I was looking over my list of albums I’ve put together, and none of them were thrilling me. So I decided to bother chat about it. Like many people, I jump onto Twitch several times a week to watch my favorite streamer, and I’m active enough in chat that people are used to me being around. So I asked them what some of their most personally significant albums were. I got a ton of options, some I knew, some I don’t. I wrote them all down. But the streamer himself reminded me of Dream Theater! So here we are!
First, let me link you to Lvl 1 Chef. Here’s his Twitter. Here’s his Twitch. Aaand here’s his Instagram. Chef regaled us of how Dream Theater salved his wounded soul after a harsh break-up, and how he slowly came to realize Metropolis: Scenes from a Memory pt. 2 was a concept album. We know I’m all about concept albums. So go check out chef’s stream. He plays food-related games and, on Thursdays and Saturday afternoons, cooks! Learn about food chemistry, laugh as Chef hurts himself, enjoy yourself.
My own personal connection to Dream Theater isn’t nearly as dramatic. But I was, as you probably know, kind of an emo kid in high school. I didn’t know that word, but I was, sorta, that kid. My band director, who I have already mentioned in my Tull post, loaned me a copy of this album for a while. I listened the fuck out of this album. I can remember it very well. I had a big stereo up on top of my dresser. It was directly behind me as I sat at my computer desk. I would listen to this album while sitting there, reading the lyrics on sketchy web sites. Oh yeah. So it was a big deal at the time.
I still think it’s a great album, by the way. But I also know it’s not as unique as it felt back then. That doesn’t change that feeling in my memory, though.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Scene One: Regression
A hypnotist’s patter dims until we hear the speaker describing the sensations of entering these memories. We don’t yet know that the memories are past-life regression memories, as the language is vague and shadowy. Life is “on a screen,” and in scenes, highlighting the play-like presentation of the album. The song ends suddenly as Victoria appears.
5 of Wands
Fives are about struggle. The card isn’t indicating what’s happening in the song. It’s indicating, instead,the root of the problem that brought the speaker into the hypnotist’s office. The “safe place” is important, as the speaker does not feel safe. But the struggle is internal, specifically in the spirit of the speaker. We know, because we definitely all listened to this album before, right? We know that the speaker is meeting the person he was in a past life. And let me note, really quickly, that for the 90s, I feel like it was a hell of a thing for a male speaker to regress to a female life where he was the victim of domestic violence and murder. Daaang.
The song is gentling us into the album, which is about to go fucking crazy. So we’re about to experience the dramatic uproar the speaker feels.
Scene Two: Overture 1928
Suddenly somewhat militaristic, with the drums, and very groovy with the prog-rock guitars, this song isn’t totally violating the calm we have from last time. It’s chipping away at that feeling, instead. This piece is instrumental, befitting of an overture. Like the stage imagery from last time, this song returns us to the theater itself. We are being reminded that the show is about to begin, and we should take our seats. A few of the album’s leitmotifs appear here for the first time, unsurprisingly.
Judgement is a very strange card, and perhaps even stranger in this iteration. The skull face of the angel is foreboding, but also a bit silly? I feel like the angel looks like a monkey. I wonder if that’s because we are, you know. Monkeys. For our ancestor, the one that we all link back to, to return to earth and pass judgement on the living and the dead is a powerful image. The musical piece seems an odd fit until you think about your own position in the album: you’re the listener, the theater-goer. You will indeed pass judgement on the play. And, eventually, we will all pass judgement on the actors in the play and their actions, noble or horrible. The fact that the card comes so early may indicate that the album is playing fair, to some degree — this all happened in the past. The staging of the drama actually removes us from it to some small distance. We’re not divorced from what’s happening, but we’re not as totally impassioned by it as though we were watching something with no mediator, no distancing effect between story and viewer.
Think about the distance between us and the murder. It’s barely described; it happens in the past; barely anyone remembers it; the victim is voiceless; the new voice can only remember, at first, in hypnosis; we are listening to the hypnotism happen; we are watching the events on stage. The story keeps telescoping out, further and further from us. The characters live in a little stage, small and far away. We’re the angels watching from above, in this case.
Strange Deja Vu
The speaker is losing his shit a little. He’s haunted by the visions of his past life, now. The “Veil” has been parted by the hypnosis, and the past creeps back into the present through the speaker’s blindness. His familiarity with places he’s never been is creepy, and thrusts him forward. The song, too, hurtles us forward with its tempo. The speaker sees “a story never told” in the eyes of Victoria. There’s a sense, too, of imprisonment, and seeking this story is breaking the speaker free. The change in the song signals a change in the speaker, who is now trying to get back to his life. Everything is infected now.
Note the incidence of the album title: “Metropolis surrounds me.” Ultimately, this album is the story of a city, made up of the many stories of the people inside it, through time.
Here’s a quick break for a bit of theory: haunting is an eruption of the past into the present. We fear it because we want the past to stay “dead and buried.” However, we’re hopelessly drawn to it, because we want to know it remains. And, sometimes, we’re horrified to learn that the past never left. We’re still living in it, like puddles growing larger in a garden. We step in just the wrong direction and suddenly we’re plunged into the past. That’s what this song is showing.
8 of Wands
Acceleration. The card shows arrows flying. In this card they go up, into the sky. We don’t know where they came from or where they’re going. We only know they’re moving. The card is another wand, another card of the spirit. The song, as we said already, throws us forward into the thick of things. We are flying, or falling, into something. We’re not going to stop that motion. We’re not going to slow it down. And when we hit, we may break something. “The mirror” does, after all, “shatter the girl” here.
Through My Words
This song reminds us that Victoria is voiceless now, except for the speaker who has to speak for her. The speaker acknowledges the connection, here, and says that Victoria’s entire life is inside his, now. This won’t help him remember all the events of her life and death, but he sees that his life is shared. He is more than himself, now. This song sort of exemplifies the stories of people who tell other people’s stories. They are larger than themselves, because they contain all those other people We’re all like that, of course, but we don’t know how to see or admit it. That’s probably the reason why past life regression is so popular an idea — not only does it promise us that death is not the end, it also promises us that we are not alone on a deep, spiritual level. We are many. We are in this together, even if it’s almost impossible to see.
8 of Pentacles
The hammer and coins here are, traditionally, seen as a craftsman practicing their trade. This card boils it down to the tools and the products. We are the craftsman, we assume. The speaker, in this song, is doing the work, “digging the ditch.” He’s creating the practical connections between himself and Victoria, so the rest of the story can come out. The “etching” in the song is that her story is etched in him, and the card indicates that he’s etching things out now as well. He’s telling the story. The story, which has been trying to get out for generations, is finally breaking free. But it’s hard work. It’s not just a thunderclap and a vision of a beautiful, wan ghost. It’s late nights in the mirror, questioning identity, thinking through the metaphysics of the thing, and what role is in this mess for the speaker.
Did you know we’re already up to 1500 words? If you’ve listened to the album before, you may be very disappointed that I’m ending things here. But that just means we’ll start off with a big bang on Monday!
So far we’ve seen the subtle connections linking these two people — as well as the connections between all of us, which I would hazard to say now is one of the major themes of the album.