Once upon a time, there was a decade called the 90’s. During it, or so the legend goes, culture was preoccupied with the breaking down of things, with stark realization that the world which past generations had been promised would not come to be. In the east, the hazy dream of Sovietism, always tinged with the darkness of reality, had just collapsed. In the west, war and economic distress was the rule of the day. In music, all of this was expressed in song. Grunge, nu metal, death metal, harsh noise, dark rap and more were all birthed in the cultural fires which made the 90’s go.
Progressive metal, often deemed a “brighter” genre by forgetful generations comparing it to today’s heavier arrangements, was also informed by these trends. It dealt mostly with mental breakdown and disease, social disaffection or escapism, preferring the technicality and promise of musical alchemy to the realities of current music. Thus, we have Falling Into Infinity. What was to be Dream Theater‘s break-away moment, their capitalization on the name they had made themselves with previous releases, ended up as a failure, commercially and critically. While the band’s opinion has always been unclear, with some voices lauding it while others claimed malicious influence and pressure from the label, it is certain that the fans reacted badly to some of the more approachable tracks.
But if you look at the album with the lenses of hindsight, a whole different picture might be revealed unto you. If you’re willing to put aside your judgmentalism, it becomes easy to be enamored by this album, honest and naive while also so, so dark. I want to say: Falling Into Infinity is a classic 90’s creation, containing a lot of the themes, penchants and sounds of that fabled decade. Not only that, it also contains plenty of Dream Theater’s future ideas and sounds, instruments that will win them their ultimate fame and crowning place in the halls of progressive metal.
As always, it is best to start at the beginning. “New Millennium” first seems like a simple track, especially when compared to some of the more ambitious passages on their previous releases. However, if one listens carefully, it is possible to extract some passages that will be familiar to those with a sharp ear and an understanding of the band. They are trapped moments, caught in transition between Awake and Scenes From A Memory. Even though Sherinian left, he was integral in bridging the gap between Moore and Rudess, setting in motion the change that would overtake the role of keys in Dream Theater’s ensemble.
Beyond that, the overall feeling of optimism mixed with fear, the expectation of a “coming age” (proven later to be meaningless, in the events of September 11th), the overall feel which moves between progressive rock influences and the arena rock of the 80’s, are all classically 90’s. Viewed under this auspice, the track becomes something more than just a relatively unimpressive opener, supposedly meant to set the wider audiences this album was marketed for at ease. Instead, it becomes a mood setter, a weaver of what comes later. The rest will be a moving pendulum, a seeker caught between the goal posts set by these, the opening notes.
And, indeed, the album is steeped in this dark sort of optimism. While the album mostly focuses on more difficult and depressing themes, including suicide, abuse, societal indifference and political/religious violence, it handles these subject with power and verve instead of a sinking mood. This allows the album to say interesting things, as did the entire decade, locked in the facade of light and dark, powered by a childish naivete which believes all can be fought for. Take the closing track for example, “Trial of Tears”.
Personally, this is one of my all time favorite Dream Theater tracks. It’s expansive and complex without being overly complex, made up of movements that correspond to easy to recognize and yet organically constructed parts. It utilizes the full range of skills that Dream Theater have always been known for wielding: from the emotional, super cheesy opening lines, to the amazing synth/guitar/drum lines of the middle passages, all the way to the “lighter” final passages, it’s Dream Theater through and through. The keyboard solo which heralds in these final passages is further testament to my point about Sherinian from before; you can’t really imagine Moore playing such a solo, while the influences on Rudess is pretty clear.
But beyond all of these, and especially within the last parts, you find the thematic duality which, perhaps slightly shallowly, I have claimed guides this albums and the larger cultural milieu within which it was spawned. It begins with the classical 90’s imagination of the wasteland, the never-ending plain of destruction. Whether in The Matrix or here, it is a direct response to urban sprawl, decay and the beginning of widespread awareness to climate change. It paints a somber and depressing scene, both on a global and a personal scale. But, right after it, the powers of the individual are reinforced, bringing him from out of the wasteland, through his own powers, and into somewhere else (perhaps heaven or New York City at most):
I continue to move along
Cultivating my own nonsense
Welcome to the wasteland
Where you’ll find ashes, nothing but ashes
Bringing change, bringing movement,
A silent prayer thrown away,
Disappearing in the air
Rising, sinking, raining deep inside me
Nowhere to turn,
I look for a way back home
It’s raining, raining, raining deep in heaven”
Is there triumph? Not quite. After all, there is nowhere to turn and the prayer is silent and disappears. But has our protagonist given up? Has he given into the despair which will infect post-millennium music? In Dream Theater’s later works (think Train of Thought up to Black Clouds and Silver Linings) these moments of pessimistic optimism are rarer and rare. That’s not accident; this outlook on life would fade as the 90’s worked themselves out, as we emerged into a post 9/11 world where everything was over and history had stopped. But here, in these beautiful, stark passages, there was still a fire which burned all the brighter for it being surrounded by shadows and cold.
In the course of our inquiry, we have left a whole album in between our markers. This is no accident; nothing encapsulates the 90’s better for me than two dualities set in stone, creating tension and meaning between them. Which is not to say there’s nothing important in between them; on the contrary, that’s where the whole album lies. It articulates, explores and reiterates on these ideas in the places in between, in the nooks and crannies of a band not yet mythological, still exploring the ideas and sounds which make them their own. They did all of this in the weird winter/summer of the 90’s, in a cultural climate which has gone and shall not return again ere the stars are that much older. But when it existed, it created truly brilliant things, emotional tapestries and oddities. Like this album, a unique and sometimes off putting chrysalis where a future band would come to be.