If you travel in the right musical circles you’re probably familiar with at least two of these albums. The third is mostly forgotten, but still a personal favorite of mine.
By the end of the ‘90s, NOFX was well-established as the good-time jokesters of the punk rock circuit. Sure, they occasionally tossed out more serious songs, but generally they were about sarcasm and silliness. So 1999’s EP The Decline came as a shock. This was an impassioned rant against gun-lovers, Christians, big corporations, and the complacency of the public in general without a joke in sight. And it was all contained within a single, 18-minute-long song. For a band that rarely managed to get beyond the three-minute mark, this was something very different.
The Decline burns through an album’s worth of guitar riffs over its substantial running time, constantly changing tempos and styles along the way. The lyrics are equally wide-ranging, as lead singer Fat Mike takes on a bevy of social and political issues. Despite all these changes, though, the mood remains consistent: angry. It’s that impassioned anger that allows the song to really hang together. Unlike prog-rock and metal bands that regularly go above the 10-minute mark, NOFX had very few templates to follow as they created the piece. Most riffs and themes don’t return once the band moves on—there’s no carefully constructed rock opera background at work here. But somehow, the band makes it work.
It doesn’t hurt that even at their angriest, NOFX never forgets how to use a melodic hook. The band knows when to let Fat Mike sing, when to layer the vocal harmonies, and when to let Eric Melvin shout his head off. And when the singing stops, the guitars and bass take over with memorable leads and riffs. The Decline is also a showcase for the instrumental prowess the band had gained over the years, with complex, turn-on-a-dime changes. Erik Sandin’s drums go from all-out punk assault to laid-back shuffle to super-fast hi-hat work, while Fat Mike shows off bass pyrotechnics that he usually keeps under his hat. And the two guitarists shift from power chords to complicated leads as the song drives through section after section. Ten years on, The Decline stands as NOFX’s crowning achievement, but they wisely haven’t tried to duplicate it, even though it must’ve been tempting during the Bush years, when all of the things they complain about here actually got worse.
It’s easy to forget in 2009, with all sorts of variations on progressive rock out there, that the genre was basically left for dead from the late ‘80s until the beginning of this decade. Which isn’t to say that prog didn’t exist in the ‘90s, but it was buried pretty deep underground. Except for Dream Theater. Using a sound that combined classic, ‘70s-style prog-rock with the heavier sounds of modern metal, the band gradually built a following with their albums in the ‘90s before emerging as one of the kings of the new prog scene in the 21st century. Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory may still be their crowning achievement. The band had flirted with conceptual suites before, but this was their first outright concept album.
Taking the relatively vague lyrics of one of their older songs, “Metropolis”, the band created a story about past lives, hypnosis, and a doomed love triangle in the year 1928. The narrative follows Nicholas, a man in the present day haunted by nightmares of a young woman in peril. Under hypnotic regression, Nicholas gradually comes to discover that he was this woman in a past life. Combining his regression therapy with research, he pieces together her story. It’s a remarkably focused and specific story for a band whose lyrics up until this point were usually just window dressing for musical wankery.
Which isn’t to say that Scenes From a Memory is wankery-free. No, the four instrumentalists of Dream Theater can all really, really play and they are never afraid to show off their chops. It’s just that here, most of the extended, indulgent solos are presented as part of the story. But the pyrotechnics aren’t what sells the album. Many of the softer, melodic moments are some of the best the band has ever written. The short, acoustic “Through My Words” leads, later on, to “Through Her Eyes”, a piano-driven ballad of regret and sadness anchored by a beautiful vocal performance from lead singer James LaBrie. LaBrie often gets knocked in metal circles as Dream Theater’s biggest weakness, but he shines throughout this album. The album’s penultimate song, “The Spirit Carries On”, is the sort of big, cathartic closer that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Broadway musical.
Musically, the band was given a big boost with the addition of keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who stabilized the position and fit in much better than Derek Sherinian, the man he replaced. Rudess had the chops to go toe-to-toe with virtuoso guitarist John Petrucci, and their dueling passages are impressive even when they descend into wankery. This was also the album where Dream Theater reasserted themselves as a metal band, and there are sections here (especially in “Fatal Tragedy”, “Beyond This Life”, and “Home”) where the band gets very heavy. They also throw in occasional references, both musical and lyrical, to the original “Metropolis” during the course of the album, providing a connection to the earlier song and a nice treat for hardcore fans of the band.
All of these elements come together just right on Scenes for a Memory. The rock opera format gives the lyrics and music a focus that keeps the album grounded and on track moreso than anything the band had done up until this point. Their label-ordered attempt at commercial success, 1997’s Falling Into Infinity, nearly caused the band to break up. By fully embracing their prog-rock tendencies and their love of heavy metal, Dream Theater produced an album that has become a modern classic. And by running in the opposite direction of what Elektra Records thought would be commercially successful, the band ensured that they would have a career for years to come, even without radio play.
Over their first few releases, Australian punk band Frenzal Rhomb showed flashes of potential, with great songs here and there among more standard speedy punk material. But their fourth album A Man’s Not a Camel was a huge step up, with strong songwriting throughout the entire disc. Opening track “Never Had So Much Fun” sets the tone with its sarcastic lyrics and fast, catchy music. “You Are Not My Friend” is an effective kiss-off to a friendship ruined. From there the album covers a lot of territory and succeeds at almost all of it. The acoustic lost-love of “I Miss My Lung”, has the singer’s missing lung substituting for the more typical girl. The other love song on the album is equally twisted. “I Don’t Need Your Loving (All I Need Is a Spinal Operation)” is a bitter, bitter song from the perspective of a man that’s been in a serious accident who sees nothing but pity in the eyes of his wife.
Elsewhere, the band takes on stereotypical Australian subject matter with “Let’s Drink a Beer”, “We’re Going Out Tonight”, and “Do You Want to Fight Me?” The latter features a nimble-fingered, catchy guitar riff handled by bassist Lex Feltham. It’s the most complicated guitar part on the album, which makes one wonder why Feltham was stuck playing bass the other 98% of the time in the band. The withering sarcasm of “I’m the Problem With Society” and “I Know Everything About Everything” is matched by equally tough-minded music. The album wraps with the silly yet still-catchy falsetto-sung “Summer’s Here” and a secret track which finds the band playing over the audio of the horse race from which the band derived its name (after a horse which lost its rider but still won the race). In 1999, A Man’s Not a Camel was everything a punk album should be. It’s catchy, confrontational, sarcastic, and full of attitude.