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Why Dream Theater is not dead yet. - 86%

Octavarium64, October 4th, 2011

Cataclysmic changes, for better or worse, create the greatest possibilities for the future. New York quintet Dream Theater, the biggest progressive metal band in the world, was affected by such cataclysmic change in September 2010: founding member and drumming extraordinaire Mike Portnoy, stuck between continuing on against his heart or letting the band proceed without him, chose the latter. The media fallout before and after the selection of Berklee percussion instructor and world’s fastest drummer Mike Mangini has been threatening, and it only intensified before and even after the September 13, 2011 release of A Dramatic Turn of Events. Progressive metal has never seen such sensational news, and the effect it has on the actual music is worthy of intense examination. Fortunately, despite the dramatic turn of events in the media, A Dramatic Turn of Events itself almost entirely reflects the drama’s positive results.

The two ways Dream Theater has changed in 2011 are the drummer’s chair and the effect this has on the band dynamic. Replacing Portnoy in Dream Theater was as equally impossible as “replacing” Bob Barker on The Price is Right. Mike Mangini may carry the same first name, but his performing style (at least for now) is less lead drumming and more assisting the various melodic structures of the song, of which there are often multiple. Album opener On the Backs of Angels allows Mangini to enter with tasteful octobans against an eerie keyboard/guitar combination, and then grows into a balanced progressive number with every member contributing their own melodic ideas; Mangini’s stylistic contributions tweak the basic beat while maintaining the groove, unlike the fill-heavy Portnoy.

Track five Bridges In The Sky is a relentless riffmeister once the music proper kicks in, sporting one of the most creative main riffs this year, aggressive vocals from James LaBrie, and Mangini playing with assertive power, that little extra beat and the tendency to augment or truncate a measure for increased impact. Just after ten minutes is a spectacular drop onto John Petrucci’s seventh string, with the keyboard flourishes so prominent they feel alive (this moment has to be heard); Mangini moves from tom battering into faster double bass runs, eventually finishing the song proper with a lightning-fast fill that gives the impression the man has four arms. Moments like this display Mangini’s true potential, yet to be fully unleashed until the next album; Petrucci wrote the drum skeleton for Mangini to elaborate on, and though this compositional choice decreases the importance of the drums, the rest of Dream Theater was able to write their parts around each other and cohere optimally.

Mike Portnoy, as the de facto band leader, has been undeniably associated with the ostentatious, derivative metallic tendencies of Dream Theater that emerged after 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, displayed most vividly on 2009’s Black Clouds & Silver Linings. Somebody had to usurp the band’s direction to avoid the burnout that inspired Portnoy’s exit. A Dramatic Turn of Events is a direct channel to a more melodic past, but rather than copying the style of these albums, Dream Theater infuses this album with a lush atmosphere while maintaining their own established identity and excellent coherence between the nine tracks that comprise it. The member most responsible for the album’s unique aesthetic is keyboardist Jordan Rudess; despite every member putting most of their cards on the table, he stands out the most, expanding the use of keyboards across the album and hiding them in just the right places. Critics of Rudess’ excessive keyboard unisons have precious little ground left, as the keys are more orchestral than anything ever used before and add an extra layer without getting in the way of any songwriting. Dramatic and surging when the music is aggressive, or contemplative but still prominent when the music slows down, Rudess is a vital ingredient of ADToE.

The remaining three band members are also free to explore more melodic territory, creating a nearly perfect balance between complex/simple, heavy/mellow and light/shade. Vocalist James LaBrie, with more exclusive control of the melodies, has strengthened his melodic qualities and remedied the tendency for his rougher vocals to sound out of place; how he sings the lyrical content, and what it is, overall reflect the album’s theme of opposition and change more realistically. Bridges In The Sky is chorus heaven, with a remarkable timbral contrast between heavy and soaring that carries the lyrical story of religious awakening. The modern metal attack of Build Me Up, Break Me Down is one of the smartest radio-friendly songs of the year, not for the sake of commercial relevance but integrating it into the dichotomous album theme. Digitally processed verses and sludgy riffs lead directly into an irresistible chorus, the second half of which features LaBrie backing the main melody with faint yells at higher frequency than has ever been done in studio; the lyrics criticize the popular habit of alternately deifying and demonizing celebrities based on their “erratic behavior” in personal lives. Ballads balance the album’s weight, and though they number three out of nine songs, their total duration is an unobtrusive 16:19 out of 77:05; they are optimally placed on the journey and highlight LaBrie’s exceptional control of melody. Drum and bassless ballads Far From Heaven and album closer Beneath the Surface are among the finest songs of this type to appear for some time, led by sorrowful strings, plaintive vocals and, on the latter, an acoustic chord progression that sounds as equally heartbroken yet resigned as the tragic words.

John Petrucci is more diverse and restrained in his guitar playing, with less emphasis on lead guitar and even less on super-technical excursions; these moments are the weakest parts of A Dramatic Turn of Events when they arise, as on the somewhat incohesive Lost Not Forgotten that loses itself somewhat in awkward transitions and slightly bland instrumental excursions and unisons. His slower playing is creative and as distinctly Petrucci as always, standing out on the chief ballad This is the Life and excellent Breaking All Illusions, both brought towards evocative symphonic climaxes by guitar solos. Overall, the album is less guitar-centric not simply because the instrument is less prominent, but because the other parts are more distinct.

Bassist John Myung was often reduced to doubling other instruments in recent DT years and distorted such that the bass becomes less distinct; the bass tone is now clean, higher in the mix and embellishes the songs with counterpoints or solos. The frequent dynamic changes of Outcry, about the North African revolutions, see Myung switch from doubling a crushing riff or driving groove to a bass solo accented by Mangini’s drum pawnshop and a distinct melody underneath a sweep-picking guitar solo. He even offers lyrics on longest track Breaking All Illusions, joyfully melodic and almost jazzy in its interplay between dark bass shading and strange guitar/keyboard tapping combinations. The crystal-clear, non-brickwalled production by Andy Wallace captures each of the members in their element, framing the band dynamic and sumptuously layered sound in exquisite detail.

A Dramatic Turn of Events represents a rejuvenation for a band that could have easily disappeared instead, having had existed since 1985. In an ironic twist, losing their leader has brought the four other members of Dream Theater closer together; time will tell how perfectly the newcomer fits in, but Mangini delivers a promising showing. This album shows the strength of the cohesion between Petrucci, Rudess, LaBrie and Myung, with only a few glitches related to the lengthy instrumental excursions in some of the tracks that number over ten minutes. This is a testament to the New Yorkers’ strength in proceeding through dark times, and a bright portrait of their future. For now, the grade is stellar, but yet more silver linings may lurk on the horizon.

(From Sputnikmusic as usual.)