The spirit carries on with passionate lyrics and virtuoso musicianship.
New Dream Theater! Normally I would be excited. I will be the first to admit that although I have all of Dream Theater's albums and love their output overall, I did not have high hopes for this album at all. I guess the infighting of the band and the headlined shock loss of one Mr. Mike Portnoy had put a damper over the release of this album for many listeners, including myself. I wondered if it would sound too different and would it be too commercial, or worse, would the songs be medicore. Would it feature Rudess and Petrucci trading off incredible solos, with LaBrie crying out from his soul amazing vocals, and Myong hammering out pulsating basslines? Well, that is what Dream Theater usually do so it is an expectation they must always live up to if they do not want to alienate their huge fanbase. Finally would Mangini actually be able to live up to the high standard perpetrated by Portnoy. In this case I have to say a resounding no, in fact Mangini is quite pedestrian in his approach, though it is good enough the percussion does not shine through.
So it was with a degree of trepidation that I ventured into the unchartered waters of a Portnoy-less Dream Theater album. The first thing I noticed about the drums is that I did not notice the drums. This in fact shows what a great drummer Portnoy is as his rhythms and wild metrical shifts were one of the key features of the band. It took me a while to get used to it as it will for many listeners. On my initial listen to the album I was disappointed with the first 2 songs. There was nothing new on offer and it was a rather lacklustre feeling. By the time I reached the incredible Bridges in the Sky I was relieved that the DT magic was well and truly engrained on this album. Then after hearing Breaking All Illusions I knew I had experienced one of the most mindblowing tracks of the band's repertoire. This is a very personalised album with a lot of heart and it is also replete with a plethora of astonishing musicianship and instrumental virtuosity. So here are the tracks as I heard them.
On The Backs of Angels begins the album with a quiet interlude of acoustics setting the scene for the sombre textures and thematic content of the album which centres on loss of self and broken relationships, searching for direction and finding it. The tranquillity is soon followed by a blast of metal guitars, it is loud and layered with Rudess relentless keys. The lyrics are forcefully sung by LaBrie, evoking a sense of anger and remorse: "we spiral towards disaster, bleeding us to death the new American dream, you're blinded by your hunger beware your days are numbered" . The music is quite aggressive with Petrucci riffing solidly over a layer of keyboards and bass. After the words are heard "Leading me like a lamb to the slaughter" there is a lovely piano solo, followed by a lead break showcasing the skills of Petrucci. This song was the first one leaked online and it is fairly typical Dream Theater. Strong melodies and skilful musicianship with LaBrie sounding exactly as he does on the more recent albums. A good song for sure but there is nothing here that is outstanding.
The next track is Build me Up, Break me Down with a spacey effect intro then very dirty distorted guitars riffing. LaBrie's vocals are underplayed at first sounding phased. The build up to the chorus is melodic and sounds typical of what the band churns out regularly. It sounds dark with some pain ridden lyrics about falling apart, "I crash and burn, I never learn, I know more than obsession"; perhaps it is talking about a recent member who left? I particularly like the keyboard break on this, which is well executed. Overall this one grew on me, especially the vibe of dark emotional trauma provided by blasts of chilling keyboard and sustained pads, sounding almost electro industrial.
Lost Not Forgotten begins with rain falling, a storm that is interjected by very peaceful piano strains. Guitars crash in over the choral voice effects, the majestic feel is unmistakeable. The drums get faster building up pace to the verse. A metal chopping riff blocks everything out until Rudess is heard playing speed motifs on two keyboards. Eventually LaBrie sings phrases such as "I am not immortal, men have come to fear me, known across the desert I am known as the one who will not die, feared and respected living among the gods, leading the empire, spirit as black as coal, lost not forgotten king of the deathly soul." The riffs are excellent on this track and it is the most progressive song to this point on the album, though nothing like some tracks to follow. It sounded to me like an outtake from Black Clouds and Silver Linings, which is not a bad thing. Although I wanted to hear on this album something more adventurous for a band who has traversed this territory many times on previous albums. Eventually the band detour onto an adventure of soloing finesse. Admittedly this track features some of the best musicianship of the album but the song itself, verses and chorus, are rather forgettable and tuneless. The real drawcard is the structure with its detours and time sig shifts. As usual the band are incredible when allowed to release their talents into lengthy instrumental breaks where band members take turns almost out classing each other. Rudess and Petrucci trade off in true DT style and the overall effect is breathtaking. It is just a pity the actual song melody does not back up the amazing passages of guitar and keyboard.
