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Dream Theater

When arena-rock and nu-prog-rock collide, the likes of ASIA, QUEENSRYCHE and RUSH (MARILLION in Britain) were probably the only commercial benefactors in a genre often only associated with the early-to-mid-70s movement – GENESIS, YES, et al. When hard-edged progsters DREAM THEATER emerged from the pack in the late 80s, there was no doubt that with talent and dexterity, anything was possible. Now with over a dozen concept sets behind them, core members John Petrucci (guitar), John Myung (bass), James LaBrie (vocals) – the latter from 1991 to present-day – and Mike Portnoy (drums) – a stalwart for 25 years until his departure in 2010 – are now a group with an impeccable chart CV behind them.
It was a long way from their days in 1985 as Berklee College of Music-based act, Majesty, led by students Petrucci, Myung and Portnoy. After recruiting Petrucci’s high-school buddy, Kevin Moore (keyboards), plus frontman Charlie Dominici (to replace short-stop, Chris Collins), the Massachusetts quintet took to the stage in New York, adopted the DREAM THEATER moniker, and signed to M.C.A. through Mechanic Records. With a blend of techno/thrash arena-rock very much in the mould of the English prog scene of the 70s, although they’d duly hardened up their approach to a more QUEENSRYCHE/RUSH-esque sound, DT were fast becoming hot property around the east coast.
Although the quintet’s debut set, WHEN DREAM AND DAY UNITE (1989) {*5}, indicated they had learned plenty from their masters, it sold relatively poorly, leading to the Geddy Lee-like Dominici departing, while the band quit their label soon afterwards. Reaching out to metal-prog fans through cliched tracks, only `Light The Fuse And Get Away’, `Ytse Jam’ and `The Ones Who Help To Set The Sun’, rose above the parapet.
In the early 90s, the multi-talented DREAM THEATER drafted in Canadian frontman James LaBrie and signed to Atco Records, while they finally cracked the Top 100 with the much-improved IMAGES AND WORDS (1992) {*8}. With a singer adding more power and passion to the mix, heartfelt lyrical ballads and arena-styled metal-prog cuts could combine for once; highlights standing tall courtesy of gargantuan tracks, `Pull Me Under’, `Take The Time’, `Metropolis, Pt.1: The Miracle And The Sleeper’ and `Learning To Live’ – each clocking in at over 8 minutes one might add.
Bypassing the import-only LIVE AT THE MARQUEE (1993) {*6} – recorded in London – 1994’s AWAKE {*7} was something akin to a latter-day KING CRIMSON or ASIA. With vinyl meeting its maker, DREAM THEATER were able to explore the boundaries of releasing a 75-minute CD without worrying too much about track placing and timing commitments. While Moore could almost make his keys funky, the jazz-prog chord-shifts in each of `Erotomania’, the grinding `Lie’ and the 11-minute `Scarred’, were always good for several extra helpings.
Not since the long-missed days of two decades back, had prog-rock had a band that could reach the heady heights of the Top 40, even Britain wanted some of the band’s instrumental prowess, albeit briefly – for now! Yes, and it was only a matter of time before DREAM THEATER were to provide their growing legion of fans with a bona fide classic, the 23-minute-long title track from the mini-set, A CHANGE OF SEASONS (1995) {*7}; an album/EP spoiled only by their insistence to un-cover and live medley-ise songs from the repertoire of LED ZEPPELIN, PINK FLOYD, KANSAS, QUEEN, GENESIS, JOURNEY and DIXIE DREGS.
That same set had seen DT bring in ex-ALICE COOPER member Derek Sherinian on keys in place of Moore, but 1997’s follow-on FALLING INTO INFINITY {*6}, proved they had a chink in their armour. But for the delicious, slo-fi METALLICA-like `Peruvian Skies’, too many of the tracks seemed long-drawn and over-produced with a touch of sentiment. The AOR-friendly `Hollow Years’, plus the epic-friendly `Lines In The Sand’ and the closing `Trial Of Tears’ collage – enlightening though they were – prog for the nifty 90s.
