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Dream Theater have been wobbling precariously from the sublime to the ridiculous for the past decade, the CDs released being unpredictable affairs that veer with alarming ease from the instrumental maelstroms that should be expected of a progressive metal titan to downright embarrassing efforts to prove their ‘metal’ credentials with dumbed down attempts to appeal to the youth of today.
The blame for these misadventures has been dumped by many squarely at the door of famously departed drummer Mike Portnoy, and it has to be said that in his absence, the rest of the band have written a balanced CD that sounds as though they are merely doing their own thing and not attempting to prove anything to anyone.
Regardless of the personnel involved, the most notable thing about ‘A dramatic turn of events’ is that it is resolutely a Dream Theater CD. There are no awkward “Sounds like... Muse?” moments or eye-rollingly obvious attempts to reach out to the Slipknot crowd with brazen, chugging groove riffs. And to be honest the promise of never having to hear Portnoy’s dreadful tough guy vocals contaminating another Dream Theater song again is almost enough to justify his departure in itself.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few hairy moments that prove beyond doubt that the drummer wasn’t the sole factor in the more ‘modern’ aspect of the band in recent times. The 2nd track, “Build me up, break me down” prominently features some unpleasant buzzing guitars and pretty horrid shrieks backing the main vocals on the pre-chorus, as well as some pointless programmed beats cluttering things up. A real weak point on the CD, it is thankfully an isolated incident that is far outweighed by the more positive aspects.
On the whole it is a smooth CD that definitely sounds far less fragmented than many of its recent predecessors, and is as usual at its best when acting as a showcase for the assembled musicians’ astounding talents. New drummer Mike Mangini (who else, really?) is given a tactful introduction, and doesn’t embarrass himself or his new colleagues by trying to outdo Portnoy. Rather, he turns in a typically assured display that covers every inch of the kit on the more intricate moments as well as getting on with some head-down double-bass thumping on the faster songs like “Lost not forgotten”.
Ballads have been an area where they have stumbled as often as they have succeeded through their entire career, so it is a nice bonus that the 2 on this CD turn out to be very pleasing. “Far from heaven” is a gentle piano piece, while the closing “Beneath the surface” seems to be an acoustic-only affair before some unsubtle but charming keyboards abruptly take over. What both share are great performances from James Labrie at the microphone, reflective of a strong overall display free of any ridiculous attempts at sounding like a hard man on the heavier songs.
The standout for me though is the stunning “Breaking all illusions” which has the most classic-sounding Dream Theater vibe of the lot, the graceful lead guitar and keyboard interchanges soothing and majestic, and the expected flurries of syncopation dazzling without getting too boastful about it.
Now for all the encouraging things it promises and in many cases delivers, it has to be said that ‘A dramatic turn of events’ is far from a flawless CD. One thing I will say about 2007’s divisive ‘Systematic chaos’ and indeed its better-liked follow-up ‘Black clouds and silver linings’ is that they both got off to galloping starts with very impressive opening tracks. Here, “On the backs of angels” is rather sedated and while it has a few nice moments doesn’t really get out of first gear, meaning the CD on the whole doesn’t properly get going until the 3rd track.
The majority of the songs of course spin off in many directions from their opening bars, and while many like “This is the life” impress from start to finish, a couple travel through places less interesting than their beginnings and ends and don’t fully justify their protracted running times. But despite this, it is an assured and enjoyable experience on the whole and the sound of Dream Theater just getting on with being Dream Theater brings joy to the heart.
After years of spiralling all over the place, they now seem to finally be pulling in the same direction and have produced a unified, stylistically consistent, and admittedly far from perfect batch of songs that give hope for at most a launching point for something greater, or at least safety from further self-inflicted humiliation.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com)