The career of Dream Theater can be divided into two distinct parts. Many hardliners consider the years spent with Mike Portnoy filling the drum stool as definitive, and of course such claims have solid grounding.
From the 1989 unveiling of a highly promising debut entitled When Dream And Day Unite, until September of 2010, when Portnoy dumfounded his band-mates with the ill-received proposal of a five-year hiatus that would prompt his shocking exit from the group, Dream Theater forged a reputation as the chief progenitors of the genre known as progressive-metal.
With Portnoy, the North American-based quintet set bold new standards, and in much the same way as a very particular type of Van Halen fan refuses to acknowledge its Sammy Hagar-fronted line-up, many still choose to undervalue or even outright dismiss Dream Theater’s not inconsiderable achievements since a rebirth with newcomer Mike Mangini (of Extreme, Steve Vai and Annihilator fame).
Frankly, it’s their loss.
The introduction of the noted percussionist allowed Dream Theater not only to survive a potentially calamitous creative crisis but to revaluate, reenergise and prosper.
Released in 2010, their debut with Mangini, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, generated a first ever Grammy nomination. Although Dream Theater didn’t win the award, within two years they were shortlisted once again (losing out for a second time).
Five albums into the Mangini era, Dream Theater remain skilled at the throwing of curveballs. 2016’s love-it-or-loathe-it The Astonishing was the biggest, boldest thing that they’d ever created – no small feat. Such was its grandiosity that the sci-fi plotline became a novel.
More than three decades after their debut, Dream Theater show no sign of running out of ideas. And yet they remain perplexed by the levels of scrutiny and criticism that greets just about every facet of their operation; from lyrics and vocals to production, and, fundamentally, direction. It’s an obsession that singer James LaBrie considers “toxic”. Since when did fans know more than the musicians whose work they claim to love?
“All that people want Metallica to do is sound like Metallica,” guitarist John Petrucci recently told Prog magazine. “To say that [what we are doing] sounds too much like Dream Theater, I just can’t get my head around it. Should we sound like another band? That’s bizarre to me."
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 Rush associate 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 future live favourites A Fortune In Lies and The Killing Hand, and the instrumental The Ytse Jam, all of which pointed towards future greatness.
Four albums in and Dream Theater were being devoured alive by the corporate machine. Their only studio album to feature Derek Sherinian on keyboards, the Kevin Shirley-produced Falling Into Infinity suffered from boardroom interference – they were forced by their label to write ‘radio friendly’ material with Desmond Child – almost to point of throwing in the towel.
The likes of New Millennium and Peruvian Skies are reminders that it’s not a bad record, but the arrival of Sherinian’s replacement Jordan Rudess was to prove hugely significant, and its failure only caused the suits to realise that a group such as Dream Theater were probably best left to their own devices after all.
With 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.
Two albums into the Mike Mangini era and Dream Theater could be forgiven for wiping their collective brow. Less of a walking human hurricane than his predecessor, Mangini was proving a valuable addition to the band, and the quiet life (relatively speaking) seemed to suit them.
From its concise three-part instrumental opening track False Awakening Suite to John Petrucci’s Illumination Theory, a 22-minute beast that featured a string ensemble, their twelfth studio set brimmed with confidence. And like its self-titled predecessor, it also presented another Grammy nomination – something that had eluded them during the Portnoy days.
The group’s fourth post-Portnoy record introduced a new way of working. Responding to the overblown nature of The Astonishing, Dream Theater hired a barn in upstate New York, installed a studio and wrote Distance Over Time in 18 days flat. Its purposeful birthing process spawned a set of mostly shorter and harder-edged songs.
With just one track – the James LaBrie-penned At Wits End – threatening to tip the ten-minute mark, the results felt much more fresh and spontaneous. Thanks to the likes of Bar Stool Warrior and Pale Blue Dot, those numerous critics of The Astonishing felt as though they had their favourite band back again.
Dream Theater’s seventh album is 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.
Perhaps responding to the oppressive, knee-buckling weight and density of predecessor Train Of Thought with what became their final major-label studio release, Dream Theater 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 track was almost 25 minutes long.
The last album recorded before Portnoy’s proposal of the hiatus which cost him his job, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is Dream Theater at their most song-based recording.
The mood veers towards the dark, and four of its six tracks clock in at between 12 and 19 minutes long, though 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. The perfect entry point for those intrigued by Dream Theater’s appeal but intimidated by the scale of their universe.
Dream Theater’s second consecutive US Top 10 album, and their first to breach the UK Top 20, was the debut for new 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.
Depending on the listener’s individual preference – Yes-style intricacy or nut-cracking à la Metallica? – A View From The Top Of The World might well be the best Dream Theater album of the post-Portnoy age. Okay, we placed The Astonishing above it, and of course that was a risky statement, but one made purely because this is a band that offers zero apologies for risk-taking.
A View From The Top Of The World is bookended by The Alien, a colossal tech-metal statement, and its title cut, 20 minutes of pummelling, multi-tempoed goodness, but coming after Distance Over Time it offers something for everybody, with a smidgen more emphasis on the progressive.
Awake was the final album Dream Theater recorded with Kevin Moore, the band’s original 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. Equally importantly, the likes of Caught In A Web, The Mirror, Space-Dye Vest and The Silent Man showed 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 only served to enhance the importance of Awake in the group’s canon.
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 the very best sense of the term.
Think big. Think bigger. Think biggest. And then double it and add a zero or two, and you end up close to The Astonishing. Set in what the band described as “a retro-futurist post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by medieval style feudalism”, the band’s 13th studio album topped anything they’d ever done before in terms of sheer scale and bombast.
With a bamboozling plot that lay somewhere between Star Wars and the Rush classic 2112, The Astonishing was so sprawling that its two hours of music were spread across two discs. Dream Theater performed it live in its entirety, too, of course. Just as they bloody well should.
Dream Theater set up what they called an “inspiration corner” in the studio during the recording of their fifth album. Existing storyboard standards by Genesis, Marillion, Pink Floyd and others were used to channel ideas for their own debut concept album, 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.
Dream Theater had to overcome a number of hurdles in order to create their second album, and their masterpiece. Recovering from the embarrassing failure of their debut album, When Dream And Day Unite, for the follow-up they brought in new singer James LaBrie and butted heads with their producer, David Prater, who drummer Mike Portnoy later called “one of my least favourite human beings on the planet”.
Despite all that, 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.