I have had a long relationship with Dream Theater. Just like in every relationship, there are ups and there are downs, but for the most our relationship has been a loving and caring one. This band has had its changes and difficulties for sure, but very seldom have they done anything to disappoint me. I remember very well the first time I ever heard the band. It was back in 1989 and my musical life was mostly about big choruses, big hair, colorful clothes, keyboards and everything else that was hip at the time. I still listened to metal like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept and Helloween, but my life was dominated by Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Europe and the whole American melodic rock scene. A friend of mine had bought the LP (yes, LP, friends) When Dream And Day Unite and when he put on the album, I was completely floored. Dream Theater didn’t fit into the mold of rock that I was listening to at the time, they stood out like sore thumb, but I loved them instantly. Their mix of symphonic bands such as Marillion and Saga with progressive bands such as Rush and heavy metal like Metallica and Iron Maiden knocked me off my rocker totally and since that day I have been a big fan. When the follow-up Images And Words came out in 1992, I thought the band had split up because there was silence from the D.T. camp for a very long time. That was the best news I got that year and the masterpiece that is that album didn’t exactly make me less of a fan. I don’t think that Dream Theater have ever made a bad album, even though Falling Into Infinity (1997) won’t go down in history as their most remarkable piece of work. Also, I find albums such as Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence (2002), Train Of Thought (2003) and Octavarium (2005) somewhat uneven. But Systematic Chaos (2007) and Black Clouds And Silver Linings (2009) brought the band back on the map again and to me, those two albums are up there with Images And Words and Awake (1994) as the band’s finest work ever. Which brings us to one of the most dramatic things ever to happen to the band – drummer, song writer, lyricist and co-producer Mike Portnoy decided to leave the band / got fired. To me, Dream Theater without Portnoy was unthinkable. But the guys managed to rescue their situation when they brought in former Extreme, Steve Vai and Annihilator drummer Mike Mangini. Mangini is a great drummer, I knew that, but Portnoy had some huge boots to fill and even though both Portnoy-less albums – A Dramatic Turn Of Events (2011) and Dream Theater (2013) – were high quality products, it was pretty clear what Mangini’s orders were: Play like Portnoy, dammit! I know, it’s not an ideal situation, but I really think the band have made the best out of it – and those two albums are really good. Now it’s time for Dream Theater to release their third Portnoy-less album and this time, they have gone all in, over the top and recorded a whole rock opera – on two CDs. I mean, Dream Theater are hardly an easy listening band normally – you know, 23-minute songs and 40 million breaks in each chorus – but this time we get 34 songs on two CDs, instead of eight on one – totally over 120 minutes of music. Wow! Even for a big fan like me, this might just be a bit overmuch, a bit too hard to swallow. But I have given it my best shot and I think that I have gotten a fair view of how good this record(s) actually is (are). But first, let’s get into the story here and see what they have come up with.
What was once Tobias Sammet’s “little” side-project to his day-job as the singer and song writer in Edguy, looks more and more to take over his musical life completely – and no one is happier for that than me. The happy-go-lucky sounding power metal that is Edguy’s signum was never my can of beer – in fact, I really dislike that kind of music. So the fact that Sammet decided NOT to kill off Avanatasia – like he said he would – after the brilliant twin release of The Wicked Symphony and Angel Of Babylon (2010), has turned out the smartest thing he could have done. He even brings out Avantasia on the road these days – must cost him a fortune with all those musicians – which probably have gained the project some well-earned respect and a some new fans as well. I wonder how many new fans Avantasia got after their magnificent performance at Sweden Rock Festival in 2013, but my guess is that quite a few people discovered the greatness of the band there. And more people will find out when they play there in 2016.
So, what to do when you’re in a band owned by a singer that tragically passes away? Well, most musicians starts over again and forms a new band. Then there are those who, after a few (and sometimes many, many) years decides to reform the old band without the old singer, that’s the guy who was the band in the first place. Like Thin Lizzy did. But after just one tour under the Lizzy moniker it was clear – and this everyone should know by now – that it was never a Thin Lizzy reunion, it was just some old members paying tribute to Philip Lynott and the music they made together. So they went on a few tours and played all those majestic songs for people who wanted to hear them and there are a lot of us out there. If you have a problem with them doing so, then go talk to somebody. Then there was Ronnie James Dio who so sadly left us all behind in 2010 and left a huge gap in the music and rock world. In 2012 some guys from the Dio camp decided that enough was enough and that Dio’s music should continue to be heard, so they formed the Dio Disciples – guitarist Craig Goldy and drummer Simon Wright got together with guys such as Björn Englen (bass) and singers such as Oni Logan and Tim “Ripper” Owens.
I think it’s kinda fair to say that Dave Mustaine and his Megadeth have lived in Metallica’s shadow from go. Still I think that the Metallica – Mustaine connection should have been over and out ages and ages ago because Dave Mustaine is a guy good enough to live and rock without having to feel bad about him not being in that band anymore and when you consider the fact that he wrote lots and lots of great songs that made Metallica famous, it feels unfair that Mustaine always felt threatened and inferior to Hetfield, Ulrich & co, at least that’s how things have looked from where I stand. See, even though I really dig Metallica up until the album that made them huge, the so-called Black Album from 1991, I don’t think that Metallica have released anything worth while at all and today, I don’t even call myself a fan anymore. With Megadeth, it was the other way around for me. There was some good stuff on the first three records, but to me it was with Rust In Peace (1990) that I realized what a good band they were. Also that was the line-up, Mustaine, Megadeth’s co-founder and Mustaine’s partner in crime David Ellefson on bass, Marty Friedman on lead guitar and Nick Menza on drums, that to me count as their “classic” line-up.
