Dream Theater (East-West)
PERFORMANCE: Opulent, ornate, over-the-top
HOT SPOTS: "Erotomania" "Lie" "Scarred"
BOTTOM LINE: Classic art-rock approach, but stressing melody over instrumental flash
Some critics complain that the problem with art rock is that it's too ornate, squandering its energy on needlessly complex instrumental passages. But not me. Personally, I don't mind elaborate arrangments of self-consciously virtuosic solos, as long as they actually take the music somewhere. That's one reason Awake is such an eye-opener. Despite the instrumental density packed into these songs, Dream Theater rarely comes across as showy or self-indulgent; instead, what the playing offers has less to do with displaying the Dreamers' technical skills than with developing the musical ideas within each tune. "Erotomania" is probably the most stunning example, a lengthy and involved instrumental workout that leaves plenty of room for guitarist John Petrucci to strut his stuff; yet it never loses the thematic thread, and it's hardly the only one of its kind. Although he gets off some blisteringly fast riffs in "Lie," the most exciting thing about Petrucci's contribution on this cut is the way he plays off the polyrhythmic punch of Mike Portnoy's drumming while stressing the melodic continuity that links "Lie" with "The Mirror" and "Lifting Shadows Off A Dream". Granted, the writing isn't always as dazzling as it is on those set-pieces ("Space-Dye Vest," in fact, is downright silly at times) and the recently departed Kevin Moore's fondness for analog keyboard sounds does get a tad retro at times, but on the whole, Awake is everything an art-rock album ought to be.