There was still a market – well, in America at least – for cerebral art-rock, and with concert set, ONCE IN A LIVETIME (1998) {*6} they could play and preach to an already converted audience of disciples probably too young to remember YES, ELP and their like. Still, at a running time of two and a half hours, this was DREAM THEATER’s “Yessongs” or “Welcome Back My Friends…” – one might say: to be taken at intervals and in the correct dosage.
Now without Sherinian; replaced by the equally talented New Yorkan Jordan Rudess (ex-Vinnie Moore, ex-JAN HAMMER), the almost prehistoric by its prog-ish conceptual nature, METROPOLIS PT.2: SCENES FROM A MEMORY (1999) {*7} got DREAM THEATER back on track. Taking the fictional story of the murder in 1928 of a young woman and its subsequent torture of a modern-day man, tracks in various Acts and convoluted Scenes were segues in unusual suites and structures best left to the band to explain on how they divided the contents. At times as soft as a good QUEEN “Opera” record (`Fatal Tragedy’ and `Finally Free’, prime examples), the meat on the bones came shining through on the pounding `Beyond This Life’ and `The Dance Of Eternity’.
Fans wanting to revisit the set by way of the triple-set, LIVE SCENES FROM NEW YORK {*7} – incidentally originally released on September 11, 2011, with a backdrop of a New York skyline in flames! – was uncannily prophetic given what happened on that tragic day. Without the obviously offensive but unintentional cover art, the stop-gap coffee-table breaker was tracked by the band’s double-CD studio return, SIX DEGREES OF INNER TURBULENCE (2002) {*7}. Marking their reunification with the Top 50, the worthy exponents of magnum opus prog-metal had come full circle. While disc one explored a classical bent and one political track, `The Great Debate’ (the 9-minute `Misunderstood’ was the band’s most accessible record for some time), disc two was down to Petrucci, Portnoy and Rudess’s monster multi-part title track.
If PINK FLOYD had once inspired us all – especially DREAM THEATER – in their conceptual albums of madness and the inner-workings of the mind by way of “The Dark Side…” and “The Wall”, alcoholism and impending recovery took its place on the band’s next venture, TRAIN OF THOUGHT (2003) {*8}. Riff-tidy and intermittently solemn and serene, axeman-cometh Petrucci was almost scaring-ly schizoid in his attempts to frighten the listener into a false sense of security. One minute, horizontal and sleepy, the next breaking out in an icy grime of his grinding guitar, ToT was definitely up there with anything that the likes of METALLICA could throw in. With five tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes, fans were in their element on `This Dying Soul’, `Endless Sacrifice’, `Honor Thy Father’, `Stream Of Consciousness’ and `In The Name Of God’.
Subsequently switching from Elektra to Atlantic Records, LaBrie, and Co brought their fanbase up-to-date on LIVE AT BODOKAN (2004) {*6}, another exhaustive 3-CD affair which also interpolated some works from their solo projects, including LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT.
Providing a formulaic balance between nu-metal and theatrical hardcore-prog, 2005’s Top 40 set OCTAVARIUM {*7} was another success story for the quintessential quintet. From opener, `The Root Of All Evil’ to the hook line and sinker balladry of `The Answer Lies Within’, DREAM THEATER could switch allegiances at the drop of a hat and, while this alienated a few long-term acolytes, it was still worth sticking around for the GENESIS-esque title track – all 24 minutes of it, name-checking “Supper’s Ready”, “Cinema Show” and a few ‘Floyd ditties.
When it looked like twilight-years label Rhino Records would take control after their delivery of the 3xCD concert set, SCORE (2006) {*6} was unveiled – incidentally cut from the cloth of their 20th Anniversary tour with the Octavarium Orchestra – no, it was Roadrunner Records that took the reins forthwith for SYSTEMATIC CHAOS (2007) {*6}.
Top 30 for the first time in both the USA and Britain, the marmite-effect of neo-progsters DREAM THEATER were finally finding a niche in the market for their complex and ambitious works of art. While that Midas Touch was down to their long-serving supporters who’d stuck by them through thick and thin, maybe two bookended parts of `In The Presence Of Enemies’ (clocking in at a total of over 25 minutes) was a bit much for others to get their heads around. And then there was the obligatory and un-complementary CHAOS IN MOTION: 2007/2008 (2008) {*5} – yes, you guessed it, yet another live extension of their last set.
