Tag Archive: Dream Theater


Ground Shields

The Wall is a concept album – there’s that nearly useless term again – and the central character is Pink, a British (probably) rock star during the ‘70s. Pink is paranoid, apathetic, pessimistic, and haunted by past deeds (both those he did and those done to him).

A good case could also be made for Roger Waters being the central character. He wrote all the lyrics, designed the story, and had control over the entire musical process. Like Pink, Roger’s father was killed in the second World War. And also like Pink, he felt an increasing separation building between his audience and himself. But distinctly unlike Pink – until the very end of the story – Roger decides he needs to tear down that wall.

The Wall is a more intense, heavy and loud album than any Pink Floyd had done in the past. Their last, Animals, was a typical slice of dreamscape haziness combined with charging guitars, a well-established sound that Pink Floyd had a major hand in creating. The Wall, on the other hand, starts with an epic and larger-than-life intro, the bombastic “In the Flesh?” It shares a name with Floyd’s previous world tour, the one that contained that turning point where Waters spit on a fan. That moment saw the very birth of The Wall, the first spark that culminated with this album, so it’s appropriate that it also starts it.

“In the Flesh?” doesn’t really sound like Pink Floyd. The first time I heard it, I didn’t know it was Pink Floyd… but that might have been because it wasn’t.

Let me explain.

166 ground shields 01All-male dorms at colleges tend to consist of a few universal things, and one of those is the geek floor. For ENC at the turn on the millennium, that floor was Ground Shields. When the administration said they were thinking of having the ground floors freshmen only, we on Ground Shields pushed back, saying we had worked hard to create a certain environment on our floor, and we were now a community that couldn’t be displaced. And weirdly enough, they listened to us. Ground Shields was all about computers, gaming, and getting the most tricked-out machine. We went to LAN parties, watched DVDs in Brian’s room (he had the best system), and had floor-wide games of Quake III and Counter-Strike. We even ran a server out of Brian’s room that served as a dedicated, 24-hour host for Counter-Strike games, complete with a local website that tracked the statistics of everyone who had ever logged on.

(clockwise from top) me, Josh, Willie, Steve and Dan

Despite that Ground Shields was full of computer geeks and I wasn’t one – I’ve always fancied myself more of an arts geek – I fit in beautifully in a way I didn’t during high school. I wanted in, so I moved down at the beginning of my sophomore year. It was Brian’s roommate Jeff who got me into Dream Theater, something for which I am eternally grateful. He lent me A Change of Seasons, which in addition to its 23 minute title track contains a bunch of live cuts. The last one is “The Big Medley,” a collection of cover songs from the likes of Genesis, Queen, Kansas and Journey; it opens with “In the Flesh?” I hadn’t heard The Wall, and wasn’t into Pink Floyd at all at that point, but it pricked my ears. My friend Mike pointed out whose song it was, and shortly after my curiosity led me to pirate The Wall from the internet, and my journey with the Floyd began.

(L to R) Jeffreylisk, Mr. Abear, and Jamin

“In the Flesh?” appears again on the second half of The Wall, this time without the question mark, with lyrics of Pink speaking at a fascist rally that stars him. But the first “In the Flesh?” is more or less Pink talking to the listeners, inviting them to dig deeper into his psyche for the next 90 minutes. Pink, and indeed Pink Floyd and Roger Waters himself, are letting the listener know that to understand what makes Pink tick and to know the truth Pink wants them to know, they will have to go on a weird, disturbing odyssey. If you’re in, you’re in – and it starts with the sound of a bomber jet flying overhead and land mines blowing people to bits.

Next: of course Mama’s gonna help build the wall.

Long Songs

A few days ago, I asked a rhetorical question on a Facebook status update: what’s the longest song ever made? I thought I had answered that question in the blog post I linked to, the answer being Longplayer, but I got several responses in the form of guesses. Friends of mine guessed “American Pie” (8:33), “Free Bird” (9:06), “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” (17:04), and “Alice’s Restaurant” (18:34), which are all really good guesses, but miss the mark by a long shot. So I started thinking about an actual answer to that question.

