The first introductory strains of the “False Awakening Suite,” which kick off Dream Theater‘s new self-titled album (due Sept. 24) seems to actually transport the listener into a theater. Images come to mind of the lights going down in some wildly ornate medieval house of drama, the orchestra has signaled the overture, and it is time for the massive sweep of something liberating, powerful and profound to roll forth.
There may be other prog metal outfits that blend dazzlingly crunchy riffs with swirling, dramatic strings and keyboard textures. But nobody does it quite like the supreme lords of the genre, and with this relatively short (2:42) three-sectioned suite (i. Sleep Paralysis, ii. Night Terrors, iii. Lucid Dream), it is clear that we’re in for a fasten-your-seatbelts show.
Was it really two years ago that Dream Theater entered the post-Mike Portnoy era with the triumphant ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’ (which featured their first-ever nominated Grammy single, ‘On the Backs of Angels’)? With that album, and their newly minted drummer Mike Mangini, the band not only dismissed any concerns about their future, but they seemed to solidify the fact that they are here for the long haul.
Now, with this thunderous and confident new album, musical promises are delivered in the form of a blistering effort that throttles, dazes and exhausts in all the right ways.
Sure, there are things Dream Theater fans expect that are delivered in boatloads. All the jarring, complex barrages of precise musical mayhem are delivered with their usual sparkling efficiency. After all, for pure playing prowess, John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, John Myung and Mike Mangini have few mortal equals.
But this is not just some Herculean contest to see how many notes or time changes can be delivered per second or per pound. Remember, what separates this band is their ability to take that rocket power and convert it into regal, elegant, even stately song forms.
Which is why new songs like ‘Behind the Veil,’ ‘The Looking Glass’ and ‘Along for the Ride’ work so well. Little homages peak out from time to time; a rush of some Rush, a nod to Yes and ELP, but led by the ever soaring and empathetic vocals of James LaBrie, these tunes are instantly unique and accessible. That is one aspect of this record that I think will lure new listeners in.
Sure, there are the sprawling epics (we’ll get to that) but the album features enough intensely inviting melodies in shorter-form tunes to really give it the feel of a commercial, not just artistic force of nature. Years ago, this would have been called a seriously radio-friendly album, and not just because it includes some beautiful, mid-tempo ballads. And while newer listeners may need to get up to speed on the knotty, pulse jarring signature shifts and pressure drops, the military pounding of the first single, ‘The Enemy Inside,’ is itself a crash course on the band.
The rugged musical landscapes on ‘Dream Theater’ are naturally punctuated with gusts of wildly inventive solos courtesy of Rudess and Petrucci, both of whose playing, stupefyingly, seem to have notched up even more than the last record. They create their own weather system, dueling, erupting and hypnotizing before always bringing it back to some rewarding musical space, be it a lush symphonic meadow or some evil metallic cauldron. Dream Theater have never been more vital or ambitious, and without showing off, they prove what makes them the best at what they do.
As for the true album epic, we are treated to the kaleidoscopic, 22-minute opus entitled ‘Illumination Theory,’ a five-part piece broken down as follows: i. Paradoxe de la Lumière Noire, ii. Live, Die, Kill, iii. The Embracing Circle, iv. The Pursuit of Truth, v. Surrender, Trust & Passion. This is what many Dream Theater purists will have arrived for. The monster. Jam-packed with a head-spinning mix of quiet interludes, face melting jams and, courtesy of bassist Myung and Mangini, forests full of rhythmic majesty, this suite plays like a mini album in itself. Petrucci’s solos in this piece seem to defy logic at times, yet the warmth and emotional tone is never sacrificed. And Rudess scales heights impressive by even his own lofty standards.
Then, as simply as it began, it ends – quiet, peaceful and full of hope. The show is over. Lights, up. Towering and atmospheric, ‘Dream Theater’ pushes the envelope into some new musical dimension, a cosmic realm reserved for the best. The band also seems to be expanding their appeal beyond the faithful with some punchy, stylish and tuneful songs that seduce immediately. Good thing, too. Because the more people that can hear an album like this, the more faithful there will be. Sure, that’s good for Dream Theater. But it’s also good for music.