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Dream Theater - Metropolis Part 2 - Scenes From A Memory CD (album) cover


Dream Theater


Progressive Metal

4.29 | 2760 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
1 stars Dream Theater, Metropolis pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory, 1999

To nick half an opening line off a fellow reviewer, '[Metropolis pt. II: Scenes From A Memory] is not only Dream Theater's most overrated release, nor is it prog metal's most overrated release', it's awful.

First off, the 'concept' part of 'concept album': a good concept album surely needs the following: a good concept, and preferably a well-written one, a strong relationship between the lyrics and the music, appropriate vocals and more importantly, to me, a depth to actually keep the listener coming back to the concept... it's the difference between Foucault's Pendulum and the light-hearted The Redemption of Althalus, both are good books, but one is much deeper and consequently more rewarding... in the context that you hope, surely, to listen to an album more than once, the former approach is more valuable.

Now, does Metropolis Pt. II, Scenes From A Memory, which has more depth in its title than the entire damn 70-minute monstrosity, fulfil any of those requirements? Me, personally, I, myself and further I, don't believe it does. The plot is a gaping hole, in which things happen in spasms, things are very occasionally revealed in between the main character's angsty soliloquys, conclusions are drawn and a concluding twist is ruthlessly inserted. Unfortunately, these things need connections and arrangement ' is there really any emotional content in someone believing 'The spirit carries on' because they've been hypnotized into thinking about their (obviously real) previous incarnations? Or is there any point in the 'Sleeper' and the 'Miracle' 'metaphors' for two of the cast characters? Themes and ideas are introduced, but there is just no depth to these ('Without faith, without hope/there can be no peace of mind'...  the why for this precise, repeated line isn't there, as far as I can see... it just appears to be an underlying assumption of the speaker). If you genuinely like the plot of this one, I'd recommend action sci-fi film The Core. It's probably on much the same level.

Now, well-written, obviously not: 'She wanted love forever/but he had another plan/He fell into an evil way/She had to let him down/She said 'I can't love a wayward man', and (Exhibit B, your honour), 'Now that I've become aware/And exposed this tragedy/A sadness grows inside of me/It all seems so unfair' are representative cuts, and the overall impression isn't helped by the predictable alternation of the two parallel stories (well, one of them isn't even happening, it's just a commentary with an event at the end) 'past event happens' and 'Nicholas comments in an angsty/happy way on the past events, with no sympathetic motivation'.

So, we have remarked that it is a wafer-thin plot, following the travails of wafer-thin characters, direly written, and with a sort of pretence of dual depth (past and present), which , when examined, is unconnected, and, regardless, nothing of interest happens in plot B until the very end. Dire stuff. Now, why does this matter so much? Well, one, it's a concept album and it's pushing the concept... it annoys me for the same reason that The Wall's stress on the Hitler rally does... it doesn't make sense, and what is presented as if it were a strength is built on the sand of pretence. It doesn't help either that Labrie is obnoxious to the extreme in his presentation here... his voice is clearly meant to convey an average, normal person most of the time, but, on the other hand, it's plain irritating.... the occasional efforts at a smoother or more aggressive vocal style, rare though they are, are a welcome relief. He also adds an 'a' sound to every word in some sections, which is a pet peeve of mine. So, basically, he's over-presenting a hollow, irritating plot in a hollow, irritating way.

OK, I think you've probably worked out I don't like the concept by now, so that's out of the way... now the album part. Here Dream Theater seem to be hell-bent on alternating the pacey metal riff with the tingling acoustic ballad... unfortunately, they're not particularly good at either of those. The number of good, memorable riffs in these seventy minutes is in the 0s (well, there's one salvaged off I&W, but I'm hardly going to count that), and moreover Petrucci is just a lousily generic and tedious acoustic guitarist... if your introduction to progressive rock included the acoustic features of Howe, Hackett and Fripp, you'll probably hold very, very little affection for the harmless ding-DING-ding (simple acoustics, not always a bad thing, but it's the difference between a writer with a knack for good melodies and one without... Dream Theater don't benefit from this difference being so highlighted) we get from such an admittedly capable electric soloist... again, Petrucci's guitar work, when on an electric, when in a lead role, when soloing, is phenomenal. Unfortunately, at any other given time, he can be unimaginably dull... for instance, for the majority of Scenes From A Memory.

