[4 April 2008]
Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re interested in learning how to set emotion in untamed, bona fide form to music, do not attend the Berklee College of Music. If you’re looking for a band to lure prog-rock from its smarmy pedestal, do not listen to Dream Theater, which holds some of that school’s most famous graduates. In their 23rd year of existence, the band is in that unusual position of having a wealth of material that hasn’t diminished in influence or sales over time, unlike most of progressive music’s glorified one day, reviled the next has-beens. Their back catalogue is dug up and re-assessed every year. And every second one, they give birth to a new studio album based on a concept even more ridiculous than the last. They now rank only behind the Mars Volta and Tool in the establishment-friendly ‘music for intellectuals’ union.
As is always to be expected from a member of such a prestigious alliance, the cover of the band’s Greatest Hit (…and 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs) makes it out like they’ve been shunned due attention ever since they found themselves MTV favorites, once, briefly, back in 1992. Maybe that’s true, but they’re surely not bothered. As long-time kings of the prog-metal circuit, they can always jet-set around the globe and enthrall audiences with their three-hour live sets and sticksman Mike Portnoy’s one-hundred piece drum set whenever they please. They’ve got their lush red cover couch for support if ever it all gets too much.
Living in the material world of pop offers a different perspective on reality: the reason, and the only commercially viable reason, for a Greatest Hits compilation from Dream Theater is “Pull Me Under”. If you look at the cover, you’ll notice the S, H, I, T in Greatest Hit is highlighted in a not-so-subtle red. If the band themselves had anything to do with this project – and somehow it seems doubtful they would, Greatest Hits just doesn’t seem like Dream Theater’s style – this is their offhand in-joke with the fans, acceptable just because they’re so against the idea, without actually doing anything to stop it. In other words, we’re not really above selling you shit, but buy it anyway, and make us rich.
Nonetheless, Rhino has, despite whatever the band’s motives might be in this affair, managed to give us good bang for the buck, with two discs full of obvious choices and general fan favorites. Greatest Hit does a reasonable job of scrapping together all the outfit’s better-known stuff, though as with any such selection process, there are some questionable omissions. “A Change of Seasons” is required listening for every Dream-head, no matter how monolithic it may be. Most glaringly, the sublime and rewarding “Learning to Live” could easily have replaced something like the shallow “Peruvian Skies”, tiptoeing through a sterile build-up into dull electro metal. Still, this is prevented from being a guide of any real importance by its insistence on splitting itself into two sides, its ‘Dark Side’ and ‘Light Side’. We therefore have to endure everything banal about Dream Theater in one 80-minute cartoon episode at a time, where one half is the never-ending battle with the CGI monsters and the other the wooden love scenes between Padmé and Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith.
The band’s most recent studio outing Systematic Chaos is wisely excluded from the runnings, not least because they’d jumped ship to a different label. An exercise of showmanship rather than songfulness, the presence of any of its songs would have been inappropriate by the very definition of ‘Greatest Hits’. Hits need songs behind them in the first place. Like that album, though, this two-disc retrospective is without that which drives a record: purpose. As Dream Theater’s vast catalogue is best explored on individual merits – no two of their albums are the same – and the band is not strictly relevant in a pop market sense, the question of “What’s the point?” looms over this uneasy blend of angry Dream Theater / ballad Dream Theater, like how the red cuss-word sticks out from the cover.
Harking back to a time when the band was both more poetic and disciplined, that only ‘hit’ of theirs opens the set. As a hired hand in amplifying Led Zeppelin’s Mothership a few months earlier, South African producer Kevin Shirley remixes the three cuts from the band’s breakout Images and Words. He cleans up the mix on “Pull Me Under”, removing the snappy sound of Mike Portnoy’s original drum-work, but also robbing the song of some of its magical spontaneity and making it sound sullen by comparison. The abrupt ending is also left intact, begging the question: why bother giving the track a modern overhaul if you’re not even going to edit its mid-bar suicide? However, he does manage to bring out a vibrancy in “Take the Time” that the original fell a bit short of. And with “Another Day” he proves his worth, instinctively drawing out the laid-back, light jazz side of the piece, successfully distracting from how blatantly it was designed for single release.
It was on Awake, though, that everything came together for Dream Theater, tying all their loose prog ends into something digestable, enjoyable and with a monster riff, as witnessed by “Lie”. An edited version of 1999’s “Home” follows a similar pattern, paying off its lumbering psychedelic rumbles and Middle-Eastern modality with an uplifting melodic core. See, talent can be translated into hooks with a little effort!
By “Misunderstood” their egos were starting to run away with them. “If I seem superhuman I have been misunderstood”, LaBrie announces self-importantly. “The Test That Stumped Them All” is an embarrassment, a repetitive, time-signature jumping thrasher without any of Awake’s songcraft. Portnoy should treat himself to a new cymbal for his arsenal rather than be allowed anywhere near the group’s songwriting corner, as his lyrical attempts are, nearly without exception, forced, painfully blunt and artless.
On 2003’s Train of Thought, it still felt as if Dream Theater were hiding behind their fierce and awesome mastery of their instruments as an excuse to avoid challenging themselves into writing memorable material and lyrics with substance. As such, the two cuts from that album on Greatest Hit are tolerable, but badly in need of editing. They step down out of their state of self-absorption for “Sacrificed Sons”, their word on the September 11 attacks, four years too late. However, politics and progressive music rarely go hand-in-hand harmoniously, and James LaBrie’s protests of religion have about as much insight as the fundamentalists he deplores. The band responds, with predictable insincerity, by jamming.
The ‘light side’ of Greatest Hit may well have the edge over the first half, if only because Dream Theater let their guard down and, surprisingly, take themselves less seriously. They put a spin on their softer numbers that is enchanting, lilting, and distinctively their own. “Through Her Eyes”, here removed from its protracted, hard-to-grasp context in 1999’s Scenes from a Memory, sounds warm and aching, and “I Walk Beside You” is the best U2 anthem never written, with more muscle than those Irishmen have ever been able to muster. “The Answer Lies Within” revels in the band’s inner pop side, while both “The Silent Man” and “Hollow Years” find solace in sparse acoustics.
All that considered, it’s hard to see who will be rushing out to buy Greatest Hit (…and 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs). Listening to it is like watching a series of fragmented pictures from their career, limiting Dream Theater to only two sides of their personality. Dedicated fans will long ago have staked out what they feel are the outfit’s most valuable moments, and the promise of ‘22 Pretty Cool Songs’ is unlikely to sway them on that opinion. Why not spend $300 on a VIP ticket to their upcoming tour with Opeth and Between the Buried & Me instead?
Those looking for a crash course in prog-metal, meanwhile, should hunt down Images & Words and Awake, in that order, and go from there. Dream Theater is an anomaly in the sense that with such talent and, undoubtedly, ego, its members can continue to cooperate together. But let’s relate that back to the harsh reality of the pop industry: whoever is responsible for this compilation, don’t be so goddamn smart-ass with promotion next time. Honestly, what purpose does a GreateSt HITs serve when the artist behind it appears to be slagging off its contents before it’s even begun, making it inaccessible and half-hearted to those who want to listen to it?