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20 Years Ago: DREAM THEATER Redefines Progressive Metal Landscape with Magnum Opus Album “Scenes From A Memory”

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Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory” turns 20 years old today, and while a lot has been said about this album through the years, it left such an indelible mark in the minds and ears of prog-metal fans that we could not resist the urge to share our thoughts about such a career-defining classic.

A BIT OF HISTORY

In order to tell the story of how this album changed Dream Theater’s path, we need to take a few steps back, because its genesis is intrinsically related to their previous efforts, in more ways than one. Their recording career started with the largely ignored “When Dream and Day Unite”, and after a change in the vocal department (James LaBrie replaced Charlie Dominici), they reached an unprecedented amount of recognition with the sophomore album, “Images & Words”. Track 05 of that album was originally called “Crumbling Metropolis”, but its name was changed to “Metropolis—Part I: ‘The Miracle and the Sleeper’” by guitarist John Petrucci as a joke. Soon enough, fans started to ask the band if/when a part II was in the cards.

The follow up “Awake” brought a darker side of the band, and themes that were not fully explored in one song, but rather, were stretched out over a few tracks. And another lineup change brought yet another seed of what they would become: keyboardist Kevin Moore left the band just before the tour, and their preferred replacement was one Jordan Rudess, who could not take the chance at the time but did one single show with them. Enter the Caligula of Keyboards, Mr. Derek Sherinian, who went on tour as a hired gun and soon was brought in as a permanent member. Derek would record the single “A Change of Seasons”, and Dream Theater would enter a period of dramatic inner turbulence.

The recording of “Falling Into Infinity” suffered all kinds of setbacks due to pressure from record company executives, and every personnel change on Elektra Records meant a new request to re-record something and a new direction. The end result ended up frustrating the band, and although over the years it has been somewhat redeemed in the eyes of the fan-base, at the time, it was seen as a step back. Those expecting another dose of “Pink Floyd meets Metallica” were frustrated to find so much experimentation and too many influences from alternative rock and metal acts such as Kings X, Galactic Cowboys, I Mother Earth etc. But every black cloud has a silver lining, and sonically, “Falling Into Infinity” set the benchmark for the band’s production. Mike Portnoy’s drums, in particular, sounded more crispy and organic here than ever before. The frustration was palpable though, and at the end of the live album of that tour, “Once in a Livetime”, Mike says goodbye to the Paris crowd with an “au revoir mes amis” which was loaded with meaning. He would end up quitting the band for the first time during that time, but was convinced to stay, in circumstances that aren’t completely clear even today.

The main takeaway from the “Falling Into Infinity” sessions was that a change of seasons was required. A side collaboration with Jordan Rudess, dubbed Liquid Tension Experiment, brought the desire to further explore his contributions, and he was brought into the band, replacing Derek. And putting in practice one of their most famous decision making tools, “what would Rush do?’, they decided to place all their bets on the next album, just like the Canadian trio did on the career-saving 2112. It took a lot of arguing, but they convinced Elektra to leave them alone on the next album.

THE ALBUM INCEPTION

Demos for “Scenes from a Memory” had already been done with Derek Sherinian, and a 20 minute jam with him on keyboards laid the path for the new album. Jordan was brought in, and opened his toolbox right off the bat: jazzy leads, orchestral sounds and acoustic piano parts are sprinkled throughout the album, in a dizzying showcase of his abilities. But although there are several moments where all instrumentalists shine throughout the 77 minutes of this record, it would be the unity of the band in the writing and recording process that would stand out the most. “Scenes” displays a sense of collective and a spirit of collaboration that would be slowly diminishing within the band as the years went on, and the group would only seem so tight and cohesive on 2019’s “Distance Over Time”. For the writing and recording, they all stayed together at the now inoperative BearTracks Studios in New York, and brought in the following sources of inspiration for the album: The Who’s “Tommy”, Genesis“The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, Marillion’s “Misplaced Childhood”, Radiohead’s “Ok Computer”, The Beatles“Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut” and “The Wall”, and Roger Waters“Amused to Death”. Needless to say, they set the bar insanely high from the get go.

At that point, Dream Theater were ten years into their career, and writing a concept album was still a box they needed to tick. And while the story-line emanated from Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci, the whole band contributed to it. Bassist John Myung wrote lyrics for “Fatal Tragedy”, and LaBrie wrote “One Last Time”. The excitement, confidence and renewed enthusiasm was such that the band decided to self produce, with Portnoy and Petrucci taking the helm, in a partnership that would last until Portnoy left the band in 2010. Terry Brown was brought in to co-produce the vocals, in a short-lived partnership that ended on a sour note when Terry required a huge sum of money to have his voice used on the subsequent tour.

“Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory”

REVISITING THE SCENES

Taking the initial cue from the plot of the movie Dead Again (1991), the album tells the story of Nicholas, Victoria and a mysterious therapist, which is played by Terry Brown. Tormented by visions of a past that he does not necessarily acknowledge, Nicholas seeks help in the form of past lives regression. Love, betrayal and murder are intertwined in the story, and the lyrics of Metropolis Part I were abstract enough that it wasn’t that difficult to link “The Miracle”, “The Sleeper” and “Metropolis” to characters in this tale.  

