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On a journey to renew their sound - 90%

LuisC, November 22nd, 2011

Dream Theater is considered as one of the most influential, if not the most influential band of the prog metal scene over the last 25 years. As an avid fan myself, I was more than excited to know how their new album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, would turn out (no pun intended). After all, the album was their first album without founder and long-time drummer Mike Portnoy.

Dream Theater’s musical direction over the last years concerned me a little. 2007’s Systematic Chaos was, to me, the lowest point of their creative process with uninspiring lyrics and borderline boring and monotonous instrumental sections. While 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings was a more refreshing attempt, their formula of long songs and “in-your-face” metal combined with trade-off solos between keyboardist Jordan Rudess and guitarist John Petrucci was starting to get stale. A Dramatic Turn of Events would be a definitive album to determine if DT was starting to run out of ideas or if it would find again a sound that would fit them completely.

But you can see things would be different even with looking at the cover of the album. As opposed to the dark, crowded images of their two previous albums, this album’s cover is a more tranquil, lightened one, a sign of hope that would be increased when the first track and single for the album, “On the Backs of Angels”, started. Unlike their previous efforts, this time their opening song is a calm yet mysterious guitar intro accompanied by soft keyboards in the background as the drums (this time played by new drummer Mike Mangini) start. The sound of the band is completely different in this track compared to their previous album, focusing more in a balance between metal and progressive music rather than just “metal with odd signatures”. John Myung’s bass can actually be heard again after being absent for almost 5 years behind Petrucci’s guitar lines. James LaBrie’s voice sounds more melodic while still fitting the heavier parts of the song. On the Backs of Angels, even while having a weak chorus, promises a different Dream Theater throughout the album.

And the promise is clearly delivered. “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” follows and shows that DT has gone more experimental ways. While not as good as the first song, this song, while heavy, also shows some kind of Industrial influence, mainly due to Rudess’ keyboard sounds. A stand out for these two songs so far is that, even when they do have their respective instrumental breaks, don’t fall into a solo show-off between keyboard and guitar, fitting more into the songs. Another heavy song goes next, “Lost not Forgotten”, a reminder of the heavy sound of their latest albums. A piano introduces the song and thank Rudess for that as piano hasn’t been present in any DT album since maybe Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence or Octavarium’s ballads. Come to think about it, keyboards are presented in a different way on this album so far and aren't only used for solos and background atmosphere, but as an instrument in itself, playing along with the rest of instruments instead of behind or too above them. Even though the cheesy lyrics and a brief monotonous trade-off solo, luckily the only one of the album, the chorus is pretty cool and the song sounds good overall. The heaviness takes a break in “This is the Life”, the album’s first ballad. While the song might be confusing at times, it’s good to hear the band making an unconventional ballad again (not following the verse-chorus-verse format). Two long tracks go next, “Bridges in the Sky” and “Outcry”. “Bridges in the Sky” is an epic track (don’t pay attention to the almost hilarious intro) that almost defines the DT sound as of today. Heavy riffs combined perfectly with soft, dreamy sections and an incredible ending. Flow between all the instruments is incredible. Mangini’s drumming is great and doesn’t sound as loud as Portnoy in the latest albums and Andy Wallace’s overall work in mixing is outstanding. “Outcry”, on the other hand, is a song with an amazing main riff that explores the progressive side of DT again (again experimenting with some electric sounds at the beginning), reminding of songs like “The Dance of Eternity” and the instrumental breaks of “Beyond this Life” and the always classic “Metropolis”. Unlike “Bridges”, this song’s ending seems rushed and improvised and it ruins the overall purpose of the song. The second ballad of the album ensues, an emotionally charged song named “Far From Heaven”, written by James LaBrie. A reminder of songs like “Vacant”, this song only consists of him and Rudess playing piano. It's a sad song with great lyrics to take a break again from the long, heavy songs that are played before it.

But then comes the amazing “Breaking All Illusions”, my favorite track from the album hands down. “Breaking…” features the return of John Myung to writing lyrics (and a pretty awesome return if you ask me). A thing that I noticed in this album is that all the instruments seem balanced again. In previous albums, the songs seemed to feature mostly guitar and drums leading the songs. This time is different. It doesn’t seem like an instrument is “leading” the song, but as if all the instruments form the song altogether (vocals included). This song is flawless. Petrucci’s solo is incredible ("Lines in the Sand"-reminiscent), LaBrie’s delivery fits like a glove, and the overall vibe of the album is good, joining metal elements with prog elements instead of having them apart in the same song. An uplifting track, “Breaking All Illusions” might be their best song since “Octavarium” and one of their best songs of their career.

John Petrucci described the last song of the album, “Beneath the Surface”, as the kind of song that goes in the credits right after a song has ended, and that’s exactly what it is, a soothing acoustic ballad that ends the album in an incredible song. Of all the things DT has revived in this album, an acoustic ballad might be one of the things they needed to revive the most. After all, all the acoustic ballads they’ve made are beautiful (“The Silent Man”, “Hollow Years”). Just like the previous song, “Beneath the Surface” is an uplifting, “happy” song that concludes the epic voyage that DT has composed this time and at the same time states that the band has found their sound again, the true meaning behind being a progressive metal band.

I’m not saying Portnoy’s leaving was a good thing, but it did open the door to a new and refreshing sound. Is it a return to form? Not really. I personally think it’s Dream Theater taking all the experience from their albums (from their most progressive like Images and Words to their heaviest like Train of Thought) and putting it together to form what I think is their definitive sound and forming one of the best albums of the year as well.

Highlights: Bridges in the Sky, Far From Heaven, Breaking All Illusions, Beneath the Surface
Low Points: Build Me Up, Break Me Down