Dream Theater: A Dramatic Turn of Events
  • Production
  • Composition
  • Musicianship
  • Freshness
  • Jordan Rudess

After the soap opera drama that has encircled the band since last year’s departure of founding member Mike Portnoy, culminating in the overly-dramatic The Spirit Carries On, I was just hoping that Dream Theater could get their act together and just put out a good album this year.  I’ll be honest…when I heard that Mike Portnoy had left the band, I was giddy with excitement.  Blasphemy you say?  Well, even though I was one of the only ones I knew that was excited, I felt like I had good reason to be.  I feel that ever since Six Degrees, MP’s drumming has taken a sharp turn for the more bland and repetitive.  Sure, he still had some awesome moments of awesome, and he’s by no means a bad drummer, but I felt like he stopped putting as much time and thought into his parts; they sounded “off the cuff” in a bad way.  This could be a result of him getting burned out (which he said he was), or the whole AA thing draining him a little, or whatever.  Since he was the main producer of the band as well, I felt that this same thing was happening to DT’s songwriting.  Their newer albums were still good, and still had some killer songs, but they also had some bad songs, and more mediocre songs.  That didn’t stop them from writing Octavarium (the song), In the Presence of Enemies I & II, or The Count of Tuscany, but they also wrote some pretty bad songs; there were definitely some cringe moments. ADToE, while being more or less your standard DT affair, shows some interesting things, and enforces some of my beliefs.

If you’re an MP fanboy, you might agree with the review on Metal Storm, thinking this album is “craploads of forced, uninspired instrumental wankery!” But I do not. With MP out of the picture, what was to happen? John Petrucci co-produced the albums, but surely he wouldn’t want to fill those shoes alone now.  I was hoping with all of my hope muscles that Jordan Rudess would take the spot as co-producer, and the band would finally open up with some fresh ideas.  Well, Jordan didn’t co-produce, and John did fill the shoes alone. But, Jordan’s influence is very present. Why am I so excited about that?  Because every one of his solo albums is mostly awesome (if you don’t count where he sings, they are even more awesome), and he has 12 of them (5 more than he has with DT)!  So, what I was hoping for with this album is an opening up of the composition and for DT to just have fun trying some new stuff that, for whatever reason, I feel has been lacking as of late. Depending on what you look for in a DT album, your opinion will vary.  If you like the epic lengthy musical journeys like Octavarium or The Count of Tuscany, you’ll definitely be missing that.  If you like the more straightforward metal aspect, you’ll probably be just as pleased as you have been.  If, like me, you love the crazy, spastic instrumental parts (think middle of Fatal Tragedy, Dance of Eternity, that kind of thing), then this album is slightly better than then the last few, and shows a lot of interesting things for the future.

Jordan Rudess really lets it fly. He has some really awesome synth parts, really cool rhythmic ideas, and his leads FINALLY veer away from the “run up the keyboard really fast, squeal at the top, and run down really fast,” and are actually interesting and melodic.  honestly, those solos would be really cool, he just did them way too much. I can just see how writing songs used to be in my head (this is in no way colored by my beliefs):

MP: K, here we’re going to do another one of those awesome synth solos that you do Jordan.
Jordan: hey Mike, check out this really cool lead I just made on all my iPads.  Its called “smooth beauty.”
MP: yeah…you could use that…if you want to admit that you’re a woman…
Jordan: *sigh*…alright, I’ll use the annoying thin lead that you love. Also, I came up with this sweet melodic solo, check it!
MP: well….it just doesn’t have…balls…you know? to get the chicks you have to play extra fast and loud!
Jordan: Dude, I’m marri-
Jordan: *sigh*

That’s exactly how it used to be. Ok ok…maybe that’s not exactly how it went, but I like to think that it was.  But seriously, Jordan rocks the house on this album.  If you’re a fan, I think you’ll like it. If you’re not…well maybe you should be reading the Metal Storm review instead of mine, because that guy has a serious vendetta against him. Personally, I love Jordan’s stuff. Guitars were standard DT guitars, no surprises.  Same with the bass.

Now the part that I’m most excited to talk about: the drumming. Mike Mangini, if you’re not familiar with him, is an incredible drummer.  He uses a wicked symmetrical setup, and switches between right and left handed playing constantly.  Its really fun to watch. That Metal Storm review I linked earlier probably thought the drums were terrible.  To be fair, the drumming does sound terrible due to the really crappy and inconsistent mix job, but I’ll talk about that later.  His drum parts are actually really interesting, if you can find them, and they aren’t an easy find.  If you happen to see them on their tour, you’ll see what I mean.  Watching him play was an eye opener to how interesting and intricate the drum parts really are. Here is a drummer that can fill MP’s shoes very very well, yet the mix didn’t do him justice at all.

Wait! Did I just say that the only way to make the drums on this album interesting is to see him play them live so you can picture him in your head while your ears strain for rhythm? Yes I did. Is that a problem? Well, its not exactly a plus for the album…in fact, I find it quite aggravating. The drums are not mixed well…at all. Sadly, the entire album suffers from a depressingly inconsistent mix. Vocal sections are too loud in several parts, the guitars bury everything sometimes (the list just goes on), but I could live with those minor things if my ears weren’t already begging for more.  The drums just don’t punch, kick or bite, and they play shy the entire time; that is unforgivable in the metal world. Well, I’ll be quick to point my finger at the second-rate mixer that they hired! *points finger* What?! It was Andy Wallace?? Well, they must have dredged the bottom of the barrel for an engineer that didn’t know how to properly capture Mangini’s madness. *points finger* Paul Northfield?! Are we in Bizzaro World, where the man who has recorded Neil Peart and Gavin Harrison somehow lost his touch? I refuse to believe that. So who is to blame? Petrucci? Mangini? Portnoy’s vengeful spectre? Satan? I don’t know who’s fault this is, but when the drums sound better live than they do on a STUDIO ALBUM, there are serious problems going on somewhere, and junk-punches need to be meted out to the guilty parties. Abundantly, and with prejudice.

Now, gripes aside, I enjoyed this album. I’d put it about the same overall level as their last several offerings, but there are a lot of differences.  The songs are not as cohesive and well composed (with a couple exceptions), but there’s still some really cool stuff they bring to the table. I know I didn’t talk about the vocals, but I figure you are either solidly in James’ camp, or running from it like a fat kid escaping fat camp. As for me, I’m running to the nearest qwik-e-mart for a slushie because James’ vocals sometimes cause me physical pain. If you’re a fan of Jordan’s spastic keyboard stuffs, and cool instrumental sections, you might like it a little more. If you’re looking for the epic song Dream Theater, then you may be left wanting. Either way, its an interesting if inconsistent effort, and you should check it out.