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Peaks and Valleys - 70%

OlympicSharpshooter, July 29th, 2004

Pity Falling Into Infinity. Pity Falling Into Infinity for being forced to follow Awake, both Dream Theater’s best album and the best album of the 90s. Dream Theater had of course released the A Change of Seasons EP in the meantime, and Derek Sherinian had plenty of time to acclimatize himself to the high pressure, high-quality Dream Theater style, but as good as he is (and as entertaining a personality) the band lacks the genius of Kevin Moore and the absence hurts this album considerably. From a playing stand-point Sherinian fits in well, but he doesn’t have the subtlety that Moore brought to the band, nor does he write lyrics which force a rather inexperienced Mike Portnoy to contribute a lot in that department, some of which don’t turn out too well.

Furthermore it is well documented that Dream Theater was forced into a more commercial direction by the label, and producer Kevin Shirley was made full producer and thus had the authority to play a role in the writing process and severely edit some of the compositions. Sometimes this works out well (the decision to remove “Hell’s Kitchen” from the instrumental section of “Burning My Soul” was a good idea), but more often you feel that Dream Theater has been hamstrung by politics.

It’s also worth noting that Dream Theater had a lot more material written than is on the album, most of which ended up on the DTIFC Fan Club CD entitled Cleaning Out the Closet. It’s baffling that tracks as good as “Raise the Knife”, “Speak to Me”, and “Cover My Eyes” were left off of the final album, and the only explanation that makes sense is the ol’ blame the label routine, cos really, there’s a lot of stuff here that really isn’t that great.

The most egregious example of this is “You Not Me”, co-written by hired gun Desmond Child who penned a number of hits for bands like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. The problem is however that Dream Theater has little in common with the Jove or Boston’s finest, so the result is a total mess. Computerized drum-beats, horribly lame lyrics (“watching you run is making me laaaaazay…”), and a frankly awful chorus that sounds like it’s been ripped from an N*Sync record and roughly stitched onto a low-end DT song. These guys are known for soaring vocals, but the chorus has that sparkly guitar sound and sadistically catchy mentality that one generally associates with boy bands.

Another song that flat-out does not work is “Take Away My Pain”, a limp ballad that covers the same territory as “Another Day” from Images & Words but with little of the same success. Portnoy appears to be playing bongos or something, and the whole package just seems to scream ‘adult contemporary’, something we metalheads tend to avoid like the plague. It’s definitely written for the 45-60 and looking for happy music demographic, toothless acoustic pap in the same vein as later Paul Simon or Sting.

On the whole the album also lacks the depth of Awake, with little of the penetrating psychological muck and more juvenile anger (“Burning My Soul”) and sedate balladry (“Trail of Tears”, “Hollow Years”, “Hell’s Kitchen”), and also an alarmingly topical slant that is really quite far removed from classic DT concerns (check the blatant name-drops on “Just Let Me Breathe” and “Take Away my Pain”). However, when this album is good, it’s really good.

Despite its generic lyrics and harmlessly aggressive LaBrie snarling, “Burning My Soul” packs some serious crunch, and “Hell’s Kitchen” is a satisfying piece of mellow prog if you’re in the mood for it. The best part is that this song segues into “Lines in the Sand”, a bristling, loopy progmonster that packs a funky bounce and some of Petrucci’s best stuff both in the lyric and the guitar department. It’s got power and groove, infectiously catchy melodies (uncommon in epics), even featuring a great guest spot from King’s X howler Doug Pinnick and a mesmerizing solo that takes the time to move the listener and advance the song unlike some of the sometimes pointless shredding of Train of Thought and other more recent releases. “Lines in the Sand” is both profound and grand, easily amongst the best compositions in the DT canon.

“Peruvian Skies” is both their best ballad and their most convincingly metallic pounder all in one song, Floydian psychedelia and Metallica riffery. Although Dream Theater is somewhat infamous for ‘adolescent girls in trauma’ songs (see: Scenes from a Memory, “Anna Lee”, “Goodnight Kiss”, etc.), “Peruvian Skies” makes you rather ambivalent about the lyrical content because it rules so damn hard.

Portnoy’s other two lyrical contributions are solid as well, although again not specifically due to the lyrics themselves. “New Millennium” manages to invoke a futuristic vibe through Myung’s use of the Chapman Stick, the strangely alien tones enhancing the eventual metal crunch that builds in intensity throughout the song. The lyrics are slightly repetitive, but much like the guitar the repetition and submerged backing vocals tend to add to the effect. As for “Just Let Me Breathe”, while it does give a slight impression of an aging prog band screaming ‘we’re kinda fun, sometimes!’ into the night, it’s also a bouncy fun song, a real kick live and an occasionally poignant commentary on the sorry state of the music biz.

Falling Into Infinity is an enigmatic album, an album of peaks and valleys. On “Peruvian Skies” and “Lines in the Sand” the band is at its best, and even the overwrought “Trial of Tears” favourably invokes classics like “Learning to Live” with its mercury drop bass lines and poetic lyrics. Dream Theater certainly retains the gift of creating inspired progressive metal, but sadly from here on with less depth and power than on the Awake record, and from here on out much more sporadically than one would like...

Stand-Outs: "Lines in the Sand", "Peruvian Skies", "New Millennium"