Buyer's Guide: Dream Theater

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For the average rock band, indulgence is something to guard against at all times. But then Dream Theater are far from your average rock band, in any sense of the term. For this US-Canadian five-piece, extravagance and excess are positive watchwords.

“Yes, we are indulgent, we are over-the-top and we do play drum, bass, keyboard and guitar solos in our live show,” original drummer Mike Portnoy admitted unapologetically to Classic Rock back in 1999, responding to criticism that his band were guilty of over-egging the instrumental pudding. “But that’s what’s made our fan base so incredibly fanatical. We don’t make records for the press.”

To their credit, in recent years Dream Theater have wisely elected to trim those solo spots, though in all other respects their music remains as grandiose and complex as it has ever been. With shows lasting for three hours, no song is too epic, no undertaking too ambitious – in the past they’ve performed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Iron Maiden’s Number Of The Beast albums in their entirety. On record they’re no less complex – multi-part, heavily conceptual suites are their signature.

Twenty-odd years in, Dream Theater still have the capacity to surprise. And certainly surprising was the departure of Portnoy in September 2010. The drummer, who had recently joined Avenged Sevenfold after the death of their drummer, had floated the idea of the band taking a lengthy sabbatical. His bandmates disagreed, and the man who had spent the previous 25 years as an omnipresent force, writing, co-producing and making most of the key decisions in the Dream Theater, resigned.

Even more unexpected was the fact that, post-Portnoy, Dream Theater have silenced the nay-sayers and also flourished. The wryly-titled A Dramatic Turn Of Events, their first album with replacement Mike Mangini, earned them their first Grammy nomination.

With those tumultuous events behind them, the ship is as steady as it’s ever been. While the acrimony between Portnoy and his former colleagues has largely abated, the band continue to move forward. These days Dream Theater aren’t just the biggest prog-metal band around, they’re also the living, breathing manifestation of the genre’s boundaries.

ESSENTIAL: Images And Words

Atco, 1992

Dream Theater had to overcome a number of hurdles in order to create their early masterpiece. Recovering from the embarrassing failure of their debut album, When Dream And Day Unite, for Images And Words they brought in new singer James LaBrie and also butted heads with their producer, David Prater, who drummer Mike Portnoy later called “one of my least favourite human beings on the planet”.

It’s difficult to fault Images And Words, which did far more than just enable Dream Theater to let in a vital chink of daylight. In fact its start-to-finish excellence served to open up a skylight to the cosmos.

ESSENTIAL: Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory

Elektra, 1999

Dream Theater set up what they called an “inspiration corner” in the studio during the recording of their fifth full-length album. Existing storyboard standards by Genesis, Marillion, Pink Floyd and others were used to “channel” their own conceptual debut, which told the complex tale of a man who undergoes regressive hypnosis and discovers that in a previous life he was a woman murdered in the 1920s.

The record’s myriad twists and turns are at times macabre (Strange Déjà Vu, Fatal Tragedy) and uplifting (The Spirit Carries On, Finally Free), and never less than compelling.

SUPERIOR: Awake

East West, 1994

Awake, released in 1994, was the final album Dream Theater recorded with Kevin Moore, the band’s long-serving keyboard player. And he went out on a high, with an album on which their mix of prog rock and heavy metal influences finally gelled into a seamless whole. Equally importantly, with the likes of Caught In A Web, The Mirror, Space-Dye Vest and The Silent Man the band’s songwriting found its feet in no uncertain terms.

It was released during the cold war of the grunge era, and reviews were less than glowing at the time, but hindsight has served to enhance the importance of Awake in the group’s canon.

SUPERIOR: Six Degrees Of Inner_Turbulence _

Elektra, 2002

Spread over two discs, the second featuring the 42-minute title track, Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence was a bold and extravagant follow-up to Metropolis Pt 2.

Beginning with The Glass Prison, the first part of a suite of songs written by Portnoy about his recovery from alcoholism, it grapples with such lofty subjects as religion, death and stem cell research, over gargantuan slabs of guitar and keyboard interplay from John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess. The second part is once again concept-based, cataloguing six people plagued by various life-changing illnesses.

