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Dream Theater has always been a band that has been able to continue running smoothly in the event of band member switches. The first album that featured vocalist James LaBrie was the smash hit Images and Words, former keyboardist Derek Sherinian’s debut was on the successful A Change of Seasons EP, and current keyboardist Jordan Rudess came on for the highly acclaimed concept album Scenes From A Memory. While the well-publicized departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy has led to a lot of speculation and mixed emotions, the band’s first album with former Extreme/Annihilator drummer Mike Mangini is no exception to the old rule. While the band was never exactly at a point of stagnation in this reviewer’s opinion, this album does breathe new life into their sound and predicts a nice change of direction.
There are some traits from Dream Theater’s last couple albums that are still in place on here, but this album does inevitably have a very different feel that hasn’t been observed in quite some time. Some people have found parallels between this album and the sound on Images and Words and a few have accused the band of recycling the structures of past songs for here, but the similarities are rather superficial as the album’s production and technical displays are clearly cemented in the present day.
And some may call blasphemy, but this album really seems to have a few things in common with Falling Into Infinity and is easily their most melodic release since Octavarium came out in 2005. Of course, it isn’t quite as commercially minded as there are an unusual number of longer songs and heavier moments. But if anything, you could say that this is the first album since Scenes From A Memory where Dream Theater actually feels entirely comfortable with being Dream Theater. There are no attempts to write songs in the styles of Muse or Opeth and there aren’t any members that feel out of place.
Speaking of members, not too much has really been changed as the musicians still continue to show off a good deal of chemistry and technical prowess. Mangini does put on an expectedly great performance but one does wonder how things would be if his part hadn’t been programmed for him. You might want to listen to LaBrie’s first three solo releases if you want to hear what the guy is really capable of…
With all the changes that have taken place, the songwriting isn’t too far off from Black Clouds & Silver Linings as most of the tracks range from being eight to twelve minutes long. If anything, the only thing that’s changed is the addition of a few extra ballads to make up for the absence of the twenty-five minute long monsters that have been so popular with them lately. Predictably, the longer tracks manage to be the biggest highlights as they manage to put in some memorable hooks while showing off the standard soloing and complex structures. The opening “On The Backs of Angels” starts things off on a particularly dramatic note with some strong transitions while “Lost Not Forgotten” is noteworthy for its crunchy verse riff and pounding chorus.
Even if the band will never release something as tragic as “Space Dye Vest,” the ballads on here are nicely composed and all conjure memories of past tracks. While “This Is The Life” has a rather greeting card feel that reminds one of “The Answer Lies Within,” “Far From Heaven” is a short piano driven number in the vein of “Vacant” and the largely acoustic “Beneath the Surface” feels like a more complete version of “The Silent Man.”
And just as the previous album had “A Rite of Passage,” this release does have an almost commercial oddball in the form of “Build Me Up, Break Me Down.” While the song’s electronic feel and borderline nu metal leanings may give some listeners a rather Disturbed vibe, it’s a pretty decent track with a catchy chorus that’s hard to get out of your head. If anything, it’s kind of like “You Not Me” with a lot less suck…
As a person who still loves Dream Theater’s last few albums, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this is the band’s greatest effort since Images and Words or Scenes From A Memory. However, I will tell you that it is a really strong release that proves they’re capable of running a smooth ship in the absence of Portnoy. It’s certainly not at the high point that was achieved on those two efforts or the monolithic Awake, but it does make one excited for what the band will be following this up with in the future. Think there’s a chance of Mangini having a four-album suite up his sleeve?
“On The Backs of Angels”
“Lost Not Forgotten”
“Bridges In The Sky”
“Far From Heaven”
“Beneath the Surface"