Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dream Theater: Falling Into Infinity (1997) Review

We hear enough about studios and record labels to infer that they're generally annoying.  In Dream Theater's case (circa 1997), it's particularly baffling.  Failing to so much as mimic Images and Words' radio success was apparently all that mattered when Awake came out.  And as we all know, metal songs are guaranteed radio hits (cue sarcasm).  So the pressure was, once again, on.  Only this time Dream Theater's record label wanted something specifically meant to pollute American radio stations.  Apparently they failed to notice that said band released a 23-minute epic two years prior.  

The end result of Dream Theater being shoved in and confined was Falling Into Infinity, an album that's been bestowed with as much praise as James LaBrie's vocals.  The comparison isn't arbitrary, either, as Falling Into Infinity was the first LP LaBrie did after his food poisoning incident.  A lead singer with ruptured vocal chords, record label pressuring accessibility from a progressive metal band…you do the math.

Though the Dream Theater fan(boy) in me would give Falling Into Infinity a pass, given its background, listeners will ultimately take the album as is.  And as it stands, Falling Into Infinity is a drab assortment.  What's interesting is that while the album is the opposite of beguiling, you can hear a true Dream Theater album struggling to get out.  Power ballads like "Hollow Years" and "Take Away My Pain" might not necessarily scream "put me on Train of Thought," but just from opener "New Millennium" you can tell the band were held back.  And it's not like control inherently prevents Dream Theater from providing quality music--Awake was proof that they can benefit from it, but here the restraint is overbearing.  The best example(s) of this come from Falling Into Infinity's two epics.  90% of the time Dream Theater epics are the ultimate form of audible comfort food; "Lines in the Sand" and "Trial of Tears" are in the other 10%.  Calling either of these tracks "bad" would be an overstatement, but both are guilty of being utterly forgettable.  Save Doug Pinnick's backing vocals on "Lines in the Sand," each is listenable, but unlike Dream Theater's other epics, neither will stick with you.

This kind of predicament is what comes to plague and, ultimately, define Falling Into Infinity.  Whenever there's a moment or entire song that seems like it might normally work, something gets in the way.  Oftentimes the shoddy production and ill direction are to blame.  Remember how When Dream and Day Unite suffered due to lackluster production (among other things)?  Similar situation here.  Except where the band's debut was true to itself, within its confines, Falling Into Infinity buckles under the conflict of the band's aspirations and their record label's impositions.  The result is a musical mess that doesn't sound half as interesting as it should.

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What do you consider some of the worst follow-ups to masterpieces (albums)?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dream Theater: Awake (1994) Review

After a subpar debut, Dream Theater struck immediate gold with their sophomore success, Images and Words.  Reaching 61 on the Billboard Top 200, the album's key song, "Pull Me Under," remains the band's only song to become a Top 10 U.S. track.  Naturally, the pressure was on to surpass such successes, but with the record label wanting both commercial popularity AND a more metal sound, conflicts were only inevitable.  The album itself placed even higher on the Billboard Top 200, yet its singles couldn't recapture the draw of "Pull Me Under."  Despite this debacle, Awake has since become a respected entry in Dream Theater's discography, with very good reason.

Immediately evident is the darker, heavier transition from Images and Words to this.  Opener "6:00" is easy enough on the ears, but it also signals the rough and punctual guitar notes, borderline operatic keys and often angst-driven vocals.  What's more is that the follow-up, "Caught in a Web," gives us the real shock treatment with an aggressiveness which recurs throughout the album, most notably in "Lie," the second of a two-part song that begins with "The Mirror."  The two work so well together that hearing one without the other is like reading a half-finished book.

Awake specifically emphasizes the metal part of progressive metal, especially when taking song structure into account.  Curiously, while the album's sound is less accessible, each track is way more concise than just about anything else the band has put out; Awake is mostly split up by five to seven-minute sections.  While this wouldn't be a Dream Theater album without a 10+ minute song (the criminally underrated "Scarred"), even that showcases Dream Theater being self-aware.  In other words, the band's characteristically compulsive tendencies are consistently contained.  In this respect, Awake is actually more approachable than its siblings.

Now, Awake might be one of the band's heaviest albums, but it isn't without momentary reliefs.  "The Silent Man," with its simple yet effective acoustics, and the welcome melodic vocals in "Lifting Shadows Off a Dream" both come up at opportune moments to balance the scale.  We're also treated to a bit of both worlds in "Innocence Faded," whose innocence leads us in before gradually escalating during the subsequent solos and outro.  The small nod to "Another Day" in "Erotomania" (at 2:50) is also a nice touch.  Also of note is Awake's closer, "Space-Dye Vest," a peculiarity that turns into one of the band's most unique tracks.  The use of quotes throughout the first half is odd, but the eerie keyboard creates a chilling atmosphere which, combined with LaBrie's surprisingly haunting vocals, leaves quite the impression.  

For this listener, choosing standout tracks from Awake is absolutely daunting because the entire album works so well.  It truly keeps on giving, whether from song to song, or during repeat listenings.  Just as Images and Words was a different creature from When Dream and Day Unite, Awake is another beast from its 1992 predecessor.  Dream Theater pulled off their changes wonderfully then and they essentially perfect it here.  

Grade: A

Question of the Day: What are some of the most consistently excellent albums you've heard?  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dream Theater: Images and Words (1992) Review

After their debut failed to leave even a ripple in the progressive music pond, Dream Theater knew they'd have to reevaluate themselves.  Metaphorically, When Dream and Day Unite was a fragment of a pebble while its follow-up, Images and Words, was a colossal boulder.  Thanks to a number of changes, Images and Words completely rejects the concept of "sophomore slump," becoming a tremendous improvement over its predecessor, as well as a progressive metal milestone.

