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When the departure of Mike Portnoy surfaced a year ago, the level of panic and outcry was astonishing. How could Dream Theater possibly continue to exist with one of its three founding members gone? Portnoy had been the most driving force behind the band on their most recent albums, so what direction would they be able to take? Could they continue to write good music?
I, for one, was not concerned, as I had long since begun to find Portnoy's disproportionate influence over the band's songwriting to be troublesome. Although, I greatly enjoyed Black Clouds & Silver Linings and decided that both Systematic Chaos and Octavarium had their moments that made them worthwhile, Dream Theater's music was becoming stale. I welcomed Portnoy's departure because so long as the band stayed together, it meant one thing for certain: change.
So, when I unwrapped A Dramatic Turn of Events a few days ago and heard the first notes ring through my headphones, it was with an open mind that I did so. I began listening on the premise that I knew this album had to be different. I understood that Dream Theater was going to do some things they hadn't done before, and I was okay with that. The album did not disappoint. I made a point to listen to it several times through before writing a review. I felt overwhelmed after my first time listening through the album. There's a lot going on and there's a lot to digest.
Previews of the album I read elsewhere criticized the album as not having any standout tracks, and after my first listen, I felt that this seemed an accurate statement. However, my opinion changed on subsequent listens. It's not that there are no standout songs. It's that they're all of good quality. It can be said immediately that the opener, On the Backs of Angels is outstanding and is absolutely a contender for the best song on the album. But what about the rest of it?
Well, Dream Theater gives us an interesting prospect on this album: four of the songs are over ten minutes in length. Four epics? Yes. Lost Not Forgotten, Bridges in the Sky, Outcry, and Breaking All Illusions all qualify as epics based on their length. The question is whether or not they truly live up to that name. In my opinion, three of them do.
Lost Not Forgotten gets my approval as my favorite song on the album. It's an odd one, to be sure. Jordan Rudess had promised in interviews that this album would have more piano on it, and Lost Not Forgotten opens with a piano solo. And might I add, it's very well executed and tastefully done. Dream Theater then puts on a grand legato introductory section before getting into the riffs, which are simple given their history, but effective. What really gets my attention, however, is the section beginning around 4:25, which is strongly reminiscent of Images and Words, Awake, and Scenes from a Memory. The riff work and the melodic interludes remind me of Metropolis Pt.1 and some passages from Pt.2. Again, the memories surface at 6:22, with heavy influence from Rudess. The solo section lasting from 7:10 to 9:00 is perhaps my favorite passage by Dream Theater in over a decade, even giving me fond memories of the widely-panned Falling Into Infinity (which I liked).
Bridges in the Sky has the album's heaviest riff work and the album's most memorable chorus. Plus, I like to think of it as the album's pseudo-title-track. This track is also filled with homages to the band's excellent past work, featuring an extended solo section that similar to the closing section of Home from Scenes from a Memory. Breaking All Illusions, in a similar vein, harkens back to Dream Theater's earlier days when their sound was characterized by being both heavy and light at the same time. The opening riff to Breaking All Illusions makes it perfectly clear where the track is headed - down memory lane, and in a good way.
But no, the album is not all wonderful. Outcry is a disappointing track, mostly because it doesn't feel like it ever goes anywhere. It's just long and doesn't have any major shifts in tone or tempo. Also, it contains the album's most egregious offense: the electronica/hip-hop/rap-style synthesizer beats. Outcry, along with the album's "radio single" Build Me Up, Break Me Down, contains awful, AWFUL sections of synth work which sound like they belong on MTV or VH1 and are absolutely guaranteed to offend fans of heavy metal everywhere. This was by far the biggest shock to me on my initial run through the album. After the overwhelming awesome that was On the Backs of Angels, the very next thing your ears hear is an introductory section that sounds like it was written by Slipknot perhaps thirteen years ago. It's a shame, because otherwise, there isn't anything that's necessarily terrible about either song. They just aren't very good. Additionally, I'll give it to Dream Theater that Build Me Up, Break Me Down is a long shot better than some of their previous attempts at radio-friendly songs, such as Forsaken and The Answer Lies Within.
And lastly, the album's mellow side. This Is the Life, Far From Heaven, and Beneath the Surface are all ballads. This Is the Life is the one most likely to please the fans, as it's very much in the vein of some of the band's previous smoother songs. Far From Heaven and Beneath the Surface, however, feature something we haven't seen from Dream Theater in over a decade: primary focus on James LaBrie's vocals. Not since Scenes From a Memory have we seen Dream Theater make songs like this. They aren't metal at all, so if you're looking for riffs in these songs you may as well give up. What's important is the emotion in LaBrie's voice and the quality of the lyrics. I can assure you that both outstanding and upon hearing them the first time I was on the verge of tears.
So the production? The quality of performance? Nothing less than top-notch from everyone involved, even Mike Mangini. I don't think there's anyone who can legitimately knock Mangini for his technical prowess. He is in no way lacking in that department. The big unanswered question is whether or not he's going to be a major contributing force like Portnoy was. We don't know yet. He didn't write anything for the album; he merely played his parts. What can be said without question, however, is that he plays them very well. The other members of the band are obviously at the peak of their game as they have been for some time now, but notably more present on this album are Jordan Rudess and James LaBrie, who have parts that stand out significantly more noticeably than in many years (and those parts are good).
The verdict: this album is great. It is not an instant classic or even among the best in Dream Theater's catalog, but it's well-executed and easily on par with their previous release, Black Clouds & Silver Linings. The key is the album's different direction. I love it and look forward to hearing Dream Theater release more new material with this lineup in the future. Until then, we'll see how well it's received.