Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Astonishing

Before I start, one quick correction to my last post: When I listed upcoming albums by Long Island artists, I listed one by Jack's Waterfall. Actually, the album, Tribal Dance Party, was put out by a different Jack Licitra project, White Spider. Both the White Spider CD and most of the CDs by Jack's Waterfall are available on what is probably the best site out there for independent artists' music, CD Baby.


Today I'm going to talk about an album that won't reach my Top Ten this year, which is unfortunate because it might well be the most ambitious project of the year. I'm talking about The Astonishing, a 2-CD rock opera by the Long Island progressive rock band Dream Theater. Why am I writing about an album that won't reach my Top Ten? Mostly because it's a project where the band aimed for the stars, and I respect them for that, even if they fell short.

I've put a lot of work into listening to this album, maybe even more than I normally do. My usual process for a new CD is this: I put four new CDs out in my car at a time, and play them through in rotation four times each. When I have a double album project, I generally put the first disc and the second disc in two different groups, so one rotation of CDs isn't overly dominated by any one band. (It keeps my ears fresh). When I've done this, I replace the CDs in my car with a new group, then bring the old CDs in and listen to them twice more with headphones. For this set of listens, I'll listen to the various discs of a multi-disc album together. Finally, I pick my top songs for each CD and listen to them again in order of preference. (This not only gives me a pretty good grasp of a new album, it also lets me create a list of top songs for the year to work from when I pick my Top 20 Songs.) For The Astonishing, I also read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia to make sure I understood it, and when I listened with headphones, I did so while reading along the lyrics provided in the CD's booklet.

OCD, anyone?

As you might expect from a band like Dream Theater, this is a complex piece of music. They wrote it inspired by the great rock opera's like Tommy, and by television and film epics such as Game of Thrones and the Star Wars saga. So what's the verdict? Sadly, it's mixed.

For one thing, on those first listens, I couldn't make heads or tails of the plot. Now this isn't damning in and of itself. It's been many years since those first few times I listened to Tommy, but I suspect I didn't understand the plot without lyrics sheet then either.

Briefly, here's the story: The opera is set in a dystopian future, where society is run by a tyrant, and the general population has forgotten music. Their only entertainment is provided by floating electronic noise machines. In the far part of the empire, a man has arisen who is named by the people as their savior because he brings the gift of music. This chosen one falls in love, and is loved in return by the emperor's daughter. This daughter is accidentally killed, but with an assist from the people who were inspired by him, the hero, Gabriel, sings his lover back to life. The Emperor sees the error of his ways, the noise machines are turned off, and the people look forward to a brighter future.

So the plot is a little bit sappy. And it seems even more so, because too many of the characters have names that describe their personalities -- the Emperor is called Nefaryus (nefarious, get it?!), while his daughter is named Faythe (faith, get it!?), and Gabriel's brother, the head of the rebel army is Arhys (Aries, get it!?). This problem is underscored by the fact that most of songs involving Faythe just emphasize this corniness -- "Act of Faythe," "The Faythe That Divides" and "Losing Faythe." Barf.

Now the album has garnered mostly positive reviews, many of them particularly praising the vocals of James LaBrie, who provides the vox for the entire double album. Apparently, LaBrie worked extra hard to develop and differentiate between the different characters. Unfortunately (again), I found his performance to be one of the weaknesses of the album.

For starters, I think LaBrie is a decent vocalist -- his voice is strong, and it's not an unpleasant voice -- it doesn't make you want to reach for the dial to turn him off. However, his voice just isn't interesting enough to make you want to listen to him without a break through an entire double album's worth of music. It might seem unfair to compare The Awakening to an all-time great album like Tommy, but that's what they were shooting for, so that's what I'm measuring them by. And not only does LaBrie's voice lack the beauty of Roger Daltry's, but The Who also sprinkled in the vocals of Pete Townshend and John Entwistle  to keep the sound fresh and interesting.

And hard as LaBrie might have worked to try to differentiate between characters, on those first few listens when I wasn't reading along with the script, I couldn't distinguish between many of the songs sung by Gabriel and those sung by Faythe, and I especially couldn't pick apart when he was singing the villanous and/or warlike roles of Nefaryus, Arhys and Nefaryus's son Daryus. Which leads to another problem, namely that the vocals for these roles were often unpleasant precisely because they emphasized the villainy and/or aggressive nature of these roles.

I feel bad making these criticisms. There's a lot to like here. Some of the music is beautiful, and it's certainly complicated and ambitious. I applaud the band for shooting so high, and I applaud LaBrie for the effort he clearly put into the work, even when it wasn't always successful. And I will admit that when I listened while reading along, I found The Astonishing more enjoyable. I've developed an affection for the work, and it's definitely worthwhile enough that I'd jump at the chance to see the band perform it live. Ultimately, though, I found the band's previous eponymous album more satisfying. And the bottom line is I have to admit that when the two discs were in my car rotation, I found that I wasn't looking forward to their turn coming up -- I was more excited to hear less ambitious CDs like the new Santana album or the new Miike Snow CD.


While I'm on the subject of progressive rock, one of the concert DVDs I picked up recently was a performance of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, from a 1975 concert in Melbourne, Australia, with the accompaniment of the Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra.

I remember as a teenager being thrilled by the CD version of Journey. In a time of ambitious projects like Emerson, Lake & Palmer's version of Pictures at an Exhibition, Tomita's Snowflakes Are Dancing and Wakeman's own Six Wives of Henry VIII, I thought this composition raised classical-based rock music to a new height, and maybe even raised Wakeman to the heights of Bach and Mozart.

Again, I was a teenager.

Watching it now, I have to admit there are times that the work is cringeworthily pretentious, particularly during the narrative segments. Nevertheless, there's still a lot to enjoy and admire here.

The concert includes an entire performance of Journey, plus segments on Wakeman's other two top-selling albums, Six Wives and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. While Six Wives of Henry VIII is probably the Wakeman piece held in the highest esteem these days, I've always thought King Arthur was his finest work, and the excerpts from that record ("Merlin" and especially "Guinivere") were the highlights of the show.

The performance isn't note perfect. Wakeman, wearing his traditional white glittery robe, flubs some notes here and there, and the band wasn't always in perfect sync with the orchestra. Nevertheless, if you're a fan of progressive rock in general and Rick Wakeman in particular, this DVD will surely bring a smile to your face. And there are some extras here, as most of the band was brought back together to talk about the tour.