It's almost hard to believe that it's been about 26 years since Dream Theater first formed. After constant changes in band members and play styles, you would have thought a band like this could have never survived the decades. With that said, it has certainly been done before, with timeless bands like Rush leading the helm. Just like Rush and other inspirations such as Yes, it seems like no matter how many decades have passed and how many fads develop, this is a band that has stood the test of time, and will continue to show us that they're a force to be reckoned with.
Many fans (including myself) were quite afraid after drummer Mike Portnoy's departure of the band. The man is the second youngest to ever be inducted into the Rock Drummer Hall of Fame and for good reason. He plays with an accuracy and consistency that is nothing short of incredible. After almost a year of thinking the band was very much dead, I witnessed their episodic segment of "The Spirit Carries On" on youtube. I was even more concerned at this point, and thought the band might be going crazy. It's not that I don't think anyone else out there could do the things Portnoy did, but that doesn't make finding someone as talented any easier. The result was a very interesting surprise. Cue Mike Mangini; former drummer of Annihilator, James Labrie's solo project, Extreme, and even Steve Vai amongst others. I knew it was going to be someone big, but I didn't realize it'd be at quite this level. For those who don't know, Mangini was granted the nickname of "World's Fastest Drummer" by obtaining many WFD awards over the years. To put it mildly, this man is a beast. Another nostalgic moment to note is that for the first time since "Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory," John Myung (the bassist) once again took the task of writing some of the lyrics for the album. Okay, so enough about the new drummer and 90's flings. How is the album? The last four or so efforts from the group have had many mixed reviews among critics (and myself), so needless to say, there was quite a bit of pressure behind this album's release.
When booting up the first track, anyone who's listened to this band from beginning to end will no doubt see some of the similarities behind this song and "Pull Me Under" from their 1992 breakthrough, "Images and Words." Fans will be reminded of this by James Labrie's slightly softer (but effective) vocals, and even the sounds of Jordan Rudess's keyboards. It won't break down any walls, but it's a very competent and worthwhile track. More importantly, it's very Dream Theater.
The second track "Build Me Up, Break Me Down," took a few listens before I realized what would be fair to compare it to. It really didn't hit me at first, but this actually has quite a few similarities to "Caught In A Web." Once you get past the different in tempo, you will most likely notice the same. Most are going to criticize this one, just as they have every other "mainstream-sounding" Dream Theater track. I'd say that depending on whether you're into the band more for technical notations or for the general metal-head appeal, I think you can already tell from my words whether you're going to like this track or not.
"Lost Not Forgotten" is where things really start to get interesting. We get a very nice and soft piano into, followed by a powerful burst of energy that can only be described as epic. To those who were wondering if John Petrucci (lead guitarist) and Jorden Rudess could out-do themselves in the technical department, look no further. The instrumental unity of the 1:58-2:30 section will have your jaw on the floor. Petrucci and Rudess are absolutely relentless during this moment of sheer ferocity. Following this, almost as if some kind of inside joke, the band quickly switches to what may be one of the simplest riffs I've ever heard come from the rhythm guitar. The tempo shifts back to a quicker pace once more for the chorus, and breaks into a very nice bridge, once again very similar to "Images and Words" with Petrucci's solo, with "Under A Glass Moon" just bleeding off of it.
After catching one's breath, we come to the first of a surprising three ballad songs on this album. Labrie carries us away with his soft, but once again powerful voice, and Petrucci guides us back to the ground with his noteworthy solos.
Back up to the plate, we enter "Bridges in the Sky." This track begins with Tuvan throat singing to immediately set another visualization and tone to follow. We also get to see some very deep usage of the bass notes from John Myung in this track. He has proven that whether standout or not, he is every bit as important to this band. As the bass player, he is also what helps bring the whole group together musically.
Next in the journey, we come across "Outcry." This track, like "Bridges in the Sky" and "Lost Not Forgotten," exceeds the ten-minute mark, showcasing some crazy speed and precision, while also remaining an entertaining listen. You really haven't heard a Dream Theater song until you've heard it all the way through. The breaks and cues are so subtle, but so genius all at once.
"Far From Heaven" marks the second ballad on the album. I feel that this one actually tops the previous, despite the strong efforts it presented. Somehow, the feeling behind this song is encapsulated even more than the previous, bringing the highest even higher.
And now we traverse to find "Breaking All Illusions." Next to "Lost Not Forgotten," this is by far one of my favorite songs of the album. The song begins with a promising pick up, with quick signature changes, still maintaining the consistency all throughout. As we get to the first verse, the tempo slows down and the song shifts into a brooding and poetic atmosphere...; that is until the second verse. The song shifts into full blast here, with one of the most daring instrumental sections of the entire album. Petrucci is at another all-time high with his quick finger work and fretboard mastery. Mangini also finally gets some moments to really shine with this section, pedaling his way to prove he's here to stay. Once again, the song reverts to the mellow foreground we witnessed previously, still picking up tempo in small places, all the way to the end.
Finally, we come to the third ballad on the album, as well as the last song of the album, "Beneath The Surface." I know I've been saying this about each ballad on this release, but once again, the band seems to top themselves with what ended up being the best ballad of the album to me. James gives off some of his most emotional singing here, with wonderful acoustics to back him up.
To take everything we've been given and try to sum it all up, this album was quite an experience for me. I absolutely loved how members of the band like Petrucci and Labrie went back to some of their more "classic" roots, with Labrie's softer and more emotional singing, and Petrucci's concentrated, but fierce guitar work. As a drummer, Mike Mangini has already proven himself to the world. His sound is distinctly different from Mike Portnoy's, but that doesn't mean he can't carry the mantle all the same. It's a shame that we didn't get to see him really show off with this album (which I assume is due to the condition it was being written under, not having an actual drummer to test-pilot the songs). Due to this, I have a feeling we'll get to see more impressive work from him in the future.
I never thought I'd be saying this after what I felt were numerous disappointments from the group, but with all said and done, I'm actually very excited to see what directions the band will take next. While far from perfect, this is a very fresh start for Dream Theater, and a wonderful time to be a music fan.
8 Portnoy's out of 10