Issue 2011-039: Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: On The Back Of Angels (8:42), Build Me Break Me Down (6:59), Lost Not Forgiven (10:11), This Is The Life (6:57), Bridges In The Sky (11:01), Outcry (11:24), Far From Heaven (3:56), Breaking All Illusions (12:25), Beneath The Surface (5:26)
Dave Baird's Review
Previously on Dream Theater: Entering the new millennium on the back of their critically acclaimed Scenes From A Memory and having new kid, Jordan Rudess, behind the keys, the future looks rosy for Dream Theater. The subsequent release, Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, goes down pretty well, but falls short of their best and the following releases, while showing occasional glimpses of form fail to deliver. The band are proclaimed by many to be in a creative rut, but despite this their popularity increases year-on-year. A bombshell is dropped in September 2010 with the departure of drummer Mike Portnoy. After a well publicised audition process, Mike Mangini is chosen to replace Portnoy. The new CD is already written before Mangini is on-board, he records his parts, the track On The Backs Of Angels is released as a teaser and the band embark on a festival tour of Europe. Mangini wows the band and fans alike with his warm, funny and humble persona combined with amazing percussion skills. The world waits the release of the new CD and the tension reaches fever-pitch on the forums…
So just where did Dream Theater lose the plot? Images & Words, Awake and Scenes From A Memory, are pretty much universally agreed to be their best releases, all classics in their own right dating from the 90's. What made them so special, other than the innovation at the time, was the band's ability to write music that delivered very pleasing melodies combed with jaw-dropping technical instrumental passages, all positioned in well constructed tracks with good lyrics and a certain vibe. Where they failed through most of the 2000's was they lost the melody and too often descend into a metallic mess. Some proclaim they were too self-indulgent with their instrumental sections, but I don't agree with that. Much of Dream Theater is about instrumental wankery, it's their core product, but certainly these instrumentals tended to become predictable, rather flat and one-dimensional, with all too often the bass and keyboards just doubling the guitars; they also tended to seem like they'd been thrown into songs for the sake of it. Mike Portnoy's backing vocals also used to make me cringe and they seemed to be taking over, plus his AA song cycle was boring and tired already after the second installment. A lot of people complain that James doesn't sing the way he used to, John Myung can't be heard and doesn't write songs any more, and Jordan's keyboards just don't fit the music (including myself for the some of these points).
If I may quote myself from the review of Black Clouds & Silver Linings: "However, with the exception of Best Of Times and The Count Of Tuscany there are precious little new ideas. Yes of course the musicianship is top-drawer and the production is decent enough, but on many levels it fails to excite."
Since the split of Portnoy from the band there has been a LOT of internet discussion and quite some interviews from Petrucci and Rudess. On the whole these have been very respectful of Mike (as they should, he's one amazing drummer and worked so hard to help get the band where it is), but it became clear when you patch the comments together that perhaps Portnoy was himself at least partially the source of the creative rut. Portnoy, by his own admission suffers from OCD, and this was clearly manifesting in the band, with Mike having final say in nearly all fronts, including the music itself. Seems that even John Myung and Mike were not even talking any more, and certainly Myung was not inclined to bring any music to the Dream Theater table, a crying shame as his compositions and lyrics are beloved by the fans. So could it be that Portnoy's departure will not only give the band a kick in the pants it needed, but remove the root cause at the same time?
On the evidence of A Dramatic Turn Of Events, one has to say yes (sorry Mike). The album delivers on all levels and is easily their best since Scenes From A Memory, for me it's sitting there with the three classics. All Dream Theater albums create an initial excitement and I've found myself getting very excited only for the album to fade very quickly - Systematic Chaos for instance I scored highly on release, but have rarely listened too since… So it's easy to get carried away with the novelty factor and very difficult to be objective about band you love so much. However in this case I'm lucky to have had the album since early July, so plenty of time to discover it's discrepancies and to get bored with it; there are none and I haven't, and that's listening to it two or three times every day.
Most reading this will have heard On The Backs Of Angels from the YouTube release. This song opens the album and immediately sets the tone of the CD. Although it's pure Dream Theater, and perhaps nothing so new, it's suffused with a vibrancy and intent that has been missing for a long time. The general web discussion was that it sounds a lot like Pull Me Under and I totally agree, in fact the vast majority of the album has an Images & Words vibe about it. People complained about the production, well don't worry, that was just the YouTube quality, the production of the album and the mix is superb. Yes the drums are a bit quieter than we are used to for Dream Theater, but listening back to some recent CD's they're definitely too loud, so now we have a better balance. Many commented that Jordan's keys sound fresh and more in context with the rest of the music, they are. People have hailed James' singing and shouted from the roof-tops "I can hear Myung", it was a big success, but the most amazing thing is that this is one of the weaker tracks on the CD. Yes, this absolute gem is one of the tracks I skip when I have limited listening time!
