This album has a bit of history behind it. After the dramatic departure of drummer Mike Portnoy (I remember a similar reaction whenever the last pope died), the metal world was split. You either now loved Dream Theater or hated Dream Theater due to the decision of one band member. Personally I couldn't really care. Mike Portnoy is a brilliant drummer and yes he did bring a certain flair to the band, but change is always good, for better or for worse. So with the dramatic change, the band started the hunt for a drummer, in an almost Simon Cowell manner with auditions and videos showing the audition. Bit cheesy, but it seemed to be beneficial for the band as they where able to hire drum genius Mike Mangini to join the band.
Personally I think this change has done them for the better. Their last album “Black Clouds & Silver Linings” I personally saw as a bit of a mixed bag, and Portnoy's demanding influence seems to be the reason for some of the albums weakest moments. But now that his overt personality is not seen on this album, it is replaced with a more group effort. Sadly Mangini did not contribute any composition work on this album, but his drumming is still impressive nontheless
The only slight criticism I would have with this album is the production. I wasn't too fond of Portnoy's drum mixes on previous albums, but I fear that maybe the drums on this album have been turned down a tad too much. It is nice to hear the band become not so percussion heavy, but a slight turn up would be good. The guitar mixing I believe to be very muddy as well. There is something about Petrucci's tone on this album which I am not the biggest fan of. I would admit that this may be the best album to hear John Myung's bass, with some pretty impressive musical moments from the man himself. Jordan's keyboards have finally spruced up too, with less experimentation with new technology, approaching with a more classical approach on this album.
The opening track and Grammy nominated lead single “On The Backs Of Angels” is a pretty great opener. With some pretty kick ass riffs, it starts off the album on a good note. I was surprised to see this song get a Grammy nomination, with it being an 8 minute track, but these guys do pull of a pretty great prog metal track, with a lot more prog rock than metal.
My least favorite track on the album would have to be “Build Me Up, Break Me Down.” There are moments of the song I do like a lot, but at times it just sounds like a rip off of a Disturbed riff. The saving moment has to be James' crazy screams in the chorus.
“Lost Not Forgotten” starts off with a beautiful piano intro before exploding into one of the most technically efficient songs on the album. The instrumental section also has some pretty killer riffs too.
One of the album's ballads “This Is The Life” has some pretty great instrumental moments and arrangements. James' vocals on the song are also pretty great, showing off some very diverse moments too.
“Bridges In The Sky” is probably the heaviest track on the album. Using his 7 string, Petrucci really shows off some pretty kick ass riffs on this track. The chorus is also one of the strongest on the album too. The intro is a bit odd and silly, but the real meat and bones of the track is where the song really takes shape.
One of the most oddest compositions on the album has to be “Outcry.” Starting off as a rather anthemic rock track, the song moves into a rather eclectic instrumental section with a lot of experimentation with atonal and chromatic music moments. The song does take a while to get into, but it's impressive nontheless.
One of my personal favorite tracks has to be “Far From Heaven.” A beautiful piano and string arrangement, the song deals with the topic of forceful parents who work their children to the bone. Brilliant lyrics and a brilliant vocal performance from James, the song is rather touching.
The albums longest track and definite strongest moment on the album is the 12 minute epic “Breaking All Illusions.” Now I know that Dream Theater get a lot of abuse for showing too much virtuostic musical ability, but I think this song is an example of the band showing virtuostic talent, but still in a very musical and compositional manner.
The album's closing track “Beneath The Surface” is another ballad that displays some beautiful melodies. I do like the rather minimalist approach behind this song and shows that the band can tone it down to make something rather special. Odd but good way to end the album.
In conclusion, this is probably up there with one of my favorite Dream Theater albums. After having gone through certain difficult circumstances, the band where able to prove that they are very much still relevant. Whether that still holds up today, I'm not sure. But this album definitely proves that the band have still got it in them to take the crown of Prog Metal kings.
Genres: Progressive Metal, Progressive Rock, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Symphonic Rock, Symphonic Prog
Country of origin: USA
Year of release: 2011