And so, we come to the final part of this series. I hope some of you have enjoyed reading it — it’s been an education to write. This song, to me, is the ultimate destination that all the heavy metal on the timeline has been leading to.
It’s by Dream Theater, one of the key bands of the progressive metal subgenre, or prog metal for short. Queensrÿche and Tool were earlier to the party, but Dream Theater arguably brought prog metal to a new technical and emotional peak, and have been closest thing to a commercially successful prog-metal band. It’s a fantastically ambitious genre, which aims to combine the ferocious technical work of speed metal with the adventurous nature of prog rock. Done well, prog metal has a richness that repays repays repeated listening, never growing boring in the way that certain other metal styles can.
Dream Theater formed in 1985 (under the name Majesty), although their first album wasn’t released until four years later. That album sunk without trace, largely due to record-label indifference, and the short tour that followed saw their singer fired. It took a couple of years and several false starts before they landed James LaBrie, the singer they needed. But with their core members now in place, Dream Theater recorded Images and Words and were on their way to a long, successful career. In terms of their antecedents on this timeline, they could perhaps best be seen as a musical blend of Deep Purple, Rush and Metallica.
There’s lots to love about Under a Glass Moon, including the strong, clear guitar parts, the powerful, concentrated vocal and the thunderous but musical drumming. DT’s drummer, Mike Portnoy, was always one of their creative keystones, and the band has perhaps lost some of its musicality (though none of its technique) since he quit in 2010 to be replaced by Mike Mangini. (Portnoy has always had plenty of side-projects going on, and has kept very busy since leaving Dream Theater. At the present count, he’s involved with The Winery Dogs, Flying Colors, Transatlantic and the Neal Morse group — all superb bands, covering quite a range of styles.)
But for me there’s no question that the highlight is the guitar solo — my single all-time favourite guitar solo, surpassing all the glorious work of Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Dave Gilmour and Michael Schenker. (The solo proper starts at 4:37, but you really have to listen from 3:58 to get the context.) I’ve never heard anything else that combines such jaw-dropping technique with such melodicism and — maybe most impressive — such harmonic literacy. With its constant switches in time, texture and intensity, this solo is a million miles beyond where we started, back with the rudimentary one-chord jam that is the guitar solo from 1:16 of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me. In saying that I mean no disrespect to the Kinks’ lead guitarist Dave Davies (or indeed to Jimmy Page, who is consistently rumoured to have played the solo). But what we’re seeing here is evolution in action. If the Kinks’ guitar solo is the first sarcoperygian even to flop up onto the sea shore, the John Petrucci’s work with Dream Theater is a cheetah.
So after the rather depressing take on 90s metal in the penultimate episode, I am pleased to end the series on a high. To me, Dream Theater and their ilk represent the return of musicality to heavy metal.