Dream Theater Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Twitter Listening Session

20 Years Ago Progressive Rock and Metal Met on Dream Theater’s ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’

Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence probably never had a chance at besting predecessor Scenes From a Memory, but it nonetheless found the quintet sustaining their creative peak.

Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
Dream Theater
29 January 2002

American progressive metal band Dream Theater first tasted success in the early ’90s, when their single “Pull Me Under” reached the Top 10 in the US on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. This achievement essentially launched their career, but they spent most of the decade grinding it out in small clubs after alternative rock took over the airwaves. They tried a few different approaches through the years and kept releasing singles, but nothing else ever caught on via radio or MTV.

The story was different in Europe and Japan. Free from the musical trends of North America, the group continued to grow their fanbase internationally. For 1999’s Scenes From a Memory, they decided to go all-in on their prog tendencies. The record was a massive, 77-minute-long concept album that told a single, complete story. In terms of sales, Scenes didn’t make an immediate splash. However, it was wholly embraced by fans, significantly raising the band’s profile worldwide and making them the unofficial kings of their particular genre. In other words, Scenes allowed Dream Theater to enter the 21st century on a high.

Follow-up Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence was released on 29 January 2002. By this time, the landscape of American rock music had splintered, with nü metal still hanging on, indie rock taking over from alternative, and third-generation grunge acts like Creed and Nickelback dominating radio. Without a monolithic style of music conquering the scene, there was enough space for Dream Theater to receive some genuine outside attention. Six Degrees garnered them positive mainstream press coverage, including the lead music review in Entertainment Weekly. The band’s name recognition was as strong ever, yet a crucial question remained: Was the album a worthy follow-up to Scenes From a Memory?

In some ways, Six Degrees ups the ante of its predecessor. For instance, its physical release stretches to two compact discs and contains 96 minutes of music. It finds the band exploring textures and styles that sometimes depart significantly from their norm. The record doesn’t try to tell a story, though. Instead, each song stands alone, and even the sprawling title track—an eight-part suite—is connected more by theme than narrative.

The album begins with “The Glass Prison”, a nearly 14-minute-long barnburner. It opens with crackling static (a continuation of the final sound on Scenes From a Memory). It’s a technique that Dream Theater would continue for a while, using it to connect a total of four consecutive albums. At this point, the group was embracing their hardcore fans by rewarding the people who listened intensely and repeatedly to their music.

Lonely tubular bell chimes puncture the static, and at the 30-second mark, bassist John Myung and guitarist John Petrucci come in with a quiet opening theme. Distorted guitars and drums enter at 0:50, and at 1:25, keyboardist Jordan Rudess plays a short solo based on the central theme. At 1:45, the song launches into a fast and heavy riff, and the band enters full heavy metal mode.

The following 12 minutes are a flurry of guitar and keyboard solos, chunky riffing, and dueling vocals from drummer Mike Portnoy and lead vocalist James LaBrie. Portnoy’s low, raspy voice is different for the band, and LaBrie follows his lead, mostly tamping down his more operatic tendencies. Initially, the lyrics seem somewhat oblique, but it’s clearly about someone in the depths of despair who’s searching for help.

Musically, the track is generally quick and aggressive, but it’s well written and includes enough variety to keep it interesting until the end. Rudess provides much variety with his keyboard tone, going from tinkling chimes to a watery organ. He often lands on “almost-guitar” for the piece’s requisite guitar-keyboard duels, where he and Petrucci take turns showing off their technical skills. The track returns to its main riff for the final 90 seconds, bringing it to a satisfying close and starting the album off on a high note.

Next, “The Glass Prison” kicks off Portnoy’s multi-record “12-Step Suite”. The drummer—at this point, a recently sober alcoholic—set out to create a series of songs loosely based on Alcoholics Anonymous’ recovery program. While all four of the band’s instrumentalists are credited with the music on virtually all of their compositions, Portnoy handled the songwriting for this project. Naturally, the lyrics make a lot more sense in that context, and the suite was assembled piece by piece over the band’s subsequent five LPs. Portnoy, however, left Dream Theater shortly after its completion (in September 2010, following Black Clouds & Silver Linings), and the group has never performed the suite in its entirety.

