Extreme Ways, Part 2
Hard as Algebra

This is the second of two columns on the oh-so-scintillating topic of simplicity vs. complexity. Last week, I took a look at three of the simplest albums of the year, musically speaking, from Peter Mulvey, Bill Mallonee and Bob Dylan. Only one of them, the Mallonee, really does it for me, and I think it’s because the other two rely way too often on pretty standard chords and progressions – what some would call traditional structure.

And I hope you’re not scared away by words like structure and chord, because this week I’m taking a look at the flipside – three of the most theory-heavy, epic and complicated records that 2006 has given us so far. I have to admit right up front that my musical mind gets all excited about these kinds of albums, and the longer and more complex the better. I’m a huge fan of bands like Yes and Spock’s Beard, bands that compose extended suites that stretch out for half an hour or more.

I know, I know. Half an hour? Or more? Is any song worth half an hour or more?

In short, yes, I think so. The trick is to earn all 30, 45 or however many minutes you’re taking up. If you’ve written 10 minutes of song and you’ve decided to just jam or solo for the remaining 20, then you’re eating disc space with not much of substance, because that’s what complex music is about – what have you composed here?

Which leads me to my main issue with this kind of music. It’s no secret that musical complexity edges out emotional connection – the more difficult the song is, the less likely it is that the conduit between listener and artist will be established. You have to turn your head off to respond with your heart, and the more complicated and mind-engaging the music, the less likely it is that you will do that. And the most technical bands don’t even care – they want to engage your brain above all else.

At least, that’s what I think. It is entirely possible that the members of Rush were truly and deeply moved by “2112,” or “Cygnus X-1,” but I doubt it. In the same way that I criticize the most moving of singer-songwriters for not stepping outside the standard three or four chords and 4/4 time, I take the proggers to task for turning out music without soul, music that is concerned only with how difficult it is to play.

Perhaps the standard-bearer for modern complexity is Dream Theater, a band that just celebrated 20 years of jackhammer riffing, stop-time arrangements, 20-minute song-suites and lightning-fast solos. If metal is masculine music, then this is steroid-fueled, muscle-bound bully music – Dream Theater may as well have adopted “Our music can beat up your music” as its official slogan. There are moments of tenderness, but they are all but drowned out by the bombast, and the insanely complex playing and songwriting.

A good summation of their modus operandi to this point is Score, their just-released three-CD live album documenting their 20th anniversary show at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It’s called Score because DT finally succumbs here to the old prog trope of playing with an orchestra, a carry-over from their latest studio album, Octavarium. The 30-piece ensemble joins the band on the second set of this nearly three-hour affair, meant to summarize and cap off DT’s first two decades.

It’s a testament to their skill as players that I scanned the track listing of the first set, which takes up the first disc, and dismissed it as pretty standard stuff. That I can look at a setlist that contains metal monsters like “The Root of All Evil,” prog masterpieces like “Under a Glass Moon” and lengthy workouts like the never-officially-released “Raise the Knife” and think, “Ah, nothing too demanding, then,” just illustrates what amazing musicians these guys are. Just trying to learn the songs in this one set would make most bands faint with fear.

And DT slams through this stuff well, if not a bit by rote. Octavarium was something of a disappointment to me, since it stays pretty much within the standard limits of this band’s sound. “Root” is an eight-minute metal powerhouse, but it sounds like every other eight-minute metal powerhouse the band has written. “I Walk Beside You” is a pleasant bombastic pop song, but it doesn’t break any new ground for them. And the title song, which we’ll get to in a minute, strikes me as a thin idea stretched out to 25 minutes.

So after this pretty standard first disc comes the main event, with strings attached. The second disc starts with “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence,” still the band’s best extended piece. The entire second half of their 2002 double album of the same name, “Six Degrees” is a 42-minute symphony about mental illness, and the orchestra, though not always prominent, really adds to the epic scope of the thing.

Brief interlude “Vacant” is all strings and vocalist James Labrie, who really knocks it out of the park on this whole record. But then we’re onto the songs from Octavarium, and they’re just not up to par. “Sacrificed Sons” is standard epic metal, and the new album’s title track drags on and on, opening with seven minutes of synth-and-six-string atmosphere ripped right out of Pink Floyd. “Octavarium” doesn’t push and pull like “Six Degrees,” it slowly builds and relies on solos, finally climaxing in a full-throttle shout section reminiscent of Tool. Simply put, it ain’t worth 26 minutes.

And that’s really it with this kind of music. If it doesn’t engage my theoretical knowledge, and give me something to figure out every minute or two, then it just doesn’t rank too highly with me, no matter how well it’s played. The technical virtuosity is all a band like this has, and if they’re not using it to its fullest, then there’s little reason to actually listen to it.

However, if you want to hear dramatic progressive metal done properly, there’s pretty much no better band than Iron Maiden. They essentially started the theatrical metal genre (Dream Theater cites them as a major influence), writing long songs about novels and historical figures when their contemporaries were singing about screwing groupies. They’re just as ridiculous as Dream Theater, if not more so, but they’re in on their own joke, as Spinal Tap as they can be. They’re also fantastic players, even though they don’t show off nearly as much as the DT boys do.

