Music Reviews Progressive Metal

Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events

I have chosen to stay quiet regarding the divorcement between Dream Theater and Mike Portnoy since last Autumn. I am still befuddled by the event as I have been fan for almost 15 years now and it was a difficult moment for me, and I’m sure, many others. At the same time, for several releases now, I’ve been indifferent to the direction the band has gone in. While still my favorite band, I’ve lost the romanticism I used to have.

I did listen to “On the Backs of Angels” once when it was first released, but refrained from additional listens, as well as the other snippets that were revealed in the past few months. I have chosen to give A Dramatic Turn of Events its own unstained listen on a pristine vinyl edition. The past several Dream Theater albums have taken months of repeat spins for me to make a determination on where the album fits for me. A Dramatic Turn of Events is the first Dream Theater album in many years that has only required a handful of repeat spins to come to a positive conclusion. The first listen left me intrigued, repeat listens have shown that this is indeed a welcoming direction for the band.

Note: This review includes the songs in order as they appear on the vinyl edition.

“On the Backs of Angels” returns to the Gothic tendencies that Rudess has been experimenting with in the past several releases. The keyboards and guitar are excellent and the song exhibits some of the youthfulness that the band has lost over the years. The song takes its time to let the music and lyrics speak for themselves, and the guitar solo is soulful and filled with Petrucci’s signature sound. The song stands on its own and is a refreshing opening track. “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” is the typical Dream Theater song on the album designed for radio play; easy to edit, easy to consume. Each verse begins with electronic/nu-metal tendencies, which feels a little bit like a cop-out. The song is overly produced, and the weakest of the album. It is merely Dream Theater’s signature chance to make a simple song that relates to a mainstream audience.

“Lost Not Forgotten” features a heavy opening that is classic Dream Theater. A chaotic opening instrumental allows the members to flex their muscle, even if it is a tad egregious. The lyrics are mediocre, they simple do not entirely fit the excellent riff in the verse. The song certainly redeems itself in the second verse and the solo, making for one of the more clever epics in the band’s catalog. “This is the Life” examines the personality differences. It is certainly a song that attempts to have an epic wall-of-sound production value that ignites some urgency towards the end.

“Bridges in the Sky” is one of the best Dream Theater songs in many albums. A full, rich bass line, exact and precise lyrics, and a wonderful journey make up this epic. An unconventional opening for a Dream Theater song that is reminiscent of the creatures from The Dark Crystal, beckoning the the spirit to place the listener into the necessary trance the song evokes. It is eerie, and I’m scared shitless. It immediately shifts to a heavy musical introduction that is just a fuck-ton of awesome. Excellent verses and chorus with a classic Dream Theater instrumental that has Rudess providing one of his best solos in some time. What is fantastic about the instrumental is how easily it transitions right back to the chorus. This is the Dream Theater that I can be proud of, one of the best Dream Theater songs in many, many years.

The members of Dream Theater are not strangers to political songs, and “Outcry” returns to their stance of being objective observers of major events and issues. The song easily provokes images of the Arab Spring, where multiple Islamic-based nations are or have under gone revolutions. Such images can easily match the control that Portnoy had over the band (of which Portnoy does not disagree). Another tradition among Dream Theater albums is the ballad, and “Far From Heaven” has the common piano and strings ballad structure that efficiently builds to a peak that denies a lift off point, and instead returns to the sorrowful melody that began the song.

“Breaking All Illusions” returns to a progressive groove and becomes an eerie verse, not like any Dream Theater song I’ve heard before. Finally, some progression. The longest song on the release, it has potential right from the beginning, and the band certainly makes use of the momentum from start to finish. The song, while having moments of uncanny Dream Theater moments, had an enjoyable air of “Trial of Tears”. While “Far From Heaven” offered the conventional Dream Theater ballad, “Beneath The Surface” returns to some of their roots in power ballads. For a closing song, it is perfect as it harkens back to the downbeat nature of “Space Dye Vest” off Awake. So many Dream Theater albums in the past have ended with mind-blowing epics, it is nice to have a succinct ballad end a Dream Theater album after all these years. It completes the album, but offers a lyrical and thematic direction for the next album to take.

Some press materials have John Petrucci proclaiming that the lyrics in the songs do not reflect the departure of Mike Portnoy, I do not agree. I will note that I have taken a readerly position and say that much of the lyrics, and of course the title, all point to Portnoy’s departure and the events that took place afterwards. We cannot forget the title itself A Dramatic Turn of Events is a not only a wink at the situation, it harkens back to some of the album titles for Genesis such as …And Then There Were Three…, giving the album a sense of self-awareness.

The instrumental breaks in this album have been some of the best compared to past years, even if they are surrounded by variations of a formulaic verse-chours-verse. But Dream Theater still suffers from the instinct to have a commonality between the songs on other albums. There is always the ballad, a song designed for mainstream attention, the objective political song, and of course the epics. This may be a new direction for the band, a promising one in fact. But the predictability of the songs is testing my patience.

The stand out tracks for this release “Bridges in the Sky” and “Breaking All Illusions” feature the specific Dream Theater tendencies that have made them who they are, yet point towards the progression that has been lost in previous albums. A Dramatic Turn of Events is a clear indicator that Dream Theater has embraced a new spirit while clutching to the tropes that have appeared on previous albums. This new release is not at all a totally renewed path for the band, but a step in the right direction.