Meanwhile, still pushing the envelope of prog-rock territory, BLACK CLOUDS & SILVER LININGS (2009) {*7} guaranteed them a Top 10 spot in their homeland (Top 30 in Britain). Who in their right minds in this day and age would open with a 16-minute ballsy ballad such as `A Nightmare To Remember’… yes DREAM THEATER, but bettered only by the 19-minute curtain call of `The Count Of Tuscany’. Interesting in its comparison to “A Change Of Seasons”, DT were happy to exhume their masters by way of bonus-disc covers of RAINBOW’s `Stargazer’, a QUEEN medley of `Tenement Funster’, `Flick Of The Wrist’ and `Lily Of The Valley’, plus KING CRIMSON’s `Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt.2’. The picture was indeed a clearer one.
Although the band’s equally fruitful 11th studio set, A DRAMATIC TURN OF EVENTS (2011) {*6}, exercised their right to maintain a cathartic mood of self-indulgence – while the long-standing Portnoy was replaced by the seasoned drummer Mike Mangini – DT were again sticking it to their doubters and detractors. While Petrucci’s gothic-like guitar licks rarely disappointed in their head-banging instrumentation, a handful of the orchestral-led songs (example `Build Me Up, Break Me Down’ and the watered-down `Beneath The Surface’), were soft and simple in comparison to their past masters.
2013’s eponymous DREAM THEATER {*7} set created much the same post-METALLICA-cum-RUSH dynamics as the group’s previous records. Produced by workhorse Petrucci and showcasing a contender-for-a-single, `The Enemy Inside’ – if released in the 80s! – the explosive big arena monster didn’t disappoint the band’s many acolytes. And if one thought they’d moved away from anything grandiose, exhaustive and epic, then one just had to tune in to the 22-minute closing number, `Illumination Theory’.
A post-Orwellian theme also observed by MEGADETH on their “Dystopia” set – released a week ahead of DREAM THEATER’s weighty double-CD offering to the gods – the concept of THE ASTONISHING (2016) {*8} was sheer apocalyptic prog-metal excess. Directed at acolytes with plenty of time on their hands to stick with the story-line until the title track finale, forget Tommy, forget The Wall, forget The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (or even Operation: Mindcrime), Petrucci and Rudess re-imagine their own sci-fi phantom of the rock opera, complemented as it was by the Prague Symphony Orchestra (conducted by BECK’s father David Campbell), a triumvirate of choirs and the DREAM-team themselves. Ambitious, visionary and elaborately laid out in every department – right down to the inner package – the grandiose and efficacious selections to keep one going the two hours ten minutes should be `Dystopian Overture’, `The Gift Of Music’, `Three Days’, `A Life Left Behind’, `Moment Of Betrayal’, `The Path That Divides’ and the all-embracing `Hymn Of A Thousand Voices’. Can’t see how they could ever hope to top this near transatlantic Top 10 meisterwork.
Switching imprints to Inside Out Records, prog-metal’s finest DREAM THEATER charged up their long-life batteries for another aural assault on our “earwaves” a la DISTANCE OVER TIME {*8}. The otherwise cordial Top 30 record (No.1 in parts of Europe) was simply an attempt to restore some equilibrium from their previous OTT effort. Opening gambit, `Untethered Angel’, was without doubt the big ticket item, tempered as it was with a kaleidoscope of HACKETT and/or ELP-esque motifs, whilst prog piledrivers `Paralyzed’ and `Fall Into The Light’ looked to punch a hole in the ozone layer. In a similar grunge-and-crunch chug, `Room 137’, `S2N’ and `At Wit’s End’ re-opened the door to some manic-METALLICA aesthetics. Overall, the album was DT’s first record under an hour long; that’s if one discounted the vinyl-only homage to DEEP PURPLE: `Viper King’.
© MC Strong 1998-2001-GRD / rev-up MCS Nov2013-Jun2019

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