Review Summary: Only the bland drum parts and inclusion of three ballads affect the overall quality of A Dramatic Turn of Events.
There’s probably not a single Dream Theater fan that doesn’t already know that Mike Portnoy is no longer in the band. In fact, thanks to Mike’s stint with Avenged Sevenfold
, even people that are apathetic towards Dream Theater’s music know the general details. At any rate, bad publicity is still publicity and the band member drama has definitely created more of a buzz for this album than it would have probably had otherwise. There’s the question of whether Mike Mangini can capably fill Mike Portnoy’s shoes as the new drummer. There’s also the question of whether the rest of the band can step up their songwriting without Mike’s (iron-fisted) direction. The answers, as should be expected, are a little more complicated than a simple yes/no answer.
Musically, this is probably one of the band’s most traditional albums in years. Instead of trying to sound like Metallica with a keyboard player, the band have returned to the solid, song-oriented melodic prog that made Images and Words
so special. In all fairness, Dream Theater did make a minor move towards more song-oriented tracks on Black Clouds and Silver Linings
, but without ‘metal’ Mike Portnoy the band have entirely returned to that focus. That isn’t meant to imply that the band have given up on a bit of musical indulgence from time to time, but just like in the band’s early days, they actually complement the songs and are surprisingly brief (by Dream Theater standards). Also, without such an obsessive focus on belting out the metal, there’s a lot more diversity to be found on this album. On past releases, it really seemed as though Jordan Rudess’ keyboard sections were saved for choruses and the inevitable solo parts, but this time his playing is much more of an equal partner throughout the entire album. This ability to play a larger role throughout the entire song seems to have really tempered his propensity for wildly inappropriate sounds/melodies and has lead to songs with a lot less ‘WTF’ moments (“Outcry” being an exception). John Petrucci, as well, seems to be enjoying a renewed creative streak now that he doesn’t have to string multiple chugging riffs together throughout the majority of each song. All of this has lead to tracks that are actual songs first, and musical displays of showmanship second.
Of course, we still haven’t touched on the new guy, Mike Mangini. As the YouTube videos proved, Mike Mangini is more than capable of reproducing Mike Portnoy’s parts in a live situation, but it still left us wondering what he could do on his own. Unfortunately, the results are less than spectacular. It should go without saying that Mike Mangini is a technically proficient drummer, but he is also entirely bland. On previous albums, Mike Portnoy always created drum parts that were cool, memorable and pretty creative and that is sorely missed with his absence. Mangini’s drum parts always seem to stick to the simplest beats possible and rarely (if ever) provide the kind of quirky patterns that made Mike Portnoy so interesting to listen to. His playing also lacks any kind of power or passion, and instead sounds clinical and detached. While on the subject of missing Portnoy, and this is just speculation, but I have to believe that Mike Portnoy would have ***-canned the decision to include three ballads on the album – but that is what we have here; each more cheesy and tepid than the last. On the other hand, without Mike Portnoy’s terrible ‘harsh’ vocals, James Labrie has been allowed to display his entire range. Whether it’s his backing screams on “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” or his overall gritty delivery on “Bridges in the Sky”, he has really been able to show his true vocal talents (that fans of his solo work already knew existed) – and his bad Dave Mustaine impressions are entirely absent.
When Mike Portnoy exited the band, there was always the chance that the remaining members would flounder without his guidance, but it seems that his exit has created more good than harm. With Portnoy’s exit, the band have been allowed to return to a more diverse prog metal formula that retains the heavier elements in smaller doses while entirely restoring a strong songwriting focus. This has lead the band to discard their previous overuse of repetitive metal riffs and has also resulted in compositions that don’t end up utilizing the kind of song-killing extended jams that have plagued the band since Kevin Moore’s departure. The unfortunate harm that has come with Portnoy’s dismissal is that the drum sections are now entirely bland and lack any real power. This combined with the band’s decision to include three ballads are really the only things wrong with A Dramatic Turn of Events
. If Dream Theater allow Mike Portnoy to return (with a reduced ego) while maintaining their current direction, their next album could actually be the ‘return to form’ that most of us have been hoping for.