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Prog Redemption: Dream Theater, ‘Falling Into Infinity’

For you Proglodytes who have been following our site for a while: We have a series called Album Reclamation Project where we listen to generally panned albums and see if there is anything salvageable. However, I wanted to do a new series that focused specifically on somewhat controversial albums that we, at Proglodytes, felt like were given unfair treatment in their time, and are worthy of a reassessment. So, ladies and gentleman- the first edition of Prog Redemption.

It’s hard to believe that Dream Theater’s controversial album Falling into Infinity was released almost 20 years ago, as a follow up to their highly acclaimed Awake and their brilliant EP, A Change of Seasons. This album is easy to trash on as a fan of progressive metal. Derivative songs like the Desmond Child collaboration “You Not Me” and the formulaic but personal “Hollow Years” were a departure from their proggier numbers. Like any album written during a transitional period in a band, the album felt patchy and uneven, likely due to the multitude of influences. Regardless of the weakness of certain songs, Falling Into Infinity is one of my favorite Dream Theater records, mainly because of the strengths of the best songs. When Falling into Infinity succeeds, it catches Dream Theater at its absolute best. Since the weaknesses are well known, I want to focus on why Falling Into Infinity should be understood in context and should be given at least consideration, and at most, respect in the full Dream Theater discography as a worthwhile listen.

Historical Context

According to the band, their label, Elektra had a series of job shifts and changes, and the new executives were “over” the progressive sounds of bands like Dream Theater. The band had penned nearly 2 albums worth of material, but the top brass didn’t see much hit potential, and the band was not permitted to record for over a year. The band was apparently so frustrated that they almost retired. But, after deciding to go on tour, and inviting a few record executives to see how energized the Dream Theater fanbase was, they were finally given the green light to record, with some stipulations.

The record label conceded, to a degree. Dream Theater could release their prog album. However, they had to include a few radio friendly hits in order to justify the investment. Certain members of the band were open to this idea-most notably John Petrucci- while others were vehemently opposed. Mike Portnoy has not exactly been silent about his disdain for this period of the band (the 3 songs he penned for the album were really obviously about his disgust for the entire process). The final result was an album that struggled to find its balance between its more ambitious, progressive elements and its more mainstream, pop-oriented elements.

One of the concessions involved John Petrucci co-writing a song with hitmaker Desmond Child, who had helped people like Bon Jovi and Kiss and Ricky Martin write bland radio friendly hits. The result was the awkward, frustrated track, “You Not Me”, which is easily the lowest point of the album. Other tracks, like “Anna Lee” and “Take Away My Pain” feel out of place, and don’t really add anything new or original to the album. I should add that none of these are bland or horrible.

Track Analysis

Falling Into Infinity begins with the very proggy opener, “New Millenium”, an 8 minute track that features some really exciting prog- the instrumental breakdown that starts around the 5 minute mark  is one of my favorite Dream Theater moments. With odd time signatures, amazing unison runs on the keyboard and guitar, and trademark Portnoy freakouts, this song is just as progressive as anything Dream Theater had released previously- which makes the abomination that is “You Not Me” so jarring.

I’ve already made my opinion known about “You Not Me,” so I’ll shut up about it now. The 3rd track, “Peruvian Skies,” starts with a psychedelic, Floydian intro, as LaBrie introduces us to Vanessa, along with a tragic story about domestic violence. The slow intro picks up midway through, and launches into a Vai-like solo, which is cut off by a very heavy, chunky, double bass driven breakdown. The song ends with a faster and heavier reprise of the previous chorus, sang over the backdrop of heavy instrumental work. Portnoy steals the show with double bass flourishes and melodic drumming. Overall, this is a strong, dynamic track that I think is a highlight of the album.

The next two songs are not the weakest songs on the album, but they’re not the strongest, either. “Hollow Years” is one of the most transparent Dream Theater songs thematically, dealing with very personal and real issues from John Petrucci’s life. If this was the only Dream Theater song that I had ever heard, I probably wouldn’t know they were a progressive metal band, but as far as Dream Theater ballads go, I would place this one in the higher echelon. The next track, “Burning My Soul”, is a very targeted attack against A&R man Derek Oliver, who he felt like, embodied the antithesis of his musical approach. The lyrics described the angst that he was feeling (“twisting, turning/losing all sense of yearning/living, learning/ the pressure keeps on burning my soul”), which, understood in context, were really bold! The music wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, save an interesting midsection and set of solos, but it’s got a catchy chorus. In other words, it’s not a terrible song, but definitely not an album highlight.

If  I had to re-release Falling Into Infinity as an EP with only 20 minutes of music, I would pick “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Lines in the Sand” to represent the absolute best of this album. Dream Theater has always struggled with a characterization that they are without soul or emotion, and focus more on fast notes than tasteful playing. But I think “Hell’s Kitchen” is a gorgeous musical expression that shows Dream Theater at its best- difficult musically, but focused on strong melodicism and expressive playing.

“Hell’s Kitchen” bleeds seamlessly into one of Dream Theater’s finest moments, “Lines in the Sand.” I’ll take this time to make my case for why I think Derek Sherinian was the perfect guy for the period he played for. Kevin Moore wrote some excellent keyboard parts, but ultimately, his heart wasn’t in it by the end. His playing was very proggy, which balanced with the heavy guitar and bass. But when Derek Sherinian played keyboards, his tone was just as heavy, if not MORE heavy than the guitar at times. He brought an edge to the keyboard that had not been heard in Dream Theater’s music, and frankly, hasn’t been present in Dream Theater’s music since, as Jordan is more of a traditional prog keyboardist (for the record, I think his playing on “A Change of Seasons” is some of the most brilliant keyboard work in Dream Theater’s catalogue). The keyboard intro to “Lines in the Sand” shows chunk, and edge, and heaviness. His playing was heavy, melodic, and really well suited for metal music, and I feel like if he has a bad reputation for his time with Dream Theater, it is unwarranted, as I think his contributions are really solid.

