Metal Mondays: Remembering Where it all Started with Dream Theater

It has been a while since we have done a “Metal Mondays” here at Progarchy, and it has been even longer since I can remember reading anything online about Dream Theater’s first album, “When Dream and Day Unite.” Due to the absence of singer James LaBrie, this album is usually overlooked and forgotten by all but the most diehard fans of the band. Charlie Dominici, the band’s second vocalist (Majesty’s original vocalist was a guy named Chris Collins), was no slouch as a singer. He had the range and power necessary for someone in an 80s metal band, although he was 15 years older than the other members of the group. Dominici had a history singing music akin to pop rather than metal, and it quickly became clear that he wasn’t the best fit for a group intent on making music in the vein of Queensrÿche and Iron Maiden [1].

Despite its flaws, “When Dream and Day Unite” remains a listenable album almost 30 years after its release. The band even occasionally plays a few songs from it at live shows. The musicality is what we would expect from the musicians who would come to be known as some of the best in the world at their respective instruments. Mike Portnoy’s blistering kick drum on “Afterlife” and “Only a Matter of Time” was ahead of its time, yet it clearly bears the influence of Phil Ehart.

The journalistic laziness of the time claimed the band was merely a copy of Kansas and Rush, yet listening to the album now makes those comparisons sound cheap. Obviously Dream Theater has shown influences from both of those bands, going so far as to cover both groups (and many others) in special editions of their albums over the years. To dismiss “When Dream and Day Unite” as mere copying is far from the truth, in my opinion. There is too much originality in the musicianship to call it a copy of those groups. The influences are there, but Kansas and Rush never sounded quite like this.

I find “Ytse Jam” to be the most compelling song here. Perhaps that is because it is instrumental, and it is easiest to make the connection to James LaBrie era Dream Theater. John Myung’s bass is particularly exceptional here, but then again, when is it not exceptional? “Afterlife” is probably the best song with singing on the album. From the lyrics to the guitars, this song delivers on all fronts.

Is “When Dream and Day Unite” Dream Theater’s best album? Of course not. Does it deserve to be forgotten and ignored like it has been? No. It is a solid album given its time, and it serves as an interesting reminder of where the greatest band in progressive metal came from. Every group has their beginnings, and it is great to return to Dream Theater’s roots. This album is particularly hard to get here in America, so if you don’t already have it, you may have trouble finding it. Discogs appears to have plenty of used copies, and you may be able to find a copy via your local library or Inter-Library loan (where I got mine). For those who prefer to stream, it also appears to be available on Spotify, despite it not being for sale on iTunes. It may require a hunt, but sometimes the search is half of the fun.

[1] Rich Wilson, Lifting Shadows The Authorized Biography of Dream Theater (UK: Rocket 88, 2013), 63-64.

Metal Mondays: Sons of Apollo Bring the Heat

Mike Portnoy’s  new supergroup, Sons of Apollo, is the prog metal bombast we have been waiting from the legendary drummer ever since he left Dream Theater. While DT have struggled to define their sound moving forward, Portnoy has dabbled in seemingly disparate genres in an endless number of bands (all of them admittedly amazing). Sons of Apollo finds him coming home to the wonderful world of prog metal with a lineup of extremely talented musicians.

Featuring Portnoy on drums, Bumblefoot (formerly of Guns N’ Roses), on guitar, Derek Sherinian (ex-Dream Theater keyboardist circa “Falling Into Infinity”), Billy Sheehan (Winery Dogs) on bass, and Jeff Scott Soto on vocals. I initially was hesitant when I heard Sheehan would be playing bass, because I’m not the biggest fan of his heavily distorted bass tone, even though I think he is a brilliant player. However, in a heavy metal setting, his tone works quite well. Soto’s vocal range matches the music quite well. He can go from Brian Johnson-esque screams in the beginning of “Coming Home” to Steve Perry highs later in the same song.

