To anyone in the progressive music community, Jordan Rudess needs no introduction. Having joined Dream Theater as a full-time keyboard player in 1999, he’s spent the last twenty years as a pioneer in his field, taking his classical piano training and applying it to synthesizers, orchestration, and electronic music creation (His company Wizdom Music has developed several apps, including the award-winning MorphWiz for iOS & Blackberry devices). Rudess’s previous solo albums have been incredibly varied, from Prog rock covers on The Road Home to 2014’s Explorations for Keyboard & Orchestra and the following year’s solo piano album, The Unforgotten Path. Four years on, Rudess has changed tactic yet again, and the result is Wired for Madness, a full-blown juggernaut covering multiple styles while maintaining the signature heavy style he’s best-known for with his work in Dream Theater. Indeed, with guest appearances from fellow DT members James LaBrie and John Petrucci, this album could almost be considered a companion piece to DT’s most recent album, Distance Over Time. However, while that album consists of more concise songs nestled safely in the rules of the Dream Theater handbook, Wired for Madness goes out of its way to break as many conventions of album and song structure as possible.
The title track, which clocks in almost 35 minutes, is very reminiscent of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s two most famous epics, “Tarkus” and “Karn Evil 9”. This should come as no surprise to followers of Rudess, as his admiration for Keith Emerson’s playing and composition style has been well-documented over the years. Even the song’s subject matter seems like something ELP would come up with for an epic if they were still making music today. It follows the journey of a man who has decided to partially computerise himself in order to extend and improve his life. Of course, as with every sci-fi story about technology, there is a downside to the upgrades, and as the protagonist becomes more dependent on technology, he becomes spiritually and mentally detached from real life.
“Wired For Madness, Part One” therefore begins fittingly with a short prologue, featuring a deep computerised voice speaking over futuristic digital ambience. After this, the music takes over the storytelling with an extended overture comprising almost entirely of rapid riffs & licks in odd time signatures, with Rudess going through as many different keyboard sounds as possible in the first four minutes alone. Starting out with a lone sub-bass, once the band kicks in it’s a rollercoaster of musical twists and turns, from sitar to brass to organ. Fans of “The Dance of Eternity” will surely enjoy discerning all the different sections, including rough guitar solos from Vinnie Moore and John Petrucci, a ragtime jazz breakdown, and a synth brass section recalling “Fanfare For The Common Man”.
Finally, after eight minutes of non-stop noodling, we get a classical piano transition leading into a slow, melancholy ballad with Rudess on lead vocals. Rudess’ singing voice is one of the pleasant surprises of the album, with a deep but gentle tone similar to that of Prog heavyweights Greg Lake and David Gilmour. In his first vocal spot of the album towards the end of Part One, he portrays the main character with gentle exhaustion, an appropriate response to the musical intensity that has come before it.
The musical frenzy continues into “Wired For Madness, Part Two”, where vocals are used more to break up the instrumental sections rather than the other way around. References to ELP, Frank Zappa and Rick Wakeman are abundant, with notable modern ideas shining through, including vocal sampling for percussion and Rudess’s signature dirty synth taking a solo. The second half of the song features two guest vocalists to carry the story; a female singer (Unnamed in the press release) appears as an angel inviting the protagonist to the electronic side of consciousness with a soothing voice, followed by James LaBrie replacing Rudess as the main character, triumphantly signifying a final transition from man to machine.
My final verdict of the entire “Wired For Madness” suite is that it’s definitely more of an orchestral suite with occasional vocals rather than a fully-fleshed out concept piece with enough variation in the story. In comparison to the work Rudess has done with Dream Theater, this almost seems like an unfished album, with lots of unexplored story potential due to the lack of creative input from John Petrucci. The musicality is still very strong, however, and there is no questioning of Rudess’ ability as a composer and musical arranger, which shines through across the whole suite.
The second half of the album comprises a mix of songs with lyrics and standalone instrumentals. It was here that I found some pleasant surprises with a little bit more musical variety, as well as some tracks that wouldn’t have been out of place on previous Rudess solo albums. “Off The Ground” is a piano ballad with a catchy chorus, a laid-back drum groove and a guitar solo from Guthrie Govan who manages to play in his unique style without detracting from the rest of the song, much like in his previous work with Steven Wilson and Hans Zimmer. If there was any song that could be considered a ‘Single’ from the album, it would be this one.
“Drop Twist” and “Perpetual Shine” are both instrumentals, with the former containing funky and groovy licks with lots of bends & twists (hence the name), and the latter containing strong Dixie Dregs influences, so much so that it’s likely that this is the track Rod Morgenstein makes a guest appearance on. Aside from these tracks being easier to digest than “Wired For Madness” due to their shorter length, they actually feel like fleshed-out compositions with a beginning, middle and end (even if the middle goes off in a few different directions).
Speaking of different directions, “Just Can’t Win” is the track I was most looking forward to when I read the press release for the album, and it doesn’t disappoint. Strongly influenced by 90’s blues-rock, this track has more in common with Gary Moore and Dr John than Emerson and Wakeman. Rudess channels his inner bluesman, with lazy vocals containing plenty of blues clichés and call-outs in-between the actual lyrics. Labelmate Joe Bonamassa makes a guest appearance, actively avoiding straight blues licks in his first guitar solo and embracing them in his second. Although there are still a couple of odd time signature jumps and rhythm changes, it was great to hear a fusion of the Prog & Blues worlds, and it acts as a contrast to the progressive overtones on the rest of the album.
The album’s penultimate track, “Just For Today” is another ballad, but with a more sombre tone than “Off The Ground”. It appears to be a breakup song, spread over a period of time and spiced with philosophical lyrics about living in the moment. Aside from Rudess’s gentle piano throughout the song, there’s nothing here to make it stand out from the other songs on the album. Fortunately, we get one more burst of madness in “Why I Dream”, which taps into the Brazillian side of jazz fusion with a rapid 5/4 groove, choral pads and lead vocals that seem to focus more on rhythm than melody or lyrical substance. There’s also one final heavy metal breakdown, with guitar solos to please the metalheads.
Wired for Madness does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a portfolio of Jordan Rudess doing everything he is best known for, satisfying his own creative needs with a number of different styles that might not be explored with Dream Theater. The “Wired For Madness” suite contains plenty of musicality to satisfy prog and keyboard nerds, while the second half of the album is sure to contain at least one track that will appeal to anyone. While the entire package can be hard to digest due to the nature of the music, the ideas here have great promise, and I’d like to see his DT bandmates take on more of his non-prog ideas going forward.
Released By: Music Theories Recordings
Release Date: April 19, 2019
Genre: Progressive Metal
- Jordan Rudess / Keyboards, Guitars, Bass, Lead Vocals
- Marco Minnemann / Drums
- James LaBrie / Vocals
- Vinnie Moore / Guitars
- Guthrie Govan / Guitars
- Joe Bonamassa / Guitars
- John Petrucci / Guitars
- Rod Morgenstein / Drums
- Elijah Wood / Drums
“Wired For Madness” Track List:
1. Wired for Madness – Part 1
2. Wired for Madness – Part 2
3. Off the Ground
4. Drop Twist
5. Perpetual Shine
6. Just Can’t Win
7. Just for Today
8. Why I Dream
The Dream Theater keyboard player lets loose on a collection of prog epics, jazz fusion instrumentals, melodic ballads and blues jams. Some ideas just miss the mark, while others have great potential for further development in future projects.