a few songs that recall a more streamlined DT than ever before. Who cares that this record was produced by Kevin Shirley (who´s worked with a couple of bands I´d rather not mention here)? Who cares that some record label info sheet tells us "Burning My Soul" will "impact" at metal and rock radio on this and that date? I don´t. I care about killer massive metallic fusion. I care about wild instrumentation within the context of memorably impacting songs. And Dream Theater has yet to fail in providing all of the above.
Ten years after forming in Boston at Berkeley Music School,drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist John Myung sit across from me, beaming like proud papas about the completion and imminent release of "Falling Into Infinity". I present them with copies of the latest Metal Maniacs. Drummer Mike Portnoy asks, "didn´t Barney [Greenway] used to write for this magazine?" Indeed he did, I affirm. That reminds me - the liner notes for DT´s ´95 "A Change Of Seasons" give thanks to Greenway for helping them out on stage, but nowhere on that mostly-covers CD do we hear the inimitable throat blower´s hellish roar. So, guys, what went on that night, and what song could you have possibly collaborated with Napalm Death´s Mr. Greenway on?
"We did a Metallica tune with him," Mike explains. "At that show, we did a whole other hour´s worth of cover songs that weren´t on the EP, and we did a bunch of songs where people joined us on stage, so Barney came out and did
"Damage, Inc." with us. Actually, we released that to our fan club for a Christmas single. We wanted to leave the EP with just us [on it]. It was cool, man."
I´ve always been perplexed by the Dream Theater/Napalm Death Mutual Appreciation Society. One would never guess such a thing could exist when listening to new DT tracks "Peruvian Skies" and "Hollow Years". Though FII is certainly not even close to a "Load" or a "Hear In the Now Frontier" (i.e. crrrrap!), it seems purposely streamlined in certain spots. I see the Mike doesn´t entirely agree. "It is, at points. "A nd then he stresses " At POINTS."
So, was this a conscious attempts to temper the usually maze-like arrangements the band is so well-known for? "For certain songs, we were thinking to consciously try to focus and not get too sidetracked," Mike explains. "And then there´s other songs, the big songs, like "Lines In the Sand", "Trial Of Tears", "New Millenium" - those were written the way we always write, where it´s just sorta stream of consciousness and whatever happens, happens. So, we tried to focus for different songs. Like "Peruvian Skies", we consciously tried to write a simple arrangement."
Hmmmm. For Dream Theater to take a radical approach, then, means to actually conform somewhat, to temper its tendency to arrange a song as a schizophrenic, perfectionist genius might. John, in his ever-calm demeanor, considered this. "I think we´re just changing and our tastes are evolving. We´re really conscious of growth, we don´t want to be pigeonholed to do any one particular thing, so with this album, I think we´ve really balanced the self-indulgent playing. I think we´ve captured the personality of the songs."
This makes me think of Rush, and how they´ve somehow managed to maintain an ongoing, successful career by doing just that - by assessing their tastes, infusing them into their music, and if they all of a sudden seem to be writing three-minute songs as opposed to the 20-minute epics they´re known for, then everyone-else-be-damned. That´s just the way it´s gonna be. Right? Is Dream Theater headed that way? Mike firmly maintains, with conviction, "at least we still have 12- and 13-minute songs [LITS and ToT]."
There´s also the opener, "New Millenium", one of the band´s finest, most focused compositions to date, which clocks in at a healthy nine-plus. Mike exuberantly continues the thought, "yeah, and then [there´s] "Hell´s Kitchen", an instrumental with a lot of odd time signatures and cool playing. It´s a
balance, whereas Rush, Yes, and Genesis, all those progressive bands throughthe years, they got a little more poppy. We still have that balance. Even for some songs, if the arrangements are a bit more simple, if the songs sound a little more radio-friendly, we´ll still balance it with longer instrumentally-based songs too. We never want to lose that balance."
Brave thinking for a gold-selling band who does this for a living, and who could easily sway to the temptations that other high-profile major-label heavy bands have historically given in to. The mass mindset says guitar solos aren´t cool... High-register vocals are cheesy... Virtuosity is self- indulgent. Does not that current mainstream music industry mentality fucking SUCK?
"It´s a pretty shitty time for music," Mike does declare. "´Just Let Me Breathe´ totally sums up the whole state of current music. I think it´s a pretty sorry state of affairs in the industry, but hopefully it´ll turn. It doesn´t bother me what goes on around us, as long as it doesn´t change us. I see other bands, the ´M´ band or the ´Q´ band who have completely succumbed to giving in to changing their styles and to fit these trends, and..."
"I don´t think that´s fair, though, because we changed too," John adamantly
I stay out of it.
Mike: "Yeah, but I don´t think we changed our style."
John: "I think when you´re a fan of something, you have expectations."
Mike: "Well, I´m a fan, too, so I have an opinion just like anybody else, and what some of those other bands have done by completely changing their sound and style, to me, as a fan, I´m turned off by that! And I don´t think anybody can accuse us of that. Yes, there´s a change in sound, maybe, or a little bit of change in style, but it still sounds like us. It has the diversity, it has the extremes that we´ve always had, so I think you have to listen to what´s out there, and with the current state of music, it´s scary to stick by your guns and do what you do. You want to do what´s gonna make you the most successful, but you really have to balance that with integrity and what you could live with. I wouldn't´t want to put out an album that I couldn´t stand by, and I love this album, I think it´s our best album. I don´t feel like we´ve sold out or compromised any integrity whatsoever. We´ve changed, because naturally we´re going to change, no matter what we do, no matter what
the musical climate is, you know?"
Wise words. I hope the "M" and "Q" bands are reading. It wouldn´t hurt anybody to take a page from the Dream Theater book of musical ethics. Chapter One: How To Become An Incredible Musician. Chapter Two: How To Stay An Incredible Musician, And Even Write Good Songs! And just to play devil´s advocate, I ask John and Mike a scandalous "what if": What if Dream Theater DID go the way of Rush, churning out less-than-challenging three-minute pieces? They both steadfastly cut me off before I finish. "It would never happen," says John. "I couldn´t see us having a one-dimensional record. I think the different areas that we might go in that diversify a record will change, but when you do one type of thing, you want to write something different next time."
"As long as I´m in this band," Mike adds, "I wouldn´t go in that direction. I don´t think anybody in this band would let that happen."