If there’s one thing Dream Theater has as a band, it’s resilience. Still going after 25 years despite numerous setbacks and a few notable member changes. A Dramatic Turn of Events sees them sticking to the ‘new album every 2 years’ formula – a formula that turned drummer Mike Portnoy away a year ago after being instrumental (forgive the pun) to Dream Theater’s inception and musical direction. Now, with new drummer Mike Mangini picking up the sticks, how does their latest offering fare?
Mike vs Mike
It’s pretty difficult to think about the album without taking a close look at Mike Mangini’s new drumming, simply because Mike Portnoy had shaped Dream Theater’s rhythms for decades. Mangini gained a bit of fame in the 90s and early 2000s with Steve Vai. Whilst he is the better technician of the two by miles, I’m not a big fan of his tone.
Tone is something you hear guitar players talking about all the time. Every player wants to find exactly the right tone for his guitar, and this can involve years of finding the right combination of equipment. In addition to this, a lot of tone comes from the individual. How you move your fingers has a dramatic impact on how notes come out of the fretboard. Although it is not talked about as commonly, drummers have exactly the same individual influence on their tone too.
Portnoy’s fat, chunky style combines speed and decent technique with very solid, groove-oriented playing. I take particular enjoyment from listening to Dream Theater’s drum parts. They stick in the mind as much as a guitar solo would.
However, I cannot say the same of Mangini’s parts in A Dramatic Turn of Events. Firstly, his sound is very ‘weak’. This could be the result of a poor recording arrangement (the production values on A Dramatic Turn of Events are pretty bad, similar to those found on Octavarium). But if you listen to Steve Vai’s Alive in an Ultra World album, the drum tone is very similar. This leads me to believe that it is just a consequence of his playing style.
Superior technique does not a better drummer make. There’s something instinctive about the notes you choose to play or the drums you choose to hit when you hear some music, regardless of what you are able to play. I felt that Mangini’s note choice just didn’t seem right to my ears when I’d heard him before. In the opening seconds of the album, whilst I waited for the drums to kick in, I was left feeling quite disappointed when they actually did. More evidence that Mangini’s sound is not to my taste came my way many years ago when I saw Virgil Donati playing with Steve Vai on Live at the Astoria and really stamping his authority by improving on Mangini’s old parts in every way.
Throughout the album, the feeling I got from the percussion was very robotic. Almost like the drummer was a ‘hired gun’, given a wage for his labour and then sent home. The drums just do their job in keeping the songs going, and although they are flawless in doing so, they don’t add any new dimension to the music. This can be qualified by word that a lot of the drum parts were set before Mangini came into the band and so he may not have had much room for experimentation. If this is true, then many of my comments on the drumming may not hold. But if it is, then the question would be: why wasn’t Mike allowed to experiment a little more?
On a slight tangent, I was quite disappointed whilst watching the documentary that followed the band on their search for a new drummer. Virgil Donati was trying to innovate and improvise a lot of part to traditional songs, and it seems like this approach was shunned in favour of staying in a zone that is more familiar to the rest of the guys.
My view on the drummer issue is that Dream Theater are lacking without Mike Portnoy, and Mike Portnoy needs Dream Theater to showcase his talents to the fullest.
On The Backs Of Angels kicks the album off with a trademark heavy and technical instrumental section after a bit of a build up. There are a few things that strike me about the sound of the album already. Firstly, as mentioned in the previous section, the production values are awful. I’m not sure what’s going on here, but in comparison with the last couple of albums, it’s a huge step down. Octavarium had a similar muddiness going on with it too. Secondly, the choice of drum grooves doesn’t please my ears too much. Finally, the lyrics and vocals seem a little ‘forced’.
However, this song is one of the better ones on the album. The guitar pre-chorus at 3:40 is beautifully executed, and Jordan Rudess’ synth and piano wizardry is breathtaking. It’s the closest thing to a modernised version of Pull Me Under that I can think of.
In general, this song is a good representation of the direction that DT has gone towards in the past few years. Good technical sections let down by a very stereotypical and cliched metal chorus, as well as John Petrucci trying a little too hard with his solos, to the point where some musicality is sacrificed in favour of the ‘look how fast I am!’ effect.
Build Me Up, Break Me Down starts off with a riff that sounds a lot like something out of an Alter Bridge song. This song is another good example of the run-of-the-mill metal that seems to have seeped into Dream Theater. Listening to the verse with its processed vocals and then listening to any song from Images and Words makes me want to cry a little. Nothing in particular to like about this song, apart from possibly the anthem-like chorus which, although a little cheesy, is somewhat infectious after a few listens.
