On Dream Theater and the upcoming concept album

Dreamtheater-logo.svg

It’s no secret that yours truly is a diehard Dream Theater fan. (I suppose it’s somewhat of a secret seeing as I’ve only mentioned the New York-based band once on this site in the last four years.) I have attended three concerts — one in Atlanta in 2005, one in Cleveland, OH in 2007 and one in Asheville, NC (of all places) in 2010. That is precisely nowhere near as many as I would have liked to have attended so far, considering the band has released two new albums since my last trip. Despite feeling I haven’t gone to enough of them, these are without a doubt among the best experiences of my life. You want an immersive concert experience? Go to a DT show.

I regularly steer new listeners of this very niched band — so named after a now-demolished movie theater in Monterey, California — to their live performances if I learn those listeners are on the fence about them. This is a band that demonstrates profound, technical musicianship in the studio but to bear witness to this spectacle is something else entirely. I also tell these people they should take lead singer James LaBrie’s vocal approach with a grain of salt (this is the hurdle a great many people have unsuccessfully cleared when popping in one of their albums for the first time). The guy has a distinctive, powerful and often goofy operatic singing style. It took me several albums to decide if I liked him or not. Now, I can’t imagine the band without the Canuck.

Dream Theater hair fashion show

Oh, the ’80s. Gotta love ’em. Band from left to right: John Petrucci; Mike Portnoy; Charlie Dominici; Kevin Moore; John Myung

On November 2, the band had hinted through their Twitter a new album was on its way. About time! It’s been more than two years since their last effort, the longest turn-around time between releases following their split with Elektra Records in 1999. Since joining their current label Roadrunner for their first self-produced concept album, the commercially and critically acclaimed ‘Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory,’ founding members Mike Portnoy (drummer) — who departed in 2010 and was replaced by the equally talented Mike Mangini — and John Petrucci (guitars) have ensured their fans will have something to look forward to at the end of every tour, which for the most part have consumed an entire calendar year.

They then hibernate in their favorite New York recording studio to jam and eventually turn that session into a beautifully orchestrated and produced symphony of notes, harmonies, face-melting solos, and high-concept lyrical content, the likes of which have more often than not ended up in international metal magazines’ year-end lists of the greatest stuff you’ll hear all year (it is with some hesitation that I clarify: I refer more to the music than the lyrics; DT doesn’t necessarily hang their hat on their lyrics, even if this aspect isn’t by any means a weakness).

Yeah, someone here is biased. I know that. I’m fully aware that my publicizing — and premature celebrating — of the upcoming album is predicated by my long-standing relationship with the band. Time and again, however, I’ve been shown that lofty expectations be damned; the new album will always find its place somewhere in the greater story that is Dream Theater. The 2016 release, their 13th, bears the official title ‘The Astonishing.’ Leaps out of chair, fist-pumps and pulverizes knuckles on ceiling fan on accident. Music is tough love. \m/ \m/

Dream Theater's 'On the Backs of Angels' was nominated as Best Metal track of 2011. Their first nomination

Dream Theater’s ‘On the Backs of Angels’ was nominated as Best Metal track of 2011. Their first nomination. Left to right: Mike Mangini; John Myung; Jordan Rudess; James LaBrie; John Petrucci

In light of the exciting news, I’d like to attempt to back-up some of my verbal diarrhea with some factual tidbits. Well, not necessarily ‘factual’ in the strictest sense of the word; more like evidence that this is a band well worth listening to even as the members enter their late 50’s (keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who joined on the aforementioned ‘Metropolis’ album, is the oldest at 58) and despite the fact this will probably forever be the Biggest Band You’ve Never Heard Of. Below you’ll find an arrangement of their discography that I’ve prioritized based on my preferences.