The other four tracks on Disc 1 are a mixed bag. “Blind Faith” wrings 10 minutes out of a lyrical exploration of people who devote their lives to religion. Musically, it’s at its best when it’s open and airy, providing a nice juxtaposition to “The Glass Prison” (which builds up to a heavy chorus wherein LaBrie gets to employ his soaringly high range). The track’s apex is the extended instrumental middle section; in particular, there’s a stunningly good classical-esque piano solo from Rudess in this section. Overall, though, the tune is mid-tier for the band.

Similarly, “The Great Debate” is an attempt to be topical, and the topic du jour in 2002 was embryonic stem cell research. Myung’s rumbling bassline, along with Portnoy’s percussion accents, is the highlight here. The two hold down this groove while soundbites of contrasting opinions from various cable news programs play over the instruments. Eventually, it all gets subsumed by the music. However, the soundbites return at the end, as does the bassline (albeit with much more active percussion). The eight minutes of music in-between is just fine, but not a standout passage for Dream Theater. Honestly, those soundbites are doing the topical heavy lifting for the song, and that’s an indictment of the track’s actual lyrics.

This record also includes two quieter tracks, “Misunderstood” and “Disappear”. The former begins with gentle acoustic guitar and puts LaBrie’s vocals out front. Myung accompanies the duo on bowed string bass, giving the song a warm and thick low-end. After two verses, the tone lightens up while Portnoy enters with sparse percussion fills and synth strings from Rudess. Then, the band bring the crunch at the 3:40 mark, and the piece gets much heavier. The sustained, gradual build to the heavy part is one of the most effective arrangement choices in Dream Theater’s catalog. It’s an oddity that the song is essentially six minutes long with a three-minute outro jam. The instrumentation is surprisingly good, particularly for a band that mostly composes music very precisely. For sure, “Misunderstood” is right there with “The Glass Prison” as a standout of the album’s first disc.

As for “Disappear”, it stays a ballad from start to finish. Piano and acoustic guitar accompany LaBrie as he sings about the grief of losing a loved one. These are LaBrie lyrics, though, so the sentiment is laid on thick. This isn’t entirely necessary since the music is doing fine work of conveying the intended emotion. Still, it’s a generally effective song and finishes out the first disc on a heavy and downbeat emotional note.

It turns out to be the perfect move because disc two begins with a radical shift in feeling. Rudess joined Dream Theater in time to record Scenes From a Memory, but it wasn’t until Six Degrees that his musical influences were fully felt. In contrast to the rest of the band’s tendency towards metal, his progressive rock background is on complete display during this half of the record. Rather than offer several more individualized compositions, the disc consists of a single, 42-minute title track split into eight distinct movements.

The introductory one, “Overture”, is essentially a seven-minute-long Rudess feature with the rest of the band as guest stars. It’s a pseudo-orchestral keyboard piece with a lot of string tones and occasional moments of woodwinds and brass sounds. Functioning as a genuine, classical-style overture, it runs through condensed versions of each of the other sections to foreshadow what’s to come. It’s an impressive piece of music, with a whole host of different moods and styles that set the stage nicely.

The second chapter, “About to Crash”, begins with a bright, melodic piano solo. After about 30 seconds, the rest of the band enters and keeps things light and midtempo. Rudess switches to a wobbly, Moog-like synth tone (something we haven’t heard often, if ever, in a Dream Theater song up to this point). Lyrically, the tune is about a teenage girl who has periods of high energy and extreme depression. The band’s embrace of pop melody and big hooks is a noticeable shift here. The last chunk of the movement gets harsher and darker, but it suits the story of the main character struggling with her radically shifting moods.

From there, the band push into heavy mode for the short and punchy “War Inside My Head”. A character with a different viewpoint takes over, so the lyrics change to focus on them being trapped mentally on a battlefield that’s reminiscent of a situation from years prior. Here, the structure of “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” is revealed. Each movement will have a distinct character with its own type of mental illness. Interestingly, the band declines to name specific conditions for each person, relying instead on the lyrical depictions and trusting the listener to suss it out.