Second one that I sometimes jump past is Build Me Up, Break Me Down. This song is much more like recent Dream Theater with heavy riffage on the guitar and it's the track I personally like the least. What does mitigate it a little are the keyboards; Jordan's choir/strings are an absolute killer with an epic, wide cinematic feel. Let's be clear now, if these two tracks were on any of the previous five studio albums they'd be amongst the best, but it's all relative isn't it and this time they're the bottom of the pile. Lost But Not Forgotten is where things really kick-off and this track is nothing quite like we've heard before from the band. The cinematic feel continues, Jordan opening with a classic II - V - I romantic piano chord progression. Does this sound familiar? Yes indeed, it's used all over the place, particularly in film music. This sequence underpins the whole track which has quite some Under A Glass Moon feeling to it in places and treats us to the first instrumental madness of the album. James is just outstanding on this track here and the melody is so infectious, will be a great sing-along for the crowds on tour.
This Is The Life is the first of three ballads on the album, well a ballad on steroids I'd say. This is my personal favourite track on the album and a many will likely draw some parallels with Another Day, however it's much grander and more anthemic than that. Petrucci's guitar tone is just to die for; smooth as silk and soaring above the other instruments without dominating. James is just fabulous once again using his breathy voice for much of the track. We haven't often heard this on Dream Theater recordings of recent times, but he uses it quite a bit on his solo CD's and it sounds great. In fact one big feature of James' singing on this CD is the variation he's used on his voice. Respect again to Jordan, his keys are just perfect once again. The sounds he's used, especially the choir/string patches sound so fresh, it's totally different from anything we've heard from him before. Seems much of this may be down the the production and mixing process, as he told me when I interviewed him "they survived the mix this time". This track uplifts me every time I hear it.
Jordan's there once again at the beginning of Bridges In The Sky. With Tuvan throat singing and Gregorian chant choir, it's really lush, although no-doubt it will horrify some and spawn pages of discussion (I've already seen the track being referred to as "Belches in the Sky" on a certain forum…). It's perhaps the least manic of the longer tracks - there are some instrumental sections, but they're more riffing than noodling, and there's a strong chuggy groove underpinning long sections. It's another sing-along chorus, with one melodic hook that sounds like it's straight off Root Of All Evil ("The piece of me that died will return to live again"). A little surprise too as Jordan gets his organ out, it's been a long time and it sounds great. Outcry features more keyboard soundscapes and at times sounds an awful lot like IQ. Lyrically this appears to be about the popular uprisings in The Middle East and North Africa. This is perhaps the most technical track on the album, rivalling in places The Dance Of Eternity. It's going to be a monster for them to play live for sure as the instrumental mid section is, for want of a better word, mental. It more than just musical mayhem though, it's interesting, textured and varied rather than wankery for the sake of it. Super stuff!
Far From Heaven is without doubt the most stripped-down track that Dream Theater have ever recorded and perhaps the shortest too, clocking in under four minutes. It's just Jordan on piano and string section plus James. A beautiful little song with rather dark lyrics and a nice interlude from the longer pieces. I think it's worth noting that they could have easily chosen to tag in a big guitar solo in the middle and pad the song out, they didn't and that's perhaps says a lot more about Dream Theater today than anything else - they've *thought* about things and made good choices. Breaking All Illusions is an absolute classic, grown men will weep when they hear this, it's very evocative of Learning To Live. Not a copy you understand, just in overall feel. Of course it was also written by John Myung and it's just so damn good that I'm amazed it's not my personal top pick of the album, I just like This Is The Life so much. So difficult to describe this track as it's so varied and the highlights are too many. The second verse for instance: Petrucci's guitar phrasing is just phenomenal, James' voice is well, has it ever been better? Myung's holding down a killer groove baseline and the track has hardly begun. The track changes direction multiple times, but never sounds contrived. It's jam-packed with fabulous melodies, the vocal line "Searching out, reaching in" gets you deep inside, it's Dream Theater at their very best as we haven't heard them for a long, long time. Jordan even manages to get his weird little keyboard snippets in, hell there's even a disco funk-beat for a few bars, but you know what, it works! This track is a real ride, it's everything we were waiting for and more, if there were ever a Dream Theater track that will be loved by 100% of the fans then this must surely be the one.