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t take this as an ordering of their most popular or their most commercially viable releases or anything like that. This is my attempt to highlight their prolificness, in case anyone needs a head start on where to go — and trust me, if you like what you hear at first, there is A LOT to get into. It can be a little overwhelming. I’ll include the track I’d recommend starting with on each album, and which album I think best defines this ever-changing band. Bear in mind this is a group that has been influenced by everything from Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne; from pop to blues. If you dig deep enough you’ll find references to John Lennon’s poetry and tips of the hat to Yes’ early etchings of the progressive rock scene. DT is quite literally in a category all their own. One reason I love them and can’t wait to see what they will have come up with next year.


'Octavarium' album coverAlbum: ‘Octavarium’

Release: June 7, 2005

Track:Octavarium

Recommendation: I have to send up one flag with this, my immediate go-to: it is, in DT terms, a true ‘epic.’ Clocking in at 24 minutes even, it’s one long listen. But these are some of the fastest-passing 20 minutes you’ll likely hear once you commit past the trance-inducing opening. Built upon the concept of the passage of time and sharing the album’s obsession over the musical application of ‘8’ (octave is an important element here) ‘Octavarium’ is simply a work of art. It is perhaps my all-time favorite song. Possibly because it recalls early Pink Floyd more than anything; is that ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond?’ No, it can’t be. This is a 2005 track. . .


'Scenes from a Memory' album coverAlbum: ‘Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From a Memory’

Release: October 26, 1999

Track: Fatal Tragedy [Scene 3]

Recommendation: On an album marked by some of the most beautiful and brilliantly constructed progressive music in the last several decades, ‘Fatal Tragedy,’ merely a small part in the bigger picture of a tale about a murder and its consequences on a family and a lover caught in an affair, is one heck of a jam. It may not be the most accessible track on the record but it’s probably the most fun passage. It starts slowly and rather unsuspecting, building rapidly towards an energetic and complex battle between Petrucci’s mind-numbing guitars and Rudess’ keyboard wizardry.


'Images and Words' album coverAlbum: ‘Images and Words’

Release: July 7, 1992

Track: Learning to Live

Recommendation: Dream Theater’s most celebrated (and in my book their third greatest achievement, especially considering they were just kids when it was released . . . okay, they were roughly 20 years old) piece boasts eight tracks, each of which are essentially better than the last. It is capped off with this incredibly rich 11-minute romantic flourish with a rare lyrical contribution from bassist John Myung (a.k.a. the guy who never speaks). ‘Learning to Live’ takes some patience to digest but once you’ve opened up to it the song just gets better and better, and it features one of Petrucci’s select Spanish guitar solos. You have to hear it.


'A Dramatic Turn of Events'Album: ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’

Release: September 12, 2011

Track: Bridges in the Sky

Recommendation: ‘Bridges in the Sky’ serves as both a centerpiece for the band’s first album following the departure of long-standing (and founding) member Mike Portnoy as well as the epitome of what DT can do with some classic, hard-hitting riffs. ‘Bridges’ boasts one of the most uplifting and exhilarating lyrical breaks/choruses in DT’s catalogue, providing LaBrie another opportunity to display his vocal range and prove that he’s not all about the excessive wailing and tongue-sticking-out stuff. (Watch him on a DVD or in concert and you’ll see what I mean.) This is a great modern metal tune with some particularly memorable lyrics. 


'Systematic Chaos' album coverAlbum: ‘Systematic Chaos’

Release: June 4, 2007

Track: The Dark Eternal Night

Recommendation: I might be venturing out into Dream Theater purist territory here but there’s no denying this heavy, morbid track epitomizes the uniqueness of DT’s sound. The ominous, heavily textured guitars and crazy lyrical inflections make ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ one of the most distinctive releases in their catalog. I’d be lying if I said this isn’t something the sickly curious should check out. Listen to that chorus. Listen to that bass line. And then the musical interlude that consumes you after the second refrain. Oh man. What a track.


