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Reaches high, almost gets there
on September 13, 2011
The first Dream Theater album without founding member and original drummer Mike Portnoy, A Dramatic Turn of Events will certainly continue to divide the fans, especially those that are extremely upset or pleased by Portnoy's departure. Without getting into that debate, I will just mention that the sound achieved on the album is still unmistakeably Dream Theater with a few minor differences.
The album has a great flow to it. The songs are tied together organically exuding some of their freshest ideas in a while. Jordan Rudess, in particular, expands the songs' chordal parameters and no longer strictly functions as Petrucci's shadow, coming to the fore prominently both during the choruses and solo passages. He also avoids using his more eclectic synth patches and tones as he plays to the strength of the compositions. Of course, he is integral in the unison leads of tracks like "Bridges in the Sky" and "Outcry," both of which exceed the ten-minute mark. Rudess also showcases his experimental side: the Tuvan throat singing at the beginning and end of "Bridges in the Sky" is obviously sampled from Omnisphere as are the gothic-like cathedral-sized 'choirs' and string arrangements.
Having recorded the vocals on his own in Canada, James Labrie adds his sonic imprint to some of the tunes much the same way he does on his solo material. Two of the album's ballads, "This is the Life" and "Far from Heaven," both boast majestic piano lines and great melodic segments. There is none of his more aggressive vocalizations present on this disc, though he still exploits his darker tones, as witnessed during the intro of "Lost Not Forgotten," arguably his finest moment on the album. Instead of screaming, he builds tension over several notes. This track also eerily recalls the band's majestic track "Under a Glass Moon," not in terms of melody construction but arrangement. The band adopts a similar approach to developing the piece using plenty of harmonized fretwork atop a powerful theme introduced in the beginning of the song, which climbs throughout the whole piece until the finale.
John Petrucci's playing is surprisingly restrained apart from the whacky instrumental sections the band is known for. Even then, though, his playing takes on a dreamlike quality. Penned by John Myung, "Breaking All Illusions" is possibly his most emotionally draining guitar solo since the reworked "Hollow Years" version. It builds slowly, but has a defined purpose and melodic weight to it at the same time. It seems almost improvised, but due to its climax, also painstakingly composed and well arranged. Petrucci's tone here has more definition which heightens the scope a notch, obviously. Simply wonderful.
Some may argue that, because Mike Portnoy is out of the band, John Myung's tone is audible and the most central aspect of the album. Well, that assessment cannot be further from the truth. Myung still plays much the way he has on the past releases. Apart from the obvious bass lines here and there (check the album opener or "Outcry"), he still utilizes deep bass notes rather than extraneous, protruding lines, and this is for a reason. His bass sits in the back in order to create a deeper guitar sound. Petrucci's tone is heavier because of the bass. Myung's playing has never really been about standing out, not since Falling into Infinity at least. They choose to play in each other's sound in order to create a unique sound, just like flutes and oboes, or violins and violas in an orchestra, play unisons without worrying about "standing out" in the composition. Myung's role within the song is all about establishing additional portals for a tighter rhythmic flow, and he achieves this feat perfectly.
Because he joined the band after the songwriting process, new drummer Mike Mangini is given little room to demonstrate his full talents as a drummer. Gone are Portnoy's in-your-face drum parts that dominate a typical Dream Theater album, and this will undoubtedly please or disappoint fans depending on their preferences. As much as Mangini is to be commended for his technical prowess and skill, the drums are mixed too low in the mix and lack some of the additional flair the songs could benefit from. It would have been great if Mangini had created more extreme dynamics within a groove and accentuated the compositions, but he performs more like a session player replicating the intricate lines both rhythmically and melodically. Rather than directing, he is supporting the melodies. His beat construct is pretty standard, which stems from him coming aboard in the last minute. I look forward to the next album with Mangini behind the kit to see how he'll contribute to the band's music.
Personally, I feel the mix by Andy Wallace is not the band's best. I don't know how much of that can be attributed to Wallace's not having worked with a progressive metal band before (he is known for his work with modern bands like Atreyu, Korn, Avenged Sevenfold, System of a Down, etc.) and I don't understand why the band chose to bring in Wallace when long-time producer Paul Northfield was already available. Also, some songs are mastered too loudly which was not the case on prior Dream Theater albums. Finally, the second track, "Build Me Up, Break Me Down" is atrocious; it is one of the worst Dream Theater songs I have heard. I don't think the blend of industrial sounds, modern-day guitar riffs, gothic-like synths, and Labrie's 'catchy' vocal part works. The band obviously has had other radio-friendly songs in the past, but tracks like "Wither" and "Forsaken" are light years better than this one.
Without doubt, many reviewers will proclaim this album their best since whatever album they like the most, but these claims will always be debatable, as everything is in the ear of the beholder at the end of the day, and Dream Theater certainly has some of the most "demanding" fans on the planet.