When Black Clouds & Silver Linings hit back in 2009, we (meaning Zach Duvall and Lone Watie) reviewed it as a panel of critics / long term fanboys of Dream Theater. We had already spent hours discussing Dream Theater through the magic of internet chat, and realized we had similar feelings about the band’s recent struggles, namely the nosedive of Octavarium and general bore of Systematic Chaos. Black Clouds left us both fairly optimistic for the future, as it was undoubtedly a strong move in the right direction, bringing back interesting songwriting to the usual wank-a-thon that the band had begun to rely upon. But it wasn’t a complete return to form.
We are thus using the same approach for the band’s eleventh proper studio effort, A Dramatic Turn of Events. Below you’ll find reflections on the years since Black Clouds and an in-depth discussion of the new offering.
Oh, yeah, and there’s also the whole matter of Mike Portnoy’s less-than-graceful exit to discuss. That’s something right? Might even call it dramatic, and a turn of events? Yes? Yes.
Zach Duvall: Okay Johnny, you and I have spent an awful lot of time discussing our enthusiasm over A Dramatic Turn of Events, but before we get into that, I feel we should set some background first, agreed?
Lone Watie: Agreed, lest unqualified enthusiasm betray unbridled fanboyism. Seriously, though, we’ve been pretty critical of these guys over the years. Despite a pretty rational understanding of opinion’s fickle nature, I’d always had a hard time understanding how anybody could not just absolutely love Dream Theater… until that pair of stinkers plopped. Black Clouds was so relatively fresh that I think it short-circuited my objectivity just a bit.
ZD: Yep, there is zero doubt that my enthusiasm for Black Clouds was a bit much. It is a good album to be sure, and far stronger than the two that preceded it, but it still isn’t of the quality I came to expect of Dream Theater during their best years. It was almost as if I was forcing myself to like certain aspects. Plus, I’ll admit to not having spun it a lot in the time since its release (although the covers album that came with it still kicks ass).
LW: Yeah, far from blind fawning – it is a good album – but I do suppose we ask for a mulligan on that one. Admittedly, Black Clouds’ relative quality issues only really came to the fore once Mike Portnoy decided to take a break and the rest of the band respectfully agreed to extend it to a permanent leave of absence. The prospect of a new album sans Portnoyisms was like a harbinger of resurrection written in the stars.
ZD: Well you’ve heard me bitch about said Portnoyisms forever. There were his on-stage antics…
LW: I once saw him bomb Mikael Åkerfeldt with dinner rolls from off stage.
ZD: …But mostly it was his utterly unlistenable background vocals that had me feeling long ago that he had turned into a distraction. Lots of long-time fans were shocked, but I found myself strangely apathetic to his ouster. Because of this, I was myself curious and even quite optimistic about where they might go with the new offering, and I must say, they did not disappoint.
So here we go, the new album. What was instantly striking about A Dramatic Turn of Events for me was how, after a couple hey-how-ya-doing listens, I didn’t have to try in the least to like these songs, I just did. And just a few more spins reminded me of exactly why late-teens Zach was addicted to this band.
LW: It’s a natural listen. They’ve achieved an easy flow that we haven’t heard consistently since Six Degrees. I love Mike, but given recent events, the notion that the band’s creative process benefits immensely from his absence is unavoidable.
ZD: It’s hard to avoid that conclusion. I don’t want to credit everything about the success of this album to Portnoy’s absence, because 1. he was such an important part of this band for years and 2. that would lower me to the level he’s acted at for months now. But really, it’s like the jackassery and bullshit has been stripped away. No more tossed-in rap sections; no more of Portnoy’s goddamn awful voice ruining would-be gorgeous passages. Mostly, this is a refocus on songs as opposed to the usual masturbatory inclinations the band had long since relied upon. It’s natural, not a winding labyrinth of technicality that is unnecessarily challenging the listener.
