Dream Theater intensifies progressive side of rock



August 12, 2005


The heyday of progressive rock may have been the early '70s, when bands such as Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer stretched the boundaries of rock 'n' roll, as well as the attention spans of listeners and their ability to follow a backbeat in 9/8 time. But the genre never died, and it has continued to thrive in the underground.

Now, after two decades of honing its distinctive mix of heavy-metal intensity and progressive-rock virtuosity, the New York quintet Dream Theater stands as one of the most respected and most successful groups in the history of "prog."

"The thing I like about that whole movement is that you can continue with rock music, but bring it to a real musical, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic place where it isn't just rock anymore -- you can extend what music is," keyboardist Jordan Rudess says. "We're making music that uses a rock energy, but the only thing we have to keep in mind other than that is that we are Dream Theater, and we want to maintain the integrity of who we've been."

Formed by a trio of graduates of the Berklee College of Music -- guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy -- Dream Theater came together on Long Island in the late '80s. Since then, it has weathered several personnel changes to reach the current lineup completed by vocalist James LaBrie and keyboard wizard Rudess, who joined in 1999 after playing with Petrucci, Portnoy and prog legend Tony Levin in a side project called the Liquid Tension Experiment.

"I had done two albums with the Liquid Tension Experiment, and both were interesting compared to Dream Theater, because with those we didn't have the window or the parameters of what Dream Theater is," Rudess says. "That was really fun for me to add quirky riffs and spacey things, but right after the second Liquid Tension album, I went into the studio with Dream Theater, and there were really a lot of differences, although it was most of the same guys.

"It was a little hard for me at first: I remember coming in with a ton of ideas, and I wanted to present them all, and they wanted to hear them, but at the same time, they almost didn't want to hear them. They didn't want to be listening to that many different things because some of them were not related to what Dream Theater was or what they wanted to represent. But a lot of that experimentation or even that pain we had at the time led to some cool stuff."

Indeed, Rudess has largely been credited with the more ambient and atmospheric vibe on the band's eighth studio album, "Octavarium," which builds to a climax with a 24-minute title track that closes the disc in grand symphonic-rock style with added sweetening from an orchestra, a first for the band.

"We had just come off of making [2003's] 'Train of Thought,' which was a very heavy album," Rudess says. "A first I was like, 'What am I going to do?' But what I ended up doing was having a really great time recreating a sonic world and making these grungy, distorted, heavy things bigger than life.

"For this album, we decided to go back to something that was more like a Dream Theater album: We called upon our different influences and stylistic backgrounds and created something that is more true to who we are as people. That involved searching within ourselves personally, but also finding out what our common ground is.

"Everybody brings something to the table, and we don't pretend not to have other influences," Rudess concludes. "For instance, with the big title track -- which I'm very proud of and think is one of Dream Theater's best compositions -- I dug pretty deep into my background in Genesis and Yes and wanted to bring some of those flavors forward."

Despite its links to the legacy of prog, one of Dream Theater's strengths is that it is rooted in the energy of the present, while continually looking to push forward. The second most striking track on the new disc is "Sacrificed Sons," an emotional contemplation of the horrors of 9/11 by a group of New Yorkers who felt a real connection to those events. (The band's feelings were amplified by the eerie coincidence that it released an album called "Live Scenes From New York" a week after the attacks, with cover art of the Manhattan skyline in flames. The group pulled the disc from stores.)

"All of the guys love to take serious topics and go for it; we're not writing a whole lot of love songs," Rudess says. "With 'Sacrificed Sons,' we had some sensitivity there about how we'd present it. I remember there was a lot of discussion about the kind of words that would be used and how direct we wanted to be."

In the end, Dream Theater crafted a truly progressive track that simultaneously captures the sadness at the loss of lives, the anger that prompted in many Americans, and the profound questions it raised. As LaBrie sings, "Words they preach/I can't relate/If God's true love/Are acts of hate."


As the veteran editor of Roctober magazine, leader of garage-rock rascals the Goblins, and producer of the cable access children's dance show "Chic-a-Go-Go," Jake Austen is a Chicago institution, a venerable font of rock-history trivia and one of my favorite fanzine writers ever, and he doesn't disappoint on any count with his impressive new tome, TV-a-Go-Go: Rock on TV From American Bandstand to American Idol (Chicago Review Press, $18.95).

Charting the relationship of the devil's music and the boob tube from "The Ed Sullivan Show" through the current plethora of thoroughly phony "reality TV" shows, Austen brings his own distinctively skewed perspective and raw rock aesthetic to a story that's already been told several times.

As a pure history, Marc Weingarten's 2000 book Station to Station: The History of Rock and Roll on Television is more straightforward, scholarly and all-encompassing, but Austen's book is not only informative but a heck of a lot of fun, overflowing with delightfully strange stories and fascinatingly weird detours, and obsessed with the question of how our most authentic and immediate art form changes -- and is sometimes changed by -- our most "fake" and scripted medium.

Austen will celebrate the book's publication at 8 p.m. on Aug. 26 at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North, by reading favorite passages, screening rare rock videos and chatting with Jack Mulqueen, host of the old TV show "Kiddie-a-Go-Go," and an obvious influence on the author.

For more information, call (773) 342-0910 or visit the Web sites for Quimby's (www.quimbys.com) or Roctober (www.roctober.com).