'A Change of Seasons' album coverAlbum: ‘A Change of Seasons’

Release: September 19, 1995

Track: A Change of Seasons

Recommendation: Technically speaking, this is not an official studio release, as this oft-forgotten EP from the mid-90s features only one original work (the title track) amidst a collection of live cover songs, each of which are interesting in their own right. But this sprawling adventure is too good not to recommend. This 23-minute long track encompasses a variety of strong emotions and manages to sneak in a quote or two from the hugely successful drama Dead Poets Society. Lyrically inspirational and featuring one of the more blues-y guitar breaks in recent memory, this utterly progressive epic is a must for DT completionists.


'When Dream And Day Unite' album coverAlbum: ‘When Dream and Day Unite’

Release: March 6, 1989

Track: Afterlife

Recommendation: Arguably the stand-out track on the debut album from a band that at the time called themselves Majesty, ‘Afterlife’ is an exciting, enchanting pondering of what lies beyond. While clearly lacking in the clean production of later albums — this was the band’s first and only album to fail to produce a subsequent tour — WDADU (which has a hilarious phonetic pronunciation of “what’d I do?!”) represents several hallmark idiosyncrasies that would later endear millions to the band. This track in particular features a wicked guitar solo that leads into one of the best guitar-keyboard unisons I have ever heard. This album also marked the first and only album featuring former singer Charlie Dominici and the first of two collaborations with then-keyboardist Kevin Moore, who has since disassociated himself with the band for reasons unknown.


'Train of Thought' album coverAlbum: ‘Train of Thought’

Release: November 11, 2003

Track: Stream of Consciousness

Recommendation: I have debated inserting this selection as my #1 choice as its distinct lack of vocals makes it a potentially more accessible passage, given singer James LaBrie’s unique singing style, yet I wouldn’t quite feel right doing so on the virtue of specifically excluding one of the core members. Nevertheless, ‘Stream of Consciousness,’ which represents one of several of DT’s instrumental tracks, is absolutely classic. It features exquisitely complex guitars and drums, both in hair-tearing medleys and in isolation; and one of the most recognizable riffs in DT’s catalog. It is available on an album that is more straightforward metal than anything they’ve done and is one of the first songs that got me into the band.


'Falling Into Infinity' album coverAlbum: ‘Falling Into Infinity’

Release: September 23, 1997

Track: Trial of Tears

Recommendation: The band was going through a particularly difficult patch in their careers at the time of this release. As a band that has largely been defined by their unique sound and bold decision to consistently produce lengthier songs in an era where songs seem to only be getting shorter, DT was facing incredible pressure from the label to put together a more radio-friendly product. The tension was enough to almost end the band completely, but rather than folding they came up with perhaps their most overlooked album. It’s a shame because it features ‘Trial of Tears,’ a gorgeously composed, relatively mellow exercise in aural hypnosis. Penned once again by the quietly prolific John Myung, it’s an exclamation point on a strong album that has perhaps taken far too much criticism


'Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence' album coverAlbum: ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’

Release: January 29, 2002

Track: Misunderstood

Recommendation: There are too many choices when it comes to DT’s follow-up to their seminal ‘Scenes From a Memory.’ ‘Six Degrees’ manifests as another concept album, one split over two discs and featuring five lengthier tracks on disc one — each one a build-up to disc two’s “six degrees of inner turbulence,” a nod to the various states of psychological distress and ailments. While I could spend hours nitpicking through the brilliance of the second disc, ultimately what this comes down to is uniqueness. And track #3 on disc one is the epitome of it. Some have made it known that they weren’t overly enamored by DT’s more experimental movement in ‘Misunderstood,’ and even I have to admit the last few minutes of the song remain bizarre to me but it’s the overall piece I’m concerned with. ‘Misunderstood’ is atmospheric and its lyrical content is a highlight. John Petrucci wants to know, “How can I feel abandoned even when the world surrounds me?”


'Awake' album coverAlbum: ‘Awake’

Release: October 4, 1994

Track: Lifting Shadows Off a Dream

Recommendation: This is certifiably obscure DT but I love ‘Lifting Shadows Off a Dream.’ Leave it to John Myung to provide dense, mysterious yet ultimately optimistic lyrics. The ninth in an 11-track collection of decidedly heavier songs following 1992’s break-out hit ‘Images and Words,’ this song ultimately falls on the generally more accessible side of the spectrum as it restrains technicality in favor of melody and lyrical content. A perfect example of the band knowing when it’s appropriate to scale back their almost obsessive meticulousness. 


