Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dual Album Reviews: Dream Theater & Scorpions

Review: Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos
Has Dream Theater finally completely lost it? Let's examine the following syllogism, or three-step proof, to determine our answer:
1) Has Dream Theater finally completely lost it?
2) I'm turning Japanese I think I'm turning Japanese
3) I really think so.
So as you can see, I present you with conclusive, iron-clad evidence that Dream Theater has finally lost whatever magic it was that first endeared me to them. I have strong suspicions leaning toward that being Kevin Moore, considering that they've seen a progressive decline in the years following his departure from the band, and almost everything Kevin Moore has since touched has turned into pure aural bliss. With minor exception, everything Dream Theater has produced since 1995's A Change of Seasons (which was still predominantly composed with Moore still in the band), could be summed up perfectly with this passage from the Savatage song "Morphine Child":
I had a light that shined
Across my mind
Rarely see it anymore
Now it is mostly dark
Except for sparks
Can't remember what they're for. . .
This is exactly what I see in Dream Theater these days. Gone are the majestic, flowing epic compositions and cerebral, emotional lyrical content of their early Nineties work. Now it's primarily mindless, self-indulgent wankery to demostrate how technically proficient they are. Every once in a while they come up with the spark of a new and exciting idea or possibly a catchy hook, but it just disappears back into the dark murkiness of bland, uninspired power-shredding as it seems they just can't remember what a good hook is used for anymore.

Maybe I'm just getting older and growing disinterested in emotionless, technical heavy metal is a symptom of getting older. The fact that John Petrucci can play guitar faster than probably anyone else on the planet is just not as exciting to me now as it was when I was fifteen. Jordan Rudess suddenly breaking into a ragtime piano solo is nothing more than gimmicky now. Mike Portnoy may be a good drummer, but he suffers Neil Peart syndrome. His drumming is really technical and highly efficient, but there's so fucking much of it that it fails to impress me. Combine that with the fact that his drum tone is one of the most annoying noises in modern music, and I'd much rather listen to Keith Moon who to this day does nothing but impress me on songs that I've heard more times than most people get sick of. These days I'm much more appreciative of the sum than the individual parts of the songs. I'm looking for awe-inspiring compositions with flowing riffs and driving rhthms. Dare I say I might agree with Geoff Tate in that the chugga-chugga riffing and lightning fast pentatonic scaling just doesn't do it for me anymore. I'd much rather listen to Simple Minds, Tears For Fears, or Dead Soul Tribe these days than Megadeth, Dream Theater, or even Iron Maiden.

That leads me into Systematic Chaos, their latest release and probably their least appealing to me since 1999's Scenes from a Memory. Before all you die-hard Dream Theater enthusiasts jump in like Internet white knights to defend their honor, at least give me a chance to describe why I didn't like Scenes from a Memory. The main reason was that this was supposed to be "Metropolis, Part Two," a sequel to the story told on the Images and Words album. Instead of giving us another chapter from the pages of "Metropolis," or even continuing the story presented in the first chapter, the band got this idea to combine the characters from the song with the plot from the movie Dead Again, resulting in them presenting us with the same exact story we had with the first song, only now drawn out with far too much plot crammed into one hour and twenty minutes. Aside from the regurgitated sections taken from "Metropolis, Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper" to hold the album together, the only really musically interesting song on the entire album was enough of "Home" to make a radio edit, and at least part of that borrowed heavily from Tool's "Forty-six & 2" with a slightly rearranged main riff from their own "The Mirror." Scenes from a Memory was the first album the band admitted to not fully composing before entering the studio and just sort of jamming out, because that worked so well for bands like Metallica in the past, and it was the first album that really introduced us to the possibility that, wow, Dream Theater can actually make a whole album full of crap.

Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence followed. The first disc contained several good songs, a couple of which notably penned by James LaBrie, who up until that point was only lucky to be allowed to have his songs presented on an actual album. Unfortunately, that album also drew out those songs way too long. They bragged about having longer songs on the album, but the fact that the songs are longer does not automatically mean that they're better or more clever. These were actaully only five or six minutes worth of content stretched out for ten minutes or longer. They could easily be edited down to a six-minute "radio edit" (as if Dream Theater would get played on corporate radio) with no noticable loss of content. The forty-two minute epic that comprised the second disc was more a group of cohesive songs than one full song. It lacked the overall unity of previous extended epics like "A Change of Seasons," and the nine-minute "Voices" was far more epic than "Six Degrees" could ever hope to be. While the songs that comprised the song "Six Degrees of Inner Turublence" may have generated some quaint ideas, they mostly borrowed from artists like Peter Gabriel and David Byrne with dick-retractingly embarrassing results.

Train of Thought was a much better album. It still lacked the magic that made Awake their stand-alone benchmark work in my mind, but it was still a decent effort. Songs like "As I Am" and "Stream Of Consciousness" were solid and "In The Name Of God" harkened back to the epic grand mastery of their early Nineties compositions. Octovarium continued their trek back from the drudges of musical oblivion with strong songs like "These Walls" and "Never Enough." "I Walk Beside You" is possibly their best power ballad since "Space-Dye Vest," which wasn't really a power ballad, but probably the most emotionally engaging song they'd produced previously, (except that was entirely Kevin Moore's brainchild). "Octovarium" was the grand epic that got it right. Unlike "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence," Octovarium is very much one, cohesive, stand-alone, twenty-four minute career retrospective of Dream Theater that harkens back in overall compositional quality to "A Change of Seasons."