Challenging in every regard.

SUPERIOR: Black Clouds & Silver Linings

Roadrunner, 2009

The last album recorded before Portnoy’s proposal of a five-year hiatus, which cost him his job, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is Dream Theater at their most song-based.

The mood veers towards the dark, and four of its six tracks clock in at between 12 and 19 minutes long, and there’s something timeless about each and every one of its tracks, especially The Count Of Tuscany, The Shattered Fortress and the Rush-flavoured The Best Of Times.

BC&SL is the perfect entry point for those intrigued by Dream Theater’s appeal but intimidated by the scale of their universe.

SUPERIOR: A Dramatic Turn Of Events

Roadrunner, 2011

Dream Theater’s second consecutive US Top 10 album, and their first to breach the UK Top 20, was their first with former Extreme drummer Mike Mangini – after a long and very public audition process.

Although the songs were in place when he arrived, Mangini brought a precision and technique that banished memories of his predecessor. Singer James LaBrie, who had begun to question Dream Theater’s reliance on heavy metal power, later suggested that with ADTOE the band found “a beautiful balance between progressive rock and metal”. And he was right.

GOOD: Train Of Thought

Elektra, 2003

Dream Theater’s seventh album is undeniably their heaviest. Written and recorded in just three weeks, it reflected the less-than-happy memories of a summer tour they’d just finished with Queensrÿche. That experience at times coloured the sessions: in the lyrics of opener As I Am, guitarist John Petrucci recalled the apparently comical experience of Queensrÿche’s Mike Stone attempting to give him a guitar lesson.

Intentionally or otherwise, the album includes many of Petrucci’s finest solos, but the overall impression conveyed by the record is of unstoppable, if murky, power.

GOOD: Octavarium

Atlantic, 2005

Perhaps responding to the oppressive, knee-buckling weight and density of predecessor Train Of Thought with what became their final major-label studio release before moving to Roadrunner Records, the group set out to replicate the vibe of another, far happier tour, spent in the company of the heroes of their youth, Yes.

Octavarium retained Dream Theater’s usual complexities but stepped back into more pastoral territory. Written on piano and guitar, and featuring several songs embellished by an orchestra, just two of its tracks went over the 10-minute mark – although the title cut was almost 25 minutes long.

GOOD: Systematic Chaos

Roadrunner, 2007

With Systematic Chaos, their first album for Roadrunner, the band once again elected to follow their instincts. After collaborating with an orchestra for their 20th anniversary show (released as the concert set Score), co-producers Petrucci and Portnoy sought to administer a modern twist to the band’s sound.

Bookended by the two-part epic In The Presence Of Enemies and The Ministry Of Lost Souls, its highlights include the

Pantera-esque gallop of The Dark Eternal Night. But the most interesting track on the album is Repentance, which includes spoken-word confessions from Jon Anderson, Steven Wilson, Steve Vai and more.

AVOID: When Dream And Day Unite

Mechanic/MCA, 1989

Dream Theater haven’t made a consistently poor album, but their debut is by far their weakest.

Recorded three years after they formed, it suffers from three main drawbacks: a muddy production (by Terry Date), relatively rudimentary songwriting and compositional skills (certainly compared to what came later), and the high-pitched yelps of original singer Charlie Dominci, who left the band soon afterwards.

In the plus column were A Fortune In Lies, The Killing Hand, which became stage favourites,_ _and the instrumental The Ytse Jam, all of which pointed towards future greatness.

ESSENTIAL PLAYLIST

Surrounded

Images And Words

Under A Glass Moon

Images And Words

Pull Me Under

Images And Words

Caught In A Web

Awake

A Change Of Seasons

A Change Of Seasons

Hollow Years

Falling Into Infinity

Fatal Tragedy

Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory

The Spirit Carries On

Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory

Finally Free

Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory

The Glass Prison

Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence

As I Am

Train Of Thought

Octavarium

Octavarium

The Dark Eternal Night

Systematic Chaos

The Count Of Tuscanny

Black Clouds

& Silver Linings

On The Wings Of Angels

A Dramatic Turn Of Events

Illumination Theory

Dream Theater