About 17 years ago, I was in a band with two of the best musicians I have ever known. We were a three-piece, with my brother William on bass guitar, and Kris Games on drums. To this day, with my own meager chops I don’t know how on earth I was allowed to play guitar with these two genuises. One weekend we had a show in Pittsburgh. William (my usual ride) had been in Baltimore and was going to meet us at the venue. So I rode with Kris Games, because I did not have wheels of my own.
Games and I had very different lives; he was a father, a successful business owner, and had a ride. I was nearly finished with graduate school, couldn’t afford to pay attention much less raise a child, and did not have a ride. He was into all kinds of music that was foreign to me—I knew that some of it was jazz, which is to me still a murky, undiscovered country. I was into punk rock and hardcore at the time, and not really much else. We had been in bands together at this point for maybe six years, and saw each at least once a week. Up until that point I don’t know that we ever talked about anything other than the music we wrote together. That wasn’t a bad thing because we both cared a lot about our music. But I was about to take a three-hour ride with a musician for whom I had (and still have) the utmost respect*, but didn’t otherwise know that well.
I was excited to get to know him better. Anyway, as we left my home in his packed-to-the-ceiling Mistubishi, he popped in a CD of a band I had never heard before—Dream Theater. I had listened to plenty of thrash metal, but this album was something different. It was more intricate…there was a level of sophistication to the music that did very little to undermine its grim and aggressive tone. It was heavy and dark, but also complex and seething. I remember really enjoying the album. We mostly talked about music on that trip, anyway. The lesson is that shared love of music is a fine thing to build a friendship on.
I was excited to reach this album on the Rolling Stones top 100 list because of that trip. I hadn’t thought much about Dream Theater since then, but I had good memories of listening to the drums which were from outer space, much like they were in my band. As it turns out, this album wasn’t the album we listened to one fall evening on I-70 East. That album likely was 2003’s “Train of Thought”. The album on Rolling Stone’s list is completely different, and not in a wonderful and refreshing way.
This album provided the music for every montage in every Jean Claude Van Damme movie ever. Its all on there…all of the training montages, the love scene with journalist Janice Kent, the montage where VD** wanders about Bangkok, unsure of himself and heartbroken over his paralyzed brother, the montage of the forbidden love between Erik and Mylee the niece of the Muay Thai master Xian Chow. Etcetera. If music has a smell, this album is Drakkar Noire. If lip herp had a soundtrack, it would be “Images and Words”.
But this album is so much more than VD and man-smell. Between greasy conventional arena-style anthems, there are long segments of extensive and highly coordinated noodling. The album is peppered with fragmented albeit spacey melodies, outlandish harmonies, and abrupt tempo and time signature changes. These segments aren’t tonally or rhythmically coherent enough to be anthemic, and as random as they may sound, are so carefully coordinated that they cannot be in the least bit random. But rather than inspiring head-banging, they tend to leave one feeling confused and drained, the way one feels when they are searching a desktop for some item, and realize that they have forgotten what they are searching for.
Why is this on a best *metal* album list, I wondered? Every once-in-a-while, the tone becomes menacing, hinting at brutality to come. Portions of “Metropolis Part I: The Miracle and the Sleeper” and “Under a Glass Moon” are jagged and brooding, indicating in no uncertain terms that asskicking is about to start. But it doesn’t start. Instead, the spirit of metal gets distracted by sometheing shiny offstage, and the band get back to what they clearly love best– earnestly playing who-knows-what for who-knows-what-reason. And there is a metric shit-ton of cheesie synth, and one extended soprano sax solo…something that metal heads are known to relish.
That isn’t to say that the core of the band (bass/drums/guitar) don’t exhibit a fuckton of virtuosity, because that is what I believe the noodle sections were created to show the listener. This band practices its ass off. The drummer must be lowered into his kit from two stories up. There are 14 strings on the bass. The guitarist never uses a chord that isn’t followed by an academic degree (sus4, dim/maj#7, etc.), and he knows what these degrees mean. Is virtuosity cool on its own? Of course. I used to dig the kind of weird shit Games and Will would pull out of their asses; impossible inversions, uncounted stops, and bizarre-ass fills. Did Will and Games ever allow virtuosity to interfere with a song? Nope. Did I enjoy listening to this album? I did not. But I may give that other Dream Theater album a listen when I’m done.
*He has all of the skills of a great drummer; quick hands and feet, fantastic sense of tempo and rhythm, and both dynamic and stylistic range. Beyond that, he has a great ear; he listens and adapts to changes that come as a song develops. He was never a beat keeper, but a writer—involved completely with song structure and mood. He also could sing harmony, something I didn’t know for the first…IDK…4 years that we worked together.
Cover image by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14120325