Two minutes of heavy riffage isn’t quite enough for Dream Theater, so “War” pushes directly into “The Test That Stumped Them All”, another pounding metal track. It includes all the cascades of notes and solos that the group is famous for but eschewed in the previous movement. It tells a nightmarish story about a boy sent to a facility where the doctors cannot determine his precise condition. He’s subjected to a battery of tests, including shock treatment. The bits where the doctors discuss their options in wacky voices is maybe the silliest moment on the record, but overall, it’s a highly effective movement.

Coming out of the chaos of “Test”, the most impressive part of “Goodnight Kiss” is how peaceful the band allows themselves to be. It’s the album’s gentlest moment, with slow guitar arpeggios and extended, barely changing keyboard chords. Eventually, the track begins to move, pushing into full power ballad mode. Lyrically, this might feature the most oblique character in the suite, as it’s difficult to tell what the issue is. Clearly, it involves a mother, a baby, and trauma. This is emphasized in the darker final third of the track, where there’s a lot of background noise (such as a beeping heart monitor, maniacal laughter, and a woman moaning and sobbing).

Things immediately brighten up when the quintet swings into “Solitary Shell”. This movement is about a person who sometimes shuts out the world and has trouble functioning on his own in society. Petrucci begins with folky acoustic guitar strumming. Then, Rudess appears with more Moog-like synth noodling, and LaBrie starts singing in a straightforward style. Myung’s bass tone is warm and inviting, and Petrucci’s low vocal harmonies add just a little heft to LaBrie’s high-end voice. This being Dream Theater, they can’t quite leave it as a wholly folk-rock track, so the last two minutes consist of a more intense instrumental section. However, the mood doesn’t fluctuate, and Petrucci and Rudess’ solos are on acoustic guitar and piano, respectively. Sonically, this is a nice change from the norm.

The final chunk of the track builds to “About to Crash (Reprise)”, which starts with a triumphant electric guitar solo and returns to the musical themes and character from the second movement. It’s essentially a harder-rocking version of that song, leading into the concluding chapter, “Losing Time / Grand Finale”. This last section begins epically, reprising the opening musical theme in a slow, majestic style. It swerves unexpectedly, though, going quiet to introduce one more character: a girl who blanks out and discovers that periods of time have passed without her knowledge. There’s not much to this story, however, as the band quickly moves on to the big finish.

Crashing cymbals, multiple drum fills, synth brass, and chiming guitar chords mark the end of “Grand Finale”. Likewise, LaBrie wraps up the songwriting with generalities about humanity and our internal mental conditions. Portnoy finishes out his part with a giant drum roll and a majestic gong hit that rings for a good ten seconds. When that fades away, there’s still 1:40 left, leaving Rudess’ final keyboard chord to decay and decay until there’s just silence.

Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence probably never had a chance at bettering or even equaling Scenes From a Memory. (After all, it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest albums in progressive metal history.) The first disc is a bit too scattershot to fully embrace, although its best tracks rank highly in Dream Theater’s overarching catalog. The second disc, however, is a stunning achievement because the 42-minute “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” totally flies by. The band changes moods and musical styles at the perfect pace, so the piece finds them putting the songwriting first and letting the musicianship follow. As a result, they don’t get hung up on extended solos that go on and on (see Disc 1 for that), and they keep the head-spinning tempo and time signature shifts under control.

Dream Theater engaged in a gentle push and pull with its more diverse elements from this point forward. 2003’s Train of Thought was a predominantly successful album-length exercise in heaviness, while 2005’s Octavarium once again attempted a variety of styles (to mostly positive effect). The band continues to this day, having mostly graduated to “elder statesmen” status. Like most acts that have been around for 30-plus years, mileage varies greatly on the quality level of the later work. During Six Degrees, though, they were still in their creative peak. Rudess’ influence drove the band to broaden its sound, and the “Six Degrees” suite shows that the effort was wholly successful.