Scenes From A Memory
I canít recommend this album enough.
Mix two parts The Wall, two parts Savatage, a heavy dose of progressive rock a la early Genesis and throw in a dash of Toto and Queen for pop appeal, and you have a hint of the taste of Scenes From A Memory.
This is perhaps the most masterful concept album of the decade. Taking its jump-off point from a song on their first album, "Metropolis Part 1 (The Miracle and the Sleeper)," Dream Theaterís fifth album is a grandiose outing filled with strains of mystery and mayhem thatís bookended by the soothing voice of a therapist.
The album centers on Nicholas, a character plagued by disturbing dreams. When a psychotherapist uses regression therapy to hypnotize him and find out the source of his psychic disturbance, it turns out that Nicholas is the reincarnated soul of Victoria, a woman murdered earlier in the century while in the midst of a love triangle with two brothers.
The albumís 12 tracks (divided into nine "scenes") follow Nicholas as he "goes under" and relives the events surrounding Victoriaís death.
While Dream Theater has always crafted deeply layered albums throughout its career, the sound of Scenes From A Memory has extra depth thanks to the addition of keyboardist Jordan Rudess to the band. The piano and synthesizer strains he adds to the bandís always inventive guitar jam sequences turns these songs from strong exercises to works of near-symphonic brilliance. The bandís instrumental acumen is spotlighted in the albumís second track, "Overture 1928," a three-and-a-half minute trip through some of the major themes of the disc.
"Through My Words" and "Fatal Tragedy" are an electric song combination that lead up to a "newspaper" recounting of the actual events of Victoriaís murder in "Beyond This Life." The albumís masterstroke however, comes near the end in "The Spirit Carries On," a beautifully grand anthem led by a melancholy piano line where the spirit of Victoria asks "move on, be brave donít weep at my grave/because I am no longer here/but please never let your memory of me disappear." Nicholas finds his peace, noting "If I die tomorrow/Iíd be all right because I believe/that after weíre gone/the spirit carries on." The choir backdrop and organ strains rival the power of Pink Floydís "Dark Side of the Moon."
Since both Victoria and Nicholasí parts are sung by James Labrie, the division in characters in Scenes From A Memory is foggy if you donít follow along with the CD booklet lyrics. But whether you follow the story and characters clearly or not, the strength of the music and emotion in this album are wildly moving.
This is one of the best albums of the year.
Will Smith is either the best or the worst thing to happen to rap depending on your perspective, and in true rapper style, he elucidates just that fact in several places on Willennium. On "Freakin' It," which borrows a riff from "Rapperís Delight," he puts down the potty mouth gangsta rappers and brags of his own million sellers that don't have to use cuss words to get to the top of the charts ("I read in the rap pages Iím soft/yeah, like MICROsoft").
His second solo disc opens with "I'm Comin'," a rap about his unstoppable appeal where he warns "young George Bush" to beware because heís "thinkiní bout runniní/maybe not this time but...". The fact that he's 100% right about the brags over his universal appeal doesn't make them go down any easier though; bragging is bragging, even if heís funny when doing it. And if you're gonna "front," you better have the stuff to back it up. Like "Men In Black" from his last disc, this CD has a soundtrack hit tucked in at the end — in this case, "Wild Wild West." But "West" is the hottest radio ready bit here. Much of the other material on Willennium is lukewarm. Smith talks a lot, grunts a lot ("uh-huh, uh huh"), but doesn't have anything as catchy as "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" or "Miami" (from his 1997 solo debut) to offer. "Freakiní It" has some potential, and "Da Butta" has a sexy base and a good riff but Lilí Kimís rap isnít as convincing as her background croons of "here come the butta baby."
Maybe a part of the problem here is Smith seems to be trying to create a "party" atmosphere here by inviting guest rappers and musicians to join him on every other track. K-Ci, Lil' Kim, Tra-Knox, Tatyana Ali, MC Lyte, Kel Spencer, Dru Hill, Kool Mo Dee, Jill Scott, Eve, Breeze, Biz Markie and Slick Rick all turn up on different tracks, with varying degrees of success. Some of their collaborations sound like practice runs that should never have been let out of the studio. Biz Markie and Smith just seem to be fooling around, and in "Pump Me Up" he brings back the team of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince to spotlight the antics of Jeffís record-scratching. It makes a good answer to critics who wondered what Smith did with longtime partner Jazzy Jeff when he went solo and itíd be a fun live cut, but a recorded lesson on how hot of a scratcher Jeff is really feels like wasted CD space.
That said, Smith does have that pop knack, and there are some good moments on Willennium (which, with its title, begs to be played on Dec. 31). The "New Yearís Eve" track here is "Will 2K," an easy ridiní rap about ringing in and dancing in the new millennium thatís based around the riff of The Clashís "Rock The Casbah." The chorus of "Who Am I" with Tatyana Ali and MC Lyte is catchy and Smith gets serious to tell the slightly heavy handed cautionary tale of the importance of sometimes swallowing pride in "Afro Angel." Atop a slow groove Smith tells a series of stories about black characters facing life crises in each verse. One follows a street kid who thinks everyone should automatically respect him even though he hasnít earned it. The kidís posturing gets him shot. The final story is of a drug dealer who at first refuses, but then agrees to give up his lifestyle and "dirty" money for the love of a woman. The songís chorus says "Afro angel/you donít have to sell your soul...never forget that you are loved."
In "No More," he also deals with a tough subject — a man who who cheats on his girl. The song is of him leaving a message on her answering machine relating the good times of their relationship and commisserating that thereís "no more nothiní and itís all cuz of me."
Willennium is an uneven effort, but as with any Smith project, there are flashes of unstoppable charisma that make you overlook many of the missteps.