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.
Dream Theater
Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory

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”.

Then Things Take a Vicious Turn

With its frantic percussion and aggressive guitar tone, the opening of “Beyond this Life” is easily the most vicious moment on the album. Following this, Labrie whispers his verses, us in detail about the murder. We’re told, “Headline / Murder / Young girl killed. Desperate shooting at Echo’s Hill / Dreadful ending, killer died / Evidentially suicide”, as well as that “The witness ran to call for assistance / a sad close to a broken love affair”. It’s at this point that we know that one of the Baynes brothers killed Victoria because she left him for his brother. Without a doubt, the best part of this track is its chorus, during which Labrie laments, “Our deeds have traveled far / What we have been is what we are / All that we learn this time / Is carried beyond this life”. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking melody for sure, and it adds further weight to the idea of Nicholas feeling a connection to Victoria yet being unable to stop what’s happened to her.

Like the prior track, “Beyond this Life” ends with an intense instrumental; this time, Rudess takes the spotlight first, offering an awesome keyboard solo while the rest of the band keeps things grounded. After some more wizardry and impressive time signature changes, horns come in and add some color to the palette. Of course, there’s a great build-up happening during all of this, as the band is clearly winding up to unleash something special. And they do: an extremely intricate pattern (played simultaneously by Petrucci and Rudess) that feels like an homage to the compositional style of Frank Zappa. Again, it’s furious and flashy as hell, but not a moment feels shallow; every note and change feels earned, vital, and absorbing.

A second ballad, “Through Her Eyes”, serves as the fifth scene. More elegant and revealing than “Through My Words”, it begins with a female (Victoria?) humming over an angelic chorus and emotive guitar licks. Labrie then takes over as a soft piano chord progression and delicate percussion complement him. In a nut shell, this is Nicholas’ chance to pay respect to Victoria and verbalize the epiphanies he’s had about whom he really is. It’s a very sorrowful and earnest elegy, with Labrie admitting that “A sadness grows inside of me / It all seems so unfair” and “I felt so empty as I cried / Like part of me had died”.

There’s also a moment in which backing harmonies enhance his sentiments; it’s one of the most powerful moments on the record. However, perhaps the most touching moment here is the following realization: “I’ve been given so much more in life / I’ve got a son, I’ve got a wife / I had to suffer one last time / To grieve for her and say goodbye / Relive the anguish of my past / To find out who I am at last”. All in all, “Through Her Eyes” demonstrates the highest level of poetic lyricism and songwriting the band has ever had, and it makes the album that much more remarkable.

For the most part, “Home” (which begins Act II) consists of monologues from the Sleeper and the Miracle, which is a stimulating focal shift. The track begins ominously and slowly, with a mournful guitar arpeggio clashing with various sound effects; in addition, Dream Theater uses sitars, chimes, and other Middle Eastern timbres to add diversity to their arsenal. Eventually the chaos gives way to some of the most addicting riffs Petrucci has ever unleashed. Next, Labrie (as James, the Sleeper) discusses his addictions (which led to Victoria leaving him for Edward). He belts out: “Living this charade / Is getting me nowhere / I can’t shake this charade / The city’s cold blood calls me home” and “The city / It calls to me / Decadent scenes from my memory / Sorrow / Eternity / My demons are coming to drown me”.

Afterward, Edward (the Miracle) explains what happened once Victoria left Julian. Labrie speaks with a matter-of-fact tone, saying, “I remember the first time she came to me / Poured her soul out all night and cried / I remember I was told there’s a new love that’s born / For each one that has died”. This last line is obviously a reference to “Metropolis Pt. 1” and it, along with confessions like “I’ll make her my wife / Her sweet temptation calls me home” and “Her ecstasy / Means so much to me / Even deceiving my own blood”, shows that Edward is [figuratively] addicted to Victoria. Inventively, his next declaration—“Victoria watches and thoughtfully smiles / She’s taking me to my home”—also harkens back to “Metropolis Pt. 1”.

The piece then enters into more Middle Eastern progressive metal exuberance while sounds of copulation and other indulgences tell us what Julian, Edward, and Victoria were doing to (or with) each other. It’s quite forceful. Finally, Nicholas comes back to announce that “Her story / It holds the key / Unlocking dreams from my memory / Solving this mystery / Is everything that is a part of me”. Overall, the way “Home” uses repeated phrases and melodies to infer the connections between its characters is outstanding; in fact, it’s likely one of the most clever songs in the genre.

Scene seven charges in with “The Dance of Eternity,” another dizzying instrumental that starts by recalling the sound effect that introduced “Overture 1928,” as well as a sample from “Metropolis Pt. 1” its various noises make the listener feel like he or she is traveling back through time. Naturally, it feels similar to “Overture 1928,” although it’s probably more varied and experimental, with a wider array of textures and influences. A standout moment is surely the piano break that comes about two and a half minutes in; it feels pulled straight from the Old West. Of course, the frenzy of rhythmic changes near the end also dumbfounds, as does the attention to detail in reprising key constructions throughout. Like its stylistic siblings on the full-length, “The Dance of Eternity” is easily one of the best instrumentals in the genre.

