Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Dramatic Turn of Events (or, what’s this?? a music review!)

My friends know that I love prog rock. For some listeners, prog rock carries over into kitsch, feeling like a sort of aural masturbation, as artists go off into the weeds. For me, that describes freeform jazz or "performance rock" which drives me nuts when nothing seems to tie together to a common sense of purpose in a piece of music. Good prog rock (and the jazz that I do like), has a structure and sets about achieving it, in part, by throwing off the shackles of the pop song time limit and by embracing all sorts of other musical genres—classical, jazz, rock. The best prog rock distills the best of those other genres for an effect, and is mindful of that effect as it moves. I imagine that in concerts, prog rock bands might go off in the weeds, a la Spinal Tap, but the studio music is evocative. And often, the practitioners of prog rock are classically trained and tremendous musicians.

As you might expect, especially because of the length of its songs, a lot of prog rock doesn't get airplay and so its practitioners fly under the radar of those who only listen to the radio. So bands like Dream Theater don't have a lot of mainstream recognition, though among those who know of them, their following is rabid. Dream Theater has been recording since 1989, and says A Dramatic Turn of Events is their 11th album. Originally formed by three students at the Berklee College of Music, Dream Theater has undergone some lineup changes over the years, none more potentially devastating than the unexpected departure of founding member and drummer Mike Portnoy, a critically acclaimed and much beloved virtuoso, to be replaced by Mike Mangini. Perhaps the title of album is a small acknowledgement of the dramatic change.

In a lot of ways A Dramatic Turn of Events seems to distill a lot of the essence of the Dream Theater that I like best, meshing the best of prog—the soaring instrumentation and wacky lyrics—with some pop sensibilities. The musicianship is just ridiculously good, as it always is with these guys, and there seems to be no fall-off with the new drummer at all, which is a pleasant surprise. This album seems to be playing up the keyboards a little more than in the past, sometimes to the detriment of the bass line, but when the bass is allowed to come through, John Myung just blows me away. To be fair, Jordan Rudess's keyboards do seem to somehow have gotten better, and John Petrucci's guitar work just kicks major butt. And though I sometimes make fun of James LaBrie's vocals, it's all relative. He's a good singer, showing a range throughout the songs on the album, but he just cannot compare to the spectacular performances by the instrumentalists. It really isn't fair, and maybe I should consider listening to his upcoming solo album to hear him where maybe he can come to the fore. The album sometimes feels "orchestral" especially when there is a depth to the many things going on at once, and when those depths include organ or a chorale, it feels really big—a staple of prog. I like it. J

Track 1 – "On the Backs of Angels": With the introduction to this piece, it's clear that Dream Theater is going back to their roots a little bit, balancing on the line between pop and prog, pulling in audiences of both.

Track 2-"Build Me Up, Break Me Down": This is perhaps my favorite track on the album, perhaps because of the hewing to some of the best of hard rock. LaBrie's vocals alternately soar and growl, and each instrument is given time in the spotlight. By itself, this song provides a solid introduction to what Dream Theater is all about. Petrucci provides a different flavor to the way his guitar usually sounds, alluding to some heavy metal settings, reflecting the song's title and lyrics a little. But each instrument eventually gets put through its paces, evoking the very different kinds of sounds that appear throughout the album.

Track 3-"Lost Not Forgotten": While I like the music of "Build Me Up" a great deal, I just love the lyrics of "Lost Not Forgotten", with its veiled references to Ozymandias in lines like

I am not immortal
I am just a man
A power-craving tyrant
Beyond the shadows in the sand

Again, it feels like a throwback to the roots of prog rock, with its pomp and mysticality, but Dream Theater's instruments rescue it from being borne down by the weight of such themes. The song also has another common element for prog rock, a long playing time (coming in at more than ten minutes) but it's not even the longest track on the album. And oh my word, the ridiculous changing time signatures!

Track 4 – "This Is the Life": A change of pace to a slower, gentler ballad, with acoustic guitar and lyrics that reflect the meditational sounds. In some ways, it's a palate cleanser for what follows.

Track 5-"Bridges in the Sky": The track begins with tone shaping and hints of themes often associated with American Indians (also reflected in the song title). When one thinks of American Indians in rock, Kansas should come to mind, and this song often evokes Kansas with its chords and phrasing—Dream Theater's debt and love for Kansas has been made clear in earlier albums. Another element that Dream Theater excels at, dramatic changes of tempo and tone, are all over this 11-minute song: there's something remarkable about a Petrucci guitar solo lifted out of hard rock side by side with an organ solo from the best 1970s Kansas.

Track 6-"Outcry": It may not be the intention, but "Outcry" feels very much like a piece set aside for Rudess to just show off. And strangely enough, the introduction evokes Evanescence with a piano solo blown up by a bombastic multi-layer battering ram that includes growly bass at the bottom and an angelic chorus above it all. And, as one might imagine, when the singing starts, the song is set on a battlefield:

Somewhere overhead
Distant thunder roars
The revolution has begun
The war to end all wars

And while the other instruments weave in and out, the keyboards always come to the forefront and Rudess tears it up over and over.

Track 7-"Far from Heaven": Another change of pace, a slow ballad, cleansing the palate one more time for what is about to follow.

Track 8-"Breaking All Illusions": Again, the song starts with the sounds of Kansas and then moves on to interweave some Queensryche instrumentation as well. The song is an anthem, and if "Outcry" is the Rudess showpiece, "Breaking All Illusions" is Petrucci's moment in the spotlight. The various guitar solos in the song are breathtaking, especially when Petrucci attaches relatively generic blues chords and phrasing to prog rock that borders on hard rock. This song competes hard with "Build Me Up, Break Me Down" as my favorite.

Track 9-"Beneath the Surface": A final slow ballad, to let off the pressure of the previous song ease and to bring the album to a contemplative, thoughtful conclusion. There is irony in the lyrics, especially as the trappings of a love ballad are balanced with the lyric that is made to stand out: "I stopped caring." Rudess evokes Emerson, Lake, and Palmer with moog synthesizers, and Petrucci's acoustic guitar is clean. Perhaps the song on the album that best fits the standards for release as a single, both for its length and its content, it is also a counterpoint to all the creative energy that has gone before.

Put simply, I'm falling in love with this album, reminding me why I own every Dream Theater album there is. First and foremost, every musician is astounding, and the album is filled with breathtaking moment after moment. Second, they know their roots—they know prog back to its earliest days and its history, calling on its best and brightest in service to their music. At the same time, they also know hard rock and are willing to call on its repertoire in their music as well. And finally, they recognize how silly prog rock can be, with its airs and pretensions to classical music and epic literature. But they never let their own music slip into goofiness, even with lyrics that make me smile; over and over, the musicianship transports the songs to something greater. This album serves as a brilliant introduction to the potential of prog rock, especially in modern hands, as well as to the majesty (yeah, I said it—it's hard not to get carried away) of Dream Theater.

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