A very public dispute with drummer and founding member Mike Portnoy developed when he wanted the band to take a hiatus while he continued touring with Avenged Sevenfold in support of that band’s most recent album, “Nightmare,” on which Portnoy played drums after original drummer James “The Rev” Sullivan passed away in 2009. When the rest of Dream Theater decided they didn’t want to take a break, Portnoy made the shocking announced on Sept. 8, 2010, that he was leaving the group so they could carry on without him.
Portnoy is considered by many fans, critics and fellow musicians to be one of the greatest rock drummers in the world. To be fair, the other members — including John Petrucci on guitar, Jordan Rudess on keyboards and John Myung on bass — are considered to be among the best in the world on their respective instruments. However, Portnoy was always the public face of Dream Theater, and the de facto leader was the driving force in countless business and creative decisions over 25 years together.
His exit left fans confused and conflicted about who to support in the split. Frequent arguments erupted online, placing blame on one side or the other. After a few months, it became clear that the split was permanent, and frustration and disappointment gave way to curiosity. What would a post-Portnoy Dream Theater sound like? Who would replace him?
The second question was finally answered last spring when Dream Theater’s label, Roadrunner Records, released a well-produced documentary on YouTube, “The Spirit Carries On,” chronicling the audition process for a new drummer.
Out of the seven candidates, Mike Mangini was selected. A respected session musician, Mangini played with legendary guitarist Steve Vai, taught percussion at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston (where Dream Theater was born), and holds five World’s Fastest Drummer records. In short, he ain’t no slouch. The documentary did a good job of portraying Mangini as a person the fans could root for, and all of sudden, the act’s future seemed less uncertain.
But would Dream Theater still sound like Dream Theater without Portnoy?
On June 29, the band released “On the Backs of Angels,” the first single from the new album, “A Dramatic Turn Of Events,” which came out last month. Also serving as the opening track, the 8:45 “Angels” opens with a lone acoustic guitar, then adds layer after layer before diving into a full-blown epic sound, replete with synthetic symphony and choir.
Two things become immediately clear at this point:
1. Portnoy’s departure hasn’t crippled the band. If anything, it has forced Dream Theater to re-examine themselves and reclaim some of what got lost in the drive to get faster, darker and heavier over the last five years. Whether intentional or not, “Angels” feels like a spiritual successor to the band’s one mainstream hit, “Pull Me Under,” and that’s a good thing for the most part. It’s a focused effort with good variety, some memorable hooks and most of the musical diversions feel organically justified, but still showy enough to please hardcore fans.
2. They made the right choice in Mangini. Not only is his playing amazing, but his integration into the band feels totally effortless. If anything, his performance makes me wish his parts were a little more present in the final mix.
The second track, “Build Me Up, Break Me Down,” is one of the disc’s weakest offerings, squandering some of the goodwill earned by “Angels.” A resentful indictment of interpersonal injustice, the song has some cool ideas, including a kind of industrial vibe that opens the track, but is soon swept aside for a more predictable metal sound. From there, it descends into a softer, forgettable chorus, topped with vocalist James Labrie shrilly delivering the song’s title in a digitally distorted scream. If they had explored the industrial sound more and not worried about rocking out so much, this could have been something special.
Things pick back up in a major way with “Lost Not Forgotten,” a 10-minute, Eastern-influenced epic that opens with a beautiful piano solo reminiscent of the most recent Muse LP. Here again, you have the act fully embracing an epic sensibility, orchestration and chunky guitar harmonies, and it totally works. There is a spastic instrumental section just before the first verse that feels a little unmotivated and ends up standing out as a distraction in an otherwise tightly composed song. It’s got a fierce driving momentum that doesn’t feel too metal. Along with “Angels,” it’s one of Petrucci’s best lyrical offerings here, evocatively telling the story of a legendary warrior leader.
