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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Dream Theater

A Dramatic Turn of Events

Review by Dan Fredrickson

Fans of Dream Theater will be very happy with this CD; it has everything that their fans would hope to hear.   Magnum opuses abound, as does Dream Theater’s delightful habit of having different band members play different riffs (many of them jaw-droppingly difficult) in such a way that the first listen may cause even the staunchest listener to reach for an aspirin bottle, while the fourth and fifth listenings will inspire fascination at all the things that were originally unheard in the midst of the confusion.   When I listen to a new Dream Theater CD, I’ve found it helps to start with small bites.

Long-time devotees were concerned about the replacement of original drummer Mike Portnoy by new member Mike Mangini, and the fears can be laid to rest.   Mike Mangini is an excellent drummer and fits well with the virtuousi who now surround him.   The only caveat is that Mike Mangini is not one of the creative leaders of Dream Theater.   Before this CD, the band seemed to be in the creative hands of Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci; now it is in the hands of Petrucci.   Mangini serves well as a sort-of glue that holds the rest of the band together.   Previously, it often seemed by contrast as if it were the rest of the band serving to hold Portnoy together.

In summation, buy this CD.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
On The Backs of Angels

Almost like “A Change of Seasons,” this starts with a quiet guitar playing a theme that teases the listener because the accents don’t quite fall where they are expected to, and then progresses into a thickly-produced anthem.    More accessible than many other first tracks of theirs throughout the years, this song resists the tendency to take the concept of polyphony to their usual envelope-pushing extremes.   It retains the idea that anthems such as this should have a hummable tune even while the keyboardist, Jordan Rudess, is going nuts between verses.   Well written and arranged, this track got them a Grammy nomination.

Build Me Up, Break Me Down

This is at its heart a heavier, rowdier, more guitar/bass driven metal rocker, in the vain of “Caught in a Web.”   Heavy guitar and bass riffs define the verses, with thick orchestral keyboards thrown into the choruses and the quiet gloomy fading coda.

Lost Not Forgotten

This track is timed at 10:11.   For the first 1:42, this is the dullest, least interesting bit on the entire CD.   An introductory theme is repeated ad nauseum.   The chord progressions are predictable and come at the listener like a stately royal grand parade of bland oatmeal.   Then at the 1:42 mark, the piece takes off like a rocket.   Everything after that moment is interesting and impressive, including the vocal melody.   Between lines of verse are wildly unpredictable energetic filler, and between verses the band digresses from the central theme with medleys of refreshingly diverse styles, none of which go on long enough to become boring.   The arrangement features intricate interplay between the musicians.   Then at 9:49, the intro theme is reprised - only once, thank goodness.

This Is the Life

This offering will please the fans of Dream Theater’s quiet, more melodic side.   The band take a break from any presto vivace fireworks and tones things down, as happens sooner or later on each of their albums.   These songs can be a hit-or-miss proposition with Dream Theater.   Sometimes they are very good (i.e., “Hollow Years” or “Another Day”) and sometimes not so good (i.e., “The Silent Man” or “The Spirit Carries On”)   This is one of the better ones, well written, and well delivered by the singer, James LaBrie.

Bridges in the Sky

Dream Theater fans will love this song, and those who hate Dream Theater will find that this track typifies everything that they hate about the group.   It has the energy of a six-pack of Red Bull and keeps things moving (especially the listener), but it sounds as if it was composed by one member of the band (Petrucci?) who riffed on his instrument aimlessly and mindlessly, uninspired, around one central tonic note, wrote down what he did, and then submitted his work to the other musicians, who dutifully learned it (except for Rudess, who takes the liberty of using sheet music on stage) so that they could play along with it.   For the verses and choruses, even though the melody isn’t bad, they used a tried-and-true chord structure curiously devoid of any hooks.   I get the impression that this song was written quickly and without much energy --  even though the cut itself does have a lot of energy, and that alone will make many Dream Theater fans (and fans of energy in general) like it.   Maybe they were saving their creative juices for other songs.   Using taped exotic throat singers in the intro and outro didn’t help.

Outcry

Here we hear the creativity that was missing in the last song.   The instrumental phrases are more effective, the interplay between musicians more intricately thought out (even in the subdued sections), and the structure more complicated.   The keyboard ambience is quietly moody, and the vocal tones are varied as the song progresses, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting.   Early in the piece, measures crop up from time to time that have extra beats in them, foreshadowing the finger-flying chaos that defines the middle section of the piece.   If “Bridges in the Sky,” Track 5, didn’t work for me, Track 6 here more than makes up for it.

Far From Heaven

This is short and sweet.   Although the songwriting credits go to LaBrie, Petrucci and Rudess, this sounds like it was written by James LaBrie for James LaBrie.   Even if it wasn’t, it sounds like it was.   The spotlight here is all on him, and he sings it in good “Waiting For Sleep” style.

Breaking All Illusions

Once again, Dream Theater demonstrates that generally they are not very good at writing songs; so very many of them are unremarkable.   Dream Theater is, however, fantastic and unparalleled in writing instrumental middle sections and codas.   Even when they aren’t flying like a group of Paganinis on steroids, they have a way of making their instrumental sections so interesting and entertaining that I can’t multitask during them.   They demand my attention.   They keep exploring new things to do.   They will learn each other’s riffs and play along, except in different time signatures - or different keys.   They’ll add a beat or two to every fourth measure.   They’ll combine different styles and play medleys where the tone of the piece changes every eight bars.   They will bury melodies into duets and trios in such a way that some of the notes of the melody line are played on a guitar and some on a keyboard.   It is these middle eights (usually much more than eight though, technically speaking) and codas that I love most about Dream Theater.   I have never heard any other band come close to doing the things that they do.   But here’s the flip side:   The amazing instrumental sections that Dream Theater produces for their songs often have no relation to the songs that contain them.   They seem like interchangeable building blocks inserted at whim when they need a building block.   They could play a song on stage and insert an instrumental section from a different song, and unless the listener had paid scrupulous attention to the CD, many times, and knew the song intimately, he would be none the wiser.   In fact, sometimes live they construct lengthy instrumental medleys out of these building blocks, and it takes great concentration on the part of their biggest, most loyal and attentive fans to not only know which building blocks come from which songs, but to even know when they are switching from one building block to the next.   I don’t think they are out to move us.   They are out to impress us.   And they do.

Beneath The Surface

In this final song, the band, and James LaBrie in particular, are not out to impress us.   They are out to move us.   And they do.

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