As Dream Theater quietly celebrates their 30th anniversary as a band this year, I bring you a look back at what is likely the group’s best album, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory. Many might argue that Images and Words is their best, but I believe that Dream Theater reached unmatched levels of brilliance on their 1999 album. It is also one of the greatest albums ever created, in my humble opinion.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m a very recent fan of Dream Theater. I didn’t really “get into” the band in earnest until early this year. Somehow, though, I feel as if I have been listening to the band for years. Their music seems to transcend time and emotion, particularly on Scenes from a Memory. This album manages to capture so much emotion, feeling, and spirit through both the lyrics and the music itself. From the seemingly strange concept of a man discovering he is a reincarnation of a woman murdered in the 1920s to the blisteringly brilliant musicianship, Scenes From a Memory grabs the listener and doesn’t let go. The album also manages to reach back to the band’s first album with James Labrie, 1992’s Images and Words. As many of you know, Scenes From a Memory is an extension of the song, “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper,” and the album manages to include and build upon many of the themes and musical motifs introduced in that song.
Metropolis Pt. 2 saw the band realize Mike Portnoy’s several year endeavor to convince the wizard, Jordan Rudess, to finally join Dream Theater. This acquisition took the band to new musical heights and uncharted territory. After all, Rudess started attending Julliard at the young age of 11, younger than when the legendary Van Cliburn began his studies at the school. His abilities on the piano and keyboards offered Dream Theater the ability to explore new sounds that simply were not possible before.
From the captivating first few ticks of the clock and the voice of the psychologist to Nicholas’ final scream and the closing static, Dream Theater captivates and enthralls the listener with Scenes from a Memory. We immediately know that this is no ordinary DT album. However, we don’t yet understand that what we are listening to is on the scale of the best works of bands like Genesis, Rush, and Kansas! The fact that Scenes is a full concept album makes it even better, because it allows us to follow the band through an entire story without any interruptions. I’m a sucker for a good story, and the way DT weaves this imaginative story through nine different scenes is simply remarkable. I’m also a sucker for history (my major, and about a $100,000 of my parents’ money, after all. I had better like history!). This story epically connects the present with the past by allowing Nicholas to discover the history of his own spirit, both through dreams, hypnosis, and actually visiting the grave of Victoria, the woman he shares a soul with. While I believe reincarnation is, well, frankly, just an idiotic idea, it makes for a thrilling story. In fact, this album would probably make an interesting movie.
I could go on and on and bore you by talking in depth about every minute of this album, but I myself am strapped for time. DT, Wordsworth, Eliot, and the history of 20th Century Europe all seem to be screaming for my attention, with Dream Theater winning right now. I want to highlight the second half of the album, however, for the band takes the definition of epic to a whole new level. The song, “Scene Five: Through Her Eyes,” offers beautiful lyrics in a truly emotional manner. I offer you the lyrics to the whole song, because, well, they are just so beautiful and heart wrenching.
She never really had a chance
On that fateful moonlit night
Sacrificed without a fight
A victim of her circumstance
Now that I’ve become aware
And I’ve exposed this tragedy
A sadness grows inside of me
It all seems so unfair
I’m learning all about my life
By looking through her eyes
Just beyond the churchyard gates
Where the grass is overgrown
I saw the writing on her stone
I felt like I would suffocate
In loving memory of our child
So innocent, eyes open wide
I felt so empty as I cried
Like part of me had died
I’m learning all about my life
By looking through her eyes
And as her image
Wandered through my head
I wept just like a baby
As I lay awake in bed
And I know what it’s like
To lose someone you love
And this felt just the same
She wasn’t given any choice
Desperation stole her voice
I’ve been given so much more in life
I’ve got a son, I’ve got a wife
I had to suffer one last time
To grieve for her and say goodbye
Relive the anguish of my past
To find out who I was at last
The door has opened wide
I’m turning with the tide
Looking through her eyes
There is so much going on here, and I highly recommend listening to this song closely while reading the lyrics. The image of Nicholas visiting Victoria’s grave and weeping over her death, 80 years earlier, is powerful. Nevertheless, her death reminds him of how blessed he truly is! “I’ve been given so much more in life / I’ve got a son, I’ve got a wife.” It is as if the story of Victoria is reminding Nicholas to cherish what is dearest to him, for tomorrow is not promised to anyone. The rest of the album assures us of that fact.
