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A Dramatic Step in the Right Direction - 92%

octavarium, September 16th, 2011

When Mike Portnoy announced his departure from Dream Theater due to conflicting plans with rest of the band, many diehard Dream Theater fans like myself thought it to be one of the worst things to happen. Since the band's inception 20-plus years ago, Portnoy has written half of the songs and produced nearly every album. His fluid and fast-paced drumming earned him the status as one of the best and most respected drummers in metal. But only a year later, the progressive metal outfit was able to regroup and put out a new album with brand new drummer Mike Mangini, another respected metal drummer and no stranger to the band, as he performed on James' LaBrie's solo album Elements of Persuasion. Though the band's ability to so quickly put out a new album and hire a new drummer was truly surprising, A Dramatic Turn of Events ends up being a fresh new chapter in the band's history while retaining the elements that made them great.

The first aspect to address would be the album's biggest change: Mike Mangini. It should be noted that he himself did not write the drum arrangements. Rather, Petrucci previously programmed the drumming and had Mangini learn them after his hiring. Although the drum compositions are not of his own creation, he does a truly remarkable job with his drumming, balancing between rapid-fire and slower tempos perfectly. The only problem is the fact that he had extremely large shoes to fill in the form of Portnoy, who's drumming has always been loud and prominent in every Dream Theater song, while Mangini's are more in the background, which is a pitfall most metal bands fall in. And yet, Mangini is still able to stand out and make use of many of the interesting drum sounds and beats Portnoy himself used.

The songwriting is also worth noting. For the past few years, Portnoy and Petrucci had basically been the sole two songwriters and seemed to call most of the shots when it came to creative control. Not much has changed, as Petrucci remains the main lyricist, but the entire album gives more breathing room to the rest of the band as they are credited with writing the music on almost every song. John Myung's co-writing of Breaking All Illusions is the first song he has penned since Fatal Tragedy in 1999. James LaBrie is also credited as the sole lyricist of Far From Heaven. Though Portnoy's departure was unfortunate, it can be implied that without his creative control along with Petrucci, every individual band member has been given more freedom, which is what makes this album so fresh and new.

The album's title reminds us that this album is all about change, and the musical styling is the most important. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of ten-plus minute songs, long and intricate solos, dynamic vocals by LaBrie, and melody and progression changes that has been the band's staple. After all, Dream Theater's emphasis has always been on musicianship, and that remains the case for this album. But by while still following a similar formula, the band is also able to elevate songs to higher levels, giving each track a sense of granduer and majesty. The opener and lead single, On the Backs of Angels, starts off with a slow acoustic guitar and keyboard section before erupting into a full band effort. The medium pace stays consistent for the entire eight or so minutes and contains a very catchy chorus, giving it a Pull Me Underish feel. The next song, Build Me Up Break Me Down, which is a critique on America's worship and ridicule of troubled celebrities, shows the band's more commercial side with a more straightforward metal feel along with a catchy chorus. It even contains and electronic, almost nu metal-style beginning and ultimately sounds very similar to something you would hear on one of LaBrie's solo albums. The track ends up being one of the album's most pleasant surprises. The album also contains its share of softer songs, with This is the Life and Far from Heaven. Both are sentimental and beautifully composed, especially Far from Heaven, which truly shows James LaBrie's abilities as a songwriter. There are also four songs that clock in at over ten minutes: Lost Not Forgotten, Bridges in the Sky, Outcry, and Breaking All Illusions. Lost Not Forgotten stands out as a track that while it is over ten minutes long, it does not feature only a few minutes of LaBrie's singing, as he remains fairly consistent throughout the whole song. With the song being about an ancient Persian kingdom, there are a few Middle Eastern elements as well. While the grunting sound effects in the intro of Bridges in the Sky are a bit ridiculous, the song is primarily fast-paced and has a strong metal feel along with emotional lyrics delivered perfectly by LaBrie. There is also, of course, an extended instrumental segment. Outcry follows a similar vein, this time with inspirational lyrics of standing up against war and corruption. Unfortunately, LaBrie once again stays out of a good portion of the song. Breaking All Illusions, the penultimate song, serves as a sort of grand finale, and has a very strong and majestic opening with an emotional and awe-inspiring chorus delivered by LaBrie. Though LaBrie once again takes a backseat in the bridge, the instrumentation is absolutely fabulous and features a stunning solo by Petrucci. This is obviously the most important song on the album and one the band clearly took its time in composing. The final song, Beneath the Surface, acts as a sort of cool-down from the energy of Breaking all Illusions, and is one perhaps of the most emotional and finest songs the band has ever written.

With this album promising to bring change to the Dream Theater legacy, the band passes with flying colors in delivering a new and unique experience. Though Mike Portnoy will surely be missed by diehard fans (including yours truly) it may also have been a blessing in disguise. Even though Dream Theater's past few albums have all been exceptional (not to mention underrated) this album acts as almost a fresh breath of air and promises new and exciting things from the band. That was no easy task, considering the loss of one of their main creative forces and one of their most stellar musicians, and doing it all in just one year. A dramatic turn of events indeed!