Dream Theater is iconic, even outside the Progressive rock world. Now they attempt to carry on without their founding member, drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy.
It’s an honor to present James Bingham‘s review of the new record, aptly titled ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’, which comes out tomorrow. Once you read the review, you’ll understand why I’m so pleased to be presenting Mr. Bingham’s considerable insight and wit. Whether you are a long time fan of DT who remains skeptical about the new release, or you are simply someone who appreciates great music, or even if you just like a good story, I urge you to read on. And, without further ado:
Dream Theater has got something to prove. They – and a million other bands – will swear up and down that everything they do they do for the fans. And while that’s true to an extent, “A Dramatic Turn of Events” (and how dramatic they’ve been) has got to be about more. With the departure of Mike Portnoy – who’s arguably been running the band for some time now – Dream Theater has got to prove that it can hang tough, that it’s not going disappear into the ether along with Betamax, the new Coke and other obscurities people only reference in reviews like this.
So the gauntlet’s been laid down. Actually, it was laid down a year ago when Portnoy first announced he was leaving the band. Well, the album is finally upon us and now it’s time for some straight talk. Dream Theater delivered the goods. And not only that, they’ve delivered their strongest album since “Scenes from a Memory,” more than a decade ago. And the haters – true to their name – are going to hate that. “The band’s lost its soul! Portnoy was a founding member!” they scream, conveniently ignoring the fact that John Petrucci and John Myung are also founding members, and that James LaBrie’s been in the band for so long he might as well be grouped with the rest of them. Portnoy may have been the most active with the fans, but that doesn’t mean he was single-handedly writing the music.
But after only a single listen of this new album, it’s obvious he was pushing it very hard in a certain direction. And now that he’s gone, the band has returned to a fuller, warmer sound. It’s something that’s been missing for quite a while, and it’s not until you hear it again that you realize how much you missed it. There’s a lot to look out for, so I’d like to hit the highlights, what stuck out most to me in my first few listens.
The album opens with the new single “On the Backs of Angels,” which any fan worth their salt has listened to already, so we’ll skip ahead to the next track, “Build Me Up, Break Me Down.” If any track could be said to bridge the gap between the old Dream Theater and the new, this is it. With its electronic drumbeat intro and screaming chorus, this may be the album’s most “mainstream” track, although the sound is very distinctly Dream Theater. There’s a really great orchestral backup that builds to an eerie outro and the sound of galloping horses.
This is the beginning of “Lost Not Forgotten,” and the first time the band really comes together and shines. It kind of took me by surprise, because when I listened to the minute-long clip that was released a few weeks back, it sounded more like “Black Clouds & Silver Linings” than anything else; something a lot like “A Nightmare to Remember,” which is to say same old same old. And while the chorus is very driving, it picks you up and carries you along with it. The only word I can think of to describe it would be “soaring.” The song’s also got a very proggy breakdown in the middle – think the very best bits of “Octavarium” and “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” – before picking up that chorus again and taking us out.
Things slow down a bit with “This is the Life.” This song, “Far From Heaven” and “Beneath the Surface” I felt were all very much of a piece. Actually, you can separate the entire album between its down- and up-tempo tracks. And it seems like there’s just the right number of each. I think these slower songs will appeal to those who haven’t been too impressed with the band’s work in that arena these past few albums.
“Bridges in the Sky” goes slightly Tool in the beginning with a weird shaman-who-swallowed-a- didgeridoo-chanting intro. Dream Theater’s been writing music for close to 30 years that stylistically has all been very similar, so I won’t begrudge them going off the reservation a bit and doing something so weird. This song is kind of a microcosm for the entire album, in that it strikes just the right balance between hard and soft. We’ve got the driving double bass and hard guitar rhythms, which seamlessly move into these beautiful choruses.
“Outcry” is definitely ADTOE’s beat-you-over-the-head technical masterpiece, a song that’s really got it all. Syncopated rhythms. Crazy solos. You notice this with the lyrical sections throughout the entire album, but I think it’s especially true here: LaBrie’s solo projects have definitely rubbed off. There’s a very strong Leonardo vibe here, although this album possesses a warmth that album didn’t (which isn’t to say I didn’t dig it). As for the music, there’s so much crazy switching off between Petrucci, Rudess and Mangini that I can’t wait to see them pull this one off live.
For my money, “Breaking All Illusions” is the winner; this album’s “Learning to Live.” It’s also the first song John Myung has written lyrics to since “Fatal Tragedy” on “Scenes.” While “Lost Not Forgotten” and “Outcry” showcase some darker flavors, “Breaking All Illusions” hits the lighter side. There’s some great back and forth between the guitars and keyboards. The entire song has got a very strong YES and Marillion vibe, but it never feels like it’s wearing these inspirations on its sleeve. The whole things ends in typical DT fashion, very epic, lots of pounding drums. This particular song feels more like the end of a soundtrack than a rock album. But there’s still more to come.
The band has done something here they haven’t done since “Awake.” They reel things in and end the album with the much lighter “Beneath the Surface.” This one is like a ballad plus some with Jordan’s Moogy solo in the middle, a reminder that these guys take different musical styles and make them their own. It was kind of the perfect note to go out on, and displayed a quiet confidence that we really haven’t seen in a while.
So they did it. If we’re looking at the band post-“Scenes,” I loved “Octavarium,” but I LOVED this album. It’s bigger, it’s fuller, it takes the band in a new direction while paying homage to the old school Dream Theater we’ve all been eulogizing these past few years. And none of that is a knock against Mike Portnoy. He’s a great drummer, and with DT he accomplished great things. They made great music together and we’ll always have that. But I think it had just gotten to a point where he was holding them back. And if “A Dramatic Turn of Events” is the album they put out after he leaves, I wish he had left after “Octavarium.” It’s something I never thought I’d hear myself say, but as the saying goes the proof is in the pudding. Dream Theater’s epic, proggy pudding. We’ve heard them say for years that they thought the band’s best years were ahead of them, but we never really believed it. But after this, I have a feeling they may be right.