Now, onto the rest... Rudess sort of fits the band, and has to his credit a gimmicky ragtime solo and a generally unoffensive vibe... admittedly his piano parts as a rule don't seem to add a lot to pieces, and occasionally the synth sounds simply don't come off. Portnoy, in addition to being technically sharp and complex, is a bore (though not as much so as on Images And Words), and I hear on good authority the brotherhood of the Sacred Ear to this day have a bounty on John Myung's basslines, so if you can actually hear them on this one, you could be in for the big bucks. There are, musically speaking, two pieces I sort of like on here, and I can remember literally only fragments of them, it's not a well-written album, in my view, and while the more technical-masturbation-themed songs are definitely a bit more interesting for me, I fail to remember more than seconds of any individual piece, and it says a lot that those seconds are generally the gimmicky ragtime solo or the sitar sampling. So, in short, not a compelling metal album (in my opinion... now, I'm not a metalhead, but there are metal albums I like [by Opeth, especially Blackwater Park, Iron Maiden and Arcturus, to name a few]... this just isn't one of them... and I can't say it has the more appealing qualities of those artists I mentioned earlier), not a good progressive rock (indeed, progressive more in derivation than in innovation... a melting pot of styles, rather like making a paella in a mould-encrusted pan) album, not particularly a good album in any sense.

OK, so, I haven't even discussed the individual tracks, and I've explained why I think this is a lousy concept album. I've also written 1123 words already, so it's probably time to bite the bullet and spin the damn album again... I might be brief on individual tracks, because spending this much time writing about Scenes From A Memory when it could be spent giving enjoyable albums such as Awake, Molignak, Darwin! or Skin a small boost in PA's collective consciousness is probably unneeded.

OK, so we have the spoken hypnotherapist intro, complete with ticking... then an exceptionally vapid acoustic-and-voice number with some warbling synth in the background. Thankfully pretty brief. Paragraph merge, because I can. OK, we have a quote from the admittedly neat Metropolis pt 1, which, while just about unrelated (in the same way as the two Cygnus books blatantly are), is probably the best ten seconds of the album. Some nice soloing from Petrucci is probably the key feature of the instrumental Overture 1928... the occasional foreshadowing of later music by collecting themes is clearly an effort , but at the same time, I don't like that later music either, so it's hardly a plus for me. Now, onto the first real vocal number, which, in addition to the thick layers of mind-numbing suffering brought on by Labrie's voice,  has (presumably Portnoy) providing atrocious backing vocals. The drum part is precise, but trapped by its own precision, so often being rigidly unpredictable in the same fashion that the 'unpredictable' bit of it fails to impress, Rudess's short piano bits are neat, his synth parts don't seem to have a lot to them... Myung, when audible, is neat.

The following Through My Words is too safe a piano-and-voice number to really criticise, and if you can ignore the lyrics, that and the opening of Fatal Tragedy are actually quite nice. The latter moves on with some AOR (that?s right, you heard that) choruses and the standard riffing interspersed with some fantastic solos and the occasional organ tone. I'm sort of torn about whether I like the prog-metal thing at around four minutes... very energetic (and I like the shredding, and I think Petrucci, when soloing, has a fantastic tone, though it seems to go out the window on the riffs), actually sort of cool, but it feels so blatant, and really holds no relation to the rest of the song other than having the same track number. OK, out of hypnotherapist talk, we get a riff. Wow. That was really unexpected.

