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Well, isn't that an apt album title.
After Mike Portnoy left, there was intense speculation and worry over Dream Theater's future direction. Myself, I welcomed the news. Yes, Portnoy was a good drummer, even a great one, but he was one pompous asshole, dictating the other band members over what to do (just watch the Chaos in Progress documentary where he tries telling James LaBrie how to sing - James looks really pissed off), insisting on *ahem* "singing", and pushing them in questionable directions. So, I welcomed the news, and when it came out that Mike Mangini was his replacement, I only got more excited. Does this album live up to my lofty expectations? Mostly, yes.
What does this album sound like? Dream Theater. There's none of the games of "Hey, let's pretend we're Opeth!" or "Hey, let's pretend we're Muse!" that Portnoy liked to play when he was in the band, things which massively dragged down their last three albums. The only song that falls prey to this is "Build Me Up, Break Me Down", with a chugging seven-string riff and vocal distortion recalling Train of Thought, combined with a weird electronic, programmed flavour in the verses. Is it any surprise that this is the weakest track on the album?
The main flavour here is of Dream Theater's lighter side, similar to Falling Into Infinity or Octavarium, but with a heavier style that keeps it from getting as sappy or mainstream-pandering as either of those albums. Even the epics have a huge catchy chorus and a lot of melodic elements, which helps to leaven the tension and keep them focused. Similarly, instead of trying to look "modern", Dream Theater looks back to its past. "On the Backs of Angels" deliberately recalls "Pull Me Under", with the opening clean riff joined by keyboards and tom-heavy drumming, before exploding into an excellent prog-metal tune. And, wait, what's this? Audible bass, and a solo section that isn't just Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci wanking all over their instruments for 5 minutes? I can dig it! A strong opener, to be sure. There are quite a few moments on this album that recall Dream Theater's past - aside from this and the aforementioned "Build Me Up, Break Me Down", there's the Octavarium-styled "This is the Life", and "Outcry" and "Breaking All Illusions", two grandiose epics that could have fit in well anywhere.
The difference with this album is mostly in the keyboard work. Jordan Rudess never really got display his full talents when Portnoy was in the band - he was mostly limited to the aforementioned wank solos, barely audible background chords, and his main strength on those albums, piano. Here, his atmospheric keyboards get more of a workout, displaying a symphonic and choral approach that he never really used before. The choral progression at the beginning of "Outcry" is as grandiose as anything on Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, the strings in the chorus of "Build Me Up, Break Me Down" lift it from being mundane to soaring, and the flute-like solos in "Breaking All Illusions" are really quite unique. He still has a natural propensity towards goofiness, though - "Bridges in the Sky", an otherwise decent rocker, is almost ruined by the unnecessary throat-singing and Gregorian chant at the beginning.
This compliments John Petrucci's guitar perfectly - trading the overly distorted tone he's had since 2003 for one that is crunchy yet clear helps a lot, as does reining in his solos and playing more subtle riffs. He can still shred like nothing else, though - "Breaking All Illusions" makes sure to remind us of that. The two soloing titans of the band backing off a bit allows John Myung to breathe more, and while his bass tone is a little muddy, he's rock-solid throughout. As for James LaBrie, he's mediocre. He displays a fuller range, such as the backing screams on "Build Me Up, Break Me Down" and the emotional croon on "Beneath the Surface", but his voice has become increasingly flat and limited in range, with little of the unique high tenor belting that made him distinguished on Images and Words. Yes, he's pushing 50, but Bruce Dickinson's past 50 and he can still belt it out live. Still, at least he doesn't sound like Dave Mustaine on the heavy songs any more.
So, how does Mangini fare replacing Portnoy? Well... meh. Truth be told, he doesn't do too much special here, mostly keeping the beat and playing along to John Petrucci's programmed drum demos. He certainly puts in a competent performance, highlights being the speedy fills in "On the Backs of Angels" and the double bass hammering of "Outcry", but we all know he can do better.
The other main problem is the preponderence of ballads - three of them from a nine-track album. I do like Dream Theater's ballads, as they generally display somewhat more emotion in their lyrics and delivery than their heavy tunes, but here, they miss the mark. "This is the Life" slips right through my head without making an impression, with uninspired piano work and the phony passion of John Petrucci's solos dueling over Mike Mangini's bland drumbeat (is it any wonder he decided to sit the other two out?). The other two ballads, "Far from Heaven" and "Beneath the Surface", have exemplary performances on piano and acoustic guitar respectively, but Rudess smothers them both with sappy string arrangements. Actually, these songs are symptomatic of something that plagues the album - by setting out to reassure fans anxious of Mike Portnoy's departure that they're still the same band, they've pulled their horns in a bit, and haven't done anything that's truly new.
But aside from that, this is pretty good... actually, it might well be Dream Theater's best since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. If they utilise Mangini's talents further and build on the symphonic elements found here, while eliminating the sappy ballads, they could truly make a masterpiece once again.
Reccommended songs: "On the Backs of Angels", "Outcry", "Breaking All Illusions", "Far from Heaven"