Cover This – We Dare You
Dream Theater Keeps Prog Alive

If any of you out there still harbor some doubts that rock ‘n’ roll is dead, I invite you to tune in to The Osbournes on MTV this spring.

You may have heard about this. MTV decided to give Ozzy “Where’s my rabies shot?” Osbourne his own sitcom, a standard single-camera laugh-track-laden effort that’s reportedly irony-free. Ozzy stars with his real-life wife, Sharon, and they share the comic misadventures that befall the home of one of rock’s more colorful figures. The joke is, apparently, that behind the makeup and stage persona, Ozzy is just like the head of any normal sitcom family. Aren’t you laughing? Isn’t it hysterical to see the former lead singer of Black Sabbath reduced to a middle-aged putz who forgets to bring home the two-percent milk?

And oh, next month Marilyn Manson is appearing on Sesame Street, and Rob Zombie is guest-starring in a very special episode of Yes, Dear. I swear to God, if Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes ever gets his own TV show, it had better be on Showtime, and it had better consist of nothing but drinking, swearing and fucking groupies.

End of rant, but the mention of the Black Crowes does bring up an interesting question. Is any musical art form dead if there’s still at least one band practicing it to the hilt? The Crowes are almost the only band on Earth still playing balls-out sloppy rock ‘n’ roll. As a social and cultural movement, evidence would seem to support the theory that rock is, indeed, dead, but as a musical force, does it still count if only one band is keeping it alive?

For instance, there’s an L.A. band called Danger Danger that poked its head up sometime in the late ’80s, playing a typical brand of hair-metal that garnered them a couple of hits. That band is still carrying on in the same style, putting them in a class of one. Said class is downstairs, past the boiler room, in a forgotten corner of the school, but still, it’s in session, and students are attending. Danger Danger has a grand total of seven CDs now, which someone must be buying. There are hair-metal websites all over the ‘net, too, so I ask you, is it really a dead art form?

And here’s another one: progressive rock. You remember the smarter-than-you bands of the ’70s, right? Songs that stretched beyond the half-hour mark, distinguished by unique instrumentation and a display of musicianship that was about as exhausting to listen to as it was to play? For a while there, prog was the style of choice for young bands, due largely to the imaginative freedom it offered. Somehow, though, it got associated with pretension and snobbery, and the major prog bands of the ’70s (Yes, Genesis, Rush) turned into goopy pop acts in the ’80s.

But there is one band who remembers the thrill of composing giant, epic songs that few other bands could play. That band is Dream Theater, and if you scan the credits of the more modern prog bands, you’ll find their members participate in most of them. Between the impossibly complex work they’ve done with Liquid Tension Experiment, Platypus, Mullmuzzler and Transatlantic, to name a few, it’s a wonder the DT boys ever find time to record and tour with their main band.

Surprisingly, though, these five amazing musicians work very quickly. Their last album, the epic concept album Scenes From a Memory, was composed and recorded in something like six weeks. (Which is nothing for these guys – both Liquid Tension Experiment albums were put together in seven days each.) Even though new Transatlantic and Mullmuzzler albums just came out, Dream Theater is back with their longest, most ambitious and most impossible-to-play album yet, the two-disc Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

If prog is dead, someone forgot to send the memo to these guys. Every ’70s prog band eventually got around to making their magnum opus, their multi-part suite. Genesis had “Supper’s Ready”, Rush had “2112”, Jethro Tull had “A Passion Play,” Yes had…well, half their catalog, really. Six Degrees features Dream Theater’s, the 42-minute title track that takes up all of disc two. Similarly, almost every prog band eventually made their Grand Statement double album. Yes had Tales From Topographic Oceans, Genesis had The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and Pink Floyd had The Wall. Dream Theater’s 96-minute album effectively kills both birds with one stone.

Ambition, as Ed Wood could probably tell you, means nothing if you don’t have the talent to back it up. That has never been Dream Theater’s problem. They were doing 11-minute epics back in 1992, and have somehow weathered 10 years of changing musical climates on the same major label. With the addition of former Dixie Dregs keyboardist Jordan Rudess in 1999, the band finally gelled, and they’ve attained an entirely new level on Six Degrees.

Not content to just release a 42-minute epic, Dream Theater have also filled disc one with five lengthy, jaw-dropping tunes that tackle a variety of spiritual concerns. Six Degrees is almost entirely concerned with spiritual enlightenment, sending the protagonist of the 14-minute leadoff track, “The Glass Prison,” on a quest for knowledge that the remainder of disc one’s tracks explore. “The Glass Prison” is also the hardest-hitting collection of jackhammer riffs this band has ever assembled, despite its gentle opening.

“Blind Faith” and “Misunderstood” soar like the best ethereal prog always has, and both contain thoughtful treatments of spiritual content. “Misunderstood,” particularly, finds its protagonist in a humbled state: “I turn from a thief to a beggar, from a god to God save me…if I seem superhuman I have been misunderstood.” Both the music and the theology gets muddled by the end of disc one, with “The Great Debate” borrowing bits of Tool’s sound for 14 minutes on stem cell research (!), and “Disappear” sticking to one tone.

The real treat, though, is the title track, a triumph of sustained musicianship that rivals anything that came out during prog’s heyday. Subdivided into eight (not six, for some reason) parts, “Six Degrees” tells the interconnected story of a sextet of mental patients and their various methods of coping. The sweeping overture sets the tone – the music throughout veers from manic to depressive, symbolizing the “inner turbulence” of the title. The lyrics are typically banal – there’s a moment halfway through where singer James LaBrie has to softly croon the line “Those bastard doctors are gonna pay” over sparse, lilting accompaniment – but who cares about them anyway? As any connoisseur of prog can tell you, the words are not the important thing.

The important thing is the mind-expanding journey “Six Degrees” takes you on. Rudess has fully integrated himself with the group now, sharing the melodic weight with LaBrie and guitarist James Petrucci, and their interplay is a wonder to behold. “Six Degrees” never stops moving and changing, melodies and tones shifting into one another at superhuman speed. There’s barely a breath between the full-on assault of “The Test that Stumped Them All” and the sweet ambience of “Goodnight Kiss,” which in turn morphs into the acoustic pop of “Solitary Shell.” The whole thing builds to a grand finale, fittingly enough called “Grand Finale,” that ends with (what else?) the crash of a gong, fulfilling the final requirement for a classic prog epic.

The simple, brutal truth might just be that prog as a movement has died because there just aren’t many musicians these days that can pull it off. This is demanding, technical music that requires mastery of your own instrument and near-telepathy with your bandmates. Even Tool, much praised for those very qualities, can’t touch Dream Theater. Entertainment Weekly, in their favorable review of Six Degrees, praised the band’s cultural chutzpah for ignoring every musical style invented since 1976. While that’s not entirely true, Six Degrees does indeed, for 96 minutes, recall a time when aspiring to this level of musicianship and skill was considered cool.

Hopefully Wednesday I’ll check in with the Chemical Brothers.

See you in line Tuesday morning.