I first started listening to Dream Theater with A Change Of Seasons – back then the albums weren’t released locally here in Australia, so we had to pay huge prices for imports – and I immediately had that feeling of ‘This is the band I always wished existed!’ My brother and I soon went back and checked out Images And Words and Awake and I was blown away by the scope of the music, the intensity of the performances, the creativity of the arrangements and the depth of the lyrics. It took a long time for Dream Theater to finally tour Australia (0n the Chaos In Motion tour) and this brief run of two Australian dates was only their third ever tour down here, and first with Mike Mangini behind the kit. Read More …
When Mike Portnoy quit Dream Theater a year ago, it could have been a disaster for the band. Instead they went into audition mode, recruiting former Extreme/Steve Vai drummer Mike Mangini to record A Dramatic Turn Of Events. The new album is classic Dream Theater, with odd time signatures, clever arrangements, genre-hopping, long instrumental sections and plenty of shred. Mangini proves he’s the perfect man for the job, and the entire band sounds energised and inspired by the new, more democratic approach to composition. It’s their most varied and creative work since 1999’s Scenes From A Memory.
The first impression I had of this album was “This reminds me of something. What is it? Oh! Dream Theater!” It really brings back the things I really loved about the Images & Words era.
Cool! We were definitely conscious to look at our goals for the new album and really talk to each other beforehand. I had a lot of conversations with Jordan (Rudess, keys) about the compositional direction, and trying to hone in on the elements that make the band special in our eyes. We had a conversation with James (LaBrie) about where we wanted to take the vocals melodically, and conversations with John Myung (bass) not only about the album but each song. We had a very focused general outlook of the entire writing process. And not only that but as a producer what it was going to sound like when it was all said and done. So that probably helped keep it in that direction.
You remember the episode of Futurama when Professor Farnsworth genetically engineered a bunch of albino shouting gorillas to loudly proclaim his love for Mom from the rooftops?
Or that time on American Dad that Roger discovered Chocodiles? (“By the way, Hayley, oh my God, these Chocodiles, these Chocodiles, Hayley, oh my God, these Chocodiles, oh my God!”)
Or the time Homer Simpson tried the limited edition Ribwich and went all Requiem For A Dream on us?
That’s kinda how I feel about the new Dream Theater album.
This was never going to be an easy album for Dream Theater. Sure, they’ve endured member departures before (Charlie Dominici, Kevin Moore, Derek Sherinian), but nobody ever – ever – thought Mike Portnoy would leave the band. The appointment of Mike Mangini (Extreme, Steve Vai) to the drum chair met with the instant approval of the vast, vast majority of Dream Theater fans. Their approval was validated by the release of the track “On The Backs Of Angels” and a series of European live appearances over the last few months. But what of the full album? Well as you can guess from my aforementioned reaction, it’s something pretty special.
Imagine that the Dream Theater of Images & Words broke up right after that album came out, took a couple of decades off, then got back together with a few different members. That’s sort of what A Dramatic Turn Of Events sounds like. I say ‘sort of’ because there are also elements of other Dream Theater eras here – the warmth of Scenes From A Memory, the clear mix of Falling Into Infinity – but the sense of adventurousness, of kitchen-sinkedness, and of passion for musical experimentation is very much akin to that 1992 classic. Hell, there are even parts where Jordan Rudess’s keyboard sound and approach recall original member Kevin Moore’s work to an almost eerie degree. I’m not sure if that is by design or if it’s just that those sounds and parts were the best foil for the riffage, but either way, there it is. Meanwhile, John Petrucci’s guitar sounds big and warm, while John Myung’s bass is always very hearable. James LaBrie mostly holds back on the aggressive metal voice that characterised his work on albums like Awake and Train Of Thought and his brilliant Static Impulse solo album, and the vocal production features various doublings and effects used for texture and colour.
And then there’s Mangini.
Just like Mike Portnoy before him, Mike Mangini is the perfect drummer for Dream Theater – although unlike Portnoy, Mangini seems to fit into a slightly different corner of the groove compared to Portnoy. While his predecessor seemed to like playing behind the beat while orchestrating unique and very composition-y drum parts in their own right – Mangini’s playing is more tightly bound to the rest of the band. There are several points where you can hear him basically assign a different instrument to each limb, then play a part that accentuates each of them in a different way. It’s intriguing because there are times where his playing blends in so well that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but when you do zero in on it, you discover some pretty incredible stuff going on .
The material here is generally more hooky than the material of the last decade or so. Whereas recent albums have leaned towards more metal, A Dramatic Turn Of Events holds back on the aggression until it’s absolutely called for. In its place is more keyboard orchestration, more melody, more intricacy and more lightness. The first track released, “On The Backs Of Angels,” is indicative of only part of the album’s personality. It doesn’t hint at the melodicism of “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” or the all-out progressive tour de force of “Lost, Not Forgotten” or “Outcry.” It doesn’t clue you in to the huge “Bridges In The Sky” chorus – an album highlight which was cleverly left off the short preview of the song released recently. Nor does it give away the dynamics of “Breaking All Illusions,” where Dream Theater brings it right down in a similar but deeper manner to “Trial Of Tears” from Falling Into Infinity.
There were many ways Dream Theater could have gone with this album. Their more metal-based direction of the past decade could have carried them through another album, but A Dramatic Turn Of Events really feels like the right choice. Dream Theater is a progressive rock band again, who use elements of many different musical styles – including metal – in getting their point across. Petrucci and particularly Rudess sound more at home and perhaps more fulfilled creatively on this material than they have in a long, long time. And the fans are gonna love it.
A Dramatic Turn Of Events is released on September 9 in Australia and September 13 in the US, via Roadrunner. Read my interview with John Petrucci here.