Review Summary: Not so dramatic after all.
As a born-and-bred Buddhist, I was taught early in life that the idea of karma – broadly understood in the Western world as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect – governs all. Now, far be it from me to argue against an entire civilization’s worth of cultural understanding, but this idea simply can’t be absolutely true: for if it was, things like Dream Theater simply would not exist. Despite the self-deprecating title of their first best-of album – Greatest Hit (…and 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs)
– the truth is that the Dream Theater production machine has been steadily trundling on, virtually unhindered, for the past two decades or so. On the surface, the band’s success can be put down to a fearsome combination of the individual band members’ fantastic technical prowess, a punishing touring schedule (insert an obligatory reference to Mike Portnoy’s forced departure here), and an incredibly loyal fan base. But listening to A Dramatic Turn of Events
, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is the sound of a band which probably should have disappeared over a decade ago. Indeed: when examined up close, the five piece’s longevity is frankly bewildering, especially considering that since 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory
they have been almost terminally idle.
Now I will accept that Dream Theater probably deserves a well-sized chunk of the inordinate amount of holy-shi
t-did-he-actually-play-that-riff flattery which gushes forth from their fans and many neutrals each time they release a new record. Earnest musicianship is hard to come by these days, and the band’s self-enforced restraint from completely selling-out musically is nothing short of admirable. Moreover, it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the band is made out of nothing less than seasoned and battle-hardened professionals who are in the business not just for the money but also out of a genuine love for what they do. Yet the rampant callousness with which they treat their role as progressive metal ambassadors is really starting to aggravate. Along with bands like Fates Warning and Queensrÿche, Dream Theater was chiefly responsible for their parent genre’s crossover and immediate mainstream commercial success. Most notably, the band quickly mastered the art of fusing traditional progressive metal with a complexity and grandeur usually associated with classical compositions, without ever losing that whiff of commercial appeal. But whereas the genre’s best acts have either all sought to reinvent or at least revitalize themselves in the years since, Dream Theater have stubbornly stuck to the same old clichés. On A Dramatic Turn of Events
, the band resort to a familiar concoction of storm and wind samples, repeated use of faux choirs, predictable jazz fusions, extended trading solo sections, and bombastic song titles that use polysyllabic, apocalypse-referencing words in an attempt to sound grandiose.
Worse, the entire affair is wrapped in a set of barely-metaphorical, almost self-parodying lyrics, in which vocalist James Labrie attempts to deliver a treatise on everything – from the failure of society’s moral compass to a fear of the occult – but fails spectacularly at each attempt. Take first single and opening track “On The Backs of Angels” for instance: the song itself is catchy enough, and Petrucci treats us to a couple of cool riffs that are welcomingly reminiscent of none other than prog-rock greats Pink Floyd, but the number is irreparably bogged down by Labrie’s constant spewing of perennial eye-rollers such as, “We spiral towards disaster/Survival fading faster
” and “Tears fall from the shameless/Shelter me, guide me to the edge of the water
.” It’s the kind of uninspired poetry that is produced when an entire school is conscripted into a National Day poem-writing competition by overzealous teachers. Speaking of which, repeating the central thesis of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald “The Great Gatsby” like they taught you in school is also all well and good, but it can only be done so many times before it starts sounding trite, and the last song with that privilege passed us by about a decade ago. Elsewhere, the wordplay of second track “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” isn’t much better, providing us with plenty of evidence that in all probability, band chief lyricist John Petrucci has been reduced to thumbing through The Dictionary of Doom-Mongering Words and using a verb-the-pronoun syntax strategy in a last-ditch attempt to put half-interesting phrases together.
Granted, no one ever comes to Dream Theater for particularly deep insight on the human condition, but the band’s point-blank refusal to update or revitalize their craft leads to a series of songs that, for all their blistering technical mastery, are ultimately far more stagnant and predictable than anybody would like to admit. True: reverting to familiar genre clichés may be a valid and occasionally welcome form of creative expression, but over the last decade or so, it has also become mind-numbingly unremarkable. Unfortunately, Dream Theater show no sign of letting up with the self-hackneying: the album also includes three ballads that present the sort of misplaced, heavy metal emotive maudlin that nine times out of ten either comes off as insincere or downright dreadful. Lyrically, A Dramatic Turn of Events
’ path ends up being one that has been so painfully well-trod that the record seems at times self-mocking. As a result, the album ultimately becomes a monument to all that can be wrong with the songwriting of modern progressive metal.
What makes it worse is that some of the instrumental sections present herein aren’t even that good either. Going back to “Build Me Up, Break Me Down”, the song bewilderingly opens with the kind of nu-metal riff that makes you lean back and check to see if the album’s track listing also includes a cover of Disturbed’s “Inside the Fire”. Elsewhere, Dream Theater’s old faults return to haunt them yet again: both “Lost Not Forgotten” and “Outcry” feature riffs that keep going even after they’ve long since turned stale, and Rudess’ repeated usage of the same dripping piano in several tracks, in an unconvincing attempt to create distinction and emotion, is often enough to make anyone skip to the next song. But the chief compositional lampoonery here is mid-album track “Bridges in the Sky”, whose chord progression is sandwiched – like a grotesquely malformed burger – between two thirty-second samples in which Dream Theater went to Malaysia, found the biggest river toad they could, and then told it to belch loudly into the microphone.
In the end, the biggest, most inescapable problem with A Dramatic Turn of Events
, and – by extension – Dream Theater, is that, aside from being derivative, the band repeatedly shows that they are capable of doing much better. Indeed, the best bits on this album – like the slow, yet fantastic creeping towards utter chaos on the climax of “Breaking All Illusions”, and Rudess’ trippy playing in the intro to “On The Backs of Angels” – are when the band step outside their confines and attempt to do things farther away from their comfort zone (in this case, it was the mere act of giving John Myung the songwriting pen and telling Rudess to just go nuts). I cannot honestly say that I dislike this album, but I cannot reward it with a rating higher than a 2.5 either: mainly because at the end of the day it is cliché, contrived, and smacks of a band in desperate need of reinvention. Guys, please wake the fu
ck up – I want my favourite prog-metal band – and my religion – back.