Breaking all illusions
Dream Theater is a band that needs to introduction. They are the single most popular progressive metal band in the industry, selling millions upon millions of records and playing shows to thousands of die-hard fans. They almost single-handedly forged the path of one of the most prosperous genres in modern progressive rock. They have some of the most dedicated fans of any band as well as some of the most dedicated haters of any band. They’re signature sound can be heard from miles away and has been imitated by countless bands. Their mix of “melody, metal, and prog” has become the standard for near all prog metal bands in their echelon, and the band’s incredible amount of virtuosity has made them gods among technical-loving musicians everywhere. However, the past year has been the most tumultuous time in the band’s entire history. Dream Theater has had its share of “drama.” In 1994-95, the band’s first keyboardist Kevin Moore left the band, and lead singer James LaBrie ruptured his vocal chords due to a food poisoning incident, all right before the band’s second world tour. In the band’s 2010-11 season, however, something eternally more shocking occurred - DT’s driving force and founding member Mike Portnoy announced his departure from the band. Of course, this created an upheaval of reactions from the band’s legions of fans, and much discussion, bittering, and outright arguing occurred between the fans. The band had decided to continue on as a band, which was contrary to what Portnoy had wanted. So, the band stayed in secrecy about their new drummer, announcing they had gone back to the studio in January, and that their new album was to be titled A Dramatic Turn of Events (an aptly, but perhaps a bit too aptly, titled title), before announcing in April of 2011, near 6 months after Portnoy had left, that legendary drummer Mike Mangini, former holder of the fastest single stroke player (over 1200 hits in a minute) was the band’s new drummer. They also announced in documentary form that they had auditioned 7 drummers: Mangini, Virgil Donati, Aquiles Prester, Marco Minnemann, Thomas Lang, Peter Wildoer, and Derek Roddy. In June, the band excitedly released their first single off the new album, “On the Backs of Angels,” which displayed a less metal-dense and very typical progressive Dream Theater sound, which, for the most part, excited fans. The progressive world then patiently waited until September 13 (or, for some, a wee bit earlier due to some less than legal activities) for the release of the band’s new album.
The 77 minute album was a treat for most. The band seemed, despite popular belief, to still be able to write music without Mike Portnoy. In some cases, it seems Portnoy’s insistence on metal seems to have lightened a bit, as there are more ballads and more of a balance between the guitar, keys, and bass (I’ll get to the drums later). Although the metal aspect of the music is still very much present, it seems the album has a heavier emphasis on progressiveness and melody, rather than simply riffs, riffs and more riffs. Rudess and Myung both seem to be much more present (Myung especially) on this album as well, giving a more dynamic approach then just Petrucci’s constant dominance over the music. The entire album is brimming with signature Dream Theater songs - with Rudess’ interesting use of silly keyboard voices, Petrucci’s virtuoso riffing and soloing, and now Mangini’s mechanical and precise drumming, it seems this is the band’s true return to form, and easily the band’s best since 2005’s Octavarium.
Now I’m well known around these parts as a massive Dream Theater fanboy, and that really any opinion of a new Dream Theater album will be slightly skewed based on nearly every prog fan’s natural bias towards the band, good or bad. However, despite my undying love of this band, my opinion of the album seems to have evened out after eleven or so listens. My first listen was skewed by an excitement-high that had me nearly writing a perfect 5 star review. I stopped myself, though. My second listen wasn’t as grand. I seemed to think the album was just another Octavarium with a little Images and Words mixed in; good but nothing special. However, with the third, fourth, fifth, and so on listens, I began to hear the little bits of true greatness the band seemed to have baked into the album. The metal tracks were aggressive, epic, and progressive. The ballads were sincere, intimate, and well played. The longer tracks were arranged well, although not as well as they once were (arrangement was Portnoy’s strong suit). The instrumentation was spot on, with Petrucci’s solos as good as they’ve ever been. Myung’s bass lines are masterful and also, amazingly, audible (at least with a subwoofer :-P). The lyrics weren’t anything to write home about, but they were typical to Dream Theater - seemingly political, ambiguous, and with an overuse of the words “soul” or “life.” Not every song is perfect, with the second track “Build me up, Break me Down” seeming like a cheesy James LaBrie solo career ripoff radio attempt, which seriously drags the album down. Mangini’s drumming seems to have been forced to take the back seat in the mix, which is a daunting contrast to Portnoy’s ever-present drumming in former mixes. LaBrie’s singing, which is usually a sore spot amongst fans and haters alike, is wonderful on the album, and he does an excellent job especially on the album’s 3 ballads.
