Mellow is the New Prog
Three Metal Masters Grow Up and Calm Down

The best, most accurate description of progressive metal I’ve ever heard is also the most vulgar: it’s dick-off music. It’s the musical equivalent of two guys dropping their pants and pulling out the rulers.

I know I’ve just revolted half my readership, but let me explain, because it’s an apt analogy. Prog-metal is entirely – entirely – about how well you can play your chosen instrument. And it’s not enough to be fast and precise, you have to be faster and more precise than anyone else. You’re a drummer? You have to hit those double-bass pedals faster than any other drummer, and come up with the most imaginative (and difficult) fills you can, and play at the upper limits of your skill and pain threshold at all times.

Because you’re always being measured. Fans of prog-metal only want to hear your most intricate, complex, impossible-to-play material. If your song is 15 to 20 minutes long, and has 300 different sections, and an instrumental interlude loaded with lightning-fast solos, you’re on your way. But next, you have to play each of the 65 million little notes exactly right, in exactly the right time, atop 45 shifting time signatures, because the fans will be listening, and they will be grading you.

I say they, but of course, I’m a fan of this stuff too. I like Opeth and Symphony X and Vanden Plas and most of the Inside Out roster, for all the same reasons their other fans do. It’s something of a holdover from my teenage metalhead days – I would spend hours talking with fellow fans about which band could kick which band’s ass, musically speaking, and I love hearing talented players really push themselves. Plus, there’s an absurdity, a heightened sense of the dramatic about this music, and I love that.

But you know, you grow up and you calm down. I’ve found myself less and less excited lately about the prospect of hearing another 78-minute head-spinning metal monstrosity. (Because they are all 78 minutes long, unless they are double albums.) There’s only so much musical exhaustion you can take. I can’t even imagine how the members of these bands play this stuff night after night. In my old age, I’m finding I need some sweetness to contrast with the mayhem.

For more than 15 years, the standard bearer for this kind of thing has been Dream Theater. They play an insanely difficult brand of symphonic metal, equal parts Iron Maiden and 1970s Yes. When I first heard them, around the time of 1992’s Images and Words, they were more traditionally progressive, and I still remember being knocked on my ass by “Lie,” the heavyheavyheavy first single from their next record, 1994’s Awake. It was like Ride the Lightning-era Metallica went away and practiced for 10 years, emerging as this tightly-controlled, complex beast without losing their edge.

But you know, I’ve grown strangely weary of that sound. Because it hasn’t changed, not that much, in the last decade-plus. Sure, they harnessed it for a rock opera (Scenes From a Memory) and a 42-minute interconnected suite (Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence), and with the addition of keyboard genius Jordan Rudess in 1998, they locked into a dizzying groove, but things have become predictable. You know what you’re getting with Dream Theater now, especially since they’ve upped the metal content over the past few albums. “Oh, here comes the four-minute guitar solo.” “Oh, here’s the part where Rudess and John Petrucci play super-fast together, in harmony.” “Oh, here’s the bit in 27/8 time, just because.”

Truth be told, everything from Train of Thought on has bored me somewhat. So I’m stunned at how much I’m enjoying album 10, Black Clouds and Silver Linings. And I think I know why.

Despite the crazy song lengths – four of these six songs blow past 10 minutes, with the longest clocking in at 19:16 – this is the least patience-testing Dream Theater album since Images and Words. The long and flailing solos are still here, but there are fewer of them – the longest is in “A Rite of Passage,” over an extended interlude that could be excised from the song with no harm done. Rather than take every possible opportunity to show off their considerable chops, the DT quintet has written actual songs here. Complicated songs, yes, but memorable and melodic ones as well.

Okay, yes, this album does contain all 12:49 of “The Shattered Fortress,” the final installment of drummer Mike Portnoy’s hour-long saga about his recovery from alcoholism. And this one is pure raging metal, just like all the others – the band’s been doling out this disasterpiece in segments, one an album, since Six Degrees. This final piece is made up mostly of riffs and melodies from the other four, tying things together, but it’s the most difficult 12:49 of the album for me. I much prefer the progressive metal hybrid of opener “A Nightmare to Remember,” which earns most of its 16:10.