This is the Life is a power ballad with tones of sadness that may be reflecting the sombre mood of losing Mike Portnoy over the past year, which must have affected the band deeply. It is the first of many times that LaBrie will sing in quiet reflection on the album. The pianos and acoustics are beautiful. The lyrics are about the hurt of losing someone who has lost their way: "When your souls turned inside out, have you questioned all the madness you invite what your life is all about, some of us choose to live gracefully, some can get caught in the maze, and lose their way home." This really sounds like it is sung about Portnoy although it is hidden as afar as actual meaning; "have you ever wished that you were someone else, trading places, what will they say after you've gone." The song will grow on you as all DT ballads tend to do. The feeling of dejection is also felt in the lead break, one of DT's most heartfelt songs no doubt. There are no death growls on this album, be assured of that.
Bridges in the Sky is the first track on the album that made me sit up and take notice as something truly outstanding. It features an unsettling Gothic chanting intro sounding like something from the cult scene in Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut'; very weird and off kilter. The time sig of the metal ferocity to follow is great, falling in and out of sync with the drums. This has one of the more interesting structures on the album. The riffs continue to chop with complex rhythmic meters. LaBrie sounds excellent with some of the more tantalising lyrics "whisper a word of truth, I trusted you, sun, come shine my way, make healing waters bury my pain, wind carry me home, the fabric of reality is tearing apart the piece of me that died, will return to live again, I will not go in the light until I pass thru the darkest caverns of my heart, dance with fire, spirit guiding the world outside, messenger of truth I trust in you transform me now". Some excellent instrumental finesse on display especially the Rudess keyboard solo trading off mith Petrucci's relentless guitar fingering patterns. He uses wah wah later and high screaming string bends that are exhilarating. The crunching staccato keyboards are classic Emerson like sounds. The trade offs even sound like the mystical Egyptian style at times reflecting the mystique of the lyrics, about the journey to the sky, calling on an ancient deity to take the hand of the protagonist. This one truly is a showpiece of the album and one of Dream Theater's best.
Outcry features very strong riffing with Rudess' keyboard flourishes. It begins with piano and weird echo effects reminding me of the industrial dark sounds on Gary Numan's "Pure". There is an ambience layered underneath and emotive power in the vocal performance of LaBrie "I hear the battlecry, bullets fall like water raining from the sky, my freedom has a price, the cost is buried in the ground". The music feels decidedly Middle Eastern, and the song maybe about the war on terrorism.
The really fractured time sig in the instrumental break is astonishing, with powerful breaks in the riffs and Rudess has an insane finger melting solo. Once again the music is incredibly skilful and complex, and this is where Dream Theater never let themselves down in their music. They are now stalwart genius musicians, and it seems they attempt to outdo past triumphs with these moments on this album. The break on this track is certainly as good as it gets for Dream Theater, and one can easily imagine how incredible this will sound in a live performance. The lengthy solo throws everything in with a passion that I wish other bands would adopt who go under the banner of prog metal. The chaos ceases for a moment here with a beautiful piano motif and LaBrie chimes in softly "you can walk the other way or you can face the light, although it seems so far away freedom is worth the fight". There is a kind of uprising against injustice injected in the lyrics with strong phrases such as "wait for the outcry, resistance is calling tonight" and "stand strong and unite, the world watches on while we risk our lives, as our children die". This is not the first time DT have used the lyrics to inflict some kind of anti-war message against political infraction or resolute determinism against the mistreatment of the innocence in war; Sacrificed Sons from "Octavarium" blatantly focussed on the 9/11 crisis.