Then comes Systematic Chaos to completely derail Dream Theater's freight train back to recovery, the first album since Scenes from a Memory to be almost entirely unlistenable. There are a few sparks of interest, but not enough to hold together any full song. Upon first listen, I found myself primarily bored with it. On second listen, I thought that I'd be more in the frame of mind to accept Dream Theater, but I was still bored. No matter how many times I listen to the album, I can't help but be bored with it. It's probably the first album they've produced where I honestly cannot pick at least one favorite song. None of them are inspiring to me. Maybe I'm just getting older and am getting tired of generic heavy metal. I want to hear beautiful symphonic compositions than random guitar proficiency. If you're going to create an album, compose some songs for it; don't just jam out in a studio and work whatever sounds the most impressive into a series of songs. It makes the difference between creating a really impressive, memorable collection of music, and some equally impressive, but ultimately disposable crap.

Review: Scorpions - Humanity: Hour I
Just once I'd like to see the Scorpions produce an album full of mind-blowing songs with no filler. If you are foolish enough to buy a Scorpions album, expect to get one or two really impressive songs, a couple more passable songs, and eight or nine more songs chock full of failure. I think bands like Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Red Hot Fucking Chili Peppers, Def Leppard, and many more, should be limited to two ballads per album. This should be a mandatory rule in rock music unless your name happens to be something along the lines of Jon Secada or Chris Isaak, in which case I can't honestly picture either of two scenarios: 1) You performing a concert or 2) straight men liking you. For all you hard rockers, though, power ballads are just boring ways to look like pussies. Stop writing albums full of them. You get two out of twelve songs. Use them wisely.

I just had to get that off my chest. Moving right along to Humanity: Hour I, it follows the formula Klaus and Ko. have laid out for at least the past few Scorpions albums. Two stand-out songs, a few heavy, boring songs, and a bunch of ballads. On this album in particular, the opening and closings are the best. "Hour 1" literally surprised me by being good enough to stand up to the likes of Disturbed or System of a Down as far as their ability to appeal to the younger crowd. Not saying that it sounds like Disturbed or System of a Down. It's actually better, but it has the energy and social conviction you would find in either of the two bands. If the rest of the album is sonically and lyrically as strong as "Hour 1," I shouldn't have a problem liking this. . . Aw, fuck!

After that it's a series of good songs with some the interesting riffs and rhythms that the Scorpions have been known for, but on topics about which I just can't find myself caring. For instance, probably over half the album consists of these bizarrely complicated relationships that I'm sure people find themselves in, but when you apply Occam's Razor to them you find the simplest solution is that if you're not happy, just get out of it and find someone to be happy with. Instead Klaus Meine writes song after song about being unhappy in relationships. I'm sure we've all had relationships where we've been unhappy and couldn't figure out why, but artists like this just seem to beat us over the head with them to the point of redundancy. You're a rock star, dude. Women throw themselves at you. If Mick Jagger can get laid, I'm sure you have no problem. If you don't like the relationship you're in, shut up about it, and choose the next girl in line.

Then there's the rock songs about how much the band rocks. I loathe these songs. Quite frankly, I think these are the lowest common denominator of heavy metal artists' lack of creativity. Ronnie James Dio is absolutely famous for these generic, unispired rock songs about rocking, and I hate every single one. I also hate every one the Scorpions have produced up to and including "321." Singing about rocking is redundant and retarded. If someone has to brag about how cool they are, nine out of ten they're overcompensating. If you rock, just rock and it'll show. The Scorpions have no problems rocking except when they produce an album full of limp power ballads and compensate by reminding us that they do, in fact, rock. Fail.

"Humanity" is the other strongest song on the album, and even it is augmented with the melody of a classic public domain circus tune. The main thing that makes "Humanity" stand out is that it's the only other song that follows the premise of the album started out with "Hour 1." There's a lot of talk online about this being a concept album, but aside from the first and last songs, I don't see a concept holding these songs together. The rest of them are as random and forgettable as most other bland Scorpions pop ballads would have been if written by Desmond Child. Unless you count "Hour 1" and "Humanity," the only other concept I see in this album is sucking.

There's a reason why it was called Humanity: Hour I, because those are the only two impressive songs on the album. Enough to make a single. I'm glad now it has yet to see an American release forcing me to download it, because ohterwise I'd have bought it, and I'd be irritated to have spent $15 on only two worthwhile songs. If it was worth my money, I'd be happy to buy it when it becomes domestically available, but consider this a protest to the industry trying to dress up what essentially amounts to a Desmond Child album with the Scorpions' name. Before the advent of the Internet, we'd just have to buy it to know we were fooled. Maybe downloading itself isn't hurting the music industry, maybe what's hurting the music industry is all the people downloading the albums and realizing that the artists haven't created anything worth spending money on.

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