Like the previous track,”Lines in the Sand” embodies everything that makes Dream Theater great. Portnoy plays in a way that is both super flashy and perfectly suited for the song. The keyboards range from heavy and technical, to subdued. Petrucci plays one of his most Gilmour-ian solos from his career (which is high praise, as David Gilmour might be one of the most lyrical guitarists in popular music). The lyrics, while a bit heavy handed, are thoughtful and introspective (and make lyrics like “The Count of Tuscany” or “As I Am” seem sophomoric). And the chorus features guest vocals from none other than rock god Doug Pinnick! “Lines In the Sand” is an exceptional track, and doesn’t get the recognition it deserves as a truly standout track in Dream Theater’s body of work. Every member of the band shines, and they combine their immense talents to create one of their all-time best tracks.

As I had mentioned before, the next few tracks don’t exactly feature Dream Theater at their best. “Take Away My Pain” feels like a bit of a repeat of “Hollow Years”, though I think it’s a bit more instrumentally interesting. “Just Let Me Breathe” is a lively, upbeat, and extremely heavy handed statement against the industry that Portnoy was so frustrated with, but as a track, it’s not really a standout. “Anna Lee” is an emotional, tragic song about abuse, penned by James LaBrie, but it felt a bit out of place where it stood. I still think it’s a decent song, but not a crucial listen.

The final track, “Trial of Tears”, is an underrated gem. Many fans feel like it’s inconsistent and repetitive, but I feel like it’s another great blend of what makes Dream Theater great. John Myung’s lyrics are always highly thoughtful and poetic, and I’ve liked his contributions since he first penned “Learning to Live” on Images and Words. Myung is called “The Silent Man” for a reason- he’s often mixed down in Dream Theater’s music. But the strong bass line throughout is prominent and expressive, reminiscent of Chris Squire. The verse is highly metaphorical and the music is mellow and subdued, but midway through the song, Derek and John Petrucci have some really exciting musical moments as they trade solos. The last part of the song, “The Wasteland”, returns to the slower and quieter tone of the beginning, only to return to the heaviness of the midsection at the end of the song. The song actually ends in a brilliant bass solo that is then carried away by synth pads.

Verdict

My point with this article wasn’t necessarily to say that the album was anything that it wasn’t. Falling Into Infinity wasn’t the strongest effort that Dream Theater could have released. Many of the most interesting melodic ideas on their masterpiece, Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory, were born in the Falling into Infinity sessions. There were several B-sides that probably would have made the album much stronger. But when all is said and done, the album feels like exactly what it is- a transition album, from one era to another.  It was inconsistent and spotty. It had tremendous highs and dramatic lows. But it was by no means a bad album at all, and as a matter of fact, the majority of the album is pretty brilliant. It just isn’t consistently brilliant from start to finish, which is what I think Dream Theater fans were unfairly expecting.

Had this been released by another progressive band, I think it would have been met with a lot more enthusiasm and acclaim. But Dream Theater, as a band, was viewed as the standard bearer for progressive metal, and I think the general disappointment that fans felt after hearing the poppier songs on the album made it hard for them to appreciate the high points of the album. They just felt forced and inauthentic. In this case, Portnoy was right, and the band didn’t have a ton to prove- they had loyal fans that were hoping for progressive rock, that felt let down by the more mainstream and less courageous tendencies of the album. Although the album charted (at peak position #52), the gamble to make more mainstream songs didn’t pay off as far as mainstream appeal. Regardless of who was right or wrong, the album stands as a conflicted snapshot of a band in progress.

To close, while this probably isn’t their best album, I think it’s far from their worst, purely on the strength of its strongest songs- “New Millenium”, “Peruvian Skies”, “Hell’s Kitchen”, “Lines in the Sand”, and “Trial of Tears”. As a reviewer, I usually find one or two standout tracks on an album, and the rest of the album doesn’t stick with me for much longer than the time I allow myself for reviive. But, for me, these songs have all stood the test of time, and I still think that they are among Dream Theater’s best tracks. I also feel like this is the last time that Dream Theater experimented with a very different formula, as Scenes from a Memory and subsequent albums were, in many ways, more of a return to form than anything. I think Falling into Infinity is a release that is worthy of serious reconsideration for Dream Theater and progressive metal fans, especially for those who wrote it off as too mainstream or commercial.

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3 thoughts on “Prog Redemption: Dream Theater, ‘Falling Into Infinity’

  1. I definitely agree with this article. In spite of this album’s reputation, i became a fan of DT because of this album and Awake. The track Lines In The Sand was the one that really caught my interest. I genuinely believe this album deserves credit for the greater bits and attempt at experimentation. It may not be the greatest album but sure beats Dramatic Turn Of Events

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  2. IMO – ‘FII’ was the last really good, interesting DT album. I love ‘SFAM’ as well, but ‘FII’ has it’s own vibe. In fact, each album from the debut through ‘SFAM’ had their own unique vibes. Once JR was firmly entrenched in DT, the albums all started to run together.

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