Which brings us to the closer, and another mild ballad, Beneath The Surface with once again darker lyrics. It's another track for James to shine, but Pertrucci puts in a really nice 12-string acoustic guitar accompaniment. Very tasteful string section again from Jordan, but I do think his Moog solo is mixed way too loud - it's very tastefully done and all that, but comes in a bit too loud.
Now who didn't I mention, well a certain Mike "Genie" Mangini. Of course the whole album was written before he came on-board with Petrucci programming some drum tracks to use a place-holders. Genie was given full artistic license to do as he pleased within the confines of what was written and he's done a fantastic job, but he's acted as a bit of a session musician for this release. As the drums aren't as prominent in the mix as previous albums they're less in your face and of course the style is quite different from Portnoy. A deeper listening reveals a lot of detail that's not immediately obvious. Mangini's a fine polyrhythmist (does that word exist?) and he's able to keep the beat and track different instruments at the same time, very clever, they don't call him "Genie" for nothing. He's clearly going to form one hell of a rhythm section with Myung, there are moments when the whole things just grooves like hell.
A Dramatic Turn of Events is the best Dream Theater album since the 90's - they've just done everything right. The songs are well written and obviously a lot of thought has gone into the structure, what to include and perhaps importantly what to exclude. Everyone seems at the top of their game, Jordan is perhaps the star of the album for me, his keyboards are so tasteful and apt for every song and he's creating a lot of atmosphere. Close second would be James as his voice is the best I've ever heard it - apparently he was able to record his vocals in his own studio and in his own way, this has paid big dividends, he shines throughout. Petrucci's guitar work is phenomenal with a lot of great melodic playing; on top of this he's produced the album, and together with Andy Wallace's mixing has produced the best sounding Dream Theater record since Awake, all the instruments can be clearly heard even during the most complex passages and there a wide expansive feel throughout, very refreshing. Myung is mega too, and by hell, we can hear him clearly. Mangini is mentioned above.
This album is going to go down really well with the fans and I believe it will bring a lot of people on-board too. Personally I'm really interested to see what the next album will be like with Mangini's influence taken into account. Despite this album being superb, it must have been mostly written during a time of great stress and uncertainty. It's difficult to understand how happy Dream Theater are now, I've seen them live and they're totally stoked-up. I've spoken with Jordan, (read the interview here) and he's almost pinching himself every day to make sure he's not dreaming, things are going that well. I really can't pick faults with this album, it's been making me smile for two months now, but how to score it? My emotional reaction is to award a 10, but when I apply some logic and compare, for instance to Scenes From a Memory, would I say it's a better album? Probably not, but only by a whisker; we'll need a few years to pass to give a true reflection. I'm also of the opinion that Dream Theater have another masterpiece in them yet to come. With the positive influence of Mangini yet to manifest in the writing process I'm going to keep that 10 in my pocket, hopefully for their next release.
Never-the-less, a true 9.5...
John O'Boyle's Review
So 2011 see the release of a new Dream Theater album called A Dramatic Turn Of Events that has caused quite a stir within certain circles. Unless you have been living under a rock or in a coma for the last few months you will be well aware that the band now has a new drummer, a fine man who goes by the name of Mike Mangini. Dream Theater isn’t averse to having new band members as they have had several keyboard players as well as vocalists. The surprise or not, was the exiting of founding member Mike Portnoy, but that is a whole other story for another day. To be perfectly honest whoever the band chose to fill the vacant seat would have been of a high standard, the importance is how they gelled with the band.
Mike Mangini isn’t a stranger to some of the members of Dream Theater as he’s already recorded with James LaBrie on the Elements Of Persuasion as well as Mullmuzzler 1 and Mullmuzzler 2. If you aren’t familiar with the guy or his work then it is certainly worth spending sometime doing so.
As a reviewer I’ve had the opportunity to be able to really digest the album prior to its official release, (it’s a hard job but someone’s got to do it), which has really allowed me to really get to grips with it.
Right, now that has been taken care of, lets get down to the real business. The band has presented nine songs here that have been written without the input of Mike, which makes perfect sense; what they have done though is given him free reign to stamp his drum technique and style all over the album, which also makes perfect sense.