Beyond This Life is the first real engagement with the 'Past' story. Unfortunately, it's terrible. OK, the riff is slightly better than most of those on the album, and when Labrie's vocals are under that weird effect thing, and I can pretend he's singing about hobbits and wizards or something, I can pretend I like this one. There's some surprisingly atmospheric Rudessage here. I like that. Unfortunately, the lyrics are so badly written, they make the opening virtually unlistenable and Labrie is trying so hard to specifically irritate me. OK, he does the occasional neat operato-aggressive thing, which is good, but otherwise, he's mechanically and systematically irking my vocal hates.

OK, Myung comes to the surface halfway through, albeit with a completely harmless part. A random bit of daft production fiddling (Dream Theater are just too calculated to do a Hendrixian interlude, sorry guys) leads into what is actually a really neat bit of bluesy guitar before another superb Petrucci solo. A dire brass synth takes us on... well, let's just say Rudess's solo showcase here is nailbitingly tasteless with the sounds. Portnoy doesn't really add anything to my enjoyment, but he's alright here. It's a pity that Myung's remarkable exit to the daylight from the world of very-low-in-the-mix isn't remarkably good. Bits of this could be really good if I could hear them without hearing the other bits of this soon after.

Some heavy handed Dark Side Of The Moon references (guitars, howly female vocals), complete with an almost hymnal set of keys, followed by a little piano part and the lousy ballad that is Through Her Eyes. Portnoy barely contributes to this bit, obviously, because it's a soft song. Petrucci strums, yawn. Labrie amazingly manages to mess up even this vocal style on occasion... and his incessant vibrato (is that the word?) is a pain. Rudess is a bland piano note every once in a while, and Myung, still on his exercise hour from the prison of the regular production provides the only thing about this song that's actually enjoyable (well, the occasional electric burst isn't terrible, but that's mooted by the acoustics). So bad I feel like going to youtube and listening to a high school band's cover of Video Killed The Radio Star to clean my ears.

Home is a rare thing: Dream Theater dabbling in diversity and also a good song on this album. A vaguely sitar-flavoured thing , with an embryonic riff beneath it, and the occasional precise roll from Portnoy, and suddenly, BIAO-BAO, this absolutely fantastic riff with spiralling guitar work coming off it comes in... Rudess has pulled his tones together, I can barely hear Myung, but I assume he's doing something nice, there's a sharp metal riff... and now, Labrie, L there goes that run, lads... OK, the lyrics are actually not too terrible, more reminiscent of Pt. 1, but his vocals, at least to start with, are unpleasant. OK, then he pulls together and we get shockhorrorscandal a catchy melody... what's going on? Has the spirit of 10cc taken over my stereo player for a few seconds? Did I just like that? Yes... well, whatever witchcraft is going on, Labrie again layers his voice with effects over a menacing, Indian-flavoured riff, and The Miracle's vocal section is slightly less generally irritating... now, if we get past the generic sexual-noises, which would clearly have some sort of effect on me if I didn't hate the concept so much, the sampled-sitar/electric interplay is nice, and even if the solo bursts of the last three minutes are the definition of forgettable, the points where the band pull together make up for it. Anyway, whatever Dream Theater were aiming for with the rest of the album, they somehow managed to just about hit it here.

The Dance Of Eternity opens with some nervous collective shuffling, all laboriously united by little re-echoed solo bits, and double-kick-drumming covers the whole thing. On the other hand, aside from this opening demented soundtrack thing, there is just about enough of the gimmick to keep this one alive, whether in silly synth things, crazed intensity, little dah-dum-dah-dum  bits, something that reminds me of a particularly theme, but I'm not sure which (James Bond, I'm thinking..., maybe I?m wrong), and a random ragtime piano, which is admittedly a gimmick, but a relatively good one... still, I liked this one at first, but I'm finding less and less to like about it. Then, there's a tiny, tiny nice bit with piano and band on before the band goes on into crazy dramatics with only the guitar and piano providing any pleasant reprieve from the dumbfounding, soul-crushing irksomeness of Labrie's vocals on One Last Time.

