Before I start, I have a confession to make. Despite the respect that they have within the prog world, I have to admit that I’ve never listened to a note played by Dream Theater and, slightly less shocking, I’ve always skipped over articles about the band in magazines and books. Chiming with a recent theme in Prog magazine’s Paper Late column, it may be because my definition of prog has been until quite recently, rather narrow.
One good thing is that I was able to approach this review, for Rudess’ fifteenth solo outing, without any idea of what the music would be like, although it’s obvious that I’ve harboured preconceptions about the band he’s most associated with. Another thing on the plus side, I know that Rudess is admired by musician friends whose opinions I respect, one of whom, Sandro Amadei from Genoa’s Melting Clock, lent him his Kurzweil K2600 keyboard for a couple of performances organised by the Italian Dreamers (the Italian Dream Theater fan club) during a Rudess family holiday in Italy around the time of Feeding the Wheel. The K2600 still bears Rudess’ signature.
The album cover design neatly encapsulates the story behind the title track, an individual who accedes to becoming partially computerised and as his human self is reduced, he undergoes a procedure to upgrade his mental and physical capabilities. As a result he becomes increasingly separated from the outside world with his computerised portion performing the majority of his routine functions, allowing his mind to travel freely between madness and spiritual enlightenment.
In a nod to previous prog epics, the track is split into two parts with a total running time of over 34 minutes and maintains a high tempo throughout. Without any Dream Theater reference points I have struggled to draw comparisons but in terms of wild, creative conceptuality and sheer musical density it comes close to Patrick Moraz’s Story of i. It could easily have been dreamt up in 1974 and serves as a tribute to the 70’s progressive rock keyboard players who influenced Rudess, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson and Patrick Moraz included. Having never heard his playing before I had no idea how good Rudess was, with elegant rhapsodic piano, authentic Hammond organ tones, and sinuous synthesizer runs. The modern sounding keyboards remind me of Eddie Jobson’s work on the debut UK album and, when the rhythm section gets into a modern-jazz mood, like Dave Stewart on National Health’s swansong DS al coda. I’m not a huge fan of the lyrics but they serve the composition well and, delivered by Rudess himself (apart from guest female vocals from Marjana Semkina in the role of an angel and Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie at the climactic end to part 2), they are well sung. The track is heavy at times but there are sufficient strong melodies and tonal variation, almost all played at a frantic pace, to keep the listener interested. It goes without saying that his guest musicians are all of the highest calibre.
With Wired for Madness parts 1 and 2 taking up more than half of the album and close enough to being able to fill a single traditional LP on their own (think original progressivo Italiano LPs), the remaining tracks run the risk of acting as filler, though this isn’t really the case. Off the Ground is a straightforward pleasant, mellow, reflective piece, a welcome respite from the onslaught that’s just taken place, but Drop Twist once again picks up the pace following an early arcade game-like intro. It may not be prog as we know it but the short instrumental allows Rudess to show his chops. Perpetual Shrine could almost be Drop Twist part 2, but if anything it’s busier and funkier. It wouldn’t sound out of place if it was used as the theme music for an 80s TV detective series based somewhere in Florida...
The one track that feels to me to be there to make up the numbers is Just Can’t Win. I’m being unfair because I’m not a fan of the Blues, but it performs a similar function to ELP’s Tiger in a Spotlight, a moment of relief from the technical bombast but still a little self-indulgent. Here Rudess utilises the guitar talents of Joe Bonamassa and incorporates a full brass section; as a blues-rock song it can’t be denied that it pushes all the appropriate buttons. Just for Today is another reflective, slow-paced number but it includes sweeping cinematic strokes before it gives way to the jazzy Why I Dream where the vocal phrasing reminds me of Supersister or Jeff Berlin on Gradually Going Tornado.
Wired for Madness showcases Rudess’ excellent playing and I believe he’s pulled off something spectacular with the 34 minute title-track, an excess to rival anything from the 70s. It wasn’t nearly as heavy as I’d feared but covers the whole gamut of prog and prog-related styles, with melody, rather than riff taking the lead. Furthermore, the pacy compositions that bookend the recording makes it sound as though the whole writing, playing and recording was fun.
...Do I now have to listen to Dream Theater?