Each track on the album seems to have a little something special to it, even the lesser ones of the album. The opener, “On the Backs of Angels” is the cozy song for fans, a kind of “hey, we’re still Dream Theater!” that retains the band’s classic sound in a very traditional and signature way. The track is a fantastic showcase of Rudess’ skill, with a great keyboard part really shining in the song. “Build me Up, Break me Down” is easily the weakest song on the album, yet still has a distinct quality to it. It is the album’s “radio friendly” song, although it’s quite the traditional metal song; it is similar to Systematic Chaos’s “Constant Motion” in its intent, methinks. “Lost not Forgotten” is the album’s first “long song,” clocking in at around 10 minutes. Lyrically, it is about the fallen kingdom of Persia, and musically, it’s just as epic as that ancient kingdom. Vast, emotive, and powerful, it is certainly a high point on the album. It is followed by the first ballad on the album, the emotional and moving “This is the Life,” which has a potent dynamic of near-AOR-esque guitar riffing and truly beautiful piano and vocal work. It is easily one of the band’s better ballads in their discography, and it adds a really nice touch to the album. “Bridges in the Sky,” originally titled The Shaman’s Trance, is the second 11 minute epic of the album, which is full of interesting dynamics, intense riffs, and very strong instrumental and vocal performances. It features a classic Dream Theater instrumental section, with precision synchronization, Petrucci/Rudess switch off solos, and an overall incredible virtuoso show-off session. “Outcry” follows suit with “Bridges…,” with an 11 minute length and an epic dynamic metal Dream Theater-fest. Much in the same way of “Bridges…,” it features an epic instrumental section, full of technical mayhem and progressive epicness. “Far From Heaven” is by far the most melancholic song on the album. It features tender vocals by LaBrie, emotive piano work from Rudess, and a very well placed string quartet. “Breaking All Illusions” is the album’s true epic, clocking in at over 12 minutes, and containing all that the album has been building up to. Epic riffing, intense instrumentation, powerful vocals, and even very well written lyrics by none other than John Myung make this easily the best song on the album and a treat for all progressive metal fans. The album finally ends with the guitar-led ballad “Beneath the Surface,” which has a very similar approach to “Far From Heaven,” except in a major key. The song is uplifting and calming, with the subtle strings and Petrucci’s laid back guitar work meshing beautifully with LaBrie’s vocals. It ends the joy ride of an album on a truly spectacular note, wrapping the entire album up in a pretty plush blanket that makes you feel all nice and fuzzy on the inside. Overall, the album has its ups and downs, but it certainly makes for a wonderfully enjoyable roller coaster.
Although this may seem like an over-long and verbose description of how I love this album, I think there’s a little bit of reason behind my 1600+ word review. It has been established time and time again that Dream Theater seems to be in a slump in their creative careers. Needless to say the last few albums have simply been decent, average modern Dream Theater material, with nothing truly outstanding about it. Post-Scenes From a Memory, Dream Theater seemed to be going downhill, and downhill fast. However, it seems that perhaps they have turned their noses up slightly. The album is the band’s true return to form in my opinion. Vast, dynamic progressive metal that’s not drowning in metal riffs but rather floating on a sea of well-developed and carefully chosen riffs is truly what makes up this album. It’s sad that it took a truly dramatic turn of events such as their drummer’s departure for the band to wake up and produce such a masterful album such as A Dramatic Turn of Events. I believe this is the best thing Dream Theater has created in the past 6 years. 4+ stars.