Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dream Theater's 'Dream Theater' - Album Review

Dream Theater are one of my favourite bands and have been for a few years now. I enjoy all of their albums to a greater or lesser extent so was looking forward to this, their twelfth studio effort, simply titled Dream Theater from the moment it was announced. Unusually for a prog album, the feelings that I had during and after my first listen to it are pretty much the same as they are now. In short, I like the album. It is definitely their most instantly accessible album for some time and there seems to be a much greater focus on melody. With 2011's A Dramatic Turn of Events the band had something to prove. After the departure of drummer Mike Portnoy, the band had to show the world that they could continue on without his influence, and they did that in spades. A Dramatic Turn of Events was a brilliant album that put the band back on the map after a couple of seemingly average releases (this is the popular opinion, but I disagree as 2009's Black Clouds & Silver Linings is my favourite Dream Theater album). After finishing the huge world tour undertaken to support that album, and with new drummer Mike Mangini fully embedded into the creative processes of the band, Dream Theater went back into to studio full of confidence to write and record Dream Theater. When listening to this album, what you hear is a band who feel that they no longer have anything to prove. This is just Dream Theater doing what they do best by creating interesting and melodic songs that have feet in a number of musical camps. However, it does feel much more streamlined than the band's other more recent releases. It is shorter and sleeker overall with an excellent production throughout aided by a great mix from Richard Chycki. The 22 minute epic at the end of the album aside, Dream Theater does not feel as 'progressive' as usual (this is all relative of course..). To me, this is no bad thing. Songs do not have to be overlong or full of complex sequences to be good and it seems that this is the approach the band have taken on this album. That said though, this is still unmistakably a Dream Theater album. All the hallmarks of their sound are present but the overall package just feels slightly more polished than usual. This slightly more slimline approach to songwriting might disappoint those with very fixed ideas of what Dream Theater are meant to sound like, but those fans who are open to a well produced album of progressive but melodic material will find plenty to enjoy here. Another thing that I think about this album is that the songs seem to be made to be performed live and I hope that when the band take this album on the road that they play a good chunk of the material. 

For the first time in their long career, Dream Theater have decided to open an album with an introductory piece of music. False Awakening Suite is short and sweet but gets the album off to a menacing start. The simple, fat guitar riffs could be taken straight out of a Symphony X song; and this vibe is aided by the demonic strings. It soon fades into the album's single, the heavy The Enemy Inside. It has a sound similar to that found on 2003's Train of Thought but as soon as James LaBrie starts to sing the melodies really take shape. Mangini really makes his mark on this album. He did well on A Dramatic Turn of Events but here, on songs he has helped write, he shines. He is a real beast and his technique is flawless. Jordan Rudess takes more of a back seat on this song and his keyboards create layers of texture that really enhance the mood. However, he does unleash his trademark nifty keyboard work in the instrumental section towards the end that sees him duelling with John Petrucci. The Looking Glass is up next and this might be my favourite song on the whole album. If I had to pick one song to sum up the themes and sound of the album, it would definitely be this. It demonstrates the more streamlined approach to songwriting that I was describing perfectly. The main riff is sublime and Rudess lets rip more here with some very 1980s sounding keyboards that would not have sounded out of place on 1992's Images and Words. The song seamlessly mixes strong rock passages with beautifully mellow sections to great effect. Petrucci takes an uncharacteristically basic approach to soloing that works well in this context, backed up by a beefy bassline from John Myung. Dream Theater have not included an instrumental on an album since Train of Thought but this changes now with the tour de force that is Enigma Machine (although they did write a piece called Raw Dog that was on the God of War: Blood & Metal soundtrack EP in 2010). I am not normally a fan of instrumental music, but this piece just flies by. There is so much going on that it is a little hard to focus on individual moments but it is safe to say that it is impressive. The solos from both Petrucci and Rudess are fast and intricate on the whole, but about two thirds of the way through it really slows down and Petrucci unleashes a section that David Gilmour would have been proud of! The Bigger Picture on the whole is a much gentler song. The verses are led by piano and acoustic guitar - backed by a delicate string arrangement - and give LaBrie a chance to show off his breathy 'ballad voice'. The song is built around an anthemic chorus though that is just classic Dream Theater, the second of which segues perfectly into a dreamy guitar solo. This approach is continued somewhat in Behind the Veil. The intro is pretty cinematic with some great keyboard textures mixing well with the strings but it is not long before a big Petrucci riff comes along and smashes through the wall of sereneness with a sledgehammer. The verses are a mixture of the mid-paced chugging that follows on from the main riff and clean passages that make good use of picked guitar lines. The only problem that I have with this song is that it's chorus is very similar to The Bigger Picture, but the solo is much more in Petrucci's traditional style though!

Surrender to Reason follows and the intro has a very clear Rush influence. However, the very 1980s keyboard sweeps and guitar riff soon drop out to be replaced with simple acoustic guitar and vocals. This, in turn, is soon replaced by a big riff with some Uriah Heep-esque organ - so within the short space of about 1 minute 30 seconds, we have had three distinct sounds used and nothing sounds contrived. The rest of the song is much more basic and driven by some excellent bass from Myung. Overall, he is much more prominent in the mix than on previous albums which can only be a good thing! He even gets a bass solo in this song, which Petrucci trys to outshine by soloing over the top of, but Myung's big tones win through. Along for the Ride again harks back to the band's early sound. It is a bit of a pseudo-ballad that is so catchy I am surprised it has not been released as a single. It reminds me slightly of Back on the Ground from LaBrie's recent solo album Impermanent Resonance (a review of which can be found here) as it has a similar AOR vibe. The chorus is massive, and so melodic. Rudess' keyboard solo is delightfully cheesy and shows that keyboards can be just as good as a guitar in the right context. The album's final song is the 22 minute epic Illumination Theory. Dream Theater have written many excellent epics over the years - I'm thinking specifically of Learning to Live from Images and Words and The Count of Tuscany from Black Clouds & Silver Linings which are probably my two favourites - and while Illumination Theory is not as good as either of those songs, it is still good in it's own right. As you would expect, there are many distinct sections and there is so much going on that this is probably the only song on the album that took me a few listens to really get into. Trying to describe it all would be fruitless, but there are some standout sections. About a third of the way in, the traditional instruments drop away to be replaced with gentle ambiance that soon morphs into some really excellent strings. This is not some gimmicky symphonic metal section tacked onto the song, this is the real deal. If you took this section of the song out and played it on Classical FM, people would be singing it's praises from the rooftops. The drum and bass bit that follows is also excellent. Myung lays down a great groove and locks in so well with Mangini that they feel like the perfect rhythm section. The remainder of the song is classic Dream Theater. LaBrie gives one of his best ever vocal performances in this part of the song and really helps it to stand out. Illumination Theory seems a little disjointed at first, but after a few listens really beings to make sense and is a perfect way to end the album as it is in stark contrast with the rest of the material. Overall, Dream Theater is another great album from the band. It's more immediate and melodic nature might curtial it's longevity somewhat (but I doubt it) but I do not think most fans will mind and, in fact, this will be a perfect entry point for new fans.

The album was released on 23rd September 2013 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Enemy Inside.

No comments:

Post a Comment