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Love them or hate them, Dream Theater have been one of the most influential, and successful bands in modern progressive rock. On top of laying the groundwork style for every other progressive metal band out there today, this band has been the centre of constant debate between people that virtually worship them for their virtuosity as musicians and talent, and others that condemn them for what they perceive as needless showmanship at the sacrifice of real substance. Chances are that coming onto this review, you may already have a potentially strong opinion about Dream Theater, and what they are all about. For me, this was a band that- along with other legends like Rush and Led Zeppelin- got me big into music when I was first beginning to explore beyond what my parents showed me. Their classic albums 'Images & Words' and 'Scenes From A Memory' have had an indelible impact on my development as a musician and listener, and I've loved a fair bit of what they have done since then. Admittedly, I found myself a little weary of Dream Theater's indulgent style around the time that the band's 2011 single 'On The Backs Of Angels' was announced, but all the same I went into listening to it, and was immediately impressed. The appropriately titled 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' has been met with a great deal of anticipation from alot of people, first considering that it is a Dream Theater album, but also because this is the first album that their lifelong drummer Mike Portnoy does not appear on, after being given the boot by the rest of the band. With one of their founding members gone, it was natural to expect that his departure- and the arrival of Annihilator drummer and Dream Theater newbie Mike Mangini- to have an impact on the band's direction. Portnoy was the one that pushed for Dream Theater to have a heavier sound, so I had been expecting a more progressive edge this time around, and that is exactly what 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' is about; the same proggy excellence that first got me into them. While I can imagine the legions of detractors using the seemingly unchanged sound of the band against them, I for one have been greatly satisfied by this new batch of band material, and even with one of their vital organs missing, Dream Theater is far from dead.
As was the case with the past two albums of Dream Theater, sitting down to give my first listen to the material was a very important, almost somewhat spiritual experience, especially considering that I believed only a few months before that Dream Theater was all but dead. Both fans and haters should know that there is very little that will surprise them here necessarily, but the music here is easily distinguishable from other albums, especially what they have done more recently. While I did love 'Systematic Chaos' and 'Black Clouds & Silver Linings', the removal of the contrived heaviness and Gothic darkness that Dream Theater unsuccessfully tried to evoke on previous records is a refreshing change. Dream Theater are still definitely a progressive metal band, but of that formula, the emphasis here is on that of the 'progressive', rather than the thrashy Metallica, or pseudo-death metal that Mike Portnoy kept thinking was a pretty cool and hip thing for Dream Theater to do. Besides that, this is a Dream Theater album, complete with cheesy album artwork, epic songs, virtuosic musicianship, and the apparent effort to see how much of a CD's space can be used up without making it a double album.
After my first listen to 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events', I was silent for a few minutes, trying to figure out what I thought of it. This was Dream Theater alright, but I wasn't exactly sure whether I liked it or not. Although my general impression of the album has vastly increased since first listen to this album, some of the things I noticed on first listen have stuck with me. First off, the instrumental sections here no longer have the needless sense to them, and as far as the 'technical' elements of Dream Theater go, this may be the best I've ever heard them. With the handful of longer, ten minute plus tracks, each goes into some sort of departure from the regular songwriting in order to blow the listeners away with the talents of each member. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess really shines here, and I find myself replaying these instrumental parts. What I used to consider 'noodling' from these guys doesn't sound too different on first impression, but the band has put a much greater sense of complexity here into the instrumentals that I haven't quite heard from the band before. Suffice to say, haters of Dream Theater will probably still hate Dream Theater for these instrumental 'battles', but for someone who has loved them for almost a decade, the technical instrumentation here has never sounded more thoughtful. 'Bridges In The Sky', and the album's epic highlight 'Breaking All Illusions' both have the go-to elements of this.
The other aspect of this album is the melodic, songwriting side. I was never anything short of impressed by the familiar talent and skill exerted on the instrumental side of Dream Theater's material here, but as far as the songwriting went, 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' took a few listens to warm up to me. This is largely because half of these songs are quite long and complex. 'On The Backs Of Angels' is the most instantly memorable track here, although there is much better to hear on the album. 'This Is The Life' is a brilliant mid-tempo prog rocker in a somewhat mellow vein, with a gorgeous chorus to boot. 'Bridges In The Sky' (originally given the less promising title 'The Shaman's Trance') has a real 'Glass Prison' vibe to it, but the dark progressive metal moments are contrasted with vibrant melodies and feeling. 'Far From Heaven' is a gentle piano piece that may very well hit me harder than any of Dream Theater's ballads. Here, James LaBrie's vocals and the gorgeous violins make my heart bleed rainbows. The only song here I really do not care for much is 'Build Me Up, Break Me Down', which has a similar sound to 'Caught In A Web', from 1994's 'Awake' album. It is not a terrible track, but there's nothing about it that really jumps out at me; a single bump in an otherwise awesome experience.
The true highlight here is 'Breaking All Illusions', which I can see Dream Theater fans idolizing throughout the coming months. The song has every element of an 'epic' to it, except that it is only a relatively brief twelve minutes long, as opposed to well, you know, a 'true' long song. We have one of John Petrucci's greatest guitar solos towards the end, prog metal freakouts, slower, almost Floydian mellow segments, and some of their most memorable riffs to date. Also of great importance to note is James LaBrie's performance on this, and on all other tracks on the album. He- like much of Dream Theater's sound- is another point of contention that people will argue about until breakfast time, and while he has had his moments where even I question his abilities, his vocal performance here shows him in his element. He is definitely not the sort of singer that he used to be with 'Images & Words', but he is no longer trying to sound like he is in Metallica, in other words, being something he is not. Here, he is trying to sound like James LaBrie, and his voice here is warm and full of feeling, especially on the gorgeous 'Far From Heaven' and closing ballad 'Beneath The Surface'. I would have like to have hear him pull off a few more high notes throughout the album, but I'm not disappointed. Also- lest I forget to mention- is Mike Mangini's performance, another thing that Dream Theater fans will continue to debate 'til past noon. Sadly, as the newest member of Dream Theater, he seems to get the newbie's treatment in terms of mixing, and his drum performance is less audible to me than Portnoy's work; hell, even bassist John Myung can be heard playing on this album now finally. While the drum recording could have used a little more life to it, Mangini's performance fills in the shoes of Portnoy very well, although I would be hard pressed to say he does more than that. There are techniques here where I could have sworn it was Portnoy playing, and I do not think this is coincidence; maybe Dream Theater is trying to warm up their fans to a new drummer, but I think it will take until the next album to hear what this new drummer is truly capable of.
As with all Dream Theater albums, this is an album I have some strong opinions about, although I am positive there are others- even other fans of the band- that will see things in a completely different light. 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' took me a little longer to fully appreciate than much of the other more recent material that Dream Theater has churned out, but giving it the time it deserves, I've found it to be an incredibly strong, albeit flawed album. There is still some cheese to grate off the edges of the band's sound, and one less- than-satisfying track towards the beginning does tend to have me argue against this being labelled as a 'masterpiece', but does this stand its ground against other albums by the band? Yes, and more than that; it shows them taking some of their less tasteful aspects and injecting more thought into them, making the overall sound of Dream Theater all the more powerful. Agree with me or not, 'A Dramatic Turn Of Events' has wowed me and impressed me more and more with each time I listen to it, and I can see myself giving it the same long-term appreciation as I do most of the band's material.