LW: No doubt there’s a new focus on focus here. Even the wanky stretches are less wanky, more refined and integral to the bigger sound. There are times I almost feel as if I’m discovering Dream Theater all over again; a return to the glory days, if you’ll excuse the cliché(s).
ZD: Yep, glory days indeed. Dramatic Turn has far more in common with Images and Words and Awake than it does some of the over-stretched albums of the last decade, or even excellent work like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Passages like the instrumental madness in “Outcry” both bring this to mind and just plain get me happy as swine in swill. I hear some tried-and-true old tools as well, like the “alternate second verse” method perfected in classics like “Take the Time” and “Voices.” It is used brilliantly and beautifully in “Lost Not Forgotten,” really lending direction and infection to that one.
LW: “Lost Not Forgotten” is full of goodness. Powerful and inspired and heavy in an unstoppable wave kind of way. That, together with the infectiousness of the chorus and the poignant beauty of the bridge — it’s one that defines the band’s greatness. I love the tricky little extra riff between the third and fourth lines of the chorus.
A lot of this record’s appeal seems to be a function of that call to ye olden days. “Outcry” is a great track and its Petrucci v. Rudess bits are absolutely classic, but it’s also made up of approximately 80% stuff from other albums. I think I’m okay with that for now, but I can see how it might not sit well with some.
ZD: Yeah, there might eventually be a downside to the lack of forward thinking, but in this case it’s a saving grace. Dramatic Turn doesn’t really try anything new, but a lot of the new stuff that Dream Theater tried over a few albums was crapola, so I’m fine with them looking back to move forward. The results are pretty damn impressive all over, despite what one guy thought of it.
LW: Oh, that guy. He who claims to have deciphered a pattern in the composition of the new album’s songs suggesting that Dream Theater wrote new notes over the existing song structures of Images & Words. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong but it seems disingenuous, especially when Portnoy cuts in like Kanye at the VMA’s to say he noticed it, too, and that it’s “incredibly strange.” I wish he’d have just manned up and defended the band’s integrity.
It is pretty funny how often the cry from fans (ourselves included) is for a band to get back to its roots, only to be followed by cries of self-plagiarism when familiar songs hit the air.
ZD: Okay, let me get this straight. If this guy is indeed suggesting that Dramatic Turn copies Images and Words, does that mean aggro-rocker “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” is this album’s version of “Another Day?” Stupid. I mean, I can hear some parallels, particularly a few sections of “Breaking All Illusions” resembling “Learning to Live,” but the melodies and finished songs sound far different, not to mention goddamn awesome. So what if a band vaguely recycles a structure or two, like AC/DC or Opeth have never done just that. And Portnoy bringing it more attention in the press? The man is having a breakdown of Mustaine-ian proportions. Get over it, dude; you’re out of the band. Next topic!
LW: Sure. The whole thing is starting to smell like TMZ, anyway.
ZD: How about how Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci are sounding the best they have in ages on here? Petrucci in particular is back to channeling his two alter egos again. He brings the David Gilmour in his “This Is The Life” solo, and his ability to be a “structured shredder” is in full force in opener “On The Backs of Angels,” adding song development during his featured moment.
LW: So happy to hear Jordan has gotten his discothèque Tourettes under control. His tones are great and I just can’t get enough of those angelic choir notes. The interplay with Petrucci feels organic again. “Breaking All Illusions” is a great example, offering a deferent tip of the hat to the ghosts of prog past. I think restraint is key here. It allows a focus on the intertwining of musical streams, as opposed to pitching a battle between them for sonic space. Everybody sounds really comfortable, for that matter. Labrie is sounding 25 again and wielding a flexibility he’d left behind for a while.
