In a time when most bands have stopped trying, Dream Theater continues to challenge themselves. Simply put, no band has Dream Theater’s bombastic musical audacity…at least, no band with signed with a major record company. After nearly breaking up following the stressful recording of Falling Into Infinity, the band managed to convince their label to let them produce the record they wanted all along. As a result, the band has made their finest work.Extrapolating the saga of Images And Words’ “Metropolis Pt.1″ is the stunning concept album Scenes From A Memory, an epic suite divided into twelve parts. The original concept was delightfully obscure and nebulous…almost mythical. The band has taken the concept and fleshed out the core ideas, producing a slightly generic two-act murder mystery. Lyrically, the album sometimes comes across flat. Judging from earlier albums, we know Dream Theater can shine lyrically, but given the story approach, their diction is straightforward, generally lacking the profundity of their earlier lyrical work. In terms of writing, this is no Operation: Mindcrime. Nonetheless, the tale is reasonably compelling, with a striking revelatory moment when the listener unravels the mystery of the plot. Despite the prosaic style of writing, between the plot, story, and music, it’s barely a fault.Musically, the band seems to be going all out. The album begins with a tepid acoustic number “Regression” but then floors the listener with the stunning instrumental “Overture 1928.” From there, the album’s 77 minutes of music covers plenty of ground, from heartfelt piano ballads to eastern chord progressions, from furious assaults of shredding to orchestral sections and a gospel choir. All the musicians make an impression, particularly on the insane instrumental, “The Dance of Eternity.” This frenetic six-minute flurry of notes that changes time signatures every bar (with weird stuff like 19/16 and 15/8), swaps between piano and guitar leads, stuns with a mind-boggling bass solo, and a seamlessly incorporates a ragtime piano section. (Fans with keen ears will even pick up a section from Metropolis Pt.1 played backwards.) Scenes From A Memory does an outstanding job establishing musical cohesion by intermittently using familiar riffs, both from this record and Metropolis Pt.1. This is an important artistic choice as it forms continuity, and it is done with notable success here.Special mention goes to Jordan Rudess, the band’s new keyboardist, recruited after Petrucci and Portnoy worked with him on Liquid Tension Experiment. Whereas most keyboardists (in progmetal) do little other than offer a string synth and occasional solo to support the guitar, Rudess is the most original keyboardist around…he shares the spotlight with the guitar rather often. He exacts a the perfect tone during solos (it almost sounds like guitar), which eliminates the “cheese” sound often attributed to the instrument. He employs sitar samples, genuine sounding orchestral synths, stunning piano, and other quirky sounds (like this strange trumpet thing on “Beyond This Life”). His technical brilliance is superlative…seriously one of the best keyboardists on the planet. The album enjoins a gamut of emotional reactions from the listener. Particularly distinct are the emotions in the respectively heartbreaking and joyful ballads “Through Her Eyes” and “The Spirits Carries On” as well as the underscored anger and hopelessness in “Home” and “Finally Free.” This is mainly attributable to vocalist James LaBrie’s emotive performance. Compared to his earlier works, his vocals here are less high-key but very refined and expressive. I get uncontrollable chills whenever he sings the final section of “Through Her Eyes,” or The Miracle’s sinister soliloquy during “Home.”Finally, I will quickly address the accusation that Dream Theater cares more about showing off than writing good songs. This is absolutely untrue. As a metal band, they can be intense, but a solid melodic element is intact. Their solos are not masturbatory; they inject the songs with a high-point of emotion or intensity. Even moments of striking dissonance prove to be engaging.I think it’s understood by now that I regard this album with reams of deference. It’s completely awesome. Buy it…it’s astonishing.