On their 13th studio release, many bands will have settled into a comfortable rut. Not Dream Theater, who instead have gone for a full-on, none-more-prog double album featuring a detailed sci-fi story and concept, dozens of characters, a choir, an orchestra and even, er, bagpipes. It’s ambitious, it’s astounding, it’s The Astonishing.
Fair citizenry, all who thirst for freedom and fairness! It is I, Arhys, Son of Marhys, heir to the forbidden Legion Of Sorrowful Song. Once again by means most inscrutable, we have biohacked the arcane technocratic wizardry of the Empire, revealing truths of equal incredulity and immutability. Serve not the NOMACS, because they do not serve you! My brothers and sisters across the Realm, the Rebellion continues to strengthen, and soon will arise! Prepare!’ – A segment lifted from the teaser for Dream Theater’s new album The Astonishing, revealing its theme of a war between The Great Northern Empire and The Ravenskill Rebel Militia.
“This is the next natural step in our evolution. This is a pinnacle moment for us. It’s something we had to do.” – James LaBrie.
“This is so nerdy!” – Fan on a Dream Theater message board.
It’s December 2015 and three-fifths of the progressive metal behemoth known as Dream Theater – vocalist James LaBrie, guitarist John Petrucci and keysman Jordan Rudess – are seated around your humble scribe in Kensington, ready to grant Prog the first interview in a global campaign to promote their 13th studio album.
Save for the fact that it carries the title of The Astonishing, very little is known about the record. This is intentional, but also a by-product of circumstance. While the three Js are here in London, trusted engineer Rich Chycki is back in New York mixing its final two remaining tracks. Consequently, journalists must talk to the band members without the benefit of hearing said album in its entirety – far from ideal in a commonplace scenario, though in this instance especially galling.
The record company’s biography for the album receives management approval at midnight prior to this meeting, yet reveals precious little of our requirements, and a request to view the lyrics is declined. The mystery deepens… All we can state with any degree of certainty is that The Astonishing is the most brazenly ambitious undertaking in the three decades during which Dream Theater have grown from optimistic, wide-eyed minnows into full-blown arena-headlining giants; the biggest act of their genre bar none. With more than two hours of music broken down into 34 different chapters, spread across two acts (one per CD, obviously), it’s about as far from easy listening as you’ll get.
Early response to the limited amount of available info has been mixed to say the least. When the 212-word teaser announcement of the album’s contents appeared online… well, the response wasn’t unanimously favourable. A vibe of “What the fuck are Dream Theater playing at?” prevailed.
“We did all of that on purpose, even holding back the lyrics, and we’ve gotten the reaction we wanted,” John Petrucci nods. “Whereas before we would allow the fans to know exactly what was going on in the studio via various social media updates, right from the start of this, we kept things very, very quiet. And when the time was right, slowly and mysteriously we’ve begun letting out small details, almost as though this was a movie. It’s about piquing people’s interest.”
Having already generated 61 pages of speculation and heated debate on the group’s web forum, that goal couldn’t have been any more successful. Even during this interview, mindful of web spoilers, Petrucci – the man behind the storyline and a primary factor in bringing its vision to life – seems far less candid than would usually be the case. The Astonishing’s biography calls it: “A retro-futurist post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by medieval‑style feudalism.”
“And you don’t get that?” the guitarist deadpans, a gale of laughter filling the room.
Well, maybe he could explain things further for us… just a little?
“Well, the story takes place roughly 300 years from now,” Petrucci obliges. “There’s been a breakdown in society and although it all takes place in the future, things go right back to the days of feudalism. Instead of presidents and prime ministers, emperors are the rulers. The divide between the aristocracy and everyone else has really widened.”
And it’s set here on Earth?
“Yeah,” he nods. “It doesn’t take place on another planet.”
The characters include a Robin Hood/Frodo/Luke Skywalker messiah-type figure that seems set to save the day. There’s a happy ending, presumably?
“Ah, I can’t answer that,” responds Petrucci playfully. “But I can tell you that the story isn’t a tragedy.”
The germ of its idea came to Petrucci while in Europe two-and-a-half years ago, during a promo trip for their self‑titled 12th album – the group’s second studio release with Mike Mangini on drums (bass player John Myung is an ever-present).
“I was jetlagged and sleep-deprived – that’s when many of my brainwaves arrive,” Petrucci explains. “And when I formulated a basic plot, I realised it could work. Over the ensuing months, The Astonishing gradually took over my life.”
“Until they hear it and digest what it has to offer, people will have no idea of the level of detail,” Jordan Rudess agrees. “When we got back from that last world tour, John handed me his synopsis and it really inspired me.”
Often working at one another’s houses, surrounded by musical scores and index cards that detailed the plot’s minutiae, Petrucci and Rudess collaborated closely to bring The Astonishing to life.
“It was an extremely organised process because it had to be,” laughs the keyboard maestro. “Certain themes and motifs are associated with different characters; it’s very complex. And then we handed everything to James – two hours of music – and said, ‘Okay, sing all of this stuff.’ And the poor guy had to do that in several different voices.”
