As I haven’t listened to any other Dream Theater albums, I’m just going to judge this as I hear it. I did see a youtube video which was promoting the launch of the album, which told how long time drummer Mike Portnoy suddenly decided to leave the band, which left an emotional reaction for the other band members… (paraphrasing:) “we’ve shared everything, we’ve been at each other weddings, christenings, family funerals… and now after 20 years you just cut us off…”
The video goes on to audition different drummers…”we are so lucky that the best drummers in the world are lining up to play with us” and the drummers generally express their awe… “these guys have been my heroes all my life, and now I can audition to be one of them??” In the end, genius drummer Mike Mangini, the first one auditioned, won the job and so gave up his prestigious teaching job at Berklee College of Music. This college is also where the original 3 members of DT had met up and formed the band, some 25 years earlier.
Some of the aspects of the band’s sound I’m about to describe in this review will probably seem obvious to DT fans, as they are probably common elements of their sound across their album discography… but as I said, I’m just taking it as I hear it.
One thing that surprises me is that I expect the angst of rock/ metal driven guitars to be accompanied by a hard voice like Motorhead’s or Metallica’s but DT’s singer has more of a 80′s ballad/ soft rock voice. I first assumed that it must be the guitarist’s voice and so not the focus of the music, but I was surprised to find that the band must have actively sought out a vocalist in this style, as he joined in 1991 after many other singers had auditioned. Ok, here goes my track-by-track breakdown:
Track 1, On the Backs of Angels
A guitar arpeggio with a phase effect starts the track off. I can hear right from the outset that Dream Theater like to play with rhythms, adding little tags that take it away from its natural 4/4.
As the main beat comes in, a type of “orchestral voices” keyboard sound is also heard, reminiscent of the 80s. I notice throughout the album that this is part of the DT vocabulary.
Then for the verse section, there is a hard guitar/bass/drums rhythmic unison riff, mainly around one note, again with complex rhythm, thrash style. This track has real character. The introduction extends as far as 2 minutes 30, when the vocals enter.
The chorus has a nice sequence of slash chords, almost reminiscient of a rock James Bond Theme.
John Petrucci (guitarist) lets out quite a controlled neo-classical guitar solo (6:00) leading to a final unison tag, choruses and then ending with that great thrash riff again.
Track 2, Build me up, Break me down
Bit of an electro vibe to this one… starts with a drum machine before real drums kick in. Nice broken chord rock line starts with driving energy and some harmonics for extra grittiness.
Quite a pop chorus, almost an 80s rock power ballad feel to it. I wonder if this message of “you build me up, you break me down, until I’m falling to pieces” is related to the writers’ relationship with the departed drummer, who knows?
More orchestral keyboard sounds.. some satanic screaming, yelling in the background. Maybe the subject matter of this could be even deeper than I first thought!
After 4:00 there’s a nice classical style rock guitar solo. The structure of this track is simple compared to many others on the album. Evocative string ending, perhaps a bit of Eastern mystery to it…
Track 3, Lost not Forgotten
This continues from track 2, but with a dramatic piano introduction.
Kick drum and bass guitar combine with unusual rhythm. Piano and guitar then join with unison riff, followed by eccentric fast guitar motif, overdubbed with octave above.
Steady thrash riff follows for vocal intro.
Some very complicated rhythmic movements here- the main riff having different tags each time. The fact that most of the main musicians met at Berklee makes sense, because these parts must be written out, they’re so complicated!
At 4:50 there’s a mainstream 4/4 rock section, almost Def Leppard. Then gets really progressive after 6:00… Bach counterpoint at some point?
Imaginative and skillful guitar solo journeying through Classical > Blues > Fusion > Eastern…
Finish off with a spacey synthesiser solo reminding me of the Van Halen days…
The drum breaks on this track would be perfect for aspiring prog-rock drummers to practise too- if they were very, very good!
Track 4, This is the Life
Guitar arpeggio intro in 5/8.
A wistful subject matter… perhaps the meaning of life. The main theme has a country rock 6/8 feel. No musical acrobatics on this one, the focus is the song.
The verse and choruses comfortably move between 5 and 6 beat cycles. As the song gets halfway through, again it draws from the 80s rock anthem genre, and as James LaBrie raises his voice… it reminds me of one of those famous pop/ rock themes sung by Peter Cetera in that era.
Track 5, Bridges in the Sky
Sounds of nature, a beating drum and a murmurring, (digeridoo?) croaky voice sound then haunting church choir harmonies envelop the surroundings… a really interesting introduction to… a thrash riff!
A hammond organ joins into the throng, reminiscent perhaps of John Lord in Deep Purple.
This 11-minute track has 3 personalities! The first 4 or 5 minutes alternate between a hard thrash riff and then a mainstream sounding chorus which culminates in a syrup-sweet “At last the time as come, to unite again as one”. The third personality is a complicated unison riff on an Eastern scale, perhaps a touch of klezmer. I would say that the elements of this track don’t bind together as well as Track 1, which has a similar spirit.
Track 6, Outcry
This starts similarly to track 2 in that there are processed drum sounds and loops at the beginning that are also reintroduced later. Impressive, powerful 4/4 guitar riff signifies the main theme. Flawless guitar work as usual from JP, using muted riffs and deep powerchords.
The aspect that doesn’t work for me in this track is that the rousing lyrics speak of freedom and rebellion but the music that accompanies it doesn’t inspire that message, it seems too lacklustre.
More musical rhythmic and scalar acrobatics ensue… and approaching the 9 minute mark, a tangential laidback groove (that would belong in an insurance ad!) arrives with a soothing piano melody. Reading the lyrics, I can’t tell if the writer JP is referring to a particular war… “The world watches on/ While we risk our lives/ Locked in a kingdom of fear/ As our children die”… perhaps sending American troops to foreign wars?
Track 7, Far from Heaven
This one pretty much goes through a standard piano-ballad formula with a Robbie Williams style vocal… though James LaBrie probably cut his teeth well before RW! Lyrics and melody again seem uninspired… I get the feeling this was put in the album due to time constraints!
Track 8, Breaking all Illusions
Nice to hear this track has more energy… I think the highlight is at about 7:00… JP does a great bluesy solo over a slow beat à la Dave Gilmour or Carlos Santana.
Track 9, Beneath the Surface
Although this appears melodically to be quite a cheesy tune that you might find on an advert, the introspective and slightly disturbing lyrics make this song work, as the contrast of the major key melody with the subject matter of darkness and pain keeps your interest going…
My overall impression of this album is that it was really important for them to get this out of their system, as a new band forging a new identity. Mike Mangini had a lot of energy and wanted to prove he was up to the task on this one. He didn’t contribute to the writing of this album but on the following album he did, so I expect the sound of that album will be more cohesive and assured in its delivery. There is brilliant musicianship in this album… amazing speed and technique, and some very dramatic and rowsing themes, like Track 1. I do think though that it loses its way in the middle of the album (5,6,7), some parts sounding like a musical chops/ rhythm exercise. And perhaps a bit too much of the middle eastern scale used… it loses its effect after a while.
I’m really looking forward to listening to their latest album (Dream Theater – 2013), to hear how they write together as a band! Dream Theater is clearly unique in its approach to its genre… they push the boundaries technically. And as a musician myself, it’s also reassuring to know that you can keep innovating in your 40s and 50s!