Review Summary: Free from the turbulence and systematic chaos wrought by "black cloud" and "root of all evil" Mike Portnoy, Dream Theater reclaim their train of thought and craft their most inspired album since Scenes From A Memory.
I'll admit to not liking Mike Portnoy. I respect his abilities as a drummer, but let's face it: he's a douche. I recognized this fact long before his embarrassing departure from Dream Theater when I watched the "Making of Systematic Chaos" documentary. He struck me as a tyrant who was constantly trying to dominate the other band members, especially James Labrie. Why else would Portnoy be so insistent on doing co-lead vocals for so many songs? I hardly think it was recompense for Labrie's tambourine playing. Portnoy's recent actions have made me lose a lot of respect for him. It was bad enough asking his bandmates to take a FIVE YEAR hiatus just for him, but even worse to prolong his departure into a yearlong spectacle of frivolous press releases, shameless self promotions, and all-around whining. He needs to move on, and accept that Dream Theater are continuing without him.
The point of this review is not just to bash Mike Portnoy. It's merely an important thing to discuss him leaving, because his departure (and Mike Mangini's entrance) is the primary thing coloring this album. Parallels can be drawn to Labrie's entrance coloring Images and Words, Derek Sherinian's entrance coloring A Change Of Seasons, and Rudess' entrance coloring Scenes From A Memory. Dream Theater seem to be at their best whenever new blood enters, and sadly, Portnoy's departure has revitalized the band once again. It's unfortunate that this had to be, but true, and the band have admitted in various ways. Rudess, for example, alluded to the fact that "Mike Portnoy thought he could control Dream Theater," while Labrie spoke of the band feeling "more balanced" as of late; he went on to characterize Portnoy as someone "in the background trying to grab the limelight" and someone who distracted the band from the bigger picture of them as a unit.
When I first heard "On The Backs Of Angels," I knew it was the herald of a new chapter in Dream Theater's history. Everything about this track is fresh sounding, not so much in terms of the composition, but in terms of the overall atmosphere. All band members seem to be playing with renewed vigor, and the sound really is "more balanced," with each member fulfilling their proper role. This is largely in part due to the excellent mix, which has rescued John Myung's bass from "beneath the surface" of Portnoy's drums, where it lurked on the last three records.
Perhaps the best thing about A Dramatic Turn Of Events is that it truly sounds like no one but Dream Theater. There are none of the "let's be Muse," "let's be Evanescence," "let's be Opeth" type excursions that plagued the last three albums. Many songs deliberately evoke the "classic" Dream Theater sound, particularly "Far From Heaven" and "Breaking All Illusions," which have already been compared to "Wait For Sleep" and "Learning To Live." "Build Me Up, Break Me Down" is the only song which can be deemed even remotely derivative, coming from the more "modern metal" sound explored on "Train Of Thought" and James Labrie's "Static Impulse."
Several of the songs on A Dramatic Turn Of Events are ballads, something which is attracting a lot of criticism from Dream Theater fans. What these people are conveniently forgetting is that 5 or 6 tracks on the undisputed classic, Scenes From A Memory, are ballads. The reality is that a large portion of Dream Theater's catalog has always consisted of slower, moodier numbers. If you want to hear Dream Theater playing 90% metal, there's a record for you called Train Of Thought. Don't expect them to keep making it over and over again. There's still a lot of heaviness and technicality to be found on A Dramatic Turn Of Events though. Lost Not Forgotten, Outcry, and Breaking All Illusions feature some of the bands most mindblowing shredding yet.
In my opinion, the album's biggest misstep is not the surplus of ballads, but the strange intro to "Bridges In The Sky." The song seems to center around Native American mythology, so the throat singing and Gregorian chant music in the intro make for a really odd mishmash of cultures. Sadly, this will serve as more fodder for haters of Jordan Rudess/lovers of Kevin Moore. I respect Rudess immensely, but do agree that he has a habit of being too goofy at times. This was one of them. Fortunately, the bulk of his playing on the album is very serious, especially compared to the cheesiness on parts of "Black Clouds And Silver Linings."
The other slight disappointment on A Dramatic Turn Of Events is Mike Mangini. His performance is totally competent, but I was hoping for a little more bravado on his part, seeing as he's "the new guy." A short, but flashy drum solo or fill would have sufficed- just something to show us what he's capable of. His drum sound on the album is also a bit thin, and almost makes me miss Portnoy's in-your-face drumming style. If Mangini was concerned about upstaging Portnoy, I respect that, but I still feel his performance is lacking something.
Which begs the question- is that something Mike Portnoy? Does Dream Theater just not sound right without him? Not at all. The fact that Dream Theater with Mangini still sounds like Dream Theater shows that Portnoy was never really an important part of their sound. Petrucci has always handled the bulk of the band's songwriting, lyric writing, and production (spare the first few albums). These elements do leave a lot to be desired on A Dramatic Turn Of Events, but I highly doubt this is due to Portnoy's departure. After all, the band released its fair share of mediocre material when Portnoy was a member. Even if he did enhance the songwriting process, it wasn't worth it for the nu-metal elements, silliness, and general instability he was bringing into the band. I stand by my statement that his departure has revitalized Dream Theater. There's a je ne sais quoi to this album that's has been missing for quite some time.
• On The Backs Of Angels
• Build Me Up, Break Me Down
• This Is The Life
• Beneath The Surface