“One Last Time” signifies the finalé of Scenes from a Memory. Nicholas is going over the evidence in his head, concluding that “It doesn’t make any sense / This tragic ending / In spite of the evidence / There’s something still missing”. Next, Victoria sings the chorus, during which she tells Edward, “One last time / We’ll lay down today / One last time / Until we fade away”. This suggests that she broke off her affair with him, too. Nicholas enters Edward’s home and finds “…the many clues to my suspicion… I’m finally shown what I have always known”. Although it’s relatively straightforward, the song is still offers enough melodic elegance and narrative progression to entice. It also hints at the plot twists to come.

The eighth scene consists of “The Spirit Carries On”, which is often ranked as the greatest Dream Theater song, and for good reason. Rudess plays another touching piano progression while Nicholas questions morality and fate, accepting the truth and feeling closure. Labrie’s verse melody echoes that of “Regression” which is a superb. He then sings, “If I die tomorrow / I’d be all right / Because I believe / That after we’re gone / The spirit carries on”. Not only does this remark demonstrate profound understanding on Nicholas’ part, but it offers solace to any listener who’s recently lost a loved one. As for the verses, they’re filled with more beautiful bits of comfort, such as, “I used to be frightened of dying / I used to think death was the end / But that was before / I’m not scared anymore / I know that my soul will transcend”.

Further on, Victoria chimes in to tell Nicholas, “Move on / Be brave / Don’t weep at my grave / Because I am no longer here / Please never let / Your memory of me disappear”. Again, these lyrics are emotional and powerful not only in the context of the story, but in the context of real life, as we all like to imagine that our deceased loved one would want us to find the same acceptance. When Nicholas returns, he recalls “Regression” more concretely, cheering, “Safe in the light that surrounds me / Free of the fear and the pain / My questioning mind / Has helped me to find / The meaning in my life again”. It’s a magnificent moment of closure and conceptual continuity, and it more or less concludes the story. That is, until the final track appears and issues a fantastic plot twist.

“Finally Free” starts with the hypnotherapist bringing Nicholas back to consciousness; naturally, it sounds like the opening of the collection. Musically, the composition feels hopeful and warm, with strings and a kind acoustic guitar arpeggio mixing with the sounds of someone driving off in a car. It then turns a bit sinister, though, as we realize that we’re hearing is the very act of the murder itself. Edward (the Miracle) confesses that he’d just murdered Victoria because she was going to leave him “for that ungrateful man” (Julian, whom she realized she loved all along). He then admits that he framed Julian for the murder, as “He’d seem hopeless and lost with this note / They’ll buy into the words that I wrote”. He also introduces the chorus: “This feeling inside me / Finally found my love, I’ve finally broke free / No longer torn in two / I’d take my own life before losing you”.

Victoria (as well as Portnoy) then chimes in. She says that Julian “…always had my heart / He needs to know / I’ll break free of the Miracle / It’s time for him to go”. She also alters the chorus, changing the final line to “He’d kill his brother if he only knew”. She and Julian meets in secret—or so they thought, as then came “…a shot out of the night”. We then hear Edward murdering Victoria and Julian; he hisses, “Open your eyes, Victoria”. As they die, Julian reprises the chorus from “One Last Time”, which now has even more tragic poignancy. Petrucci expresses the grief via a chilling guitar line, and then Labrie comes back with a catchy bridge, observing, “As their bodies lie still / And the ending draws near / Spirits rise through the air… An old soul exchanged for a new / A familiar voice comes shining through”. In this moment, Victoria’s soul is transferred into Nicholas.

Nicholas finishes the cycle by putting his own spin on the chorus, saying “I learned about my life by living through you”. His final words to Victoria are simple yet immensely potent: “We’ll meet again, my friend / Someday soon”. Behind him, harmonies and crashing instrumentation heighten the drama. We then spend several minutes hearing Nicholas arrive home, turn on the television, and pour himself a drink, celebrating the fact that he understands everything now and will no longer be plagued by the mystery. However, as a phonograph plays a military solute, the hypnotherapist breaks into his house and says, “Open your eyes, Nicholas.” Nicholas screams and knocks the needle off the record, causing static to permeate for the remaining seconds.

Listeners are left baffled for a few moments, until they realize that, just as Nicholas is the reincarnation of Victoria, the hypnotherapist is the reincarnation of Edward, and he’d been planning to repeat the cycle ever since he met Nicholas. This ending also suggests that Victoria was trying to warn Nicholas all along (rather than simply tell him her story). All in all, it’s a wholly unexpected and distressing surprise.

As an added bit of cleverness, Scenes from a Memory also exemplifies Dream Theater’s penchant for extending ideas across several albums (such as Portnoy’s “Twelve-step Suite”, in which he explores alcoholism through five songs, across five albums). The ending of Scenes From a Memory is considered another example, as the fading static that finishes the piece also opens the group’s follow-up, 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. This same technique is used to transition from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence to Train of Thought, and from Train of Thought to Octavarium. As such, Scenes from a Memory even affected its three immediate successors.

As extraordinary as their other efforts are, Dream Theater has never sounded as focused, skilled, imaginative, and consistent as on Scenes from a Memory. The sequence flows seamlessly from the first moment to the last, never faltering in its mission to tell a disastrous, elaborate, cunning, and ultimately universal story with the ultimate combination of songwriting, transitions, and instrumentation. In addition, the way the work constantly reinterprets prior themes and lyrics is nothing short of ingenious. In the end, Scenes from a Memory broke new ground not just for Dream Theater, but for the genre as a whole, and it still remains one of, if not the, best progressive metal album of all time.