Through the first four tracks, this is merely an above-average Dream Theater album, with some mellower moments mixed in. But it’s the final two songs that set this one above and beyond anything DT has done in 10 years. “The Best of Times” is dedicated to Portnoy’s father, Howard, who died this year, and it is the most sustained exploration of pure beauty in this band’s catalog. The song is 13 minutes long, but it feels like half that – it starts with a lovely piano and violin prelude, but soon the full band chimes in with a rocketing skyward ride that reminds me of Rush’s “Red Barchetta.” It never degenerates into showmanship – each change is melodic and strikingly pretty, and the extended, gorgeous guitar finale knocks me out.

And then there is “The Count of Tuscany,” the aforementioned 19:16 closer. Normally, even the thought of a 19-minute Dream Theater song called “The Count of Tuscany” would have me shaking my head, but this one ranks among DT’s very best. It is a tightly-controlled, consistently melodic masterpiece, with virtually no solos and lots of acoustic guitars. This is what I want from Dream Theater. There isn’t a weak moment here – one of the finest progressive epics I’ve heard in a long time. And the concluding minutes? You’d expect a grand finale, with wanking solos all over it, but what DT delivers is actually quite pretty and moving.

So okay, the album itself is 75 minutes long, but if you want to shell out for the deluxe edition, you get another two hours of stuff. The second disc is all covers, and it’s interesting stuff – they do a ripping version of the “Flick of the Wrist” trilogy from Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, and knock out a fine take on King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 2.” But there aren’t any surprises. They close with Iron Maiden’s “To Tame a Land,” as if we didn’t know they’re all Maiden fans.

And the third disc consists of instrumental mixes of the entire album. These aren’t just instrumentals, though, they’re backing tracks – the solos are all missing as well, so you can really hear the musical hoops the band is jumping through behind them. But it truly exposes and emphasizes the biggest weaknesses of this (and every) Dream Theater album: the lyrics, and James LaBrie’s voice. I won’t go into specifics here, but the lyrics on this album are abysmal, and LaBrie’s metal vibrato is in full force. Despite some great vocal melodies on this record, I find myself preferring some of the instrumental cuts.

But hell, that’s okay, when the musical interplay is as good as it is here. In many ways Dream Theater’s subtlest and prettiest album, Black Clouds and Silver Linings breaks a depressing streak of boring records from this dazzlingly talented group. For a band that often gets lost in its own speed and skill, this record is surprisingly down-to-earth, and reining in those chops turns out to be the best thing they could have done.

As much as Dream Theater has annoyed me over the years, they’ve never made an album I can’t get through. I hesitate to admit this, since I see I reviewed it on March 19 of last year, but I don’t think I ever listened to all of The Bedlam in Goliath, the Mars Volta’s wank-heavy fourth LP. It was everything I can’t stand about them – Cedric Bixler-Zavala screaming and screeching nonsensical lyrics over and over, while Omar Rodriguez-Lopez solos and solos and solos, atop needlessly complex and empty funk-metal backdrops. I don’t think the Mars Volta has written a song I remember since Frances the Mute, honestly.

So imagine my surprise when I spun album five, Octahedron, for the first time, expecting more of the same. Lo and behold, they’ve mellowed right out, and it’s worked wonders for them. Octahedron (their eighth release overall, hence the title) actually begins with a minute and a half of nearly-inaudible keyboard texture, before the slow acoustic guitars of “Since We’ve Been Wrong” slide in. Rather than open with another furious noise-beast that gallops past 10 minutes, the Voltas have opted for a pretty ballad, one that never picks up the pace – and it turns out to be a tone-setter.

The album has one rocker, the brief “Cotopaxi.” Songs stay within reasonable lengths for this band, with only one breaking the eight-minute barrier. The sound is full – this is not an unplugged album, by any means – but the tempos remain in the mid-range, and just about all of them have memorable choruses. “With Twilight as My Guide” is almost a sea shanty, and is the prettiest song the Mars Volta has written. Even when the anthemic shout-chorus of “Desperate Graves” kicks in, the subtle undertones carry over, and the genuine epic at the album’s close, “Luciforms,” displays a sense of real dynamics missing from every other Mars Volta album.

