I once watched an interview with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, in which he said something along the lines of “The Dead are like black licorice – you either love it or hate it – there’s not much middle ground.”
The same can be said for progressive rock. Many people perceive it to be bombastic, pretentious, and overwrought, and detest it for its symphonic ambitions. Others love the complex compositions, poetic lyrical complexity, and operatic story lines. I am firmly in the second camp, though I can understand the point of view of the first.
One of the first albums I ever owned was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I received it at age eleven in 1973 from my English grandmother for Christmas – it was all the rage in England at the time. I was enthralled by Floyd’s use of unconventional instrumentation – helicopters and clock chimes were things I had not previously heard in music – and what I perceived as their visionary lyrics (though I probably didn’t think of it in those terms) held me in sway. At about the same time, Yes’ Roundabout was on the radio, and I saved enough allowance and chore money to purchase the Fragile album, and I was hooked on this new kind of music. More Floyd and Yes followed, along with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Curved Air, early Genesis, Rush, King Crimson and eventually Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
As I grew and matured, I left prog rock behind for a while, delving into the blues and blues-rock, becoming entranced with Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers, Cream, Muddy Waters and especially Michael Bloomfield. I would return occasionally to the flights of fancy and sci-fi/fantasy illusions of Tales from Topographic Oceans or Air Cut, but the thrust of my musical interest was trying to emulate Clapton, Bloomfield and Peter Green on the guitar (never very successfully, I must admit.)
When I found the Grateful Dead and their peculiar, distinctly American blend of psychedelia and folk music, I was again hooked, and returned to the music of my younger days. Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP and the trippier, more experimental albums of the Dead dominated the time on my turntable, though I never again renewed my earlier love for Rush, as Geddy Lee’s screeching, whining voice drowned out the excellent guitar of Alex Lifeson and the stunning drumming of Neil Peart. Like most adolescent boys, I became a teeny bopper for a while, liking whatever was currently on the radio, but thankfully that phase passed fairly rapidly as my knowledge of music theory and history grew.
In college I enrolled in the music school for a time, and positively devoured my classes in jazz history and classical appreciation, while alternating my personal listening between the blues and prog/art rock. Unfortunately, I was a much better student of music than performer thereof, and switched out of the music school after two years. But the musical melting pot that was Boulder at the time opened my eyes to a wider variety of styles and genres than I had previously experienced, and I briefly took a great interest in what could then be very loosely classified as “very modern jazz,” from Pat Metheny to Return to Forever to George Benson to Jeff Beck to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, some of which remain among my favorites to this day.
I listened to the gentle musings of the Windham Hill artists George Winston and Liz Story, the latin passion of Tito Puente and Al DiMeola, the impeccably precise guitar of Wes Montgomery and the passionate piano of George Shearing. I had the great fortune to have roommates, girlfriends and acquaintances who loved such diverse artists as Allan Holdsworth, John Coltrane, David Bowie, the Dixie Dregs, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, The Fixx, Hot Tuna, Jackson Browne, Mannheim Steamroller and NRBQ, and was exposed to a tremendously broad spectrum of musical styles. Not all the styles or artists were to my taste, but I tried to develop an appreciation even for music that I disliked. Still, from time to time I would return for a week, or a month, or a quarter to the fantastic delusions of Pink Floyd, Yes, and King Crimson. It gave me a comfort like going home again.
Several months ago, I was in one of my prog rock periods, and took Wish You Were Here to work one day. A workmate, who knows me best as a jazz and blues aficionado, was very surprised to hear me listening to it, and commented that he didn’t think I liked that style of music. I explained that prog rock had always been one of my favorites, and the next day an unlabelled CD-ROM was laying on my desk with a sticky note attached that said “Listen to this.” I called him on the phone and asked what it was, and he said “Just listen to it without looking it up on IMDB.”
