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A Portnoy Complaint: Dream Theater in the Mangini Era

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No band looking to appeal to anyone outside of their core constituents would write a two hour-long rock opera about a dystopia ruled by electronic music, as Dream Theater did with The Astonishing. It is difficult to imagine another band devoting so much time and effort to a concept so ludicrous. But the absurdity of the album’s premise, and the lengths the band go to realize that absurdity, is what makes The Astonishing a Dream Theater album. Whether it is a 42 minute-song inspired by the DSM or a song cycle dedicated to the 12-step program split over five albums, Dream Theater have never held back on the execution of their concepts.

This “no half measures” approach has made them an insular experience, even within the metal community, but it has hardly limited their success. Dream Theater have sustained a career most other guitar bands would kill for. They release albums with clockwork regularity and are a reliable draw for tours across the world. Their members boast a treasure trove of gear endorsements and grace musician-targeted magazine covers with the frequency of star athletes. The time and effort required to keep the Dream Theater enterprise running doesn’t necessitate a mechanical approach to making music, but it does reward being able to release music quickly and efficiently. The band are so committed to this rapid pace that drummer and founding member Mike Portnoy was left in the dust after suggesting that they take a short hiatus before beginning work on their 11th album in 2010. This is a reasonable request in a field where creative burnout is a real possibility, but he may as well have asked for an accounting firm to go on hiatus. Dream Theater is a full time business. Burning out is not an option.

Since replacing Portnoy with Berklee Professor and hilariously fast drummer Mike Mangini, Dream Theater have maintained their steady rate of production. In the last five years the band have released three studio records and two live albums, each more distinctly Dream Theater than the last. Mangini’s first, A Dramatic Turn Of Events was about as close as the band will ever come to answering their fan’s cries for a throwback to their career making record Images & Words. After several years of chasing rock radio with Muse and Evanescence knock offs, along with some botched attempts to emulate extreme metal, this relatively conservative approach to the band’s tone came across as refreshing. It is as flawed as any other Dream Theater album, just as bogged down with middling ballads and overwrought digressions into solo showcases, but these flaws feel more authentic to Dream Theater’s personality than the ill-fitting clothing of rock’s mainstream. For the first time since the early ’90s Dream Theater felt self-aware of their own dorkiness and dropped any pretense of appealing beyond their base.

Their next record, 2014’s Dream Theater was an even more concerted effort to circle the wagons around their corner of the music industry. As with many late-career self titled releases (see also: Suffocation, Korn) the album feels more like an act of codification than creating. Each song on the tracklist lines up perfectly with the archetypes the band have established elsewhere in their discography. There’s the metal leaning track, the prog leaning track, the playful instrumental number, and an obligatory “epic” finale that overstays its welcome by a good five minutes. These particular iterations don’t add or comment on these long standing tropes. Dream Theater is the band’s least essential record, but also the most complete summary of their taste and writing tendencies.

The Astonishing doesn’t suffer from as its predecessor’s lack of novelty, even the band’s previous rock opera Scenes From A Memory is nowhere near as ambitious in scope, but it also feels quintessentially Dream Theater. Everything about the record feels like it could only come from the mind of John Petrucci. Of course the guy who once wrote a diss track about how much better of a guitarist he was than former Queensryche guitarist Mike Stone would view machine-made music to be a threat worthy of discussing on Orwellian terms. And of course the author of the shaggy dog story that is “The Count Of Tuscany” would write an album about overthrowing a totalitarian government that ends in peaceful reform rather than revolution. Even the quasi-religious nature of that reformation is entirely in line with the spiritual themes that Petrucci has sprinkled into his lyrics throughout the years (Petrucci and Mangini are both devout Catholics).

All of this serves as the framework for a record so musically grandiose that it barrels through self-parody and into territory so shameless that it becomes nearly endearing. The Astonishing feels like a musical written by someone who has never actually seen a musical. The album’s first disc is a mess of overtures, character introductions, and power ballads, all combining to drown the listener in a series of leitmotifs and sweeping melodies that might feel distinct on sheet music but blur together into a saccharine mush on record.

