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Its been a busy couple of months for Roadrunner Records. So far they've had Trivium's In Waves, the new Kids In Glass Houses, Opeth's Heritage and to come is the new Mastodon and Machine Head records. In the middle of all of this metal madness though, the irrepressible Dream Theater return with their 13th studio album, A Dramatic Turn Of Events.
Never could there be a more suitable title for the album. Dream Theater have cycled musicians a few times in their 25 year career but no one, least of all the band could have expected founding member, drummer and all round band leader Mike Portnoy to leave them last year in the most turbulent of circumstances. It came as a shock to the metal world as Portnoy had always been considered the lynchpin in DT, dealing with most of the writing, the organisation, production and publicity for the band.
As a brief guide, from what I've read from both sides, Portnoy wanted the band to take a break for a few years as he felt that the relationships in the band had become fractured. He wanted to take time off to reinvigorate the band by going off and doing their own things for a while then coming back with a monster album. The band didn't feel the same, they all wanted to continue the momentum they had started since they signed with Roadrunner and their two widest received albums, Systematic Chaos and Black Clouds & Silver Linings. As a result of this, Portnoy announced he was leaving the band as they couldn't come to a mutual agreement and he was committed with side projects, including touring with Avenged Sevenfold.
This left the band in a quandary. They wanted to continue but replacing a drummer that is considered one of the world's greatest would be no mean feat. Cue months of deliberation and a 3 day set of auditions featuring some of the world's greatest metal and rock drummers. They filmed it all for the documentary The Spirit Carries On (search for it on YouTube). I'll break the suspense and let you know that they decided on the insanely good Mike Mangini, formerly of Annihilator and Steve Vai. Watch his audition, its rather epic.
Now, fast forward to today and DT have released the first album with Mangini and their first without any input from Portnoy. I've gotta say, I was expecting it to be missing something, but it certainly sounds like the Dream Theater I love. Or rather, should I say loved, as it sounds very much like classic Dream Theater. Where Mike Portnoy used to force the music to evolve and sound slightly different between albums, this album feels more akin to the likes of Images & Words, which is by no means a bad thing, but it shows off how the band have obviously been wanting to write for years.
This is the first album where the whole band had creative freedom. Previously, the vast majority of the writing had been handled by Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci, with some writing in the last few years including keyboardist Jordan Rudess. On this album, bass player John Myung and singer James LaBrie took an active role and they, for the first time, wrote the album as a band. And you can hear it in the songs, there is lots of stuff going on.
The keyboards are a lot more in your face on this album, Lost Not Forgotten has the kind of epic keyboard solo that would make a guitarist weep. You can hear a lot of incidental keyboard work behind the bigger guitar riffs. If you ever watch a video of DT playing live, there are lots of times where Rudess is playing something under a major guitar riff and he is mixed so low that you can't hear anything he is playing. The keyboards are more pronounced and constant.
Each song manages to be more grand than the last. Opening song On The Backs Of Angels sets the bar pretty high but as it moves to Build Me Up, Break Me Down then into Lost Not Forgotten it just seems to get bigger and bigger sounding. But then the classic DT ballad This Is The Life (which sounds suspiciously like The Spirit Carries On in places) brings you back down to earth with some lovely guitar work, subtle vocals and some light drum work.
Speaking of drum work, Mangini has stepped into Portnoy's sizeable shoes very nicely. I can't imagine the amount of pressure thats being piled on him, replacing one of the best loved drummers in metal, but he manages it with aplomb. He can do the mental time signatures, the insane double kick work and then bring it back down nicely for the ballads and play something tasteful. I was worried that they would end up hiring someone who was all flash and no substance, who could play the old stuff but not write anything new. I'm glad to report that he can do it and he can do it pretty damn well.
John Petrucci has brought his A-game to this album. He's taken the reigns of the band as a spokesperson and a writer as well as handling production duties. The album sounds great. The mix is less clinical than previous efforts, feels warmer and more like a live band. While there are still moments where the change from loud to quiet is very sudden, it sounds more natural, rather than say, cutting the end of the loud bit off in Pro-tools and pasting the quiet bit in immediately afterwards. The songs and arrangements seem to flow better. I don't know if that is down to Petrucci's influence as a producer or the band writing together for the first time, but I like it.
Lets not forget Petrucci's main job though; guitar hero. My oh my, there are some tasty riffs and shred-tastic solos happening here. The opening riff for Bridges In The Sky sounds enormous. Its also nice to see him break out the 7 string guitars again after they were hardly used over the last two albums.
John Myung proves on this album why he is one of the most underrated bass players in the world. His work melding in with the keyboards and guitars is truly amazing. He manages to find a perfect place to sit between the keys and guitars and navigates the madness in some places with the skills of a truly brilliant bass player. The standout song for me on the bass would have to be On The Backs Of Angels. You can hear he is there, you can hear him balance the mix and you can hear that he will clearly not get bored of playing the song. Myung gets overlooked as a bass player far too often, he is one of the world's greatest. And if you needed further proof, his little bass solos in Outcry are just baffling. How someone can play a neck that big, with strings that thick like that is mind boggling.
I've always had a love hate relationship with James LaBrie's vocals. On some songs he can sound amazing, in some he can sound very weak and not suitable at all for the band. On this album, he's never sounded better. I think its down to the fact that he's had a more active role in writing this time and he can tailor the lines to suit him without stepping on people's creative toes. Bridges In The Sky, Lost Not Forgotten and Outcry show him at his absolute best. Mixing soft singing with epic power choruses, he does exactly what he needs for the songs and in some cases exceeds my previous expectations of what he can do.
There's plenty of extra stuff jammed into the songs that have been hinted at before but never really implemented. Besides the obvious keyboard stuff, there's lots of little samples and electronic noises punctuating some of the intros and quieter sections of the songs. There's choirs, throat singing (no, really, listen to Bridges In The Sky), static, noise and even the much lamented keyboard patch: Orchestra Hits.
Dream Theater sound comfortable with themselves for the first time since Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence. This album should keep all fans of DT happy. It sounds classic enough to satisfy those who want another Images & Words and it sounds new enough to satisfy the audience they've gained since they went to Roadrunner. I don't think its the best album they've ever done, but musically, lyrically and production wise, they've hit the ground running on this new chapter of DT. I was worried that without Portnoy they wouldn't be able to come out with anything matching their previous quality seeing as he was such a major driving force behind them. I'm happy to say that they've surpassed my expectations and come out with an album that raises the bar for quality significantly.
They'll never write another Images & Words, but its nice to know that after nearly 30 years as a band they can weather a drastic change and still put out something this good.