It’s a little tricky, because you have to ask, “what is considered a song?” Upon analysis, I determined Longplayer isn’t really a song; it’s just a bunch of singing bowls, something that just barely qualifies as a musical instrument. That’s the reason I’ve excluded Mike Oldfield, too. His music is only music in the barest sense of the word: because he and his fans say it is.

I also decided to limit it to pop songs, which eliminates symphonies and other classical compositions. To qualify, they also had to be one continuous or contiguous song, and not separated by other songs. Suites, or individual songs all strung together (with no break in playing) and united by a common lyrical theme, are permissible. I also decided to let in songs separated by division of the physical media, such as sides of vinyl; it’s not really Jethro Tull’s fault that CDs hadn’t been invented when they made “Thick as a Brick” and it was too long to fit on one side of an LP. But songs on live recordings don’t make it if they don’t have a studio counterpart equally as long. Other than that, I use a combination of my instincts and trust placed in the artist. If they say it’s a song, I give them the benefit of the doubt, excluding clear and obvious attempts to have a really long recording while injecting little to no musicality or effort.

An undeniable finding: almost all the artists on the list I’ve compiled are either progressive rock or progressive metal. This says one of two things. Either only prog fans have the attention spans to listen to a song that’s much longer than 5 minutes, or prog artists are completely insane. I think it might be both. The only non-prog group on here is Pink Floyd, but they’re foundational to most of the other groups on here. Heck, most of them learned to do long songs in the first place from Pink Floyd, among others.

Neal Morse

That being said, Dream Theater is probably the guiltiest single culprit, having four songs on this list. It could have been five, though; their suite “In the Presence of Enemies” is over 25 minutes long, but it doesn’t make the list because parts II and III are separated by the rest of the album the suite is on. But the undisputed king of long songs is Neal Morse. He’s in two different bands on this list, and also has multiple songs as a solo artist. He’s in the band that takes the cake, too.

That band is Transatlantic, and the song that wins the award for Longest Song (with the restrictions previously mentioned), is “The Whirlwind,” clocking in at 77 minutes and 54 seconds. “The Whirlwind” is the name of the album it’s on, too, and it’s the only song on the album. You’ll notice that the song is just shy of 80 minutes, which is the maximum length of a CD. When a physical medium longer than that comes into widespread use, you can be sure that Neal Morse will make a song that matches its length.

Anyway, here’s the list, in ascending length order.

Dream Theater, “A Mind Beside Itself” – 20:26

Rush, “2112” – 20:34

Yes, “Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil)” – 21:37

Yes, “The Gates of Delirium” – 21:50

Genesis, “Supper’s Ready” – 22:52

Dream Theater, “A Change of Seasons” – 23:06

Spock’s Beard, “The Water” – 23:10

Pink Floyd, “Atom Heart Mother” – 23:35

Pink Floyd, “Echoes” – 23:37

Yes, “The Solution” – 23:47

Dream Theater, “Octavarium” – 24:00

Neal Morse, “The Conflict” – 25:00

Transatlantic, “Duel With the Devil” – 26:43

Spock’s Beard, “The Great Nothing” – 27:02

Manowar, “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” – 28:38

Neal Morse, “The Door” – 29:13

Transatlantic, “Stranger In Your Soul” – 30:00

Green Carnation, “The Truth Will Set You Free” – 31:03

Magellan, “The Great Goodnight” – 34:45

Dream Theater, “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” – 42:04

Jethro Tull, “Thick as a Brick” – 43:46

Meshuggah, “Catch Thirty Three” – 47:09

The Flower Kings, “Garden of Dreams” – 59:16

Green Carnation, “Light of Day, Day of Darkness” – 60:06

Transatlantic, “The Whirlwind” – 77:54

Feel free to add any I’ve missed in the comments section.

Music can’t be completely pinned down to an objective perspective, much as we may try. Songs hit people in different ways because no one is in exactly the same place as anybody else. But as subjective a pursuit as music is, there are some things that remain as true as 2+2=4. One of them is this: Genesis’ best song is “Supper’s Ready.”

