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Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events – a review by Eddie Mack

December 14, 2011

NOTE: For this review, I’m going to borrow the review format from a different blog.

tl;dr Version: DT is dead. Long Live DT.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: If you thought Dream Theater were in trouble without Mike Portnoy, you might still have a point, but you’d have trouble arguing that they can’t make a fine record without him at the helm.

Boring Version: In 2010, after the fairly successful triple CD studio release, Black Clouds and Silver Linings, a shock went through the prog metal community when they learned that, after twenty-five years, master drummer and guiding force Mike Portnoy had left Dream Theater, and many people were convinced that the story would grind to a sad halt if he weren’t still in the fold. Some worried that Mike would never get decent work again, which is patent nonsense, as he’s currently in two top-notch super groups and working on numerous other side projects, proving the old adage that a change is as good as a rest.

And as for Dream Theater, well, there weren’t too many people that thought DT couldn’t continue without Mike, but I think the general consensus was that they’d have trouble replacing everything that Mike brought to the table, and that the gaps would be noticeable. Truly, the man is a force to be reckoned with, but with the addition of Mike Mangini, one department is covered, in that Mike’s chops and playing have filled the breach admirably. Musically, they haven’t lost their ability to pull together their disparate influences and create fascinating instrumentals and catchy melodies to hang them on.

And their public presence, though perhaps not quite as coherent and amiable, has increased to fill the gap that MP left in his wake. Posts from Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci are at least as ubiquitous as Mike’s ever were, though he maintains his own presence online, which has a funny way of demonstrating the difference between their communication styles. Jordan is project oriented and John is definitely a gearhead, so their status updates and such aren’t quite as personal as Mike’s. I imagine this will change with time.

I’d also hoped to hear more from John Myung, which I have to confess I may have missed. And it will be nice to hear more from Mike Mangini, whose interview segments in the audition videos were the highlight of the series. One person I must confess to not being interested in hearing from is James LaBrie, which is probably doing him a disservice. Somehow, every comment I’ve ever read or heard from him gives me the feeling that he’s someone I wouldn’t get along with, which is unfortunate, because he is an awesome vocalist whose skills I deeply respect and admire.

The storytelling aspects of the album have become perhaps a little more pedestrian in subject matter—if vampires and angels can be called pedestrian—but the lyrics and especially the music are as solid and evocative as they’ve ever been.

Musically, they sound just like the best moments of Dream Theater, perhaps even moreso than on their previous album, which was to my mind a deliberate attempt to draw together all of their sounds and styles onto one album, a formula that served them best on Octavarium, an album I still love just a little too much. What? Don’t look at me like that.

I’d say the one thing that bothers me about the album is that it sounds just a little too much like Dream Theater, which isn’t much of an indictment given that’s who they are, and nobody really wanted them to sound like somebody else. What I must confess is, I was hoping for perhaps a few more surprises. However, that’s just going on surface impressions with this album. There are little stylistic shifts here and there, and particularly in the production stages, it’s a very fresh, rich sounding album, which happily lacks the one element I had truly never enjoyed; the throat screaming of nu metal fame.

Now, let’s look at the songs themselves:

On The Backs of Angels opens with a lovely guitar figure complimented by some keys and a smattering of effects and bass notes, with hints of percussion, but over all, it doesn’t start to feel like a song until the keys and drums come in, which takes us right back to Images and Words without actually quoting the opening of Pull Me Under. It’s just that it sounds like Pull Me Under pt II, which isn’t such a bad place to start an album if you want to consolidate your stance as the band that made all of that music. The lyrics don’t start until 2:30 minutes in, and the song relentlessly draws together those Iron Maiden-meets-Saga chops that were ever-repsent on Images and Words. The vocals are actually a bit more polished, but certainly as brooding, and the percussive keys are a nice nod to Kevin Moore. The piano intro to the instrumental gives us something of the feel of A Change of Seasons, which of course was also from that early period. So basically, this song is prototypical DT, and though it doesn’t move the goal posts anywhere new, it certainly reestablishes their claim to the legacy of the band, with or without MP.

Build me Up, Break Me Down opens with the slightly affected indsutrial tone of a NIN number that quickly turns into Tool or Korn with synth strings, but with that insistent Trent Reznor rhythm buried just below the surface throughout the verse, which only disappears during the sweeping DT-style chorus and the slightly more modern DT bridge. James essays his own take on throat screaming, which is much less guttural and more histrionic, but perhaps far more effective and certainly more appropriate to the style of their music than I ever thought MP’s take was. Thick strings end the piece on an almost Mellotron note, which I find a nice transition to…

Lost Not Forgotten, which opens with desert sands and horses retreating, followed by a piano figure that reminds us of motifs from Metropolis pt II, and then the sky opens up and the motif actually gets stronger, like a mini overture to Metropolis Pt III, only, you know, not. Because it’s not. Just so you know. The guitars and keys and bass chasing each other around before the main crunchy guitar riff kicks in is a nice touch. Then the lyric arrives, and we’re definitely not in Metropolis pt III, because they have a a new story, which I’m still trying to figure out. It sounds like they’ve taken a page from Maiden’s playbook for fantasy storytelling, although with more of an Arabian Nights sensibility, which is reflected in some of the little Middle Eastern figures that creep in here and there. However, to these ears, it’s Metropolis pt III, and I’m sticking to that. There’s a really nice bit of business with the keyboard solo that sounds just a little bit like Sherinian’s contributions to Falling Into Infinity or A Change of Seasons, as well.