“The enormity grew as the songs arrived – I was flipping out,” LaBrie admits. “To make it all believable – interpret those multiple characters and express them individually – was the biggest challenge of my career so far.”
“I’m not saying this because he’s sitting next to me, but there’s no other singer in the world who could have managed what James did,” Petrucci glows, to his partner’s visible pleasure.
In addition to his numerous existing hats, Petrucci’s decision to once again serve as the record’s producer would only ratchet up the pressure.
“There was absolutely no thought of using somebody else,” he insists. “The album is so involved and has so many layers, and so much of it was inside my own head…”
“…It would have taken another year to bring that person on board,” pipes up LaBrie, finishing his bandmate’s words.
“Aside from the fact that we consider him the sixth member of Dream Theater, that’s why Rich Chycki is handling the mix,” Petrucci adds. “I mean, there are 570-something tracks [of audio] to make sense of.”
There is none more prog than The Astonishing.
“None! Absolutely none!” Petrucci thunders back. “With every element of its creation, it was: ‘Right, we are going in. There will be no compromise.’ Jordan has all of these computer programmes that sound like real instruments, but…”
A beaming Rudess takes over: “On this album I played a real nine-foot Steinway. I just had to!”
Dream Theater’s next headache was keeping the whole thing secret, especially as the album was constructed with a raft of outsiders, including an orchestra and a choir. Throw in studio employees and record label personnel and information leakage was a strong possibility.
“There were lots of non-disclosure forms,” Petrucci affirms. “Luckily one of the guys that played the tuba, I think, was a fan so we knew he wouldn’t say anything. The album also features a marching band, gospel singers, a Dixieland band and some bagpipes. But the biggest thing we did to keep a lid on things was abstaining from tweets and the like.”
Reminding us how small the world has now become, with the symphonic elements being laid down in Prague, the band members and even David Campbell, the conductor of the sessions, all watched the recordings via the internet. Campbell, who has worked with such big-name artists as Muse, Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, was sufficiently confident in the orchestra to stay at home in California and dispatch an able deputy to the Czech Republic.
“We’d be tuned in and could let them know, ‘No… that isn’t a B-flat, it’s a B-natural,’” marvels Petrucci. “It was a pretty amazing experience.”
The Astonishing certainly lives
The Astonishing certainly lives up to its title. A first spin left Prog reeling, especially considering some of its vital segments were missing. Petrucci nods sagely when informed that what we’ve heard so far suggests the album has more in common with Tales From Topographic Oceans than Fear Of A Blank Planet. “Everything will make complete sense when you understand the concept,” he promises.
This vow is vindicated a few days later when Prog finally hears the album in its entirety. The sheer grandness of scope remains intimidating, and things become weighed down a little towards the end – it’s definitely a few tracks too long – but the songs that you’ll find yourself humming in the shower, including The Gift Of Music, Act Of Fayth and A Life Left Behind, are classic Dream Theater. And over the next week, as a realm of hidden depths are revealed, it proves itself to be a grower.
Dream Theater’s previous conceptual release, Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory, was released a whopping 16 years ago. Along with their second album, 1992’s Images And Words,
…Scenes… is regarded by fans as the very epitome of the group’s canon. Rudess, who debuted on Metropolis…, says that when it came to returning to the conceptual format, DT always “had it in the back of our minds”.
With the Empire pivotal to the plot of The Astonishing, it’s inevitable that comparisons to Star Wars will be levelled. The Gift Of Music also begins with the words: ‘Far in the distant future, beyond the pages of our time’ – not too dissimilar to “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Unsurprisingly, Petrucci objects to the suggestion that the timing of the album is cynical, with Episode VII: The Force Awakens dropping a month earlier.
“It’s a complete coincidence,” he insists. “The concept of an Empire isn’t specific to Star Wars. What else was I gonna call it? And as far as ‘Far in the distant future…’ goes, that was just my own version of ‘Once upon a time…’”
There’s absolutely no doubt that 2011’s _A Dramatic Turn Of Events _and Dream Theater, released two years later, both issued following the shock departure of co-founding drummer Mike Portnoy, steadied the ship and performed wonderfully well for the band. Each received a Grammy nomination, which was something completely new. And yet it’s impossible to ignore the existence of a certain undercurrent of disappointment. For instance, the website Progarchives.com rates Dream Theater mostly with threes and fours out of five. The band are certainly aware of the malcontents.
“Yeah, that’s fine and it comes with the territory,” LaBrie shrugs, “but we cannot allow those people to guide our next move.”
So the misgivings of that small minority didn’t rally Dream Theater towards some sort of grand statement?
“No – it’s just the right idea at the right time,” Petrucci states firmly. “We just knew that were we to do [a concept piece] again, it had to be done right.”
Rudess adds: “With our roots in progressive rock and metal, we are in a unique space. Our audience is a mix of those cultures, which isn’t true of some of our rivals. Steven Wilson, for instance, is great, but his music is very much directed towards one dynamic. With Dream Theater, metal dudes and guys with long, grey hair stand next to one another. It’s no wonder those viewpoints sometimes clash.”