Ahh, a piano opening that is reminiscent of Muse’s Butterflies and Hurricanes kicks off Lost Not Forgotten. The initial drum groove reminds me a lot of Virgil Donati’s work. It’s well executed, but the kick drums sound a little too thin and poppy, lacking any real body. The early harmonies and unisons between keyboard and drums really showcase what I mean by losing some of the musicality over just showcasing technique. The sweep picking sections remind me of DragonForce – or in other words, a pinball machine crossed with a Super Nintendo. This is not a good thing in my book (although the Super Nintendo had its fair share of brilliantly arranged music). The later guitar and synth solos are also quite forgettable, although technically brilliant as usual.
Halfway through the song, there is a really nice bass break and an uplifting staccato guitar and vocal melody. Speaking of which, John Myung really doesn’t seem to get to flex his bass muscles as much as he should these days.
This Is The Life is a powerful rock ballad, in the same vein as something like The Answer Lies Within from Octavarium. An emotive song, it sets a great mood. No objections here – this is one of the things Dream Theater continues to do very well.
You don’t particularly want to start a song with something that sounds rather like a frog vomiting quite violently. Bridges In The Sky, however, manages to do just that. I’m not sure what they were thinking here. The choir section following it does do a good job of setting a dark mood for the song overall. The riff is quite reminiscent of the 7 string chunkathon that is Dark Eternal Night. The vocal lines in this song are particularly strained, though this is likely the fault of the low key rather than James LaBrie’s voice.
Other than this, it is really a case (once again) of rock chorus and pretentious instrumental sections. The continuum solos are getting a little repetitive, Jordan.
Another Alter Bridge riff? Nope, this time it’s Outcry. It gets better (read: worse) when the drum machine kicks in, and Alter Bridge turns into Linkin Park. Another cliched chorus. Sigh. But then we have the extended instrumental section. Whilst another frenzied encounter, there’s something about this one that actually sounds musical. It is abstract, yet well orchestrated. Systematic Chaos – to use a cheap pun. Aside from the opening, Outcry actually develops into a solid effort, the kind that people have come to expect from Dream Theater. Maybe we’ve been spoilt by the abundance of them in previous albums.
Far From Heaven is a piano and vocal ballad, following the style of Wait For Sleep and Vacant. However, the lyrics aren’t as chilling and the delivery not as sweet. It’s pleasant, but very forgettable.
There seems to be pattern emerging in the intros to the songs on this album. They all seem to remind me of other bands! Breaking All Illusions starts with a string chord progression that sounds a lot like Coldplay’s Viva La Vida (Somewhat ironic, since this song also attracted a lawsuit from Joe Satriani for copying the lead from If I Could Fly). The chorus uses this chord progression too, and actually, hardly any of the choruses on the album have lifted the song in the way they’re supposed to.
However, as with Outcry, this song actually develops into something brilliant. In fact, it’s the stand-out masterpiece of the album by a long, long way. This is cemented by some of the best lyrics on the album and very addictive riffs. Truly progressive, the song shifts gears multiple times. As an example around the 5:00 mark, you hear a delightful Middle-Ages style keyboard interlude, followed shortly by piano and organ breaks, as well as a disco-style guitar groove.
But by far the best thing in this song, and on the entire album, is John Petrucci’s guitar solo. He always seems to pull one out of the bag when you start losing faith. This is the Dream Theater of old. This is what we all like to hear.
In recent years, JP’s tone has become cleaner to the point of becoming slightly sterile. I can understand why to some extent: because he’s utilising more speed and technique these days, ‘clean distortion’ is what’s required to stop the notes bleeding into each other. However, I really miss the character of the ‘dirtier’ crunchy distorted tone that he used on older albums.
We end the album with Beneath The Surface, another melodic ballad. This one incorporates some very nice guitar work, and the vocals are up to par. The synth solo sounds a little out of place on this track, and the strings are a little over the top later on in the song. It is a beautiful way to end the album though.
For me, Dream Theater peaked around the Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence album 10 years ago. Octavarium was their last true masterpiece in my opinion. Since then, a lot of the traditional progressive elements that defined Dream Theater have been washed away.
A Dramatic Turn of Events is a mixed bag. At times, it brings back some old-school progressive moments, but these moments are marred by completely forgettable sections that get lost in the sea of modern metal material. Dream Theater has certainly lost some of the production and ‘big picture’ orchestration that I think Mike Portnoy brought to the table. Without him, the technique remains, but it seems to be lacking direction.
But things were sounding a bit fatigued to me even in previous efforts when Mike was still around. Maybe, as Mike felt prior to leaving the band, the machine is a little tired of churning out albums at regular intervals. His suggestion of a 2 or 3 year break doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Even if the talent is still there, sometimes you just need time for reflection before you get hit by inspiration once again.