In the still-youthful genre of prog-metal, Dream Theater are the undisputed silverbacks. Founded 36 years ago in the fertile breeding ground of Berklee College Of Music in Boston, the line-up took the calling cards of classic prog and turned up all the dials, leading the charge for a new movement that made you both bang and scratch your head.
Comprising seven extended tracks, groaning with super-technical solos and pinballing between tricky time signatures, this year’s A View From The Top Of The World album represents everything you love/hate (delete as applicable) about the genre. Co-founding guitarist John Petrucci tells us more.
Undoubtedly you’re pleased with the new album.
I had a feeling when we finished it: “There’s something special about this one.” We started the band in 1985. A View From The Top Of The World is our fifteenth album. People expect bands to slow down. But everybody in Dream Theater is so competitive, always pushing each other. That’s why this crazy stuff comes out. You hear that in the opening track, The Alien. After playing our last show in Glasgow in February 2020, that was the first thing we wrote. And we were so pent-up. With this album we said: no rules. We ended up with a lot of very technical stuff. Lots of epics, longer songs, trading solos…
What’s the most fiendish time signature on this record?
Well, the first thing you hear when The Alien kicks in is my riff in 17/8. That’s a Mike Mangini groove. When you first hear it, it sounds so weird, not comfortable at all. But the whole compositional craft – not to sound pompous – is how you figure that out so it still sounds interesting. And there’s some glue that listeners can latch on to, even though the band is playing in an incredibly unnatural time signature. The funny thing is, when you’re doing things that are jarring and hold the listener in suspense, when the four/four section does come in, man, you can’t help but groove to that.
Is the album title basically saying Dream Theater are the best band in the world?
No! I don’t want that to be misconstrued. It’s from the title track, which I wrote about people who accomplish seemingly impossible human feats. Like slack-lining across a canyon without any net, or even cave-diving in glaciers, which are constantly moving. At first I thought they were out of their minds. Then I wondered what drives them. Part of it is that they get to see something with their own eyes that nobody has ever seen before. That’s what A View From The Top Of The World is referring to. Not our egos!
Do you ever come up with a riff and realise it’s already been done by someone else?
That totally happens. When I did my last solo album, Terminal Velocity, I spent the whole day in the studio working on a song – y’know, building the riff, programming drums, playing bass. I had it down. But towards the end of the day, I kept having this weird feeling. Then it hit me: I’d just rewritten Breaking All Illusions, from our album A Dramatic Turn Of Events. So I wasted an entire day. I just had to laugh.
Are there any guitarists whose stuff you can’t play?
Oh, many. That’s the crazy thing about guitar. You’re always striving, you never master it. I’ll listen to the late Allan Holdsworth and it just blows my mind, still. How does somebody think that way and have that kind of facility? The bar for electric guitar has been raised so high that eight-year-old kids are playing things that used to seem impossible. I’m a competitive person, so I take it all as: “Well, I’ve just got to practise more.”
We’ve talked about the top of the world. But have there been harder moments in Dream Theater’s career?
The grunge period, for us, was actually great. That was exactly when [1992 album] Images And Words was released, and somehow we had a radio hit with Pull Me Under that bucked the whole system. But in a career the length that we’ve had, there have been many difficult moments. Obviously we’ve been through band member changes. I remember after our first record, we didn’t have a singer, we weren’t signed, nothing was working out. Then the war was happening in Iraq, and we didn’t know if we were gonna be drafted.
You list your main hobby outside music as ‘bearding’.
Well, as you can tell, I have a giant beard. I’ve always had some form of beard, from the early nineties. But one day I was like: let me experiment with growing a full beard. When I did that, it opened up this whole world that I didn’t know existed, this whole culture of bearded men. It’s so deep and I got really into it, to the point where I’ve partnered with a UK company, Captain Fawcett, and we’ve released a beard oil, beard balm and moustache wax.
Whose is the beard to beat?
I think Billy Gibbons has us all beat. He’s been rocking that for ever – and that is one serious beard.
Beard kits aren’t your only lockdown merchandise, though?
Yeah. I’m also really into bourbon, and I made a connection with the Iron Smoke Distillery in upstate New York, where the owner is a guitar player and was in a band called Modern English. So we partnered and made the Rock The Barrel bourbon.
Could it dethrone Jack Daniel’s as the rock’n’roll whisky of choice?
I think it should. It has such a complex flavour profile. But it’s a lot stronger than Jack Daniel’s – it’s a hundred and twenty proof. So we might have some problems. What’s your theory on why prog gets so much flak? It can come across as self-indulgent or pretentious or just kinda nerdy.
But it’s funny, when we started out there wasn’t a prog-metal scene, so we just kinda combined metal and prog – like Metallica and Yes in the same band. Fast-forward and now there’s this huge prog-metal family tree with tons of splinters. It’s not considered nerdy or uncool now. So it kinda flipped around.