Picking a masterpiece

I’ve formed a band with some of my friends – none of us are particularly good at playing anything, but we’re keen and want to have fun. Discussing what songs we should learn to play, we discovered that there is very little overlap in our musical tastes (as mentioned before).

One guy is into progressive rock, and recommended an album to another guy who was interested. The second guy came back a few days later and said, “Wow, that album is great!” The first guy said, “Yes, I call it a masterpiece.” The second guy said, “Yes… I agree. It is a masterpiece.” Then there was some discussion over how does one recognise a “masterpiece”, and could someone who has no prior knowledge in the field recognise a work as a masterpiece? They came up with a hypothetical experiment: Give someone who knows nothing about progressive rock a copy of this album, and another prog rock album, and see if they can pick which one is the masterpiece.

And so a real experiment was born. I know virtually nothing about progressive rock, so I volunteered to be the lab rat. The guys discussed together and selected a second progressive rock album, which is generally acknowledged to be good, but not a masterpiece. They ripped the tracks off both albums, anonymised the files, and gave them to me. I was to listen to them, make notes, and declare which one I thought was the masterpiece.

Album 1, as it was called, had 12 tracks. Album 2 had 5 tracks. That was all I knew about them. I didn’t know the artists, the album names, or the track names. I played both albums through once, and then on a second listen I took notes. Here’s what I thought.

Album 1

1.1 Starts with clock ticks and a voice over. There’s an obvious conceit that this is a voice leading you into a relaxing state of mind and journey to follow. Fades into an acoustic guitar with a catchy tune leading into the vocal “Hello Victoria, so good to see you, my friend.”

1.2 Segue to a piercing drum beat that leads to heavy guitars. This song seems to be an instrumental prelude leading up to something.

1.3 Vocals return. It’s a little difficult listening to the words, because the guitars seem to be competing – it’s a bit like those songs with two different vocals going on at the same time, layered over the top of each other, only here one of the “vocals” competing for attention is the guitar. Interesting rhyme of “mirror” with “clearer”! Not really sure what this song is about, if anything.

1.4 Brief interlude with vocals over softer piano. This is soft and gentle.

1.5 Segue straight into this track, which starts with piano but builds into heavy guitars. Vocals talk more about “Victoria”. The pace builds. It’s a bit hard to listen to this, it’s so dense and heavily layered – I need to turn the volume down. Ends with voice over saying, “Now is the time to see how you died.”

1.6 Straight into a thumping fast bit of music, interspersed with processed vocals and then a chorus. The lyrics seems to be about something to do with murder or suicide or something death-related – can’t quite follow it. It’s becoming clear there is an overall theme of death and that this whole album is some sort of journey into your own subconscious feelings about death or something like that. I think this “Victoria” person got murdered. There’s a sudden transition from heavy fast music to gentler ballad-like pace and more lyrical vocals. This ramps back up to louder and more rapid music that seems to develop slowly. There’s some interesting horns near the end. It seems like all of this album is a collection of meaningful bits of lyrics strung out with connecting bits of music that serve mostly to show off the guitars and drums. Like a big, long song with lots of extended instrumental solos.

1.7 Starts with soft soul-like female vocal over an organ-like background, plus some guitar solo bits. Leads into gentle music with lyrics telling about the tragedy, presumably of Victoria, and how it affects the singer.

1.8 Indian feel, sitar-like. Switch to more heavy guitar and drums with competing vocals. There seems to be no real point to the Indian interlude. Hard to follow the lyrics. I hear “Victoria” in there, and something about being called back home, but can’t understand much of the meaning. The Indian feel returns briefly. Song has a nice ending – it feels complete when done.

1.9 Extended instrumental intro with several different instruments interrupting the guitars, including a honky-tonk piano bit! It all sounds a bit like an overture or entr’acte for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, like Cats. It feels very much like an entr’acte, actually, including the placement after the previous track. It feels vibrant and energetic.

1.10 Softer music with vocal again talking about the tragedy of Victoria. Builds up to louder, denser ending.

1.11 Starts with a lament about life and death, vocal over piano. Builds on the theme of all that went before. Comes to an uplifting conclusion about the spirit living on. It feels now that the previous tracks were some sort of dark journey echoing Orpheus’ descent into Hell, which now come back into the light. “Victoria’s real, I finally feel at peace with the girl in my dreams.” Builds to an almost gospel feel with backing female choir as the singer affirms he no longer fears death because his spirit will live on.

1.12 Waking up again with the voice over. “Open your eyes, Nicholas.” This is mysterious – who is Nicholas? Am I supposed to know who Victoria is with this revelation that I am Nicholas? A car drives off into a thunderstorm. Something about a crime and blood on my hands… am I actually the one who killed Victoria?? Gunshots and screams. Is this song undoing, or putting a whole new context on all that went before? Leads to a heavy grinding guitar and drum section, reminiscent of the ending of I Want You (She’s so Heavy) from The Beatles’ Abbey Road. It trails off into the sound effect of it being played over a tinny radio, leading into sound effects of someone getting out fo a car and walking into a house, hearing a TV broadcast about some “tragedy”, switching it off and getting a drink. A horn piece begins, voice says, “Open your eyes, Nicholas”, there is a brief male scream, then static to the end of the album. I don’t get it.