As we enter “The Dance of Eternity,” we begin the final stage of our story, which, unfortunately, doesn’t have a happy ending. The song itself offers Dream Theater at its most technically proficient, and it has been used ever since as a way of demonstrating to others why this band is so freakin’ awesome. The brilliance of these musicians to sit down and write this song merely demonstrates how important this band is to modern music.
Dream Theater reaches the peak of the album, and, quite possibility, the peak of their artistic capability, with “Scene Eight: The Spirit Carries On.” I honestly do not know how they, as artists, could ever top the beauty of this song. Even apart from the story, this song stands alone as an encouraging and uplifting piece of art.
Where did we come from?
Why are we here?
Where do we go when we die?
What lies beyond
And what lay before?
Is anything certain in life?
These are the ultimate questions of life that mankind has been asking since the beginning of time! At some point or another, every human that has ever lived has asked these questions. Some (like me) turn to God for their answers, others to the occult, while others look to their own perceived strength for the answers to these timeless questions.
If I die tomorrow
I’d be alright
Because I believe
That after we’re gone
The spirit carries on
Within the story, it is clear these lyrics are referring to reincarnation. However, taken by themselves, these lyrics could easily be referring to the peace Christians find in Christ’s redemptive power. Now, I am NOT saying that Dream Theater intended this interpretation when writing the song. I am saying, though, that this song has been very helpful to me in difficult times just this year. I believe God works through music, even music that isn’t expressly Christian. Feel free to have your own interpretation of the song. Either way, it is a beautiful piece of music.
And now, we are “Finally Free.” Another song filled with so much emotion, technical prowess, and mind wrenching plot twists. As Labrie’s vocals soar ever higher on this song, the emotion and the story swell to further heights. We finally hear the true story of what happened to Victoria, and it isn’t pretty. Throughout the whole album, we are given the story of Victoria and her lovers, Edward and Julian, both brothers. She breaks up with Julian because of his gambling and drug addictions, and she begins seeing Edward. Julian begs for forgiveness, and they start seeing each other in secret (“One Last Time” being their rendezvous). In the final song, we discover that Edward kills both of them and makes it look like a murder-suicide. Hardly an uplifting ending. Yet, it is:
As their bodies lie still and the ending draws near
Spirits rise through the air, all their fears disappear
It all becomes clear, a blinding light comes into view
An old soul exchanged for a new
A familiar voice comes shining through
Even in the most tragic of events, DT finds hope in despair! Magnificent. Yet, we are thrown another plot twist. Nicholas discovers the true story and goes home to rest. He is awoken by his hypnotherapist, he screams, and the album cuts to static. In the notes for the live DVD, we discover that Nicholas is killed, and the hypnotherapist is the reincarnation of Edward. Truly sad, in the end. However, I’m glad that DT didn’t include that information in the original album, because I think it would have spoiled it… spoiled the hope of redemption. Enough plot summary. My English professor will kill me if he reads this.
Some final analysis of greatness. The other day, in Dr. Birzer’s Christian Humanist Historiography class, we were reading and discussing T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” As a part of the discussion, Dr. Birzer spoke a bit about the nature of modernist poetry and art, the key being fragmentation. Through fragmentation, we can come to a greater knowledge of the truth about something. This understanding encouraged an epiphany in my deranged mind! Scenes From a Memory is both fully modern while fully rejecting modernism. The cover art is the most obvious sign of modernism in the album. It is a fragmented photograph of a young man, likely Nicholas. The title is modern. We come to an understanding of Nicholas’ and Victoria’s stories through a glimpse at different scenes, or fragments, of their combined memories. We are never really given a whole narrative, but rather, we are forced to piece together a cohesive narrative based upon fragments from a memory. Yet, Scenes is not modern, in that the music is composed in an almost classical sense. Portnoy is playing notes on the drums, not beats (I believe the distinction between someone who plays an instrument and a musician). The album also embraces history as a way of viewing the present and the future, which is a very old concept.
So, in the end, DT simultaneously embrace the modern and the classical, which is what truly sets apart Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory from any other album the band has created, or likely will create. It pushes the album to a level of greatness above Images and Words, and it brings Dream Theater into the golden arena of prog, with greats such as Rush, Kansas, Genesis, and Yes. Indeed, Scenes From a Memory just might be one of the best albums ever made.
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