I listened, and was captivated. The music was brilliant, crisp and orchestral, the vocals clear and precise, the musicianship powerful and precise, the lyrics dreamlike and full of fancy. It had a muscle like Rush, guitar playing to rival David Gilmour or Steve Howe but with a harder edge, a vocalist with pipes to push Freddie Mercury, powerful drumming reminiscent of Carl Palmer or Neil Peart, and a steady, creative bass player. The keyboards, though more understated than those of Yes, Curved Air or ELP, weaved a hypnotic progression throughout the length of the disk. And to top it all off, it had a much heavier, more menacing air than any of the prog rock I had previously experienced, bordering at times on heavy metal. The speakers on my work computer are tinny, “out of the box” little pieces of shit from Creative, and didn’t do the music justice, but I could tell I liked it.
I took the CD home at the end of the day, put it in my home computer with Klipsch 5.1 surround system, cranked it up, and was floored. I hit the “Get Info” button to look the CD up on IMDB, and it was Images and Words by Dream Theater. Listening to the music at maximum volume, the joy of discovery swept through me, like the first time listening to Dark Side or Works, Volume One many years before. How I’d missed this brilliant music for the 13 years since its release I couldn’t begin to fathom. The initial thoughts I’d had about the musicianship were magnified by the great sound quality from the Klipsch speakers – the bass lines pounded out of the subwoofer, the guitar lines were more startlingly accentuated, and the keyboards became more evident and took center stage from time to time.
I looked Dream Theater up on Allmusic.com, and was far from surprised to learn that they had all been students at the famed Berklee School of Music, with the exception of the vocalist. The rugged, virtuoso guitar playing of John Petrucci seeped into me as I listened. It made a perfect marriage with James LaBrie’s exceptional vocals and the excellent, tough-guy drumming of Mike Portnoy. Neither the bass nor the keyboards take center stage often, but are indelibly stamped on the music. The compositional character was fairly typical for prog rock – long, drawn out melodies with spacy, dreamy lyrics, mostly approaching ten minutes in length. The compositions themselves reminded me more of the best of Yes than any of the other bands in the genre, with constant interweaving by the main players, unusual bridges and changes in tempo when the listener least expects it. But Dream Theater had uniqueness to them – this band was building upon the art form, not simply copying from their forebears.
As with many new and unique artists, it took me several listens to decide whether I liked the music and the compositions, or just the musicianship. After deciding that the former was the case, I purchased another of their recordings, 2005’s Octavarium. Though the songs on Octavarium are not as catchy, they have progressed light years as composers in the interim, and if anything, the music is even more powerful and muscular, and leans even further in the direction of heavy metal than their earlier Images and Words. Since then, I’ve also picked up 1994’s Awake and 2004’s Live at Budokan.
Being an aficionado of the form and a student of music, I naturally compare and contrast similar bands. Dream Theater stands out in its genre for several reasons. James LaBrie’s vocals are, in my opinion, superior to those of Yes’ Jon Anderson, with a less grating falsetto. He has both pipes and range to rival Freddie Mercury, whom I consider to be the greatest male vocalist in the history of rock, though I’m not a big Queen fan. The other great prog rock bands had serviceable vocalists, but the vocals never stood out as exceptional to my ear. John Petrucci’s guitar wizardry is the equal of that of Steve Howe, with the blazing finger speed of a Satriani or Vai, but superior compositional skills to either. The only thing lacking is the truly memorable, instantly recognizable guitar lines of David Gilmour. While it’s hard to say that any other rock drummer matches either Neil Peart or Carl Palmer, Mike Portnoy is brilliant – flashy, fast, and creative, his percussion is more obvious and muscular than that of Palmer – whether that is because of Dream Theater’s heavy metal leanings is anyone’s guess. Kevin Moore’s keyboards lack the finesse of Rick Wakeman and perhaps the technical virtuosity of Keith Emerson, but are much more flamboyant than most of Wakeman’s work. John Myung’s bass playing is steady, strong and powerful, perhaps lacking Geddy Lee’s creativity or Greg Lake’s subtlety. The band’s lyrics are not as memorable as those of Pink Floyd, or the best of Yes or Rush, but are creative nonetheless.
But progressive rock is all about virtuosity and the interplay between highly skilled, technically proficient musicians, and Dream Theater puts the whole package together better than any of the other bands. Add to that the incredible vocals, and in my humble opinion, Dream Theater is the best progressive rock band of all time.