Dream Theater vs. The Mars Volta
June 23 spawned The Mars Volta's Octahedron and Dream Theater's Black Clouds & Silver Linings. It was a draining day, not only for people who masturbate about masturbatory music but also for the readers who hate such wankery/wankery worship so much that they sent messages demanding a public rebuke of both albums. Your voices have been heard. Sadly, Mike Portnoy's tough-guy bark, James LaBrie's sniveling snarl and Cedric Bixler-Zavala's quivering-hobbit squeal have also been heard, by me. Repeatedly. It's been a long fucking week.
For months, I have been steeling myself for 6/23/09, the historic date on which The Mars Volta would challenge Dream Theater to a battle for prog-dork supremacy. In dread anticipation, I'd envisioned a war of attrition waged with unorthodox time signatures, obtuse lyrics, multi-part twelve-minute "song suites" and sweep arpeggios. Unfortunately, The Mars Volta forfeited, making Wankfest 2009 a strangely anticlimactic ordeal.
Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala calls Octahedron the group's "acoustic album," which here means "an album recorded with electric instruments that still manages to be boring as fuck." Given that The Mars Volta's fanbase largely consists of self-congratulating assholes who pride their ability to "appreciate" music that smarter people rightfully dismiss as cluttered and obnoxious, it's hard to imagine how they'll spin Octahedron. Perhaps they'll laud the group for bravely continuing to record seven-minute songs, even when working with two minutes worth of ideas and instrumentation. Or maybe they'll listen intently to the barely detectable 90-second held note that opens the album, pressing their pricey headphones to their ears until cognitive dissonance finds genius patterns in the near silence.
Dream Theater certainly hasn't scaled back on its prog-fagginess. However, they've started coupling it with tough-guy metal affectations, which compound the hilarity exponentially. Occasional power grunts, blast beats and homoerotic promo shots notwithstanding, Dream Theater hasn't convincingly transformed into a metal act. For example, instead of taking a stand on important topics such as killer computers, homicidal maniacs, Satan's minions, and tiger rides, Dream Theater totally pisses itself about non-injurious car crashes, writer's block, and a benign foreign tour guide.
I prepared dual track-by-track reviews with the intention of pitting the albums against each other, but I stopped keeping score because it was such a fucking Dream Theater blowout, at least in the two primary categories: Wankiness Content and Fruitiness Quotient.
Track 1: The Mars Volta, "Since We've Been Wrong"
Octahedron recalls an experiment conducted by another Los Angeles annoyance, basketball jerk Kobe Bryant. When he was accused of ball-hoggery, Bryant refused to take a shot for an entire half. Perhaps The Mars Volta became so frustrated with criticism of their overbearing pseudo-virtuosity that they adapted the polar opposite approach, stubbornly releasing a collection nearly devoid of dynamics and rhythm. "What, you don't like pointless time changes, millions of superfluous notes, and long bird-noise interludes? Fuck you, plebeians, you're getting drumless ballads."
Thomas Pridgen doesn't appear until the five-minute mark. He sits out other songs entirely. This unlucky bastard thought he'd landed the drummer's dream gig, where he could just bang shit as fast and randomly as possible, and now he has to sit idly behind his ostentatious kit, listening to his bandmates harmonize like British dwarves.
Still, Pridgen fared better than "sound manipulator" Paul Hinojos and saxophonist Adrián Terrazas-González, who were dismissed from the group before the Octahedron sessions. (I encourage all rock bands to fire members with those job descriptions.) Presumably, Terrazas-González will take up residence on horn-section skid row, where members of '90s ska and swing bands perform muted-trumpet/sad-trombone symphonies about their own squalor.
"Since We've Been Wrong" isn't bad, but it's certainly pleasant, which for a Mars Volta elitist represents a fate worse than shittiness. There's nothing to "get" about this song. Even the lyrics aren't especially esoteric, from the ersatz pop title to the opening line "Do you remember how you wore that dress." Bixler-Zavala sings instead of scream-shouts, meaning he sounds more like an angelic choir-boy eunuch and less like a recent violent-castration victim. Even the most virulent Mars Volta detractors could probably sit through this lullaby and simply remark "eh" when it was over.
Track 1: Dream Theater, "A Nightmare to Remember"
Guitarist John Petrucci based "A Nightmare to Remember" on a car accident from his childhood, which apparently hit him "out of nowhere/without warning/like a bullet from the night." (Pity singer James LaBrie: Ventriloquist's dummies don't have lines this stupid stuffed into their mouths.) This insanely dramatic testament to a marginally upsetting event builds inexorably to drummer Mike Portnoy rapping in a monster voice: "It's a miracle he lived/It's a blessing no one died/By the grace of god above/Everyone survived." Then he bellows "RAHHRGHH" triumphantly, because nothing merits a ferocious metal roar quite like a religiously grateful account of a wreck that claimed no casualties.
Dream Theater defenders always say things like "don't worry about the words, just close your eyes and feel Petrucci's emotional solos." But for all the twiddling wizardry the group packs into a sixteen-minute frame, this fact remains immutable: The song is called "A Nightmare to Remember," and it's about being haunted forever by an accident that ultimately wasn't that big of a fucking deal. Also, the proper way to enjoy Dream Theater is not to ignore the lyrics, but to revel in their glorious retardation. And it's not like the music that's supposed to be so sacred is any less cheesy, especially when carnival organist Jordan Rudess starts playing one of his circus-monkey waltzes.