ZD: Being the dick I am, I’m going to credit most of LaBrie’s quality here to merely not having to “harmonize” with Portnoy’s background vocals. But he really does sound great. Long time haters will maintain their hate, and LaBrie still isn’t employing his inner Ronnie James (it really exists people), but there’s no denying that he sounds ultra smooth here, and the way he straddles the line between melodic and ever-so-slightly aggressive in the chorus to “Lost Not Forgotten” is something that the LaBrie-Portnoy tandem was never able to achieve. Mostly because one of the two guys was always out of tune. And sounded like a rusty trombone. Dead horse: beaten.
LW: Neigh, good sir. Still the matter of Mangini to discuss. Super solid and never distracting; the latter an assessment I couldn’t make for most DT records. That said, there are more than a few moments where I expect to hear an avalanche of thumps and bangs and crashes and feel a little weird when they’re not there. Mangini does not do ten second tom rolls.
ZD: Undoubtedly, the only real difference is that Mangini is perhaps a tad more subtle. Not sure Portnoy would have ever been as reserved as his replacement is on the balladry here, but that could be a positive or negative, depending on the listener. Those who never really singled out every little thing Portnoy did could probably hear the album and not notice that he is gone. It still exudes the excellence expected of Dream Theater drumming, regardless of the guy swinging the sticks.
LW: You’d think with Mike’s departure, this would have become “Petrucci’s band” but they’ve alluded to a new freedom in the song-writing process this time around, with LaBrie and Myung playing greater roles. The quality of the product definitely suggests a greater team chemistry.
ZD: No doubt about it, and the result is easily the best they’ve given us since Six Degrees. That says something, as Train of Thought was no slouch. There are more than a couple songs here that could end up being classics, something I can’t say about even one song on the previous three long-players. “Lost Not Forgotten,” “Bridges In The Sky,” “Outcry,” and “Breaking All Illusions” have not left my lobes since they sunk in, and I’m still discovering details within the album that I love. Most importantly, I’m singing along again.
LW: Haha. This is the first from DT in so long that traps me in the parked car until a song is over, singing along, complete with scrunchy face to help me reach the high notes and my fists clenched and raised to the sun-visor. Any song that liberates my inner music dork is okay in my book and this record is loaded to the gills with ‘em.
ZD: I’m even struck by how the stuff that shouldn’t work does. “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” is the closest to the nu-tinged radio fodder of recent albums, but a killer neo-classical section ties it together. I will say however, Dramatic Turn could have been a tad shorter. There isn’t so much fat as there is less-than-lean muscle in a couple places. Like, after “Breaking All Illusions” was it really necessary to close with another ballad in “Beneath the Surface?” It’s a good song, just a tad tacked-on.
LW: Yeah, Petrucci loves his ballads. I’m sort of ambivalent about them by now. I hate “Another Day” but love “Through Her Eyes” in the context of Scenes… But you’re right, this album fares better without the ballads, especially at nearly 80 minutes. Bottom line is that Dramatic Turn is strong enough everywhere else to compensate for the fluff with compelling melody and energized but tastefully restrained soloing.
I have to smile thinking how this record won’t let go and that’s the mark of a Dream Theater that I’ve missed for a long, long time now.
ZD: Yes. Completely. I’m addicted, and actually excited to be a Dream Theater fan again. It’s been a while. Now I need to go see them live for the first time since 2004.
For Black Clouds we offered an open letter to the band on how to complete the rise back to masterful status. No such need this go-round. A Dramatic Turn of Events is, by and large, what we were looking for. Dream Theater returned to form by getting back to what they do best: song-oriented, technical progressive metal. That return is largely defined by a reliance on the proven formula, but it feels sincere again. Their musicianship and virtuosity shine through naturally. The emotion, melodies, structures – which is to say, the songs – feel like they did at the band’s peak(s). No one will ever know whether it was the departure of Mike Portnoy that helped the band rediscover their full range of chops; all we know is that their first album without him is easily their best and most natural in nearly a decade. And, while we’d love to see this renewed energy catalyze something a little less familiar in the future, we’ll take this happily… because it feels like coming home. Prog addicts, rejoice