Honesty time now. Things haven’t been the same since drummer Mike Portnoy packed his bags and left Dream Theater for other adventures. I really don’t wanna be that guy, but the fact is, on the three Portnoy-less albums – A Dramatic Turn Of Events (2011), Dream Theater (2013) and The Astonishing (2016) – I always feel that there is something lacking. It’s Mike Portnoy’s drumming. But it don’t mean that those albums aren’t anything to write home about. They are. And then some. The last album, the grandiose rock-opera The Astonishing is marvelous and even though it took some time to digest, I truly love that album. The same with their self-titled record from 2013. A great piece of work where Dream Theater dared to embrace their Melodic Hard Rock sides. But still, Portnoy is missed.
However, this doesn’t mean I’m slagging off drummer Mike Mangini here – you have to be tone-deaf to do such a thing. No, Mike’s awesome and he does a killer job in Dream Theater but Portnoy was extremely important for Dream Theater’s sound which is very hard to replace even if you’d try to replicate it. When it’s time for Dream Theater to treat us with another portion of progressive Metal – their fourteenth – expectations are high, of course. In my book, Dream Theater are a band that has never released a bad album even though 1997’s Falling Into Infinity was uneven and albums such as Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence (2002), Train Of Thought (2003) and Octavarium (2005) never struck a nerve with me, so I always look forward to a new release from the band. Also, there had been talk of Dream Theater having something really special on their hands with their new one, so I was intrigued to sink my teeth into this one.
The album opens with the leading single “Untethered Angel”. It opens on a softer and quite sombre note but soon turns into a driving, forceful and heavy tune with a ballsy guitar riff and a crushing sound. The verses come off as quite groovy and tough and in turn they leads us into a big refrain full of hooks and catchiness which makes me think of Black Clouds & Silver Linings with a bit more aggression. It’s an awesome track that punches me in the gut right away and afterwards I realize I haven’t given Portnoy one tiny thought while listening. What a killer start. Latest single “Paralyzed” follows and even though this mid-paced tune is dark, heavy and punchy, it also holds a very memorable and a quite simple yet catchy and direct refrain. The songs bring on a smoother kind of arrangement and the melodies are dream-like and somewhat spacey at times. The song strikes me right away – another winner!
With “Fall Into The Light” we have gone through all of the album’s singles, this being the second one. Heavily rhythmic on a bouncy note, the song strikes hard and brings along some beefy Metal riffing from John Petrucci which marries fine with the smooth and very melodic refrain. To change the dynamics, the song also contains a softer middle-break where the acoustic guitar rules and pulls the song into instrumental balladry. It continues in a slower pace into a tougher, rough ending. It’s a brilliant track that fulfills all that I want out of a Dream Theater track! “Barstool Warrior” starts out with a heavy groove that makes me think of Yes gone Metal. But the song slows down a bit and gets more straight-forward with some ballad-like arrangements, an upbeat ballad, if you will. There are some clear pop-vibes all over this track and the melodies almost breaks into AOR territory, especially the magnificent refrain. This is awesome – and I love when Dream Theater makes unpredictable moves.
They turn around to the exact opposite with the brutal and dark “Room 137” that blasts through with a sinister atmosphere and fierce riffing – Train Of Thought definitely comes to mind here. There’s also a surprising Beatles-esque psychedelic passage that changes the dynamics here and it fits the tune amazingly well. It’s worth mentioning that Mangini contributed with some lyrics for this tune, his first writing credits since he joined the band. A funky bass riff kicks “S2N” off but very soon the tune turns into a gutsy and bouncy Metal track, progressive of course but also punchy and kicking and while it’s a heavy piece it doesn’t lack any melodic elements even though the catchiness is in symbiosis with a dark ambience. The song ends with a sludgy and tuned down outro as if the tune wasn’t heavy enough to start with. Awesome! Some classic DT widdeling starts “At Wit’s End”, an epic, 10-minutes piece of music that later takes a more straight-forward route and holds both a catchy and effective refrain and a softer piano and vocals only middle-break. When the band comes in after that, it keeps the mid pace in a laid-back style with some heavy as f**k guitars. Killer!
It’s ballad time when “Out Of Reach” comes knocking. Slow, mellow and atmospheric, the tune is soothing and quite beautiful with caressing main-melody. I really love when LaBrie hits the low-key when he’s singing ballads. This is brilliant! “Pale Blue Dot” is the album’s closer if you don’t count the following bonus track and sports a big groove on a tougher note with a dark and ominous atmosphere and my mind takes me back to the brilliant Systematic Chaos. The instrumentalism at times sounds as if Petrucci, Myung, Rudess and Mangini are at war, trying to outshine each other but finishes with a tie. This tune’s smokin’! As a bonus track we get “Viper King” and why this one’s been reduced to a bonus track is beyond me – because it’s a fantastic tune. This is where classic DT-prog and Classic Rock meets, where the boys bring their inner Deep Purple out – and Petrucci goes Tony Iommi on us. It’s in-your-face, straight-forward Hard Rock with a stomping groove. Style wise it might differ a lot from the rest of the album but it’s way too good to be left out of the original tracklist.
While a lot of what I have written here might come off as just another Dream Theater album, I beg to differ on that. Firstly, the songs on this album are the best they have written for ages. Secondly, I believe I hear a new-found spark in both performances and arrangements and shows a band firing on all cylinders. Thirdly, this is the first time where I haven’t given Mike Portnoy one thought while listening. Sure, it might be the case of Mangini trying his best to do Portnoy stuff, but I think not. I think it’s because Mangini has been given more room this time and he have used that room. That said, the production here when it comes to the drums leaves quite a bit to desire, which has been the case of all their records since Portnoy left. Also, this album is a case of “heard it all before” and sure, that could be an issue, but for me, the songs are what makes this records a winner. I can’t find one really weak moment here. Man, it feels good to be floored by Dream Theater again after so long. Kudos.
More Dream Theater reviews:
1. Untethered Angel
3. Fall Into The Light
4. Barstool Warrior
5. Room 137
7. At Wit’s End
8. Out Of Reach
9. Pale Blue Dot
10. Viper King (Bonus Track)