The prog rock genre has long been the punching bag of the music
industry. Yet in the last decade or so, the tides seem to be changing.
Progressive stalwarts like Rush, Yes, and even the Moody
Blues have finally gained admission to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Steven
Wilson’s remixes of albums from nearly every major prog band’s catalog have
sold like hotcakes. And Queen’s resurgence, prompted by the success of the film
Bohemian Rhapsody, has catapulted their album sales back into the top ten of
Meanwhile, the genre’s 1990s offshoot, prog metal, has
steadily marched along in relative anonymity. They’ve filled concert halls and
packed festivals, but never arrived at the arena-filling heights of their forefathers.
Two of the most well-known acts in this musical genus, Queensrÿche and Dream
Theater, have both seem major tumult in the same decade that their influences
have finally achieved recognition.
Each band parted ways with founding members who helped define their sound and image. Lead singer Geoff Tate was acrimoniously booted from Seattle-based Queensrÿche, prompting a protracted legal battle over the band name and simultaneous album releases from two different versions of the band using the same name. Even the rancor within the ever-changing Yes roster never got that bad.
For Dream Theater, it was the departure of drummer and founder Mike Portnoy. Fond of filling his time with numerous side projects, he was asked to commit 100% to the band he founded now 30 years ago or leave, and was thus pushed out.
In the wake of these changes, each band released new material to waiting audiences, including new albums just this year. And while these albums (among many others to be fair) make clear that prog metal is alive and well, the results of each effort are quite a contrast.
Dream Theater’s latest output Distance Over Time comes on the heels of their latest attempt at a
concept album, a 2.5 hour opus titled The
Astonishing. While many lamented the lack of focus in that 2016 release
while also cautiously praising its ambition, Distance Over Time’s tracks are all conservative in their running
time. None clock in over ten minutes, a feat I’m not sure any other DT album
But just because the tracks are short, does not mean they
are focused. The band’s musicianship is
tight of course, with a skill level among all its members unrivaled in metal music.
But not unlike some classic-lineup Yes albums, the songwriting meanders too
frequently, with tangible recurring themes to anchor the work being all too
infrequent – the same issue that torpedoed any chance of The Astonishing getting off the ground.
The opening track Untethered
Angel continues the band’s seeming obsession with heavenly messengers as
lyrical subjects. It has everything that one would expect of a Dream Theater
song… which is part of the problem. The band at times seems slavishly adherent
to a formula that requires – and indeed sometimes forces – solos to arrive at
preordained points in the song. Tracks from one album can sound nearly
identical to ones from a preceding disc, and indeed that happens on this
The following track, Paralyzed, sounds as if it could have been ripped straight from Chevelle’s latest release. And indeed, the band often wears influences a little too obviously on their sleeve. Fall Into the Light cribs from Deep Purple, while Barstool Warrior sounds like a deep cut from a Kansas album. Both are bands that Dream Theater has previously covered in their live shows, and it is hard to ignore their inspiration here, even while the latter song steals musical refrains from two older DT tunes.
The strongest tracks on the album include the ballad Out of Reach, where the heartfelt music overcomes some insipidly puerile lyrics (a fault that permeates the album). Also quite strong is the bonus track Viper King, in which the band seems to be having fun for the first time in years.
Advance press indicated that they recorded as a collocated band, a method they’d not recently employed. However, it is only on this one track that the evidence of such an approach seems apparent. Most of the remainder of the album just doesn’t earn the respect that Dream Theater’s reputation would otherwise suggest.
The contrast with Queensrÿche’s new albumThe Verdict is – pardon the pun – astonishing.
The Tate-fronted version of the band started as an Iron Maiden-inspired metal act, yet rose to fame on the release of the 1990 album Empire and its psychedelia-tinged hit single Silent Lucidity. In the ups and downs of the band’s career since, they’ve only more recently turned back to their metal roots.
The two albums they’ve released since Tate’s departure and the addition of Todd LaTorre as frontman have been 100% metal with a touch of prog. Yet their 15th album is a testament to how those metal roots can coexist with their more progressive tendencies.
Blood of the Levant opens the album with a fury, using the band’s trademark two guitar harmonies as an accent instead of a feature. However, this track isn’t Queensrÿche reliving prior glories as they seemed to do on the last two albums – this is them forging out into new territory. Whereas LaTorre seemed to be doing a spot-on Geoff Tate impression on their self-titled 2013 album and the 2015 follow-up, Condition Hüman, he sounds little (if not nothing) like him here – and that’s not a bad thing.
The re-tooled line-up for this outing also has LaTorre on drums, while original drummer Scott Rockenfield is on hiatus. He doesn’t miss a beat and powers the album through its next track, Man the Machine, which keeps the pedal to the floor. And while this and the next track, Light-years, seem to have the band retaining their metal edge, the mood changes on track 4.
The intro to Inside Out
sounds like peak Queensrÿche, playing with sonic textures and experimenting
with soundscapes as they did on their 1994 masterwork Promised Land. This is a song that could have easily featured
there, and that is high praise.
Another highlight is the Parker Lundgren-penned Dark Reverie. Lundgren joined just as the band was erupting in controversy and somehow stuck through it all. This is his first sole songwriting credit, and it’s a killer one. Reminiscent of Jet City Woman from Empire, the song leans on those progressive tendencies without wearing them out.
They’re touching on each era of their own storied career without sounding forced or deliberate in doing so. And further carving out his own identity within the band Todd LaTorre goes full-on Ronnie James Dio at one point, letting all the grit come into his voice.
As the album winds down, Portrait closes things out in a tribute to the psych-influenced songs that have been absent from the last two albums. While such songs definitely hold a core position in the Queensrÿche legacy, this song seems ill-suited to closing out such a strong album. It’s a good song, but may have been better-suited as a bonus track.
Overall, The Verdict is expertly engineered to balance the metal elements with subtle keyboard accents and offers a balanced drum mix that lacks the heavy compression from which Distance Over Time suffers. Dream Theater have self-produced albums for 20 years now, and when Mike Portnoy departed, John Petrucci’s penchant for mechanical drum sounds that could have been pulled directly from programming software has plagued their recent releases. Not the case with the Zeuss-produced Queensrÿche albums, which are heavy but natural sounding.
Both albums will have their fans, but for those who worry
that the new century may have left prog rock behind, each band is still
demonstrating that there is something to be found for even the casual fan. With
The Verdict classifying as ‘must buy’
material for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre, and Dream
Theater returning to a more focused approach to their songwriting, there may be
hope for another era of prog rock.