Adramatic turn of events? No shit. They used to be a band you could set your watch by, but drummer Mike Portnoy’s exit last September turned Dream Theater into a soap-opera car-crash, fuelling Twitterland with tales of musical adultery, friction and tears. From the dramatic, events soon turned embarrassing, as Portnoy’s fling with Avenged Sevenfold dissolved. Then baffling, as the band closed the door on the repentant drummer after bringing in Mike Mangini through their filmed auditions. At least they won’t call out the wrong name during sets.
Portnoy, of course, belongs to that exclusive club where there’s always plenty of elbow room at the bar: Drummers Who Matter. Even before you get to the intangibles, like the spiritual castration of losing a founding member and fan talisman, the black hole where his songwriting, lyrics, production and world-class drumming once were seemingly leaves Dream Theater in the plight of the unicyclist on the sleeve: a team of high-wire musical acrobats headed for a fall.
Let’s not dangle the ‘have they/haven’t they?’ teaser too long. To speak plainly, A Dramatic Turn Of Events suggests Dream Theater will certainly survive, maybe even flourish, without Portnoy, at least on record. The first point to stress is the bleeding obvious: Mangini is up to it. Perhaps there are tempo-crunching drum professors who can provide esoteric rationale why his technique doesn’t stand toe-to-toe with his predecessor’s, but to lay ears, the 48-year-old is several different forces of nature, smashing in the teeth of Bridges In The Sky and Breaking All Illusions like a berserker, then performing a Ferrari gear-change to the gossamer balladry of Beneath The Surface.
Indeed, if we’re (briefly) talking technique then all five members are on defiant form here, each turning in astonishingly complex lines. The sheer note count is mind-boggling, but the way these players shoulder each other through the choppy, tumbling rhythms – combined with John Petrucci’s well-balanced mix – implies a band with the hatches battened down, while lyrics about ‘living in the moment… creating a new beginning’ aren’t exactly hard to unravel.
Chops are guaranteed with Dream Theater; the songs are more hit-and-miss. Mangini doesn’t write (at least, not yet), and while the others spread out like a football team that’s a man down it’s mainly Petrucci who shoulders these nine long cuts. At its best, the album touts moments so ambitious and sky-scraping that Portnoy will surely listen head-in-hands. On The Backs Of Angels is one of them: a chiming, ethereal, slightly haunted piece that starts as a Bond theme before everything including the kitchen sink crashes in, with James LaBrie singing that ‘we spiral towards disaster’ but the music suggesting otherwise.
The aforementioned Bridges In The Sky is another standout; wide-screen and cinematic, with a bizarre, burping-monkey intro that breaks into Gregorian chants and a double-time, smash-and-grab, Metallica-esque guitar grind that reminds us Petrucci isn’t too clever-clever to get his hands dirty. Build Me Up, Break Me Down is similarly powerful, with hip-hop beats, a skanking, industrial rhythm and a ghost-train synth riff proving Dream Theater have brilliance to burn.
There aren’t any dud songs, just duff sections. Take Lost Not Forgotten, a piece that fairly drips atmosphere until it hits the six-minute mark and slips into the hellish widdle that identifies a virtuoso band flexing their theoretical muscles too hard. Later, Outcry starts brilliant but ends far too busy. But these moments always pass, and tend to bleed into something better, like the soaraway melodies of Beneath The Surface.
Losses in bands take time to sink in, and whether or not DT remain prog’s modern overlords will only be revealed when the new line-up have slogged around the world and made another album without the sting of rejection to fuel their fire. For now, Dream Theater are very much open for business.