“This might sound clichéd, but to us, the art is the most important thing,” Petrucci says. “It really, really is. We are lucky enough to sit down and write the music we want to write, and people will either enjoy it or they won’t. We hope they do, but that’s not our motivation. As long as we continue to focus on our art then we’re successful.”
“I sincerely believe that what we’ve done here is incredible,” LaBrie adds earnestly. “It’s hard to believe that this far into our career, we’re charting some new waters, and I’m confident that The Astonishing will captivate the listener.”
The Astonishing is out on January 29 via Roadrunner as a double-CD, a four-LP vinyl box and a limited edition box set containing the CD edition, a 32-page screenplay, a map of the world in the story, a poster, a 3D figure of a story character and 20 trading cards. For more information, see www.dreamtheater.net.
MY FAVOURITE CONCEPT ALBUM
By John Petrucci
PINK FLOYD THE WALL
“I really wish I’d gotten to see Pink Floyd performing The Wall in 1979, though I did get to see Roger Waters playing it as a solo artist more recently. That was unbelievable.
“I love that The Wall worked on so many levels. It had animation, it became a film and it was this deep, complex piece of music based upon social commentary, but it also provided a hit single for the band, Another Brick In The Wall (Part II). How on earth did they do that? The music wasn’t so esoteric that nobody could understand it – the band really connected with their thoughts. But when they toured, they just went out there and played the show, with the road crew assembling its symbolic barrier with the crowd.
“The album’s constituent parts were just as important as the music. Its subplot about the war was great, and so, of course, were the animations. The Wall set the benchmark for every concept album, which is why we’re trying to steal a page from it by presenting our album as a show. If only we could do it on that same level.”
MY FAVOURITE CONCEPT ALBUM
By Jordan Rudess
THE WHO TOMMY
“When I was 13, I was studying at Juilliard [performing arts school in Manhattan, New York] with a very progressively minded teacher who was into more than just classical music, though that was really all I knew at that point. He took me to see The Who at the Fillmore East [in New York in October 1969]. It blew my mind. I had been this very straight-laced classical pianist kid and we had tickets in the front row of the balcony, right in the middle. Everyone around me had long hair and was smoking pot.
“Watching Roger Daltrey throw around his microphone and Pete Townshend do this thing with the guitar took me into another zone. It really influenced me as a musician, and of course I grew to love Tommy as a musical piece. Back then it was just another album and The Who were coming around and playing it for their fans, but over the decades it really took on a life of its own. So many albums were just collections of individual songs but the way Tommy told that story of the deaf, dumb and blind kid, it’s really something special.”
MY FAVOURITE CONCEPT ALBUM
By James LaBrie
“Strictly speaking, 2112 isn’t a full-blown concept album as its themed songs fill Side One of the old vinyl format, but I got into it with a bunch of my school friends and we would all listen to it together. The combination of the music and the storyline about fighting back against the repression of music just blew me away. Geddy Lee with his high-pitched voice was so unique that it took me to an entirely different headspace to the one I inhabited at the time, which as we all know is one of the best things about rock music.
“I love the fact that the storyline is so well put together. And many years later, I was so surprised to read that the album was very much a do-or-die for Rush – it actually staggered me as I really hadn’t known. Your record label threatens to drop you unless you deliver a hit and the band respond with a futuristic, seven-suite, 20-minute fantasy epic… Well, isn’t that the ultimate ‘fuck you’? If they were gonna go out then it was going to happen in a blaze of glory and on their own terms. To me, that’s fantastic.”
“SCI-FI MEETS GAME OF THRONES** **BUT ALMOST MEDIEVAL”
The new stage show promises to be a visual feast for fans…
The Astonishing makes its live premiere at the Palladium in central London on February 18 and 19 as part of a short burst of dates across the UK, Holland, Norway, Sweden, France and Italy. Dream Theater will be performing the album in its entirety. “It’ll be staged as though it were a Broadway show – each of its two acts, separated by an intermission,” John Petrucci explains. “That’s a full two-and-a-half hours when you include the time spent offstage.”
This is a very brave move indeed, almost the ultimate take-it-or-leave-it.
“Yeah, and we realise that,” nods Petrucci. “We’re diving right in there with no apologies. It’s been such a work of passion, there was no other way to bring it to life for the fans.”
The album’s scene-setter, Descent Of The NOMACS, thrums with overloading machinery and the threat of distant sirens, lending itself brilliantly to a space age-style cinematic setting. “There will be a sci-fi vibe to the presentation, but it will be that format meeting Game Of Thrones, where it’s almost medieval,” Petrucci reveals.
The band are aiming to pull out all of the stops to keep concertgoers on the edges of their seats. “That’s why this whole tour is in very different halls,” the guitarist explains.
He’s not kidding. With a mere 2,286 seats, the Palladium is tiny compared to the cavernous Wembley Arena, DT’s venue of choice in London since 2007.
“Some day,” adds James LaBrie, “I hope this story will go to the stage because it’s perfect for theatre adaptation. Listen to it from start to finish – it’s natural that that’s where it should end up.”
And there could even be a sequel to come. “The way John wrote this story, The Astonishing could definitely carry on,” Rudess agrees excitedly. “It really could become a theatre piece; it could be a film. All of the necessary detail is there.”