About six years ago, Maiden solidified their lineup, reuniting with original singer Bruce “Scream for me, Long Beach!” Dickinson, and launched an extraordinary rebirth. It continues with their recently released 14th album, A Matter of Life and Death, perhaps their most musically intricate and powerful album yet. It’s certainly the best since their heyday, and the secret here is a commitment to a sound that they have honed over two and a half decades.

That sound is reach-for-the-rafters drama, powered by three (count ‘em, three) guitars and Dickinson’s operatic voice. It’s pretty far over the top, but if you’re looking for sincerity and beauty, you’re listening to the wrong band. Life and Death was recorded mostly live, and is powerful and (believe it or not) somewhat restrained. Difficult to believe for an album on which more than half the songs break seven minutes, but this is a mature Iron Maiden effort, bare-bones and tough.

Why do I like this more than Dream Theater’s work? Because I honestly believe that none of these songs are too long, and none of them waste my time. These are progressive compositions that earn their extended running times, with a sense of dynamics and power. The strongest songs, in fact, are the longest – “For the Greater Good of God” runs 9:24, but it flies by, so tight is the writing and playing. The same goes for “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns,” at a quick 8:44.

Don’t get me wrong – I really like this record, and I’ve always liked this band, but I have little emotional connection to this music. It doesn’t touch me to my soul, but it does make the teenage metal fan that lives in my head very happy. Very few bands are able to maintain a 25-year career doing this kind of music, and not become a parody of themselves, but Maiden has blazed a trail here – they are a blueprint for how to do dramatic metal right. And A Matter of Life and Death is pretty close to the perfect Iron Maiden album – fist-pumping head music with a brain.

But both of these bands have long histories with complex music. Let’s take a look at a band like the Mars Volta, one of the front-runners in the new prog movement. They are considered one of the most virtuosic and creative groups to come up in recent years, and they’ve just released their third album, Amputechture. It’s the follow-up to Frances the Mute, last year’s conceptual odd-o-rama, which stretched their funk-rock-salsa sound to its breaking point.

And Amputechture certainly sounds broken. It’s 78 minutes long, even longer than Frances, and it exemplifies everything that’s wrong with complexity for its own sake. In many ways, this is TMV’s least pretentious album, despite titles like “Vicarious Atonement” and “Viscera Eyes,” because it’s all music – the noisy interludes that marred Frances are all but gone. But the music is endless and lifeless and pointless, just a bunch of empty jamming and showing off.

I don’t want it to sound like the Mars Volta guys don’t play well on this record – in fact, judged solely on instrumental skill, Amputechture is amazing. Cedric Bixler-Zavala has never sounded more like Robert Plant in his prime, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is on fire with his explosive guitar playing, and Red Hot Chili Peppers wizard John Frusciante slathers the whole thing in searing leads. The problem is that instrumental skill is all this album has going for it.

Take “Tetragrammaton,” the second track. It drags on for 16 minutes, at pretty much the same tempo, and it goes absolutely nowhere. It’s nearly impossible to sit through, because all the frenetic flailing about can’t replace good songwriting and memorable melody. The whole album sounds the same, and meshes into one big mush, except for “Asilos Magdalena,” a quiet Spanish-language interlude that stands as the album’s best moment.

The rest just crawls on and on, Bixler-Zavala wailing away while Frusciante’s eight-minute solos are presented in their entirety. Nothing stands out, nothing gels, and nothing here earns its extended running time. The ending is actually a perfect metaphor for the whole thing – “El Ciervo Vulnerado” is a pointless dirge that creaks forward for an eternal nine minutes, before it ends abruptly, as if the mixing engineer just decided he’d had enough.

Amputechture is a sterling example of the extreme end of the complexity spectrum. There is nothing here to emotionally latch on to – even the lyrics are gibberish, unless a line like “Because the flies my mouth spill bare the children at play” speaks to you in some way. I doubt it even means anything to Bixler-Zavala, although he whispers it as if it were the secret to the universe. This is music disconnected from the heart entirely, as much as the simplest folk music is disconnected from the theoretical brain.

And maybe that’s the answer, and perhaps I knew that from the start – my favorite music combines the head and heart reactions. If I am not surprised or engaged by the musical choices, the structure, the melody, I will be bored. But likewise, if the music has no soul, and does not move me or make me feel, then I will be equally bored. It’s not about simplicity vs. complexity, but about a melding of both, without stepping too far in one direction or the other.

Of the six we discussed, I can only unreservedly recommend two – Bill Mallonee’s excellent Permafrost, and Iron Maiden’s forceful A Matter of Life and Death. As for the rest, well, I continue to struggle with these issues, and I strive to find what is good about these records and just enjoy that. Maybe someday I’ll be able to.

Next week, a huge (and hopefully more timely) one, with lots of new ones – Starflyer 59, John Mayer, the Black Keys, the Indigo Girls, Roger Manning, Yo La Tengo, and perhaps more. And Sloan’s new one is on the way to me right now, too. Life is good.

See you in line Tuesday morning.