For the Irrational Love of Dream Theater
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No tiptoeing around it: Dream Theater‘s latest album is pretty lousy.
For many of you out there, such a statement might be almost laughably redundant. For many a grizzled metalhead, the New York progressive metal institution’s very name is emblematic of the pomp and excessive ornamentation of a much-maligned style of music; like Rush, but without the resurgent nerd-pride cachet that now accompanies the long-running Canadian trio.
For me, though, it hurts physically to type out that statement up top. You see, for ages and ages, Dream Theater was one of MY bands. You know the type, right? One of those bands that you wear as a badge of honor, holding your adoration close to your chest against the cruel vagaries of the outside world. One of those bands that seems, however implausibly, to have had some miniature hand in making you who you are.
When a band like that puts out an absolute wretch of an album, do you cut and run? Retroactively disavow your fandom? I’ll reiterate: the new Dream Theater album is, to be polite, gut-retchingly banal. The drum sound is utterly horrific, but on the snare in particular, which sounds like a ragged tarp stretched across a pit of sadness filled with lazy bees. And, despite the fact that Dream Theater’s lyrics have always been enthusiastically dicey at the best of times, the new album trots out forehead-smacking clunker after clunker, from “You live without shame / You’re digging up a gold mine,” to “Shed your light on me / Be my eyes when I can’t see,” to “I don’t believe that we’re in this alone / I believe we’re along for the ride.”
The biggest flaw, however, is that the songs have been streamlined down to endlessly chorus-regurgitating pop/hard rock nuggets. Sounds great to longtime haters, probably, but all it really means is that the band’s hallmark instrumental noodling is just crammed into more economical songs, which makes their aural equivalent of Rick Wakeman’s cape stick out even more sorely. This is doubly frustrating, because their previous album, 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events, was probably their best since 2003’s dark and spiteful Train of Thought.
Okay, so we’ve established that Dream Theater is an underwhelming mess in search of accessibility. Here’s the thing, though: I still bought it, and I will, in all likelihood, buy any and all additional albums that Dream Theater puts out during the remainder of their career. This is fundamentally irrational behavior, right?
For the obsessive music listener, the “bands you like” are never just the bands you like: they’re little totems that you keep inside you, individual tiles in a mosaic that you’re sometimes embarrassed at spending so much time cultivating. For the obsessive metal fan, this phenomenon is heightened in a way that probably wouldn’t affect, say, a die-hard Miles Davis fan. For better or worse – and for reasons both warranted and not – being super into heavy metal is, well, kinda weird. You can scoff and chafe and gnash your teeth at the unfairness of societal expectations all you want, but there still exists a general assumption that – in its most generous application – heavy metal is odd music for odd people.
As a result, if you spend any non-trivial part of your time trying to explain your musical preferences to the unwashed plebian throngs (read: your loving family and friends), you either learn to provide overly positive responses to avoid looking mega-defensive (“Well, actually, here’s why this band’s embrace of fascist-baiting military tropes really represents a careful deconstruction of the myth of nationalism and…”), or you develop an instinctive callus that further hardens your preferences (“Ugh, these idiots will never understand my beautiful taste, so why even bother?”). And then, you learn to clutch your favorites a little closer, because they’ve come at a certain reputational cost.
So, deconstructing that identity isn’t a simple matter, because it feels like spurning an earlier, more idealistic version of yourself. It feels like a hundred tiny defeats: “Yeah, guys, you were right all along: this is an embarrassing thing to have pledged fealty to.” So maybe you keep holding on, because letting go is a more costly proposition. But I wonder: is it self-deception, or self-preservation? Maybe an outsider artform like heavy metal requires this kind of superfically unreasonable behavior to grease the wheels. Maybe this odd music for we odd people only keeps getting made if we buy into it harder than we should, and make it more important than it is. Maybe heavy metal functions in an alternate economy of rationality, where stubbornness becomes passion, and desperately holding on to a band no longer deserving of one’s support becomes keeping the scene alive. Love is a cunning alchemist.
Then again, maybe Dream Theater (the band) just straight-up honks. Lord knows Dream Theater (the album) sure does.
. . .
Am I alone in this? Do you ever feel a twinge of cognitive dissonance at continuing to support a band that you know is producing sub-par material? Or am I the only one with a defiantly warped utility curve?
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