The fourth track, “This Is the Life,” is a slower offering that examines identity and life choices. The song has some nice melancholy moments musically before building to an inspirational crescendo. Overall, however, it sounds like a lot of existing Dream Theater songs, some of which did it better. It became apparent during this number, that one area where Portnoy is missed is in the lyric department, having always divided the majority of writing between him and Petrucci. Portnoy brought a strong point of view to bare, taking on personal issues, like alcoholism. In his absence, Petrucci took on the writing duties on all but two songs, and sadly, the results come off at times as vague, clichéd or impersonal.
“Bridges in the Sky” opens with some wonderful, unexpected throat-singing, followed by a lovely choral and orchestral arrangement. It all ends too soon, replaced with a heavy guitar riff that doesn’t seem to acknowledge anything going on prior to it. While the contrast is nice, it’s just disappointing that the opening elements don’t show up again until the very end. If they had been integrated into the body, the end result would have been something truly special. Instead, the 11-minute track, which deals with spiritual themes of afterlife and rebirth, is a solid, but not wholly memorable piece that features some great throwback moments that recall the band’s first album, “When Dream and Day Unite.”
“Outcry” is a song about struggle and war, and while it features some truly awesome moments, the bulk of the song isn’t particularly inspiring. Things do come to life during an extended instrumental section that takes up nearly 40 percent of the 11:24 run time. If the material on either side of that section were a little less predictable, this would have been one of the standout tracks.
Things slow way down with the record’s shortest track at just under four minutes, the intimate “Far from Heaven.” Labrie’s one lyric credit on the album, “Heaven” has a personal feel that’s missing from the sometimes vague big concept lyrics crafted by Petrucci. Labrie’s gentle vocals are supported solely by a beautiful arrangement of piano and strings. In addition to being a great song on its own, it elegantly sets the stage for the immediately engrossing opening of the album’s true masterpiece.
“Breaking All Illusions” is a dynamic, 12:25 tour de force full of all the variety and surprise that you could hope for in a Dream Theater song. Despite its many time-signature changes and musical detours, the track retains a strong sense of unity. It abandons the crunchy heavy metal, rhythmic guitar parts that plague other tracks on the record in favor of more melodic riffs.
“Illusions” is the most purely progressive song on the album, one in which Dream Theater is not only exploring its roots as a band, but of the genre itself, playfully pulling in a lot of instrument sounds from the ’70s and ’80s. It’s also one of the strongest songs lyrically with some great words by Myung and Petrucci that take on some heady topics of self discovery, perception and transition, but still connect emotionally.
JUST ONE MORE
While the disc could have ended with the bang that is “Illusions,” instead we get another lovely, stripped-down emotional number, with Labrie’s vocals backed only by an acoustic guitar and strings. While it’s a song about the deterioration of a relationship, it has a sense of acceptance and hope for the future — not an inappropriate note to end on, given all that’s transpired and what the band has accomplished with “A Dramatic Turn of Events.”
Teaming up with legendary producer/engineer Andy Wallace, Dream Theater has put together an album that convincingly declares that they are here to stay, but a few weaker songs keep it from being truly great, and at 90 minutes long, one wonders why some of those tracks weren’t pulled. At its best, it recalls elements from the band’s earlier albums and in the end, it’s as good as any of the recent efforts and a step above 2009’s “Black Clouds and Silver Linings.”
While “A Dramatic Turn of Events” proves that Dream Theater is going to survive, it doesn’t do enough to forge a new direction forward. In some ways, it looks they were afraid of truly embracing the opportunity for change. For instance, after all the controversy, the group opted not to include Mangini in the writing process. While I can understand the choice — most likely an effort to protect the sound they think fans expect — I hope that in the future they give him the chance to participate creatively. It might just be the key for Dream Theater to continue to evolve, stay vital and avoid the kind of self-parody that plagues so many good acts that try in vain to preserve a particular sound over the course of their career.
As with previous discs, the band issued multiple versions, including a bare-bones CD, a set that includes the “Spirit Carries On” documentary, and an über box set that contains the above, plus double vinyl and an instrumental version of the album. It’s frustrating that, unlike the previous release where the instrumental version was available at a lower price point, the only way to hear this version is to ante up $105.99.