If there was ever a time for a bit of fantasy, this is it, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re witnessing the rebirth of a Drooler Nation. The film version of the essential handbook ”The Lord of the Rings” has lived up to most expectations, with two sequels to come. On the smaller screen, the latest ”Star Trek” offshoot, ”Enterprise,” is marginally livelier than its earnest predecessor ”Voyager.” In the music department, could there have been better affirmation of the relentless appeal of prog and art rock than the sight of Pink Floyd’s end-of-the-year ”Echoes” compilation logging weeks in the top 20, while the Backstreet Boys’ simultaneously released hits package continues its chart free fall?
As the Floyd set also proves, though, prog — that mind-expanding, alternately rapturous and indulgent form of sci-fi rock — exists mostly as nostalgia. In addition to the Floyd collection, we’ve seen expanded, bonus-track reissues of the Kansas catalog as well as recent tribute albums to Floyd and Genesis. ”New” prog is another matter altogether: Who’s brave or foolhardy enough to go where no man but a member of Yes has gone before? But on their most grandiose creation, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Dream Theater throw down the gauntlet in ways that should humble even prog-influenced vortices like Tool and Incubus.
Like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or that massive ball of twine in Kansas, some things are so humbling that their very existence leaves you gaping in openmouthed, saucer-eyed awe. Imagine, for instance, a concept album about mentally disturbed characters fending off forces of darkness. Said album, by a band only about a decade old, also presents fretboard-frenzy guitar solos, concerto-chops piano, traipsing-through-the-meadow synthesizers, drum triplets, songs over a dozen minutes long, and a completely unironic use of the gong. Oh, and imagine one more thing: It’s a double CD.
After it opens like any classic prog album should, with the ringing of a tolling bell, the first half of ”Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” dives into songs about the pros and cons of stem-cell research (!) and a ”Messiah” who must save us. Soaked in battering-ram guitars, it’s dark and bleak, with shifting tempos and textures. ”Misunderstood,” the latest variation on the long-running subject of the alienated teen, begins with pastoral guitars and strings and eventually shifts to dungeons-and-dragons guitar wailing and an operatic choir. It’s well done, but at times too dank and heavy metal fueled to qualify as the more instrumentally diverse prog.
True prog nirvana awaits those brave few who make it to the second disc. A suite about six whacked-out characters — war veteran, creative-loner boy, and solitary depressed girl among them — it opens with an orchestrated, pure-pomp ”Overture” and then shifts into twee woodsy folk-prog and straight-faced Styxian pageantry. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess even sounds as if he is playing a goopy old-school Moog or Arp synth, for which he scores major period-detail points. The lyrics are rarely subtle (”Counseling and therapy/Providing not a clue” in ”The Test That Stumped Them All”), and earnest lead singer James LaBrie lacks the over-the-top vocal personality of helium-voiced prog frontmen like Geddy or Jon. But there’s no denying how well Dream Theater re-create the genre’s hallmarks while updating them for the extreme-rock era with harder guitars and drum pummeling. It makes you wonder which act is gutsier: Eminem slamming another teen-pop star or Dream Theater ignoring, and thereby dissing, every style of music that’s existed since 1976.
For all the angst in its music, Dream Theater’s songs ultimately aim for uplift. The numb girl in ”About to Crash” eventually overcomes her inertia and rediscovers ”boundless power,” while the Frodo-like narrator of ”The Glass Prison” goes on a ”new odyssey of rigorous honesty” toward ”the temple of hope” — and gets there! In light of our daily dose of nightly news, it?s easy to understand why prog may rise again — and why a new generation would seek music and movies to transport itself to another, greener planet and time.