Album Review: Dream Theater’s A DRAMATIC TURN OF EVENTS

There’s been quite a lot of drama over the past year for progressive metal band Dream Theater. In September 2010, drummer Mike Portnoy, one of the founding members, shocked everyone when he announced he would be leaving the band. He had served as spokesperson, co-producer for many of their albums (along with guitarist John Petrucci), and mastermind of the infamous rotating tour set lists. I’m not going to go into all of the gory details of the situation here, but it is sufficient to say that Portnoy wanted to go on an extended hiatus, while the rest of the band did not.

After auditioning several drummers, the band chose Mike Mangini to fill the empty spot behind the drum kit. In January 2011, the guys stepped into the studio to record what may be their most highly anticipated album ever. Everyone has been dying to know how the band would sound without Portnoy’s distinctive flair.

Well, Dream Theater fans may now breathe a sigh of relief. A Dramatic Turn of Events has seamlessly integrated Mangini into the band’s trademark style while expanding into new sonic worlds. The album has a wonderful sense of balance – a great mixture of progressive rock and metal, instrumental solos which never turn into wanking, and the ebb and flow of intensity not only between headbanging tunes and mellow ballads but also in the songs themselves. This is the first album that I have truly loved since Train of Thought.

Portnoy’s departure seems to have allowed the rest of the guys’ creative forces to flow more freely than they have in years. Bassist John Myung made his first contribution to the lyrics since 1994’s Awake, and, in several interviews, described his increased involvement in writing the music. Vocalist James LaBrie may be experiencing the most liberation of all. Previously, he had always recorded his vocals under Portnoy’s direction. This time, he chose to record on his own in Canada with engineer Richard Chycki. I never understood why Portnoy had directed LaBrie in the first place; his four amazing solo albums show that he doesn’t need to be told how to sing. And now that LaBrie has been let off the leash, he has turned out a nuanced and masterful performance.

In several interviews, John Petrucci mentioned that he wanted this album to reassure fans that Dream Theater is still the same band, even though they have a new drummer (Petrucci shares the stories behind each of the songs in an excellent interview on musicradar.com). The first track, “On the Backs of Angels” immediately gives a sense of being at home with the Dream Theater style we all know and love. The opening guitar riff bears a shadowy resemblance to the band’s lone mainstream hit “Pull Me Under” from 1992’s Images and Words. The progressive metal track is fun, but unremarkable. It could fit on any Dream Theater album.

“Build Me Up, Break Me Down” takes an abrupt left turn from the previous track with a surprising mixture of synthesized drums and a fuzzy guitar sound. The song then settles into a sick metal feel with distorted vocals. The catchy chorus explodes with soaring vocal harmonies and choice heavy screams by LaBrie. An instrumental mid-section experiments with electronic effects. After a return to the chorus, the song melts into a classical-style coda with synthesized strings. The sound of the wind blowing encroaches upon and then replaces the string melody, leading into the next track.

“Lost Not Forgotten” tells the tale of an ancient elite Persian fighting force. The wind from the previous track ushers in an acoustic middle-eastern piano melody, giving a sense of being carried back in time. Then the rest of the band joins in and harmonizes the melody. The track’s heavy riffs, intricate rhythms, and intense orchestration remind me of the infamous “Dance of Eternity” off of 1999’s Scenes from a Memory. My favorite instrumental moment takes place about six minutes into the song, where the keyboards and guitar alternate with the bass and drums to create a melody which fits together like pieces of a puzzle.

“This Is the Life” is a rocking power ballad with an uplifting message about appreciating the time we are given in this world. It’s the first of three mellow tunes on the album which allow the band to express their softer side in a way that I have missed in their more recent albums. LaBrie fans will relish his breathy vocals near the beginning of the song. A goose-pimple worthy moment evolves near the end of the song when Petrucci’s passionate guitar solo unites with LaBrie belting it out in the highest range of his vocal register.

“Bridges in the Sky” takes an epic journey into the forces of the four earthly elements. In the most memorable opening since “Home” from Scenes from a Memory, a sample of throat-singing heralds the entrance of an ethereal choir. The dream shatters with a roar from the heavy metal guitars, bass, and drums. The track strikes a balance between dark, chromatically narrow riffs sections and harmonically bright, open choruses. The song is also a great showcase for Mangini’s blazingly fast technique.

“Outcry” creates a militaristic sonic depiction of uprisings against oppression in Middle East. The opening percussion effects resemble the sound of an army marching. The rest of the band joins in with a groove that digs into the ground like the heels of a soldier’s boots. The instrumental solo portion features machine-gun rapid bursts of modal scales.

“Far from Heaven”, the second of the aforementioned ballads, is LaBrie’s largest creative contribution to the album. His tender vocals shimmer over a sparse backing of vocals, piano, strings, and bass. This is also the only track for which LaBrie wrote lyrics.

“Breaking All Illusions” is diverse mini epic with introspective lyrics by Myung and Petrucci. The track elegantly pastes together classical, jazzy, and 70s-style progressive sections. The opening features one of Myung’s more audible and complex solos. The middle section has a wonderful extended solo by Petrucci. After a sultry meditation of jazz scales over a psychedelic keyboard accompaniment, the solo bubbles into shredding guitar madness. Another interesting aspect of this track is the spoken word section by sound engineer Paul Northfield. According to user bogie on dreamtheaterforums.org, the words are two quotes from Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran:

“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars

“Beneath the Surface” is a ballad so beautiful that when I listened to it in my car, I nearly forgot where I was driving. A particularly breathtaking moment takes place near the end when LaBrie vaults into the highest range of his vocal register. The track brings the album to a satisfying end in the same way that a sweet dessert finishes off a delicious meal.

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