Opening with the band's most popular song, "Pull Me Under" is all one needs to understand that this will be a much different creature.  Most immediate is the bolstered production, lending a sound that's both clean and lively.  Where the instruments in When Dream and Day Unite suffocated within a thin atmosphere, Images and Words inhales and exhales like a guru deep in meditation.  

This praise extends to then-new frontman James LaBrie, who's long come under heavy criticism.  At this point in his (and the band's) career, he was in top form, hitting high notes with a seemingly passionate ease.  His performance is right in-line with the album's generally upbeat tempo, but points like "Wait for Sleep" and the beginning of "Surrounded" allow everyone to breathe a little.  Although, for an album that's technically metal, Images and Words has an overall sense of elation and unwinding.

Listeners who've gone without a little Images and Words in their lives (shame on you) needn't worry about the album sticking to what seems like a basic format, based on the first two tracks.  "Pull Me Under" and "Another Day" might fall back on choruses and other refrains, but the rest of the album is less conventionally structured.  During tracks like "Metropolis, Pt. 1" and "Learning to Live" we get a taste of Dream Theater unleashed, but not in the same vein as 2002's Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, or even Images and Words' immediate successor, Awake.  

Images and Words is quick to find its pacing, even though it's ever-changing.  The strut begins to recede during the second half, after the speedy virtuosity in "Take the Time" and "Metropolis, Pt. 1."  In particular, the early minutes of "Learning to Live" showcase an influence from Queensryche before providing a riff not unlike those on Awake.  One could spend hours picking out the touches found in other, earlier progressive acts, but Images and Words secures an identity for itself as the best the genre had to offer during the 90's.  

Grade: A

Question of the Day: What's your favorite sophomore album?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dream Theater: When Dream and Day Unite (1989) Review

Imagine Dream Theater without James LaBrie.  Naysayers of the progressive metal giants might not be aware that that's exactly how the band (formerly Majesty) started, with When Dream and Day Unite being their first outing.  Though the album failed to be a pivotal chapter in the band's discography, it helped set the stage for future releases, albeit with less effect.

The immediate concern diving into When Dream and Day Unite is the weak production, something that puts high beams on the album's trapped-in-the-80's identity.  Everything sounds thin and tap-ey, cutting many exciting moments down.  The music still technically functions, and when ears adjust, the album's heavily synthesized music and eerie Spaceman vibe begin calling.  This is when the seeds of talent in John Petrucci (guitar) and John Myung (bass) become most apparent.

One of When Dream and Day Unite's other crippling issues is the lack of consistently engaging material.  Catchy moments like opener "A Fortune in Lies" and "The Ytse Jam" are welcome, as are points when things pick up (see "The Killing Hand," about 5 minutes in), but for most of the album's runtime, everything fumbles.  This is especially so during the second half; within fifteen minutes of ending, one grows weary and longs to move on to something different.  Dream Theater are no stranger to comments of "bloated" and "overzealous" music; When Dream and Day Unite unfortunately earns such remarks.

Another problem is original singer Charlie Dominici, who's given little to no chance to shine.  This stems significantly from the choice to emphasize the rest of the band in mixing.  As a result, rather than steering the album's sound, Dominici is here to keep the album from being instrumental.  He's not a necessary force, just a role player.  

Other than a performance to commemorate the album's fifteen-year anniversary, Dream Theater have mostly ignored When Dream and Day Unite, something any reasonable listener can understand.  It never left an impression on audiences and the ultimate experience is completely blasé.

Grade: D

Question of the Day: What are some bands you love who had completely unremarkable debut albums?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) Review

Every summer seems to become more and more crammed full of sequels than the last.  This year has been particularly saturated, even if most of the material has been excellent.  Curiously, if there's any 2014 sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is most similar to, it's 22 Jump Street.  Why?  Because both are successors to films that everyone thought would slip and crash upon release, meaning both lack the factor of element of surprise.  Not only that, but both are about on par with (or superior to) their predecessors.  

Dawn takes place ten years after Rise.  In that time, humans have receded due to the fatal side effects of the ALZ-112 drug, while the exposed apes have lived and thrived together.  That's when the two come into contact for the first time in a couple or so years, creating the friction and, soon, the conflicts which drive the movie forward.  
A pivotal aspect Dawn is wise to stick with is an emphasis on the apes.  This is very much their movie, with previously nameless (or forgettably named) apes finally being identifiable and discernible.  We all know Andy Serkis will stand out as Caesar (and boy he does), but time is set aside for his companions to shine as well.  Especially memorable is Koba, an aggressive catalyst just waiting to happen.  

But don't think we humans necessarily get the short, thin end of the stick.  More screen time could have been allotted to Gary Oldman, but Jason Clarke (as Malcolm) is our human of note.  The compatibility between him and Caesar is immediately clear, something the movie is constantly aware of, but it chooses to avoid diving headfirst.  Matt Reeves and the writers understand that conflict creates interest and tension builds conflict, the latter of which is used effectively so that, when the climax truly hits, we're utterly seized.  
Dawn is already poised to be another august chapter in the Planet of the Apes franchise.  We constantly wonder not so much what will happen, but how, and we're left anxious for what will transpire in the next installment.  Wherever these apes decide go, we humans will follow.  
Grade: A

Question of the Day: What's your favorite movie that metaphorically commentates on war?