'Dream Theater' album coverAlbum: ‘Dream Theater’

Release: September 23, 2013

Track: Illumination Theory

Recommendation: E-hem. Yes. At 23 minutes, ‘Illumination Theory’ puts the finishing touches on an album marked with a distinctly cinematic motif, with many a riff and refrain echoing the grandeur of movie scores. Just once I’d like for this band to score a movie, and well, I guess the guys have already played with that notion. Here’s one idea of what that might sound like. Though I still don’t fully grasp what the title refers to, suffice it to say the musical content speaks for itself. Sitting pretty in the middle of this gorgeous epic is one of the most extensive orchestral breaks DT has yet featured, leading listeners to believe the song may bow out on a quieter note. But any regular listeners aren’t likely to be fooled so easily. Indeed, Petrucci and friends erupt into a spectacular crescendo down the stretch, and, along with an almost never-better LaBrie at the mic, finish the song and their most recent album off in traditionally dramatic fashion. 


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Photo credits: http://www.wikipedia.org; http://www.teamrock.com; http://www.musictimes.com; http://www.metal-archives.com; http://www.amazon.com; http://www.blabbermouth.net 

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33 thoughts on “On Dream Theater and the upcoming concept album

    • Dream Theater rules \m/ \m/

      I like doing the odd music post every now and then. You gotta switch it up. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of these guys have you? I thought I saw some post you made some time ago that you are into the metal scene. . .

      • 🙂 Indeed, I have heard of them.

        Yep, love me my metal 🙂 Saw Lamb of God when they played here last year, pity we don’t get more bands play out this side. Will have to just save up and do Wacken one year 😀

        • Oh fuck. Lamb of God. That stuff is INTENSE! I haven’t seen them in concert but i have a friend who gave me one of their discs. I need to listen to it more. Truthfully I’ve fallen off the metal scene recently. I haven’t even listened to this band here so much in recent years. That will have to change. . .

          • Hahahahaha! I get what you are saying. I actually don’t listen to much music anymore. Like when I was younger, I lived on the stuff.

            I must say that LoG’s latest album was pretty good, and I was a big fan of Manson’s latest, too. Best album he’s done since Golden Age.

            Hell yeah, it was a fucking AWESOME show! They are great performers. You should give them a listen, incredibly talented musicians. Also, their documentaries are great. You should totally check them out 🙂 Yes, look at me shamelessly marketing here.

            I can’t say I am too familiar with a lot of more recent bands – love my old music.

            • Very cool! Music is great shit. I’d like to do more music-related posts. That just means adding to my already huge workload though, which is chaotic enough! 😛

              I’ll definitely bookmark LoG for another day. I will have to see what album I have because it was a few years ago at this point. When did you go to their show?

              • Teehee, well, maybe once a month? Gives you some time! xD

                Went in January last year – they played Johannesburg and Cape Town. That money was extremely well spent! Worth it. If ever they are near you, I would highly recommend checking them out!

    • Ah, Pull Me Under. A classic from the ’90s! That song enjoyed more radio play than 99% of the rest of DT’s catalog haha! It was so curious that that song, a not-so-radio-friendly track in terms of length, enjoyed so much exposure. Not my favorite song of theirs but there’s no denying it’s a good one. And that album is really tough to beat. Cool to know you’ve heard of these guys as well. Perhaps they’re not as obscure as I thought they were. 😀

      • Two things already stood out to me about that song – that killer guitar riff and the absolutely amazing drum work. I also liked how it offered something fresh. It was heavy but new.

        • Well said. It’s definitely a strong piece. And I love how they have typically used it as a closing song in their shows. Or they were doing it when I saw them those 3 times.