Studio album number eleven, wow I can remember buying When Dream And Day Unite on import when it was first released which started my love affair with the band which has led to a rather large collection of recordings which includes all the offshoots and solo stuff, sad but true.
This was a perfect opportunity for the band to opt to reinvent themselves musically, but that is not a path they chose. Quite cleverly what they have done is taken all the best aspects of the band and presented a very rewarding album, although it’s not immediate. I was slightly at odds within myself when I first heard it, but that was probably due to pre-empting what it should sound like, with what it actuality really sounded like.
Something strange happened as I worked with the album, the more I listened and became familiar with the songs I actually found myself turning the volume up which only heightened the experience even more and to be honest listening to Dream Theater is an experience.
The opening salvo that is On The Back Of Angels is just inspirational, a stunning start to what has turned out to be another absolute classic Dream Theater album. John Petrucci’s guitar tones are recognisable making their grand entrance to a very fitting song, you really couldn’t really ask for much more. The rest of the band complies adding those signature approaches that are just filled with amazing sonic structures, pre requisites that make the band what they are. You can really hear the new vitality within the band as they work their way through the piece. Eloquence is the order of the day, succinctly drawing the listener in, with each chord and solo. There is a balance of old mixed in with the new, layered dynamic and rhythmic approaches married with some really nice lead guitar and keyboard breaks that just bounce around with some very fitting vocal presentations from James LaBrie, that sets the goal posts for the rest of the album.
Build Me Break Me Down see’s an interesting approach, James LaBrie really gets chance to exercise is vocals, whilst Mark Mangini really delivers on the percussions, a perfect companion to John Myung’s often overlooked bass offerings. The whole piece is a powerhouse, a myriad of musical approaches that all enhance each other, majestic semblance that long term fans will lap up. Tonally it is heavier in places but the repeating chorus and cinematic keyboard work really breaks the piece up that fittingly segues into Lost Not Forgiven. The opening piano chords of Jordan Rudess are divine, played out emotionally, before the entrance of the rest of the guys, who turn the heat up moving into convoluted and tight rhythmic passages. James LaBrie menacingly offers the opening line “I am not immortal, I am just a man” almost an understatement of what is delivered. Greater pretenders have tried to create songs like this; it only seems that Dream Theater can, repeatedly. Time signatures are akimbo as are the almost comedically presented interjections of Rudess’ keyboards, the fitting gesture he brought the band. Petrucci provides some stunning frenzied solo’s that musically communicate to the listener as Rudess replies. Its approach and interaction is in the vein of Ytse Jam, intricate, showcasing the dexterity of the band, not that they require to do this, but hey it wouldn’t be Dream Theater if they didn’t.
This Is The Life is a beautiful ballad, LaBrie questioningly offering thoughtful queries and statements. The sedate approach makes it an instant classic seeing the band delving back to the approach that was first used on the Images And Words album and has been used successfully several times since. This is not regurgitation of older work, but a new offering that one would imagine will become a staple part of their set live. The crescendo guitar solo passages just gradually wrap their tones around you, emotionally lodging its tones into the cerebral cortex playing a key role in grabbing your attention, pulsing that neural synapse, creating a feeling of euphoria.
Hands up who would have thought that they would have heard the tones of Mongolian throat singing on a Dream Theater album? Vocals that are made deep in the throat so several notes come out at once, (the technique used here is called the rocky mountain call if I’m not mistaken). Never one to side step complexity and challenging scores, the opening of Bridges In The Sky is an almost spiritual experience, a path it follows even when the band steps up a gear. The repeating musical passages, the wall of sonics that are presented are woven by musical craftsmanship par excellence, laying the foundations for another excellent classic.
The lyrical content is rather intriguing too, allowing the listener to make of it what they will, which includes some nice Eastern sounding interludes.
“The fabric of reality is tearing apart the piece of me that died will return to live again”
“Alas the time has come to unite again as one to the power of the earth I’m calling”.
Sonically Outcry floods the room with wave after wave of sonic assaults, a fitting follow on from Bridges In The Sky that capitalises on the mood of the moment, a statement of grandeur. Again all the signature trademark sounds are here, more importantly LaBrie’s vocals never strain whilst delivering memorable likes such as “like freedom has a price the cost is buried in the ground” something that is very noticeable throughout the whole album.
Ballad time appears in the form of Far From Heaven LaBrie works in conjunction with Rudess, an emotional soundstage that is as emotive as it is powerful, a perfect pairing with some really fine orchestration, a song that is just built on exquisite, delicate and ingenious precision.