Longplayer being played

That’s kind of an ironic statement when you consider that “Supper’s Ready” is actually more like seven different songs all strung together. As such, it totals out at almost 23 minutes. It’s cited among the world’s longest pop songs, along with songs by Dream Theater, Jethro Tull and Valient Thorr. But if it’s pure length you want, and don’t care about the song having a shred of musicality, look to Longplayer. Not strictly a song by any particular music group, it’s more of a compositional project started by composter Jem Finer. It started playing at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1999, and will continue uninterrupted until the final moment of the year 2999. Bet you can’t dance to it, though…

Starting with the tour after their previous album, Nursery Cryme, Peter Gabriel would intro some of their more epic songs with a story: a prose composition of his own creation, sometimes having nothing to do with the song itself. The story was bizarre, funny or off-putting, often all three, and would end with a segue into the song. The story for “Supper’s Ready” was among Gabriel’s weirder; it involved earthworms coming up from underground because they think it’s raining (it’s actually just a naked man drumming on the ground), and getting eaten by birds, for whom “the supper is ready!”

Just listening to “Supper’s Ready” is a mammoth undertaking; it’s best if you don’t have a lot of distractions. It’s meant to be listened to all at once, so a small time commitment is necessary, and it’s definitely not ideal for background music. Listening to it in the car is fine, but not with passengers. It also will require more than one listen to really understand, but you shouldn’t just put it on repeat – for one thing, that will eat up at least close to an hour.

I know, I know – I’m not selling this very well. The truth is, I can’t. “Supper’s Ready” isn’t easily digestible like other pop songs. It requires patience and resolution. But if you don’t mind, I’ll hold out hope that the modern music listener still knows what those are.

Given its length, I was expecting it to have a long build-up like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” but it jumps right into the action with the first section, “Lover’s Leap.” While Steve, Mike and Tony all play an eerie/folksy arpeggio part of 12-string acoustic guitars, Peter sings with double-tracked vocals about an actual experience he had one night with his then wife Jill, and Genesis producer John Anthony. The three of them were having a conversation when Jill had some sort of possession experience – she started talking in a different, otherworldly voice. Peter thought he saw another face superimposed on Jill’s and held up a makeshift cross (a candlestick and something else), and Jill reacted violently, scaring the crap out of the other two. They eventually calmed her down and put her to bed, but neither Peter nor John slept a wink.

Another part of the lyrics come from an experience Peter had while at his wife’s parents’ house, where he looked out on the lawn late at night and thought he saw seven robed and hooded figures marching across it. Amazingly, he had this experience with no drugs or alcohol in his system. That time where Jill got possessed, the three of them were staying up late, but no drugs or drinking was involved there, either.

That rather straightforward story ends with a chorus that indicates the song’s name with “hey babe, your supper’s waiting for you.” The 12-string guitars continue in a hypnotic, cloud-like reverie, and Tony goes to his organ and plays a solo. That progression segues seamlessly into the second section, “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man.” Five and a half minutes into the song, this is where it really starts to pick up. It turns from an ethereal dreamscape to a grandiose anthem with a sing-along chorus, despite its rather awkward title and tagline.

The main character of this section is a “fireman who looks after the fire.” He’s a sort of anti-Christ figure, a charismatic Messiah who makes wild promises of salvation and commands the attention of many kinds of people. He’s the leader of a high-brow scientific religion that demands complete devotion, basically the definition of a cult. Scientology, anyone? The lyrical imagery is astounding, cramming a great amount into just a few minutes.

Steve Hackett doin’ his thang

After that comes a sudden stop, a flute solo from Peter, and the third section, “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men.” The music picks up even more, becoming a full-fledged rock song. It even has a bitchin’ guitar solo that features Steve Hackett doing tapping, a full six years before Eddie Van Halen ripped it off. The lyrics talk of a great battle, presumably from the point of view of the army of this Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man. This starting to sound like the book of Revelation, a concept we get even surer of as the song goes on. Meanwhile, our lovers watch as this battle progresses, ending in victory for this Band of Merry Men.

