There is nothing inherently wrong with a little bit of widdly. If you can play your instrument well, then why not do so. But one always needs to remember that prog and prog-metal are still forms of popular music, if not “pop music” and are tied to a couple unbendable constrictions. You must have memorable melodies and hooks, and you need a chorus that sticks. To prove my point, find someone you know who recognizes bands like this and say them, “Name the first song that comes to your mind.”
If the band is Rush, you’ll likely get the riffs from “Tom Sawyer” or “Limelight.” If it is Queensryche, there’s a high chance you’ll get the chorus of “Eyes Of A Stranger.” And if you say Dream Theater, you may get “Caught In A Web” or “Pull Me Under.” You can play a thousand notes or blast beats a minute, but if you can’t get them to grab hold of the ear and mind, it can be little more than a half-heard conversation. “Yeah, yeah, okay…your mom, you say? Oh.”
How much of a coincidence it is that Dream Theater and Fates Warning are releasing new albums at the same time is left for the conspiracy-minded. The former features drummer Mike Mangini in his second recorded outing. The latter mostly brings the entire group back after a decade away (another new drummer — must be a thing). Both bands once counted keyboard player Kevin Moore as a member in a form or another. Both hop across those divisions of prog and metal like an ADD kid while channel surfing. Yet the final outcome after hearing both discs, for me, couldn’t be more different.
Mike Mangini is a wildly talented drummer, and he fits in Dream Theater remarkably well, provided you get a real chance to hear him do his thing. The sin of Dream Theater’s self-titled album is that it is so dense, so angrily trying to be what everyone says they are, that those moments meant to lift the listener up tend to pass like breathers between exercise repetitions. Guitarist John Petrucci, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and bassist John Myung are just as hyper during what seems like most of the time, offering no room for any bandmate to breathe, to lock into a groove, or to just revel in a moment’s high point. So what you find in the majority of this release are a lot of beats underpinning a lot of notes, and a lot of sounds trying to stifle beats, rather than letting any particular section shine for a moment.
I know that people are going to automatically assume that this is due to the absence of Mike Portnoy, but this dilemma has been ongoing and seems like a conscious reaction to the more pop-arena direction of Octavarium well over five albums ago. I don’t dislike Dream Theater the album, but this is the first time in a long time where I must admit to not having the stamina to listen to an album straight through. The band knows this, and occasionally there are the songs that seem to directly attempt to alleviate it (they mostly lock into a Rush-like vibe in order to do it, as in songs like “The Looking Glass” and the opening section of “Surrender To Reason”). But on the whole, they need to calm down. There really is no prog-metal band of their generation as respected and sustaining as Dream Theater, so I don’t see what the added excess is all about.
At times, Fates Warning’s Darkness Of A Different Kind is just as claustrophobic, but there seem to be more opportunities allotted to open space up to breathe, and that comes as a huge relief. Welcoming the reformed band is drummer Bobby Jarzombek, known as the drummer for Rob Halford’s solo band, and he works over the double-kicks well enough, thank you. The rest are no slouches either, and it is so nice to have Ray Alder on the microphone again, after his ongoing stint as vocalist for Redemption.
Most of the group has been active in other forms, including Jim Matheos’ pairing up again with singer John Arch for the Arch/Matheos efforts, and also remaining a part of OSI (which, once again, is a collaboration with Kevin Moore). Therefore, one shouldn’t be shocked that the band sounds as tight as they do, though studio perfectionism helps that along too.
The real division here between the two albums covered here is that I can see myself easily popping Darkness… in the CD player for another run, without a lot of mental preparation for it, while I cannot say the same for Dream Theater. Both have their moments of musical smothering, with no concept of less-is-more moderation, but Fates Warning has time for some big hooks and choruses you can get behind. It nearly expects that of you, and as a listener who insists upon that every now and then, it is appreciated. DT proposes it almost as a dare. Here is a “song” song, and here we are bench-pressing the universe.
The negative takeaways from both releases are pretty much a problem with the whole genre, and I’ll try to whittle them down quickly: Too much lyrical emphasis on one’s existential pain, of dreams, sacrifice/martyrdom, and a condescending attitude about re-ali-ty (as in, we know it and you don’t). None of this should stop you from trying this music out because this is found in 90% of this type of music right now. If you don’t like the sea, don’t be a sailor.
Regardless of my picked nits over common physiological similarities, I recommend both for prog-metal fans, as well as those who put skill as a high requisite for musicianship. Die hard fans will probably lap both up accordingly, but for the folks who want a nice, crunchy rock record with a higher aspiration-threshold, without feeling completely exhausted by the end of it, Darkness In A Different Light has a slight edge up over Dream Theater.
Regardless of that endorsement, the thing that truly needs to be said here is that there has been a rejuvenation of respect for prog over the past decade, mostly due to a reaction against the formulaic nature of current pop music and heavy music. The whole point of prog in the first place was to be different. It was a place where you didn’t have to dwell on love/hate/revenge/sex/partying as the sole five topics of articulation. It was where you could play at a level of virtuosity far above the standard of the day.
In the best examples, the music could say things about ourselves that we needed to hear, that no one else wanted to say because it could be interpreted as a downer, a buzzkill, or at least too grown up a concern for rockin’ out. But there is so much that is similar among the music’s leading practitioners now that a flag of concern must be raised. If the goal is to be apart from a mainstream, is that goal lost if you are content with the alternate mainstream you have concocted for yourself? If an open-minded audience has genuinely rediscovered prog as viable, it won’t for long if the sounds coming out are the result of the same swim in the gene pool.