Miraculous Metropolis: A Reflection on Dream Theater's 'Scenes from a Memory'

Fifteen years after its release, Dream Theater's fifth LP remains not only the quintet's truest masterpiece, but arguably the greatest progressive metal album ever made.

Although legends like Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Queensrÿche, and Fates Warning certainly played a part in its development, modern progressive metal simply wouldn’t exist without Dream Theater. Formed in 1985 at the revered Berklee College of Music by bassist John Myung, guitarist John Petrucci, and drummer Mike Portnoy (who left in 2010), the group is undoubtedly among the most influential bands of the last 30 years. By combining their love for ‘80s metal staples like Metallica and Judas Priest with their passion for classical music and ‘70s prog rock giants like Yes, Rush, and King Crimson, the trio more or less invented a new style of music. The template they forged has inspired countless protégés (many of whom merely emulate instead of innovate, but that’s another story) and changed the course of progressive music forever.

Naturally, almost every Dream Theater record (of which there are now 12) showcases a different side of the group. Be it the sheer freshness of Images and Words, the ambitious suites of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, the spacey homages within Octavarium, or the rejuvenated approach of A Dramatic Turn of Events, each LP seems to resonate most with certain fans. However, few would disagree that the quintet’s fifth full-length, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (commonly referred to as SFAM), is their best. Released in the fall of 1999, the concept album erupts with a level of songwriting, instrumentation, creativity, quirkiness, cohesion, and storytelling unmatched by anything else they’ve ever done. Not only is it Dream Theater’s truest masterpiece, but it’s arguably the greatest progressive metal work of all time.

Fascinatingly, the foundation for SFAM was laid out seven years prior to its release, on 1992’s Images and Words. The fifth song on the collection, "Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper" which, according to guitarist/lyricist John Petrucci, was never meant to be developed further, was initially thought to be related to the story of Romulus and Remus, twin competitive brothers from Roman mythology. “Metropolis Pt. 1” sets the stage for a love triangle between several characters: the Miracle, the Sleeper, and two unnamed subjects, all of whom are given names in the sequel (Senator Edward Baynes, Julian Baynes, Nicholas, and Victoria Page, respectively). One of the major themes of SFAM, reincarnation, is also introduced here, as the narrator (Nicholas) suggests images of a past life, as well as of betrayal and murder, in his dreams.

Lyrically, “Metropolis Pt. 1” connects to its follow-up several times. For example, the song is focused on three “dances” (death, deceit, and love), and vocalist James Labrie’s final words, “Love is the Dance of Eternity”, is obviously referenced on Scenes from a Memory. In addition, Labrie sings several lines that are reprised almost verbatim on the full-length successor, including: “I was told there's a new love that's born / For each one that has died”, “The city's cold blood teaches us to survive”, “Metropolis watches and thoughtfully smiles / She's taken you to your home”, and “Somewhere / Like a scene from a memory”.

Specifically, the “watches and thoughtfully smiles” phrase replaces “Metropolis” with “Victoria” on SFAM, confirming what the pseudonym meant seven years prior. In this way, “Metropolis Pt. 1” was an extremely intricate, captivating, and abstract mystery that fans revered yet never quite grasped, and they couldn’t help but anticipate the answers that would surely come (as the track indisputably set up so much to be resolved). Luckily, the ways in which SFAM offered explanation of, development of, and closure to its prelude was ingenious.

Both Images and Words and Scenes from a Memory also served as the debut discs for new members of the band. In the former, Labrie replaced Charlie Dominici, who sang on Dream Theater’s first effort, 1989’s When Dream and Day Unite. Likewise, Scenes from a Memory introduced keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who followed in the footsteps of both Kevin Moore (1985 – 1994) and Derek Sherinian (1994 – 1999). Although their predecessors did fine work in helping to establish the potential of Dream Theater, both Labrie and Rudess outshined them, proving to be two irreplaceable elements of the band’s chemistry. Naturally, they’ve never been better than on Scenes from a Memory.

Story-wise, SFAM is simple on the surface: A man named Nicholas goes to a hypnotherapist to explore dreams he’s been having about a woman (Victoria), whom he believes he actually was in a former life. He knows that she was involved in some sort of fatal love affair between two brothers (Edward and Julian), and wants to figure out what happened to her so that he can understand her situation and move on with his present existence. As ambitious and intriguing as this outline is, the real brilliance of this narrative is how emotionally rich and universal the tales of Nicholas and Victoria are, once all is exposed. Really, it’s one of the most touching, multilayered, and cinematic concept albums ever written, and its plot twists (especially the final one) are wonderful.

The cover (which was designed by Dave McKean) is also quite suiting, as it depicts the face of a man (probably Nicholas) comprised of various snapshots (memories). Although fairly simple in theory, the image is nonetheless influential for capturing the journey he goes on in a visual form. After all, we are all made of what we remember and of what we’ve been through, so any one of our profiles could be represented in a similar way.