In a way, Sons of Apollo reminds me of AC/DC if they were super proggy, super complex, and had a keyboard master. Sherinian really is a brilliant keyboardist, and I like that he uses more traditional organs rather than the nintendo theme-song keyboards that other DT keyboardists have overused. In the  music videos, it is clear that Sherinian is thrilled to be working with Portnoy again, and based upon the drummer’s Twitter feed, the feeling is mutual.

I kept my expectations pretty low for Sons of Apollo’s “Psychotic Symphony” because there seemed to be a lot of hype surrounding it. After listening to it several times, the album has grown on me, and I can honestly say the hype is justified. This is a fantastic metal album well worthy of any progger’s collection.

Metal Mondays: Testament Announce New Album

testament-new01Ok, so I’m a little late with this news, but I just saw that the San Francisco Bay area thrash legends, Testament, recently announced the release of a new forthcoming album. The Brotherhood of the Snake will be released via Nuclear Blast on October 28, 2016.

I really enjoyed their last album, 2012’s Dark Roots of the Earth. Testament is a metal band that has become better and better since their inception in the 1980s. They brilliantly combine their style of thrash with straight-up metal and a few toned-down heavy rockers. They are very similar in style to Metal Allegiance, which isn’t surprising since guitarist Alex Skolnick plays for both groups.

The band has said that this album will be even thrashier than their previous albums, with about half of the songs being thrash metal. The album will see singer Chuck Billy singing in his signature heavy voice, while avoiding the death vocals of their earlier albums. Basically, if you liked Dark Roots of the Earth, you’re probably going to like the new album.

Check out their website for more details.

Thrash on, Progarchy, and enjoy your Metal Monday.

Metal Mondays – Montrose

Technically, I don’t know if this really qualifies at metal.  It’s more just standard fare mid-70’s American hard rock, simple and straightforward.  And very good for headbanging and air guitar.  You can probably skip over  50 seconds to avoid the unnecessary intro, which I refer to as the “sick pterodactyl” section of the song.  But once it gets past that, it puts the pedal to the metal (pardon the pun) and does not let up until the end.

Metal Mondays – 30 Years of Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory

medium_ScenesFromAMEmoryAs 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. Continue reading “Metal Mondays – 30 Years of Dream Theater – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory”

Metal Mondays: Revisiting Dream Theater’s “Black Clouds and Silver Linings”

04blackcloudsAs Dream Theater celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it seems only fitting to take an in depth look at some of their music. 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings marks a huge turing point for the reigning kings of progressive metal, for it was Mike Portnoy’s last album with the band. It is clear that no one knew that at the time of recording, not even Mike, because this album finds the band at the height of their technical ability and creativity. In fact, this album was probably their best output since 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2 Scenes From a Memory, which is one of the greatest albums of all time.

For all those that complain that Dream Theater “lacks soul” or “sucks,” I have a question for you: have you listened to Black Clouds and Silver Linings? I mean actually listened to it, and not just once, because this album has more “soul” than a gospel singer at a revival meeting! It also has enough head banging, window shattering, old-people enraging heavy metal to please even the most obsessive of metal enthusiasts. It has enough prog to fascinate the proggiest of prog fans. It has enough heart wrenching lyrics and moving solos to make a man weep, as I’m sure it did to those who wrote them.

Interestingly, the first time I listened to this album, I didn’t think all that much of it, apart from “The Count of Tuscany.” The whole thing seemed too overly loud and inaccessible. However, I soon became hooked by “Wither,” and then by the moving “The Best of Times.” Soon, I gave the whole album repeated, thorough, listens, and it was like a revelation! I finally realized this album for the brilliance that it is, and it is one that I now regularly return to.