After the hypnosis and the delicate acoustic guitar strumming of Scene One, we are surprised with snippets of Metropolis Part I in a different form. Vocal lines become guitar leads, a keyboard part or a drum fill are brought back here and there, and the dizzying twists and turns of Scene Two – comprised of “Overture 1928” and “Strange Déjà vu” – set the tone of what’s to come and expose the confusion in the main character’s mind. It turns out that Nicholas was a young girl in one of his past lives, and he’s determined to find out what happened to her.

Scene Three is made of “Through My Words” and “Fatal Tragedy”, where Nicholas discovers that his life and the one of the girl are “linked by an endless thread, impossible to break”. It turns out her name was named Victoria, and she was murdered in weird circumstances. The several tempo changes add up to the confusion, and there’s a great vocal interplay between James and Portnoy, with Jordan and Petrucci trading light-speed solos.

Scene Four plays with different moods, with “Beyond This Life” further exploring the story of how Victoria killed herself at a place called Echoes Hill, with a former lover named Julian also committing suicide. One witness named Edward finds this horrifying scene, and as the lyrics get more and more descriptive, the tempo is amped up, and the riffs get grittier and heavier. “Through Her Eyes” provides some relief, with a gospel choir led by Theresa Thomason, and a beautiful piano melody accompanied by acoustic guitar. Nicholas realizes Victoria fell out of love with Julian and was murdered by him, and wept just like a baby as he laid awake in bed.

One of the most intriguing parts of this story, Scene Six has only one song, “Home”, which plays with Middle Eastern motifs, thrash riffs, drop D tuning and exploring the heavier side of the band, with more quotes from Metropolis Part I. The longest song on this release, this is the start of Act II, where Nicholas is drawn to resolve the mystery surrounded Victoria’s death, and mysteriously attracted to a particular house.

Scene Seven begins, bringing one of the most complex pieces of music Dream Theater ever produced, the intricate instrumental “The Dance of Eternity”, aka the nemesis of many drummers, including some who auditioned for Mike Portnoy’s role in 2010. With 108 time signature changes, vaudeville piano, an insanely fast bass solo, this is an unparalleled display of musicianship, with the “all or nothing” mindset of the band in full effect. This assault on the senses is followed by some relief on the last track of Scene Seven, “One Last Time”, where Nicholas is seen at the house investigating more about the murder of Victoria.

Probably the only song on this release with commercial potential to be a single, “The Spirit Carries On” is Scene Eight in the story, with a slow tempo reminiscing of Pink Floyd, and the gospel choir once again making a very special appearance. On another regression, Nicholas now believes that Edward was involved in the murder, and decides to expose the truth behind it. Victoria tells Nicholas that he should move on, and he feels at peace, even though apparently there’s more to this story than what has been revealed to him thus far.

Scene Nine comes in to close the story in the form of “Finally Free”, where the truth is finally revealed: Edward and Julian were twins, and Edward killed both Victoria and Julian, trading places with the latter and framing a murder scene. With that realization, the story ends and Victoria’s soul is transferred into Nicholas. As the therapy ends, Nicholas comes home, turns on the TV, only to be surprised by the hypnotherapist breaking into his house and killing him. The listener discovers that the hypnotherapist is actually Edward incarnated, and planned to kill Nicholas since the beginning of the treatment. Static invades the airwaves, and with this unsettling realization, the album ends.

THE TOUR AND THE LIVE ALBUM “Metropolis 2000: Scenes from New York”

The promotional tour following this release had artists such as Tiles, Gary Hoey, Spock’s Beard, and Dixie Dregs as opening acts, but this laid the path for future “An Evening With” tours, where the band would play for three hours with no opening band. The set-list was “Scenes from a Memory” in full, followed by a combination of tracks from their previous releases. The tour culminated in a show at Roseland Ballroom in New York City, on August 30, 2000, where Mike Portnoy reportedly had to be hospitalized with exhaustion and dehydration after the show. More than saving their career, “Scenes from a Memory” reestablished Dream Theater as THE go-to name when it comes to prog-metal, and cemented the foundation of their modus operandi in future albums. In subsequent releases, the duo of Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci were fully established as the dominant axe in the band, and unquestionably earned the trust from record company execs. Fans were relieved to hear the band once again producing material close to the roots of the group, and for more than a decade, they seemed unbreakable. 

The unity of the band at the time is transpired even onto the mix, where John Myung’s bass can be heard loud and clear. His lyrical contributions, as well as his bass sound, would be increasingly subdued until the band’s next rebirth, on “A Dramatic Turn of Events”. Mike Portnoy’s backing vocals which started to come out on “Falling Into Infinity”, gain more prominence here, and compliments LaBrie’s output rather well.The attention to detail can also be seen on the exquisite cover, which merges the faces of Nicholas and Victoria, with scenes from both their lives represented in polaroid pictures. All in all, this is a perfect example of lyrics and music feeding off each other, and intertwined to enhance the listener’s experience.

THE ALBUM LEGACY

While several of the less story-driven tracks appeared on their live sets through the year, “Scenes from a Memory” is best experienced live in full. After the promotional tour, they only played it back to back on a show in Sao Paulo on the Octavarium tour. Earlier this year the band embarked on a celebratory tour, playing tracks from the new album “Distance Over Time”, other career highlights and “Scenes from a Memory” album played in its entirety, obviously with a much bigger production than in 1999. We documented this tour with a concert review and photo gallery that can be seen here. Do not miss the chance to celebrate the 20th anniversary of such a career highlight – an album that will be forever remembered as prog-metal’s defining moment in history, and the ultimate tribute to artistic freedom from one of the most important musical acts of our time.

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