Of course, none of the aforementioned context would matter if the contents weren’t up to par; fortunately, as hyperbolic as it sounds, Dream Theater touches upon perfection from the first moment to the last on this collection. Broken into two “acts” and nine “scenes” ,the full-length starts expertly by setting up the journey and purpose of Nicholas’ “Regression” into his subconscious. The track begins with the ticks of a clock oscillating between stereo channels which, coupled with the overall psychedelic nature of the piece, recalls Pink Floyd with ease. Simultaneously, the hypnotherapist instructs Nicholas to close his eyes, relax, and “fall deeper and deeper into a more relaxed state of mind.”

As he counts down, Petrucci’s endearing acoustic guitar chord progression becomes louder, introducing Labrie’s equally warm melody. He (as Nicholas) tells us that his “subconscious mind / starts spinning through time / to rejoin the past once again”. As he drifts further away from reality, “The scene becomes clear / Like watching my life on a screen”. He concludes by saying, “Hello Victoria / So glad to see you, my friend”. Petrucci’s final chord is strummed as Labrie says the last word, and with this admittance, listeners know that he and Victoria have “met” before, enticing them to continue onward to find out about the duo’s past, present and future.

From there, “Overture 1928” segues in and astounds (especially since snippets of two subsequent tracks, “Home” and “The Dance of Eternity” can be heard before drummer Mike Portnoy charges in). As its title suggests, it incorporates several melodies and other allusions from later pieces (as well as from “Metropolis Pt. 1”) into its concoction of dizzyingly complex arrangements. As far as progressive metal instrumentals go, this is easily one of the best ever written, with every measure and formation complementing its successor beautifully. Portnoy and bassist John Myung innovate at every turn, offering unique syncopation and rhythms without fail.

Meanwhile, Petrucci and Rudess exchange one gripping motif after another, all the while implementing perfect dynamic shifts to construct a musical rollercoaster. At one point, Rudess’ flashy solo bleeds into Petrucci replicating the “Victoria watches...” melody on his guitar, which is fantastic. Afterward, there’s a start/stop break that’s utterly enthralling. All in all, aside from revving up its audience even more, “Overture 1928” nullifies the semi-popular argument that Dream Theater is only concerned with showcasing virtuosic trickery, as every note, melody, transformation, and reprise here is crucial and memorable.

Next, “Strange Déjà vu” serves as the first real song, and it’s riveting and revealing. Nicholas sings the relatively straightforward verses, during which he describes being drawn in his dreams to a house and a girl. The bridge finds Labrie (and the rest of the band) becoming a bit more intense, telling us, “In her eyes / I sense a story never told / Behind the disguise / There’s something tearing at her soul”. Interestingly, Labrie then switches to a falsetto to represent Victoria for the soothing chorus; he sings, “Tonight I’ve been searching for / The one that nobody knows / Trying to break free” and “Tears my heart into two / I’m not the one the Sleeper thought he knew”. Here, Victoria tells us that she’s been hoping to find someone with whom she can speak about her story; she also insinuates that Julian Baynes doesn’t know that she’s been unfaithful to him (with Edward).

Musically, the track becomes fiercer after this, with Nicholas wrestling with the purpose of meeting Victoria. He says, “Metropolis surrounds me” and “Something’s awfully familiar / The feelings so hard to shake / Could I have lived in that other world / It’s a link that I’m destined to make”. After Rudess’ short but tasteful piano break, Nicholas echoes Victoria’s melody, uttering her words but finishing with, “I’m not the one I thought I always knew”. He concludes by promising to “find the truth”. Like “Regression”, Strange Déjà vu” develops the story clearly and compellingly, helping to demonstrate why Scenes from a Memory is easier to comprehend and connect with than most other concept albums.

Scene three begins with a ballad, “Through My Words”, which also acts as a lead-in to the next track, “Fatal Tragedy”. It consists solely of subtle yet serene piano work and Labrie’s tender delivery. Nicholas speaks to Victoria with interest, compassion, and even a hint of guilt, admitting that he knows now how they’re bonded. He tells her: “All your eyes have ever seen / All you’ve ever heard / Is etched upon my memory” and “We’re sharing one eternity / Living in two minds / Linked by an endless thread / Impossible to break”. Aside from offering another brief development in the story, “Through My Words” showcases a level of softness and quality songwriting that the band rarely ever matched.

“Fatal Tragedy” continues from the previous song for a moment before evolving into a heavier beast, with Petrucci’s riffs leading the charge. It’s in this song that Nicholas discovers more about what happened to Victoria. He meets an “older man” who tells him that Victoria “passed away / She was so young”. He also says, “Lad, did you know a girl was murdered here? / This fatal tragedy was talking about for years”.

Afterward, the chorus of the song – during which Petrucci and Portnoy provide background vocals -- proves to be among the most appealing on SFAM. Structurally, the arrangements become more difficult each time the chorus is sung, which is interesting. The final minutes focus on a mind-blowing instrumental freakout bursting with intense percussion and blisteringly fast guitar and keyboard solos. It’s not as diverse or nuanced as some of the other jams on the disc, but it’s thoroughly captivating, nonetheless. At the end, the hypnotherapist tells Nicholas, “Now it is time to see how you died / Remember that death is not the end, but only a transition”.

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