Far From Heaven begins with gentle piano and softly crooned vocals. The lyrics may be telling the tale of losing Portnoy, either way there is melancholy at its deepest point here: no one truly has the answers, everyday I struggle through it once more, keep things bottled up never speaking words, messing up but I am doing just fine, every day I put a brave face on, I have done what you asked of me, coming undone way too high a price I should pay, you keep your pride while I die inside, everyday, no I can't lie anymore, won't pretend I've done all I can, you can't imagine the hell I'm going through." The song really exudes a sombreness I have rarely heard with DT, but it is nice to hear the soul and passion of the band. The melody is soul stirring and will perhaps be a fan favourite on the live stage to wave lighters to over the next years to come.
Breaking All Illusions has a killer riff that shifts in and out of rhythm and takes over the song, with sporadic drum patterns and very melodic keyboards. This is one of the more progressive tracks and it settles into Myung's quiet bass driven passage before LaBrie begins to sing quietly; "with the sun in place, new realities, singularities, breaking all illusions, changing my direction, live in the moment, breathe in a new beginning, wisdom revealed, as I unlock the key, life's biggest battles, my strength leads me home". Once again the lyrics are heartfelt and full of angst of changes and directions, perhaps the changes and direction of the band are being channelled. LaBrie has a bitter tone in his voice in places. There is a voice over narrative heard further augmenting the seriousness of the song content. The song changes direction too, with a very infectious little keyboard hook before it returns to the choppy chord structure. There is a Jethro Tull flute sound at one point, and some blues riffs, ELP Hammond sounds, then a power metal distorted riff locks in. The organic instrumental is fantastic and once again one of the best moments on the album. Petrucci launches into a scorching lead solo, with beautiful harmonies and arpeggios. The clean guitar sound balances perfectly afterwards, creating a dreamy ambient tranquil soundscape. The lead guitar solo then drifts into a peaceful beauty, followed with accomplished fret melting finger work and sweep picking. The melody is enhanced then by powerful guitar tones. Eventually the faster pace returns with a driving drum and bass under Rudess' and Petrucci's virtuoso playing. The band launch into full flight here and it is a joy to listen to it. This is why DT have become one of the most popular metal bands over recent years; they simply create mesmirising, brilliant music. When LaBrie returns with "Searching out, reaching in" the tracks has become so momentous that I am convinced that this is one of the high achievements of the band. The finale is bombastic but so powerful in its progressive execution that it is the fitting way to end this triumph. This 12 minute mini epic is astonishing and I would go as far as to suggest it is one of the top 10 DT songs of all time.
Beneath the Surface begins with a tap dripping, seamlessly from the previous masterpiece. There is a slow acoustic feel allowing room to breathe after the previous bedlam and LaBrie quietly sings about the sad subject of losing a loved one; "A shell of what could have been, sad to think I never knew you were searching for the words for the moment to emerge, yet the moment never came, you couldn't risk my fragile frame, until one day you stopped caring, and began to forget why I longed to be so close, I disappear into the darkness and the darkness turned to pain and never went away, until all that remained was buried deep beneath the surface". I like the moderate feel of the song, and it's melancholia enhanced by uplifting surges of keyboard and minimalism of acoustic. The balance of tension and release in the music is as emotionally charged as the lyrics. A nice ending to the album and one that may ring true for many listeners.
So at the end of the album I can comfortably rate this the full 5 stars. There is a certain degree of sadness and reflection in the lyrics and it may be the most emotionally charged album for the band in a very emotional year for them. The album delivers excellent prog metal by any standard and it does have some adventurous moments, with at least 4 tracks that are DT at their most outstanding. The album almost reaches the full 80 minutes and there is not a moment where it is not captivating. It grows on you like osmosis and after hearing it I am compelled to play it again and again. It is better than "Systematic Chaos", and although it is not as consistently heavy as "Black Clouds and Silver Linings", it is a pleasure to hear DT without death metal growls and malevolent lyrics so I actually prefer this new album. The lyrics are absolutely amazing in their honesty and really struck a chord with me, and I could hear in the album a certain thread of starting a new chapter, saying goodbye to the old and welcoming in the new era. There is a saying in the rock industry that you are only as good as your last album, and Dream Theater have proved with "A Dramatic Turn of Events" that the magic definitely remains; the spirit carries on.