Breaking All Illusions offers instrumentation for consumption translating power to pleasure. Its sinusoidal approach is addictive, musical highs and lows, which drag you into the song again filling those pre-requisite time changes creating perfection, being another song that just can’t be faulted.
Beneath The Surface is a perfect antidote to a powerful musical statement that has been presented, the relaxing come down moment, a time for reflection allowing you to saviour all that has passed, acoustic, electric, orchestral and layered melodies that bring the whole event to a fitting conclusion.
As an album A Dramatic Turn Of Events is what you would expect from Dream Theater, a highly polished and accomplished album that is challenging, full of intricacies, lyrically thought provoking but more importantly highly entertaining. Pick an album, Images And Words, Awake, Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence or Octavarium and you will find nothing short of pure brilliance. This is what the band does and in all honesty A Dramatic Turn Of Events can quite proudly add itself to that list.
Interestingly the band have found balance, not outweighing vocal integrity for musical masturbation, taking a balanced approach, no waiting in the shadows for individuals, a club that all have been invited to, to participate as an equal. That is not to say that there aren’t those trademarks interludes, as one expects them to offer that up, it just feels more like a band contribution/creation.
There will be detractors, hell I am a big fan of Mike Portnoy, but Mike Mangini has just slotted in perfectly, there again we have seen with this band, its all about the sum of all the parts, it’s their creations that really matter when push comes to shove.
Erik Laan's Review
I received the news of drummer Mike Portnoy leaving Dream Theater with mixed feelings. After all, he was the "constant motion" engine behind the band which gave birth to a whole genre and set new standards for an entire generation of musicians to come. His departure is definitely the end of an era. On the other hand, the last Dream Theater albums, even though I kept buying them, didn’t convince me as much as earlier albums did. It seemed as if Portnoy was on a dead alley with Dream Theater and had more fun when playing with progressive super band Transatlantic or with his friend Neal Morse. No goosebumps for me since their sublime albums Metropolis Part II; Scenes From A Memory (1999) and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence (2001). In my perception, the more recent albums were less "progressive" and therefore, less interesting than the work of bands like Seventh Wonder and Shadow Gallery, which obviously themselves stand in the tradition of the grand masters of progressive metal.
So, what would the departure "the busiest man in show business" (as Portnoy once called himself) mean for the progressive blood group in Dream Theater? Would the metallic inclinations of guitar virtuoso John Petrucci take over at the expense of keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess, who, I suspected, is the other progressive mind in the band? And: what would the influence of the new drummer, Mike Mangini mean for the compository course of the band?
Well my fear was totally misplaced, fortunately. A Dramatic Turn Of Events is an album in the best Dream Theater tradition. This also means that band did not take any adventurous roads. It appears to me that they returned to the era of Images & Words, which lead to their definitive breakthrough in 1992. Somehow, the atmosphere on this album reminds me of that classic CD, including the long instrumental expeditions that were at the time revolutionary and which I missed on the more recent albums. Listen for example to the excellent Outcry which has a kind of pleasantly alienating quality reminiscent of the first part of the Metropolis series.
I find the second part of the CD by far the best. The first half is not bad, but it didn’t really catch me so much. It’s hard to explain, but there is a kind of turning point on the album after which, somehow, it seems the muse has really got back to them. Somewhere in the seventh minute of the epic Bridges In The Sky, I discovered my goosebumps were back again. This is the Dream Theater I missed so much. The rest of the album, after that moment, is just brilliant. This includes Breaking All Illusions, an instant classic in the style of Learning To Live in which Petrucci proves he still can compose rousing melodic guitar solos and leaves enough space for Rudess’s exciting keyboard adventures.
A Dramatic Turn Of Events is not an easy album, though. It took me about ten times listening to it before I could hear melodies coming and my mind could predict what would be happening next. And even after that, it took me more times before I discovered recurring themes and started to understand the complexity of the compositions. Great for those, like me, who are easily bored and have spoiled prog brains!
As for the drums, if you are a fan of Portnoy: you won’t miss him. Hard though it may seem to replace the drummer who was considered for many years the best in the world: Mangini fits in as if he was always there. And it’s not as if the rhythms are less complex this time.
A Dramatic Turn Of Events is one of the best albums of Dream Theater and this means something given that they have made so many good ones already. OK, the CD is not really innovative, but it’s easy to forgive a band as long as they write songs of this quality. Dream Theater proves that they still stand at the top of the genre they created themselves. This is definitively one to buy.