The album gets off to a rather dark start, with the 16 minute long “A Nightmare to Remember,” a story about someone getting into a horrible car accident during a bad thunderstorm. The story ends well enough, with the band revealing that “its a miracle he lived; its a blessing no one died.” Supposedly, this song, which was written by guitarist John Petrucci, is based upon a childhood experience. Nevertheless, it sets the album with a dark tone, which only makes sense considering the circumstances. Mike Portnoy’s father was dying of cancer during the process of making the album. Mike wrote “The Best of Times” as a tribute to his Dad before he passed away. The band has never performed this song live, because it was too painful for Mike to play after his father passed. The song features what is arguably John Petrucci’s best guitar solo. Long, epic, and soaring, it is everything a rock fan could want in a guitar solo. It is like David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” solo on steroids. He combines his technical shredding capability with the soul of the late, great BB King. It is awe inspiring to listen to. Petrucci also thrills the listener with a quiet, moving acoustic guitar piece at the beginning of the 13 minute song.

The entirety of the album contains the best elements from all of Dream Theater’s previous albums. The album contains conceptual pieces, driving metal songs, and heartfelt rock ballads, something Dream Theater is incredibly gifted at crafting, albeit underrated. “Wither,” is the shortest song on the album, at 5:26. It is a ballad written by Petrucci about his personal process of songwriting. “A Rite of Passage” is, strangely enough, about freemasonry, and “The Shattered Fortress” completes Mike Portnoy’s twelve-step suite spread across several albums. The twelve-step suite is about Portnoy’s earlier struggles with alcoholism, and it references Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve-step program. The songs in the suite are: “The Glass Prison,” “This Dying Soul,” “The Root of All Evil,” “Repentance,” and “The Shattered Fortress.” In their entirety, all the songs were originally supposed to create a single concept album across multiple albums.

When listening to the album, “The Best of Times” seems like the natural end of the record. However, as soon as that song ends, Dream Theater blows us away with the nearly 20 minute long “The Count of Tuscany.” This song is like Rush’s 2112, in that it is both brilliant, conceptual, and around 20 minutes long. While the concept is nothing like 2112, and it didn’t have nearly as great an effect on Dream Theater’s career (at that point, DT were firmly established, while it can be argued that 2112 was a make-or-break album for Rush), it contains many similar elements of musicality. The song is supposedly about an actual encounter Petrucci had while visiting Tuscany, in Italy. I won’t make an effort to describe the song, because I would never be able to do it justice. All I can say is, it is brilliant.

Black Clouds and Silver Linings finds Dream Theater at their musical best. They perfectly balanced their heaviness with their technical skill. At many points in the album, the band utilizes the jazz staple of members performing individual instrumental solos before passing the solo off to someone else. It is almost as if they are playing live on the album. The band shows off their thundering bass, outstanding drum work, blistering guitars, and wizardly keyboards, and it is a thrill to listen to. Portnoy’s drums are just so good that words cannot describe them. It doesn’t seem humanly possible that he can be doing so much at one time, but he does it! Outstanding.

James LaBrie’s vocals are good, with some points stronger than others. His voice is definitely better on their 2013 album, Dream Theater. It is remarkable how long it has taken for his voice to completely heal from that incident in the 90s. He stated during their last tour that his voice feels better than it has ever felt, and it showed on their last album. On Black Clouds and Silver Linings, there are points where he chooses to sing in a more violent manner, rather than his more natural high notes. That can likely be attributed to the heavier nature of the music, along with his lack of confidence in his voice at that point. Never fear, though, because it doesn’t detract from the album at all. If anything, it simply adds to the heaviness of the music. I must add that Portnoy and Petrucci offer excellent backing vocals to the album. They are probably more involved vocally than on any other album.

Black Clouds and Silver Linings sadly marks the end of the Portnoy Dream Theater era, but he went out in style. The album finds the band on a musical high note. They created one of the best records of their career, demonstrating the maturity of their musicianship and the creativity of their songwriting. It is a long album, but it never drags on. Everything is just as it should be, and the hidden nods to Rush throughout the album are a treat for the careful listener. This album demands repeated listens, and it demands them loudly.

Rock on, Progarchy, and enjoy your metal Monday.