This Is The Life opens with a short guitar riff that sounds like it was written for piano and then transposed, and then it quickly lands on a more traditional DT opener, that quickly retreats back to, you guessed it, that same opening figure, now played on piano, and soon joined by a rather pastoral DT in Kansas mode. It gives James a chance to do that breathy thing with his ballad performances that probably hasn’t been heard from enough in recent albums. It’s a rather lovely piece over all, and I’m having trouble placing what it reminds me of most. Perhaps it feels most like Queensryche’s Silent Lucidity, though saying that might give you the wrong impression. The point is, it’s a rather elegiac number with some really nice lyrics that would probably sound more natural at the end of a concept album.

Bridges In The Sky opens with a rather rude, didgeridoo-sounding yawp noise and some effects and percussion that give way to a rather Gregorian-sounding mass choir, which ends with the same throaty primitive noise, and finally goes into a very thrashy figure straight off of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence or perhaps Train of Thought. I suffer from that particular disease that makes it difficult for me to appreciate the thrashy elements as much as I like the progressive elements of prog metal. The chorus is certainly huge enough, and James sounds great here doubled in that way we heard a lot of on Metropolis II. Basically, except for the thrash figure, it just sounds like huge DT with perhaps a few too many banks of keyboard pads, but the instrumental is nice, and slips into those middle eastern scales that made Metropolis II so much more exotic. They go into something closer to a Deep Purple vibe, interspersed with the middle eastern scales, and then return to that massive chorus, and head thrash their way to the finish line, with that barbaric yawp noise ending the piece.

Outcry opens with a bit of a NIN vibe as well, just before the huge metal orchestra falls out of the sky, like something off of the latest Europe album, which to my ears was them proving they liked what DT had done. However, keeping it from being just a wall of guitars, they return to the NIN feel, with a number of interesting instrument effects we haven’t really heard from the band before leading to the verse. There is a second part in here that slows to a Pink Floyd pace, only sounding nothing like Floyd. This would be, to my ears, the most tonally adventurous number so far on the album, but they hedge their bets with a lot of DT-standard wall of sound tropes, the peculiar effects being more of a diversion from the standard sounds. More Middle Eastern scales in the instrumental section. These never get old for me, so that’s not a put-down. Some Zappaesque structures to the second part of the instrumental, which is a nice touch, given that I’ve mostly associated the Zappa influence to MP. The third pass instrumental section has some slightly Mahavishnu Orchestra touches, though it’s probably also fair to say there’s some Dixie Dregs in there. The fourth pass—a bridge, really—is very much a smooth jazz instrumental with piano and John Myung’s bass featured, and then it slips into a vocal section. Once more dipping into the DT catalogue of huge verse riffs, and a bridge section that feels a little bit like post-Gabriel era Genesis on steroids, which proves to be the end of the number.

Far From Heaven is a short interlude that opens with a very pretty piece of relaxed piano chording and some cello, and then James slips in with another one of his seemingly effortless ballad vocals. Live strings make this song sound incredibly romantic. Previous efforts in this genre have usually sounded a little derivative of Elton John or the like, but this is rather pleasantly devoid of obvious finger prints. It’s not impossible to find an influence, but it’s mostly just a rather lovely song with strings and piano.

Breaking All Illusions picks up the pace with a rather progressive sounding opening that has all the tonal character of Blue Oyster Cult playing in a time signature they probably couldn’t handle. It leads into a rather peculiar, muted verse making full use of Myung’s bass and LaBrie’s heavily effected voice, interspliced with some movie sample or other that I can’t identify, giving it a Kevin Moore-Awake feel, and another of those huge major/minor key chorus sections that leads rapidly into a very choppy bridge piece with vocals in a funny time signature I’ll need to listen to more carefully to count out properly. The huge chorus returns, and then a a rather fascinating instrumental with splashes of medieval music, metal, hammond, Rush into Yes from two separate eras, a section that sounds a bit like King Crimson in quiet mode, and then a bluesy jazz guitar solo like something from David Gilmour or Carlos Santana, and finally returning to DT-land via Trevor Rabin. Russian scales now! Whee! The next bit, still playing in that slightly Russian tonality, uses those keyboard sounds that take us back to Metropolis again. Basically, this piece is very, very busy, and the chorus is huge without being too sweet. Bridge to the end, big finish, and what do you mean that’s not the end of the album?

Beneath The Surface opens with a dripping tap and then strings and acoustic guitar introduce a very lovely ballad, James in full effect, and the hook, which makes me think this must have been written by John Myung, the master of these sorts of huge minor key pop melodies. I could be wrong there, but man, does it ever have that Myung touch. You can understand why they saved this until last. It’s perhaps a bit too pretty to be anywhere else on the album without getting lost. Jordan breaks out (what my ear says is) an Arp Odyssey sound for a brief instrumental passage, and then James’ voice doubles for a bridge that leads to just him and the guitar. Whoops, James goes high, and the strings return. This number is just gorgeous from front to back. What a lovely closer.

Well, that’s that for the songs. Just leaves me a few minutes to sum up. This is probably the most accessible album they’ve written since Falling Into Infinity, and like that album, they don’t shy away from the crunchy, progressive moments, so much as let the soft side of DT show through here and there. It’s still not their most adventurous album, but then, that really wasn’t in the cards for this album at any rate. This album was about consolidation.

The closest antecedent I can think of is A Trick of the Tail, by Genesis shortly after Peter Gabriel left and the press was writing eulogies for the band. This is DT’s Trick of the Tail, and while it may sound like a plus-perfect version of your favourite DT moments, it’s not quite as derivative as it first seems. More importantly, it gets better with repeated listenings, which is an important ingredient for any album in my collection these days.

I hope some part of my review was helpful to you. Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.


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