Via Roadrunner site, tantalizing early news regarding Dream Theater‘s upcoming, self-titled new album. Has it really been 2 years since the Long Island quintet released their last, aptly-titled, A Dramatic Turn of Events? Where did that time go?
ADToE was apt for two reasons: as long-time followers were aware at the time, it marked the band’s first studio release and tour without founding-member and ‘back seat’ driving-force, drummer Mike Portnoy. Although Portnoy was never a principal songwriter, his immersion in DT‘s career trajectory in every other way – de facto spokesperson, fan club manager, (co) producer (with guitarist, John Petrucci) oftentimes lyricist, backing vocalist and over-arching musical director – gave him enormous influence within the DT organisation.
Happily, ADToE turned out to be DT‘s strongest album since 2005’s Octavarium; dialing back a little on the rock virtuoso showboating to concentrate on more focused songwriting and memorable melodies. Said music was already written by the time the band selected Mike Mangini as a permanent replacement for the departed Portnoy, and his playing, competent and powerful as it is, reflects that. Portnoy, a devotee of the Keith Moon school, demonstrated a propensity for elevating percussion to almost lead-instrument position. Intricate fills vied for attention with Petrucci‘s guitar pyrotechnics or doubled Jordan Rudess‘ synth lines; cymbal splashes and double-bass figures provided signature, omnipresent punctuation. In playing around existing, almost-finished compositions, Mangini created parts that were sympathetic whilst taken down a notch: DT‘s signature sound very much present and correct yet subtly-different. This time around he‘s been involved from the off, so it’ll be interesting to see how that affects the dynamic of the music. Will his parts sit so unobtrusively – albeit tightly – within the compositions as before or will the confidence gained from two years touring allow his percussive personality to take the fore and pull the band in new directions?
Progressive bands ought to progress after all. Whether or not you cared for all the resulting music, there’s no doubt that changes of line-up and circumstance forced protagonists of the old-guard – Yes, Genesis, Crimson – to try out new ideas, instrumentation and styles. If DT have been guilty of one musical crime over the years, it’s pushing the limits of their virtuoso talents at times at the expense of their songwriting and lyrical development and the abandonment of strong melody in favour of dizzying speed and tricky rhythmic shifts. 2007’s Systematic Chaos was perhaps their nadir in this respect: In the Presence of Enemies part 1 was a storming opener, Forsaken a great power ballad and Atonement perhaps the most satisfying segment of the 12-Step suite since it began way back on 6DOIT (and I liked, and miss Portnoy‘s embrace of contrasting, death-influenced vocal stylings). But there was far too much instrumental wankery elsewhere, and Petrucci – a patchy lyricist at best – really let the side down on the lyric front with some cringeworthy Dungeons & Dragons cliches. Black Clouds & Silver Linings (2009) was a partial return, still struggling lyrically, albeit back in the real world but worth a punt for Petrucci‘s lovely power ballad, Wither, and epic album-bookends A Nightmare to Remember and The Count of Tuscany – the latter a career highlight up there with Blind Faith, Hell’s Kitchen/Lines in the Sand and the mighty Octavarium suite in my opinion. And by the time ADToE rolled out they really hit a new stride, songwise, with only Lost Not Forgotten and Outcry outstaying their welcome, and This Is the Life, Far From Heaven and Beneath the Surface demonstrating genuine, ‘tug-the-heartstrings’ mastery of emotional and melodic nuance. Build Me Up, Break Me Down had a pleasing, contemporary pop rock sensibility about it, too; and I for one would love to see DT develop this aspect of their oevre (mind you, I like Falling Into Infinity, which was made under commercial sufferance and is none the worse for it – not a popular opinion, mind) so I’d be curious to hear what they could come up with if they discovered their poppier sensibilities of their own volition, much as Marillion did with .com or Crimson circa Discipline).
Self-titling their 12th studio album could be read (as Petrucci implies, above) as a statement of intent; an attempt to record the definitive Dream Theater long-player. For many, that accolade belongs to their second album, 1992’s Images and Words, though the aforementioned Octavarium is also a critical and fan favourite. In truth, though, their fanbase well reflects the adage that you can’t please all of the people, all of the time; and the record is sure to divide the following once again. For me, they haven’t produced an album of wall-to-wall brilliance for a long time: Octavarium came damn close, but given the upward curve since Systematic Chaos I’m expecting good things.
In the meantime, here’s a few personal highlights from the band’s career to date: