“You can’t help but change,” John Petrucci says when asked if he’s altered as a person since the release of his last solo album back in 2005. “Hopefully it’s a good change and a good evolution. But we’re all trying to become better: better people, better artists, better musicians. And so if there’s any change, hopefully it’s in that direction. But I don’t think anything really drastic has changed except for having a huge beard now that I didn’t have then.”
A lot has happened in the 15 years since guitarist Petrucci put his name to Suspended Animation. The US elected Barack Obama; Twitter and iPhones became things… oh, and his band Dream Theater lost a founding member, but more on that later.
Musically, at least, it is comforting to know that Petrucci is still reliably firing out prog metal and guitar wizardry in 2020, like a fizzing Roman candle, decades after first emerging on the scene.
For someone who plays so speedily, it’s a tad ironic his second solo album took so long to arrive. Terminal Velocity, however, feels like a well-appointed sequel to Suspended Animation, with fretboard gymnastics married to upbeat prog metal as well as other offshoots like swaggering rock, blues and jazz – all with a tone that may very well make guitar nerds weak at the knees.
The juicy subplot, though, is that Petrucci worked with ex-bandmate and long-time friend Mike Portnoy for the first time since the drummer left Dream Theater in 2010, in what feels like an emotional long-lost family reunion.
The album’s nine tracks were recorded in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and as the virus raged on outside, New Yorker Petrucci was bunkered up in the studio.
It bought him extra time on top of a short break in Dream Theater’s touring schedule, which had initially spurred Petrucci on to take the dive into album number two after 15 years.
“We played two shows in London and got home February 28,” he says. “And I had decided at that point, you know what, I have a little bit of time and I had a few months off before the next Dream Theater tour was supposed to happen in April. Obviously that all got postponed, but I was like, ‘I’m going to have the time, I’m going to do this solo album. If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to have these chunks of time off.’
“And so I planned on doing that, but unbeknownst to me the pandemic happened and then I was sitting there with a lot of time, way more time than I thought. So I just took advantage of that, and got this album written and recorded basically from March through May of this year.”
Five of the tracks were written during the pandemic, with the other songs already in gestation, having been played on the guitar-shredding G3 guitar tours or at instructional camps.
Petrucci fans will get their fill on Terminal Velocity, and there are enough dalliances into different sounds for curious ears to wrap around. There’s even a brief dip into giddy pop punk in the endearingly titled Happy Song, which if you close your eyes for a brief moment almost takes you to an LA frat party in the early 2000s – until the lead guitar returns with a stinging slap in the face. At the album’s core, though, is the typical Dream Theater chutzpah, smoothed out a bit to give the guitar more room to breathe.
One highlight is Gemini, an eight-minute track mainly written around the Images And Words-era in the early 90s, which at one point snakes from exuberant prog metal fit for a computer game soundtrack to Latin jazz. The lack of a proper recording of the original, however, meant it was not an easy job translating it through to 2020.
“It was a really old early 90s song that I used to play at guitar clinics,” Petrucci explains. “I never properly recorded it and there’s some YouTube bootlegs of it. I had to find those bootlegs, and it’s basically like a guy at a guitar clinic with a bad audio, trying to film it. I had to use that as my template to remember the song ’cos I had no recording of it.”
Despite tragic deaths and social isolation permeating the world, the guitarist doesn’t feel the maelstrom of negativity and uncertainty from the pandemic infiltrated
into the newer tracks.
“The songs by nature just have a very lively, energetic vibe to them. Which might seem like the opposite of what was going on in the world during that time, especially in New York, but I didn’t let what was happening seep into the creative process at all. If anything, it’s like an escape from it.”
Obviously, Petrucci himself needs little introduction. One of the world’s most celebrated virtuoso guitarists, he’s been a driving force behind Dream Theater since their inception in the 1980s.
His musical journey began with studious practising of the guitar, before playing Iron Maiden and Rush covers at Berklee College Of Music alongside Portnoy and bassist John Myung, who would end up forming the nucleus of Dream Theater.
Petrucci’s gentle voice and mild manner belies some of the fury that zaps from his fingers, but his solo material – as well as the music made during his dayjob – continues to ooze plenty of nuance, with melody and songwriting remaining key.
And so, to the moment when Petrucci and Portnoy reunited. The drummer – who shocked the prog world by quitting Dream Theater a decade ago – spent around six days recording tracks for the album, basing his work on full programmed drums already put down by Petrucci and his engineer James ‘Jimmy T’ Meslin.
Four-stringer Dave LaRue, who already worked with Petrucci on Suspended Animation and the G3 tours and is also Portnoy’s bandmate in Flying Colors, recorded bass on the tracks, too.
“Dave came in and did an amazing job, but drummer-wise, I wasn’t sure. When Mike was in the band and I did my first solo album, I purposely didn’t want to use him because I wanted to keep my solo album separate from Dream Theater,” Petrucci says.
“But now in this case, he’s not in Dream Theater anymore. So it was a perfect opportunity to have him play on it. I had told him about that I was working on it previously, and he, maybe unbeknownst to him, planted the seed. He was like, ‘Hey, if you ever need a drummer, I’m here.’ But it kinda just like stuck in my mind, like: ‘Hey, Mike would be great on it.’ So, you know, it was really cool having him come in. He did an awesome job.”
The drums were tracked to pre-recorded guitar but Petrucci and Portnoy had some
run-throughs of parts. It was mainly business, though, and any extra-curricular activity was nothing too substantial; there were no frolics through The Dance of Eternity or the whole of A Change of Seasons.
So what was it actually like when they were first placed opposite each other, with guitar and drumsticks in hand, for the first time in a decade?
“At one point I picked up my guitar – we were going to work on something – and he’s like, ‘Okay, this is the first thing we’re going to play in 10 years together. Just guess what it is,’” Petrucci says.
“And he counted it off and started playing something. And I came in with the wrong song. I didn’t read his mind. I think he was playing the first song that [the pre-Dream Theater band] Majesty ever wrote. I thought he was going to play Metropolis. That was totally wrong.”
The guitarist is clear on one thing, though: the rekindling of the Petrucci-Portnoy working relationship isn’t going to have any effect on Dream Theater, much to the disappointment of some keyboard warriors who are, somewhat misguidedly, desperate for the drummer to rejoin the group.
“People will speculate and think that Mike playing on my album all of a sudden means that things are gonna change in Dream Theater, and it’s not that at all,” Petrucci says.
“Mike Mangini is the drummer in Dream Theater. That’s not changing, and I want to make sure that people don’t extrapolate something that’s just not the case, you know? I think that’s really important, for a number of reasons.
“For me, selfishly, it’s great because I get to reunite musically with Mike Portnoy and have him play drums on my album and then still be in Dream Theater with Mike Mangini. So I get to play with two of the greatest drummers in the world.”
What about a Portnoy guest spot at a Dream Theater show, at least? “It’s not something we’ve discussed,” Petrucci says. “So I guess I don’t really have an answer to that. Nope, no plans.”
Looking forward, Petrucci continues to write: in fact, he has a folder on his computer containing around 100 song ideas. A collection of riffs in a digital archive of inspiration, a treasure trove for Dream Theater buffs. Don’t expect any surprising slices of EDM dance music or hip-hop, though. Petrucci sticks to what Petrucci knows best.
“I think that the style that’s on Terminal Velocity, that spans across the songs… I mean, that’s me, that’s my musical guitar playing identity,” he says. “So anything in that folder is going to be in that zone. I don’t think there’s anything on there that would shock people.
“And I do try to, like, infuse different stylistic elements, whether they be jazz or gypsy jazz or Latin feels, and I think that’s considered a commonplace in my style anyway. And you even hear that Dream Theater as well, so we do span a lot of different styles.”
For Dream Theater, coronavirus has already postponed tour dates in Australia, Asia and beyond, but for fans the pandemic could actually bring a piece of good news: a new album sooner than anticipated.
Their last recording, Distance Over Time, was something of a return to form for the prog metallers, but it was only released in February last year. Now the band have more time on their hands – and the money men are likely getting itchy over the absence of touring – the quintet might return to the studio quicker than expected.
“It’s definitely challenging for sure,” Petrucci says as he reflects on the impact of Covid-19. “Not only for the band, but for all the people that we employ: our crew members and management and everybody that works for us, the agents and promoters. Financially it’s definitely a blow. We’re having to shift things around, for sure. We weren’t planning on getting into the studio for another record probably ’til next year at some point. And now that looks like it’s changing and we’ll start to work on something sooner, probably in the fall.”
Amid the black clouds, maybe there are some silver linings after all.
This article originally appeared in issue 114 of Prog Magazine.