Although they’ve played a significant hand in the re-popularising of progressive rock, such aspirations couldn’t have seemed more distant when a trio of Berklee School Of Music students – guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy – formed the band Majesty in 1985. Mötley Crüe’s big-haired metal was strictly the order of the day, and swearing allegiance to a form of music so prehistoric would hardly make the group chick magnets.
“We were serious musicians, and that type of player is always drawn to progressive music – even though the genre was at its lowest ebb,” states Portnoy. “The only traces that could be found back then came from England; bands like Marillion, It Bites and IQ. But as much as we loved Yes and Rush, we equally admired Iron Maiden and Metallica.”
Forced to drop the name of Majesty, Dream Theater received positive reviews for their debut album, 1989’s When Dream And Day Unite. “Our recording budget was miniscule,” chuckles Portnoy at the memory. “We probably spent more in Starbucks whilst making our current album, but …Dream And Day… taught us lots of important lessons about making music and how the industry worked.”
Among them was the value of presentation. Vocalist Charlie Dominici was ousted by James LaBrie for Images And Words, the three-year germination of which almost tore the group apart. There were bitter rows with David Prater, the producer assigned to them by new label Atco. “Dealing with that asshole was tortuous,” seethes Portnoy. “He’s one of my least favourite human beings on the planet.”
And yet, a surprise hit in Pull Me Under threw Dream Theater a commercial lifeline. Contrary to popular expectation, far from spurning the band’s unabashed displays of musical proficiency, a super-devoted strain of fan actively embraced them. Atco was later absorbed into Atlantic Records, and the quintet found themselves subject to the whims of executives that neither understood nor cared about them. “We almost caved in under the pressure of making Falling Into Infinity,” volunteers Portnoy of their fourth album, issued in 1997 (the third, Awake, came out in 1994). “A revolving door of staff viewed us as one-hit wonders. They even made us work with [Bon Jovi/Aerosmith collaborator] Desmond Child, which we vehemently opposed.”
Some housekeeping was urgently required, and Atlantic were ordered to back off or let them go. Already the group’s unofficial leaders, Portnoy and Petrucci grasped control of the creative process, informing the label that from now on they would only hear the music once it was completed. Sales of around half-a-million of each record helped to seal the deal.
“Atlantic realised that with the size of our fan-base, they had a good thing going,” explains Portnoy, who also entered Alcoholics Anonymous at around this point. “They got out of the cash-cow’s way, and it was a turning point on every level.”
Joined by Julliard-schooled keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess for Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory in 1999, a career-saving concept piece about a man who, under regressive hypnosis, learns that in a previous life he was a woman who’d been brutally murdered, their line-up has remained consistent ever since.
“…Scenes From A Memory placed our destiny back into our own hands,” maintains Portnoy. “Afterwards we became a smooth- running machine.”
The success of Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence (2002), the ultra-heavy _Train Of Thought _(2003) and Octavarium (2005), the last of which introduced an orchestra to the mix, backs up this claim. The albums didn’t just steady the ship but carved them a genuine foothold in the mainstream, to the point that Dream Theater can sell out two nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, which packs in around 5,000 fans minus its seats. Much of this is because they give value for money, often playing for three hours without a support band, and spicing up their sets by covering classic albums – think Dark Side Of The Moon, Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and The Number Of The Beast by Iron Maiden – in their entirety at second consecutive nights in the same venues.
But despite the understanding they’d reached with Atlantic, the band’s patience was wearing thin. Fortunately, the seven-album deal they’d signed in 1991 was ticking down.
“On one hand, it was great for us to have them creatively excluded,” muses Mike, “but we always felt that once we’d delivered the records they should do something with them. We’d built so much on our own; imagine what we could’ve done with a little support. Although Atlantic wanted us to stay, with Octavarium we made it plain that we were counting the days towards getting out of there.”
The roster of the band’s new label, Roadrunner, now includes such likeminded souls as Porcupine Tree, Opeth and Megadeth, and Dream Theater had no qualms about joining an independent. “Are you kidding?” chuckles Portnoy. “There were offers from majors, but we wanted out of the corporate world. Roadrunner have the clout of the bigger label but retain the spirit of a self-made company. It was a natural place for us to go.”
Their ninth studio album Systematic Chaos (which was released in 2007) is as heavy yet intricately arranged as ever. Its lyrics are also pretty diverse, from LaBrie’s current affairs-themed Prophets Of War to Repentance, the latest chapter of Portnoy’s saga about Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12-Step Programme.
With another year’s touring ahead, which included a spot at the Download Festival at the start of June, and a pencilled-in date for London’s Wembley Arena in October, Dream Theater are understandably proud of their role in making this kind of music semi- fashionable once more.
“If you do something that’s uncool for long enough, things tend to go full circle,” theorises the drummer. “In our case it took 22 years for people to realise that we’re not going away. Until now we’ve never had the acceptance of being invited to a Download-style show in Britain. When a new generation of bands like Trivium, Stone Sour, Shadows Fall and Opeth cite us an influence, and fathers start to turn up at shows with their children, that’s what I call real respect.
Afterlife with original vocalist Charlie Dominici
This was published in Classic Rock’s Prog Rock special in 2007
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