  1. Nice post man. I do love prog metal but I haven’t checked out a Dream Theater album in quite a while. Still, I’m looking forward for their new record and hopefully it will be more like Metropolis Pt. II and less like A Dramatic Turn of Events.

    • Great to know yet another blogger knows of this band! Im with you, I miss the days of Metropolis Pt 2 and Images & Words. I did like Dramatic Turn but it overall was a much weaker product than their earlier stuff.

  2. Didn’t know you were a fan of DT mate. Do you like any other metal??

    I lost track of this band after Train of Thought…. not sure why though, school stuff I guess. I enjoy most of LaBrie’s vocal range, and Portnoy(sp?) is easily one of the best drummers of modern music. Hmmm, this post has me wanting to listen to them now! I remember love-love-LOVING ‘Six Degrees’… I still have the CD somewhere. Time for a trip back in time! 😀

    • Some of my favorite metal would have to be these guys, Queensryche, Porcupine Tree, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and there’s this Finnish band I don’t think many people at all have heard of, Amorphis. They’re the absolute shit.

      Dude DT has done some pretty great things since Train of Thought but as far as thru-and-thru metal albums go, that was really their first and only. That album was straight heavy. I really dug Systematic Chaos and Octavarium. Both brilliant concept albums that’ll make your head spin. So cool to meet another person who has heard of the band!

      • Hehe yeah I used to love them. That sucks that Portnoy left, he was amazing. And you’re right, I remember Train of Thought was pretty damned heavy.

        Amorphis are amazing. I prefer their early material and haven’t heard what they sound like now, but I like how they draw from Finnish folklore to write their songs. At least they used to do that, I lost track of them a while back. Great band.

        Do you like Slayer?

        • Yeah that’s Amorphis. Fuck yeah dude, great taste in music, you have. Whoops. that was my inner Yoda coming out. 😉

          I don’t listen to Slayer and to be honest I haven’t been into metal in sometime. DT is the band I mostly have kept up with but their last release wasn’t as good as I had hoped so I haven’t listened to them in a spell either. New album will get me back into the groove though. Another band I thought was awesome when I saw DT the first time is Symphony X. They’re fucking sick.

          • Haha! Inner Yoda. That gave me a chuckle 🙂

            You have a great taste in music too dude (though I don’t like Metallica much, I prefer Megadeth). ;P

            Queensryche (sp) have some fantastic albums too. Great vocals

            I’ve also been outta the loop re- metal in a while, I used to buy Metal Maniacs (magazine) every month but now I rely on friends recommending me stuff. I’ve gotten too much into film to be following new music!

            Symphony X are a great band, damn haven’t listened to them in a looooong time.

            • yeah I love Queensryche. I haven’t listened to them much in years myself. And same here, my interests in general have kind of changed. I used to listen to music quite a lot but i’m more into movies these days.

              • yup same here. There are only a few metal bands that I keep up with, like Slayer and a few others. For the last almost two years now it suddenly shifted to movies movies movies shit I love them so much I want to write about movies. haha!

  3. Oh man, Tom! I’d forgotten about Dream Theater! Not listened to them in YEARS. I had Images And Words & I used to listen to that all the time. My ex was a big fan (of Dream Theater & Savatage… Forgot about them too!). Thanks for the reminder, Tom. I may have to go looking for that CD. Or just, like, go onto YouTube since it’s 2015. 🙂

    • Oh wow, I thought i’d be the only one who knows about this band here. I knew this was going to be an obscure post. 😉 But that’s awesome you have heard of them and even listened to them. I&W is one of my favorites it’s such a classic. Kind of wish the band returned to that more progressive sound they had; they’re much deeper into metal territory these days which isn’t something I feel matches their singer’s style of singing. Oh well. Just will have to wait and see what 2016 brings. I’m freaking pumped!!! I did provide links to these songs, by the ‘track’ name is a YouTube link. So there’s at least 13 suggestions right here. But they have so much stuff it was almost impossible putting this together.

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