The second disc is marginally better, the band at least have the decency to score the story’s physical violence with some uptempo segments that play to the band’s strengths rather than the ponderous balladry of the first act. But even then the band have no idea how to wrap up the record in a way that is musically or emotionally compelling. No amount of overly breathy singing from James LaBrie can sell a drama centered around characters written with all the depth of a Star Wars prequel (naming the villain Nafaryus is peak George Lucas) and the album’s final 20 minutes find the band trying out at least four different conclusions before settling for one that sticks.

Still, during that brief stretch at the start of the second disc the band manage to scratch the very particular itch that has made them a perennial hit with budding musicians for the last 30 years. Dream Theater are outrageously good musicians, but on top of that they are extremely professional musicians. They don’t so much write songs as they construct them from a well tested blueprint. If you’ve spent any serious amount of time listening to the band (if you have, you probably shouldn’t tell your coworkers) spotting their habits should come naturally.

Dream Theater have a number of pet forms that have popped up all over their discography even though their proficiency gives them limitless creative potential. They love to expand and contract time signatures based on an A-B-A-C form, using a riff as a starting point and then adding or removing one subdivision each time they return to it (here’s a dissertation that breaks down the specifics of this pattern). They also have a habit of using 3-against-4 polyrhythms as a jumping off point for metric modulations, usually starting with drum. Even their solo sections tend to follow a pattern of trading groups of 16 measures between guitar and keyboard before they meet up for a unison lead.

That clockwork nature doesn’t diminish how flawless their execution has been. Reliability isn’t a bad thing, and Dream Theater’s reliable virtuosity has turned them into the prog metal equivalent of comfort food. The Mangini era of the band’s career has reveled in this. They make bombastic, overstuffed music that alludes to just enough human emotion to remain digestible. It’s telling that during the first tour with Mangini they would open their sets with music from Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Dream Theater will regularly bend cities over your head, and will gladly take up half of the run time in order to show you how they did it.

Mike Portnoy, photo by Robert Wilk
Mike Portnoy, photo by Robert Wilk

When Portnoy was still in the band their choice of intro music was equally as indicative of their values. Dream Theater would open their sets with the love theme from Twin Peaks or the overture of Psycho. Now Dream Theater hardly have the subtlety to evoke the beautifully surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch film (a recurring problem in prog metal) or the restraint to match the tension of Hitchcock, but their reverence towards cinema’s masters was hardly out of character. During this same period the band were in the habit of covering classic albums in their entirety, devoting half of their set to Metallica, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, and Pink Floyd.

Their original material during this era felt equally indebted to the canon. Their body of work in the years where Portnoy and Petrucci served as the band’s producers they seemed to be checking off archetypes from the classic band playbook, releasing a concept album (Scenes From A Memory), a double album (Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence), a “dark” album (Train Of Thought) and a “light” album (Octavarium).

Portnoy has never made any attempts to hide his enthusiasm as a fan. He has played in high profile cover bands throughout his career and has an extensive collection of selfies with famous musicians. Portnoy seemed to be managing Dream Theater’s discography in the same way that the similarly homage-happy Quentin Tarantino has orchestrated his films, all with the intention of building a body of work that could stand next to the classics that he idolized and dissected as a fan.

This is perhaps why Portnoy’s post-Dream Theater career has been so rough to watch. Without the budget and platform that Dream Theater granted him, Portnoy has jumped from supergroup to supergroup, playing competent but bland genre exercises that stay within the guidelines of music history without daring to add to them.

Your mileage may vary as to whether or not the Dream Theater discography lives up to Portnoy’s ambitions. The band’s longevity has guaranteed that each of their albums will have its ardent defenders, although most can agree that their earliest records are generally the ones with the most creative spark.

That spark hasn’t returned with The Astonishing, but expecting middle aged musicians not named Thomas Gabriel Fischer to put out their best work in the second half of their career probably isn’t fair. But by putting aside the careerism of the last decade, Dream Theater feel comfortable with being over the hill. While going over the rational for his preposterously large drum set for Metalsucks, Mike Mangini made it a point to highlight how much fun playing the kit is for him. “It’s always someone telling me what to do, that I have too many drums and too this and too that. I swear, I’m just a kid at heart having fun.” Whether or not that sense of child-like glee translates to the average listener is immaterial. Who can fault someone for trying to have fun at their job?

—Ian Cory

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