Overall: I like the story-like bits, where the vocals are actually distinct and telling the story of what’s happening. It’s weird – I’m not sure what to make of it all together. It’s clear there is a single story to the album, but I’m not sure what that story is. It seems to be an uplifting story of coming to terms with death, but that’s all turned around and made creepy and disturbing by the last track. If the album ended after track 11, I’d be left happy. Listening to track 12 leaves me feeling weirded out and depressed. It’s like Revolution #9 tacked on to the end of what would otherwise be a half decent album.

Album 2

2.1 Heavily processed vocals. About all I can make out is “21st century schizoid man”. Drum rhythms are interesting. The guitar is very dense. Seem to be some horns of some sort.

2.2 Complete change in mood and tempo. Opens sounding like a slowed-down Beatles ballad, with a flute.

2.3 Another slow starter. The vocals all seem to be placed in the background so you deliberately don’t listen to the words. Has a bit of a country ballad feel.

2.4 The slow Beatles-esque feel continues. It’s a bit Strawberry Fields. Interesting tuned percussion on something like a tubular bell. It devolves into a very quiet central passage with almost ambient dribs and drabs of notes and percussion interspersed with short silences. You kind of forget you’re listening to music in the middle. Segues back with a military drum rhythm overlaid with a sort of Spanish guitar feel that evolves into something else.

2.5 Vocals return, continuing the evolution with a south-western US feel. The vocals finally come to front stage – a story about the “court of the Crimson King”. The guitars and percussion are interesting, but at one stage overlaid with an annoying high-pitched electronic beeping that sounds like a truck backing up – I wish it would just stop already – thankfully it does after a while. This song seems the most compelling so far, in that I’m actually interested to listen to the lyrics. Song ends very abruptly – the sound just vanishes, and I had to check iTunes to see if that was the end of the song or just a quiet section with more to come. Not particularly satisfying.

Overall: I didn’t get any sense of thematic continuity to the songs beyond the slightly psychedelic instrumentation in the slow sections. I didn’t detect any melodic progression – I don’t know if there’s supposed to be any. I really didn’t like this album much. I don’t think I’d ever listen to it again voluntarily.

Comparison: Album 1 clearly wins on the basis of thematic continuity. It feels like it’s laying out a story with some sort of progression. Album 2 seems like five random songs that don’t really say anything. I also liked the music, the guitars and drums and other instrumentation, on album 1 better. Album 1 had more intelligible and compelling vocals. I might actually listen to album 1 again, whereas I wouldn’t listen to album 2 again. Both albums had a lot of very dense, heavily layered instruments that made for very hard listening. My ears needed some relief from the wall of loud sound. A little bit at a time with softer interludes would be okay, but the loud bits were very long.

Masterpiece? Unprompted, I would not call either of these albums a “masterpiece”. Given the prior knowledge that other people had labelled one of them a masterpiece, I’d say it must definitely be album 1. I can see that the thematic structure of the lyrics might lead someone to think it was a distinctly more compelling piece of work than album 2. I didn’t really see that reflected in the music itself though. If you took the lyrics away or replaced them all with words that meant something else, making each song about something different, I’m not sure you’d see any strong structure in album 1 over album 2. So I’m a bit meh on the whole idea of it being a masterpiece.

4 Responses to “Picking a masterpiece”

  1. Jhonatan Carreira says:

    Do you know the name of the album 2? I recognized that album 1 is “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” by Dream Theater but I don’t know anything about the other.

    Great post! Thanks from Brazil.

  2. A very interesting experiment! I can recognize both albums from your descriptions, but I’m not certain which one is being set up as being the masterpiece… I wonder if it was a little unfair to have you comparing 2 albums which were recorded about 30 years apart? Album 2 was a trailblazer, an absolutely key milestone in the development of the progressive genre, and a lot of people regard it as a masterpiece based on its tremendous historical significance. But in many ways it has been surpassed in the following forty-mumble years, how could it not have been? Then again Album 1 isn’t even my favourite album by that band, so I don’t know if masterpiece is the appropriate term there either. Musical judgement can be so subjective!

    (For what it’s worth, I didn’t have a clue what Album 1’s story was about when I first listened to it either. I only got a clear picture of what was going on when I listened in conjunction with reading the liner notes, which supply extra information about which character is speaking at any given time, the timeline of events etc.)

    PS. To you and your progressive-loving friend, I do recommend the band Unitopia (and especially their albums Artificial and The Garden) – and they’re Australians so you may even get chance to see them live some time.

  3. Geoff Bailey says:

    Jhonatan: Googling for the phrase that DMM mentioned in the first track makes it pretty clear that Album 2 is In the Court of the Crimson King.

  4. Jhonatan says:

    Geoff Bailey: thank you. =)

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