Granted, the lyrics are still incomprehensible nonsense – “Banished to 5th dementia, cables of ringworms have hung themselves, of this I ate, communion shaped, serpent rays in prism tail rainbows escalate…” I can’t honestly decide which is worse, though: the ludicrous nothings on Octahedron, or the plain-spoken and wretchedly simplistic words on Dream Theater’s record. I know the Mars Volta lyrics make me cringe less often, even though I understand almost none of them.

But that’s my only complaint with what is, pound for pound, my favorite Mars Volta album since their debut. I honestly didn’t think they had a record this restrained, this melodic, this flat-out pretty in them. Chances are good that next time, they’ll be back to their flailing, empty-calorie frippery, but I hope they take some lessons from Octahedron, and inject their next record with some of this well-earned subtlety.

I can’t say I’m quite as surprised by Devin Townsend’s new album, Ki. But that’s only because I’ve learned through the years to expect almost anything from Townsend. Over 15 years, the Canadian mad scientist has turned out some of the heaviest music I’ve ever heard, particularly with his band Strapping Young Lad. But he’s also made some monumentally gorgeous records on his own – he’s the originator of what I call ambient metal, a sound so thick and heavy and full that it almost floats in the air. You can listen to a Townsend production a hundred times, on headphones, and hear new things each time.

And truth be told, he’s probably never going to surprise me quite as much as he did in 2007 with Ziltoid the Omniscient. A hysterical concept album about an alien coming to Earth to seek out the universe’s best cup of coffee, Ziltoid managed to be zany and moving at the same time, and take Townsend’s over-the-top metal craziness in new directions. From there, he could have gone anywhere, and it appears that’s exactly what he’s decided to do.

Ki is the first of four Devin Townsend albums slated for release over two years, each in a different style. But even knowing that going in, Ki is a shocker. Townsend has always been about piling on, about packing as much sound as physically possible into each song. But this album is stunningly minimalist, full of clean guitars and genuine ambience. Yes, there are songs like “Disruptr” and “Gato” to keep the headbangers happy, but there is virtually nothing here that could be accurately described as metal. Townsend has stripped down to barest essentials on most of this album – when there are iron fists, they are wrapped in velvet gloves.

The other surprise is Townsend’s voice here. He has an uncommonly strong one – he first came to prominence as the singer for Steve Vai’s band in the early ‘90s, and has alternately belted out melodically or screamed atonally on every song since. But he whispers his way through most of Ki, singing in an almost hushed, reverential way. Take “Terminal,” for example – as a softly thumping bass drum keeps time, Devin spins lovely webs of clean guitar, and graces them with an achingly pretty vocal. It’s just as captivating as it could possibly be.

What’s no surprise is that this album is fantastic. Townsend can play guitar like you wouldn’t believe, but his work here is graceful and understated, never playing ten notes when one will do. His gift for production is in full bloom here as well, minimal as the album is – these songs don’t pack the sonic punch of his other work, but they’re deceptively layered and atmospheric. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this is a confessional folk offering – some of these songs are even sort of funky, and there are practically no acoustic guitars – but it is remarkably quiet and often beautiful.

Only the rockabilly number “Trainfire” breaks the hypnotic mood, but that’s all right, because it’s great. The majority of the album is given over to tiny epics like “Lady Helen” and the title track. It closes with the brief and subtly menacing “Demon League,” the core of which is just Townsend’s whispered voice and clean guitar. Ki is a stunner – while Townsend has flirted with beauty before, here he dives straight in, and the results are superb. I’m sure future albums in this series will bring back the heavy, but I’m enjoying these dark shadows, these abstract brushstrokes.

I don’t know if this left turn into subtlety counts as a prog-metal trend, but I’m enjoying it. Next week, thoughts on the new Wilco, and a new gospel record from Michael Roe. As a side note, I’m wrapping this up at 9:30 at night on Tuesday, the closest I have cut my Wednesday morning deadline all year. If you’re reading this Wednesday morning, I made it. If not, I’ll make it up to you next week.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.