On paper, the alliance between guitarist / singer / song writer Erik Mårtensson (Eclipse, W.E.T., Age-Sten Nilsen’s Ammunition) and lead singer / song writer Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids, Avantasia) looked like a match made in heaven. I mean, how could this project possibly go wrong? With Erik who more and more comes across like Desmond Child, Holly Knight, Jim Vallance and Diane Warren in one person, a true genius of melodies who just can’t do no wrong as a song writer these days and Atkins who comes from a band that has been together since 1983, released no less than 12 studio albums, one mini-album and two compilation records with new songs on them, without even one of them being bad – the fact is, Pretty Maids have hardly even written a bad song in their entire career – this project stands out as one of the projects I have looked forward to most of all – ever! Now, Frontiers Records, who is responsible for this union, clearly have a thing for these all-star projects but to be honest, not all of them are all that great. Also, there is a limit for just how many of these things a rock fan can swallow.
First a confession: I have never given Primal Fear the time of day. Sure, I have heard about them and I knew of them, but I have never ever given them a fair chance. Why? Well, see, since the odd tune have popped up here and there, their music to me, sounded much like the kind of German power metal that I really never understood. Apart from Helloween’s Keeper Of The Seven Keys (1987, 1988)albums and Avantasia’s records from The Scarecrow (2008) up until now, European power metal makes me crawling through my skin. Then again, I don’t label Avantasia’s music power metal anyway, to me that’s just melodic metal and hard rock. Also, the fact that their singer is one Ralph Scheepers, once in Kai Hansen’s Gamma Ray (ok, I am a fan of Gamma Ray’s debut album Heading For Tomorrow (1990) as well) and their bass player is Mat Sinner (Sinner) told me that this band was just that – a power metal unit. So I have never given a rat about this band at all which means that there are 10 records worth of music by Primal Fear that have never reached my ears.
With every new release from an artist or a band you expect different things depending on which artist / band it is. For example, when AC/DC releases a new album, you know what to expect and we don’t want it any other way. We want AC/DC to sound like AC/DC have always sounded – they develop their sound by not developing at all. No keyboards, no pop songs, no “Livin’ On A Prayer”, no thrash metal, no “Raining Blood”. We want the groove, the hard rhythm n’ blues rock ‘n’ roll – everything else is unthinkable. Same with Iron Maiden – they have to sound like Iron Maiden. But with most artists, at least a slight sign of development and change is necessary. A complete change of style and sound is, of course, out of the question, but to just record the same album over and over again is a sign of stagnation and, the way I see it, laziness.
Khoma is really a hard nut to crack when it comes to categorise their music. Are they metal? Prog? Hard rock? I have to admit that the kind of progressive, slow, cold and dark kind of metal or hard rock that Khoma play usually doesn’t rock my world at all, but for some reason, I have a soft spot for this band. My first acquaintance with the band was when they, under the name of Koma, opened up a gig for fellow Swedes Captain Murphy. A weird choice when you consider the fact that Captain Murphy are a classic rock band and works in a totally different genre than this band.
Back in the mid 80’s, when Treat were formed they quickly became Sweden’s second biggest rock act, right behind Europe. It was in 1985 when Treat – then consisting of guitarist, keyboard player and musical director Anders Wikström, singer Robert Ernlund, guitarist Leif Liliegren, bass player Ken Siewertsson and drummer Mats “Dalton” Dahlberg – released their debut album Scratch And Bite, right in the shadow of Europe’s world-wide signing. Fact is, it was Treat’s “Too Wild” that was responsible for Joey Tempest writing “Rock The Night” as he felt that Treat might be taking over if Europe didn’t also have an anthem like that. Treat quickly became one of Sweden’s biggest draws when it came to giging and even though their 1986 follow-up The Pleasure Principle didn’t have any hits such as the debut’s “Too Wild”, “We Are One” or their biggest ever hit “Get You On The Run”, people still bought the album and went to their concerts.
Not since the days of 1991 when Guns N’ Roses decided on releasing two double albums at the same time have we gotten ourselves a similar treat. In Guns N’ Roses’ case, they showed us that just because you have lots and lots of music lying around does not mean that it have to be released. Use Your Illusion were two uneven albums and many of us wished that they had just reduced it to one single album, that album could have – and probably would have – been a total masterpiece. Would the same be said of Tobias Sammett’s Avantasia extravaganza? I mean, the guy is obviously an extremely talented songwriter, but here we get 22 new songs on two albums, written, produced and arranged by Sammett and not only that, there is a story behind it as well that he has written. Be that the story is a continuation of Avantasia’s last three albums, but it still needs to be put down to paper. Well, after being totally floored by the “first” album, The Wicked Symphony, I can’t say I’m worried that Angel Of Babylon could turn out as a total disaster, quite the contrary, my expectations just might be a bit too high.