OK, my ears have switched off by this point... but I'll try to listen to the following The Spirit Carries On (doncha love concept non sequiturs) despite Labrie's presence... there's a lot of reference of things from The Wall, here, I think... the piano is reminiscent, and Labrie takes on an almost Watersy edge... and there's the classic Eclipse (Dark Side, admittedly) organ chord... OK, so a laboured Petrucci solo, which I don't particularly enjoy, and Portnoy in full flow and yet failing to make any impression on me... OK, gospel choir... yeah, right, no reference to a certain band's crowning moment there? Labrie is trying. Yes, very trying (sorry folks, had to be done). OK. Bland rock with half a million Floyd references... I suppose that's progressive in itself... Floyd were never bland :p

Finally Free... well about bloody time... could've done with that seventy minutes ago. Hypnotherapist again, direly bland synths, an unimpressive Petrucci part, sound effects which are indicating the change in the plot... dun dun dun... OK. There's not a lot I like about this tacky cartoon stuff... so I'll say there's a smooth piano in there, and then Labrie comes in again revealing the GRAND CLIMAX of this grand sham. Victoria's bit is actually quite nice at times... seems odd that Dream Theater would bring in a female choir just to reference Pink Floyd but shy away from getting a female vocalist to take the female lead on this one, still... 'Then came a shot out of the night' is possibly the most undramatically delivered line I've heard in a while, which is odd given how much drama Dream Theater can throw in when the lines don't merit it... OK, murder sound effects, wow... what next? Grandiose conclusion with particularly lousy vocals. OK... turning back to the comic dramatics... some noodling blandness (me, personally, I like content, having a story doesn't preclude having that), followed by some more hypnotherapy and a squib which is evidently significant to the story's grand twist. I dislike it intensely. Very intensely. So, to illustrate the style of lumping this together as a concept album, I'll mark the thing by 'Scenes' and give you an average grade. Novelty shift in style. Of course, it will have no relevance on the final grade/star thing I give it.

Scene One: 1/15, Scene Two: 3/15, Scene Three: 6/15, Scene Four: 4/15, Scene 5: 1/15, Scene 6: 12/15, Scene 7: 6/15, Scene 8: 1/15, Scene 9: 3/15. Averaged out, we have 4.111etc./15, which would be a one rather than a two.

So, on the final grade: I cannot possibly give a three to an album from which I really enjoy only one song, and which is conceptually so terrible. Whether one track in a seventy minute album and the occasional glimpse of pleasantness qualify an album for the glorious second star is questionable. It's getting the one from me, which is, admittedly, on the harsher side of justice, but I can see myself very happily not connecting this one to the CD dock again, and once Home is safely ripped to the computer, this will be 'put out to stud' (i.e. collect dust as a glorified coaster).

Rating: One Star, I think 4/15 is actually the mark I'd have given it anyway. 3 if I couldn't skip tracks. Favourite Track: Definitely, definitely Home.

So, what have we learned from this review (well, I say we, I mean I):

Don't buy Scenes From A Memory Metropolis. Unless you really feel like you need to have Home. Or are a Dream Theater fan and think Mike Portnoy is the best drummer ever, at which point you already own the album, most likely. Anyway, not a wise introduction choice, in my opinion, at least, compared to the decent Images And Words and Awake, which is great stuff... if you really like other Dream Theater or you feel like a good, nervous, horrified laugh, go forth, DT fans, and multiply.

A concept is not necessarily a good concept.

Writing about albums you don't like can be fun.

You can write three thousand words about anything.

Credit goes to topofsm... his review was the one my opening line sampled.

OK... there's a line in there where I trailed off, but I can't remember what exactly I was complaining about, and changing it would ruin the 'exactly 3000 words of review excluding title and footnotes' thing I've got going on.

Edit: said line clipped. No longer exactly 3,000 words.

TGM: Orb | 1/5 |


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