There’s a brief pause with the next section, “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?,” which is no more than a delayed guitar effect and Peter’s soft vocals. The title is a reference to Narcissus, a figure from Greek myth that fell in love with his reflection and didn’t want to stop staring at it; he died of starvation. The battle of the previous section has left only chaotic and smoking ruins and a mountain of dead bodies, but a lone figure remains, staring into a pool at his own reflection. His existence begs the question: who is to take responsibility for a defeated army after they’re defeated? If no one takes responsibility, what will they become? …A flower?

More on “Supper’s Ready” and what happened to Narcissus after he became a flower… tomorrow!

Let It Bleed follows the same general musical pattern as Beggars Banquet, having been released only 13 months later. The best song is first, and it’s powerful and in a minor key. Then comes two acoustic-based, country-style numbers, followed by an up-tempo song with a dirty groove. True to the pattern, the fourth song on Let It Bleed is the stomping “Live With Me.” Jagger uses irony here to display the lifestyle of English country folk who are on the edge of civilization. His tone is dismissive and more than a little insulting, as if he’s completely comfortable with only knowing this lifestyle as a cliché. Musically, this style would be explored to greater effect on Sticky Fingers a few years later.

Just as “Live With Me” fills the place of and has a similar emotional color as the Beggars Banquet track “Parachute Woman,” “Midnight Rambler” does a similar thing for “Jigsaw Puzzle.” They share a similiar length, and both have an aimless and meandering quality, but “Rambler” is much bluesier than “Puzzle,” and is more Bo Diddley that Bob Dylan. While the Stones do a very convincing black-American-blues-guitarist impression with “Rambler,” it goes on a little too long for my taste.

Don’t get me wrong; length is not a problem for me. One of my favorite songs is “Octavarium” by Dream Theater, which is almost 24 minutes long. But if you make a really long song, it goes over much better with the listener if it’s really leading somewhere; “Midnight Rambler” isn’t. Heck, the Stones almost stop in the middle of the song.

(Paranthetical: a long song needing to lead somewhere doesn’t apply if you’re the Velvet Underground; just sayin’.)

“Midnight Rambler” is almost 7 minutes long, but it’s followed by the shortest song on the record, “You Got the Silver.” Keith Richards’ previous vocal contributions have been pretty dismal affairs; his lead vocal in “Salt of the Earth” was so bad that Mick took the microphone from him after four lines, and “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” ranks among the Stones absolute worst songs (though I’m not sure that’s really Keith’s fault). Regardless, when Keith started singing “You Got the Silver,” I was ready to just write it off; I was pleasantly surprised. Keith sounds like a different person here, especially considering how bloody awful his voice sounded on “Salt of the Earth” a mere 13 months earlier. He may be no Plácido Domingo, but he’s impassioned and honest, both of which go a long way.

Finally comes the cap, which is the choir boy extravaganza “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” From the London Bach Choir intro to the French horn solo right down to the soaring fade out, everything about this song is gloriously epic and ridiculously over-the-top. It started as a simple idea that Mick had in a hotel room one night with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his voice. Layer upon layer is added by producer Jimmy Miller until it’s bloated almost beyond recognition. I simply can’t explain why “Get What You Want” works; it really shouldn’t. By all rights, the song should topple over with all the extra weight added to it by over-production. But quite astoundingly, it’s one of the Stones’ most enduring songs, and ranks just behind “Gimme Shelter” as Let It Bleed’s best offering.

What follows is almost certainly untrue and apocryphal, but it made me laugh out loud. Mick Jagger was in a drug store in Excelsior, Minnesota to fill a prescription. In line right in front of him was a man named Jimmy Hutmaker, a locally known figure with unspecified developmental disabilities but an outgoing personality. He was affectionately called Mister Jimmy by Excelsior residents. He was telling Mick about how much he loved Cherry Coke, but that they served him a different flavor at the home that morning. Apparently, he said, “y’know, Mr. Jagger, you can’t always get what you want…”

Even to this day, whenever someone says “you can’t always get what you want,” I respond with “well, you know what the Rolling Stones have to say about the matter.” That elicits either a smile or a confused expression.