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A Dramatic Turn of Events marks the first lineup shift for these giants in over a decade, and a welcome change it is. Looking back on Dream Theater’s career, you can easily partition off eras based on the lineup of the band. I have begun to notice even more as Dream Theater discs continue to spin in my player that the Derek-era and the Rudess-era are lacking in something, and upon the release of this album I discovered what that was: heart. A Dramatic Turn of Events is a resurgence of lifeblood for these ailing giants and presents a welcome change from the career direction championed by Mike Portnoy.
Before I talk about the band politics, let me describe why I enjoyed this album from a musical perspective. Yes, many elements of Dream Theater’s sounds still remain: Petrucci’s proggy riffing and speedy solos, LaBrie’s questionable vocals (admittedly getting better as his voice continues to heal from his food poisoning bout), and immense song lengths. This is still most definitely a Dream Theater album. The band, however, does try some new stuff on this album. Rudess’s keyboard work has traditionally been restricted to either ragtime or other piano interludes, intense solos and leads, and barely heard atmospheric keyboards (with the occasional exception). On A Dramatic Turn… we hear some new things from the Wizard. His atmospheric keyboards are all of a sudden audible! And then there’s the techno present in songs like Build Me Up, Break Me Down. This is a point that I believe many will disagree on. I find this stylistic change welcoming, as Rudess has historically been underutilized in my opinion. In addition, while from a technical stand point I enjoyed the progressive styling the group presented in all their work, this more scaled down version is welcome, unlike the version present on Octavarium. What sets these two albums apart is the songwriting. Octavarium was a poorly written album while A Dramatic Turn… has much better songwriting, making the reduced shredding and proggy riffs welcome. In fact, the songs that feature a wealth of these elements fall flat compared to the rest of the album (namely Lost Not Forgotten with its extended technical intro). It’s clear that the band made a conscious shift here, ending up with a better, more song-driven album because of it.
This brings me to the political elements. Removing the Portnoy from the band seems to have freed up the songwriting reigns, allowing those who remain to gain more creative control. It has become evident listening to every album from Scenes from a Memory to Black Clouds… that intense producing control by Portnoy was stifling the band’s songwriting ability. What’s more, Portnoy’s intense control over the band turned LaBrie, Rudess, and Myung into puppets, slaves to the production prowess of Portnoy and Petrucci. Portnoy’s departure freed up the consciousness of the band, turning the puppets into participants in the process. This helped reinvigorate a band formerly run by a haggard work-/alcoholic. At this point, Mangini feels like just a hired hand, his drums featured less prominently than Portnoy’s were and not as invigorating as they could have been, but Mangini did not participate in writing the album, and was instead given programmed drum tracks to learn. I hope Dream Theater makes further use of Mangini in the future, as this would enhance the drum parts.
In summary, Portnoy’s departure was probably the best thing to happen to Dream Theater at this point in their career. The juggernaut has been reinvigorated with new blood and a new perspective on how to approach an album. While this may seem to some very un-Dream Theater (or a bit too Dream Theater to the previous reviewer), I would encourage listeners to look at this the same way they look at Scenes from a Memory following Awake (Falling into Infinity was simply a stop on the road to the next town).