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Dream Theater’s New Album “Distance Over Time” Boosts Prog’s Velocity

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One can’t fault Dream Theater for lacking ambition. From long-form progressive epics when they were decidedly not in style to multi-album sonic sequencing to The Astonishing, their previous studio record — a 2+ hour double-disc concept record with an intricate (if admittedly silly) story — they’ve never been ones to rein themselves in. Add in the number of side projects each of the members have engaged in, and it’s clear: this band at heart knows who they are and what they bring to the table. The mental image of the band and their members is an unshakeable one; whether you like the band or not, it doesn’t take long in the world of heavy metal before you at least know what they are and what they represent.

This leads to a strange occurrence when looking over the discography of Dream Theater and seeing that, very often, the band does not quite understand itself. On their first record, 1989’s When Day and Dream Unite, they hadn’t quite found their voice; on 1997’s Falling Into Infinity, record label meddling derailed what was revealed in demos to be very promising sessions; most tellingly, 2017’s The Astonishing seemed to greatly misunderstand what fans of the band come for, receiving a hybrid of Disney-style musical theatrics (not a sleight; Petrucci is a noted avid Disney fan, both for film and composition) and Game of Thrones fantasy theatrics, with a dash of rockist retelling of 2112 and Ayn Rand to boot. Even their self-titled reboot record, 2013’s Dream Theater, which was designed to function as a new debut for the group in the Mike Mangini drumming era, seemed to fail to grasp those key essential elements that both define the group and are what have made them undeniably the most influential and important progressive metal band of all time.

Dream Theater’s latest album Distance Over Time (released today) sees the band rediscovering who they are again. The songs are shorter, with only reaching the nine-minute mark with none crossing to ten; with that shortened range comes a tighter songwriting curve and pacing to the proceedings. The band has more than their fair share of incredible epic-length progressive tracks clocking in at 15+ minutes or more, but the period from Systematic Chaos onward, it almost felt like they were included under duress, as if the band felt they were abandoning some chief characteristic of their identity by leaning leaner and meaner. If anything, that sense of brevity and focus on individual musical statements was one of the chief things The Astonishing did well, salvaging a truly tremendously stupid concept with solid songs across its 30+ tracks. Distance Over Time’s closest composition comparison would be Images & Words and Awake, representing an era where going beyond seven minutes was saved for special occasions by the band, instead modeling themselves after Queensryche, Fates Warning, and mid-period Rush, producing prog forms in shorter, much heavier packages.

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For the most part, it is that formula that has seen the most success for Dream Theater, including on Distance Over Time. There are two things this band knows like the back of their hands — Rush and Metallica — and they are almost always at their best when fusing those two conceptually. It is this same sense of playful heart-on-sleeve nods to their big influences that motivated their biggest successes over their career and likewise alight the tracks all across Distance Over Time. The first three tracks (“Untethered Angel,” “Paralyzed,” and “Fall Into the Light”) were released as promo singles and offer a decent summary of the record; their heaviness is mirrored in most of the remaining tracks, with those remaining containing a touch of the epic and light-hearted progressive rock stretches that defined Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Octavarium. On tracks like “At Wit’s End” and “Pale Blue Dot,” the band moves seamlessly between ultra-heavy thrash riffing and acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek prog-rock playing, feeling closest in those moments to the mind-image of peak Dream Theater. Meanwhile, tracks like “Paralyzed” and especially “S2N” come right for the neck, sacrificing none of their progressive touches when leaning on low-end and tight, heavy riffing.

Perhaps the biggest shock to some is that Mangini, whose run in the band so far has been described as robotic and stiff, feels not just the most equal-footed he’s ever sounded with the group, but also finally like he fully belongs. His drum parts are perhaps more muted than what Portnoy may have played over these compositions, but the recording of the drums this time around really bring out the heft behind his hand and the loose rock energy he brings to double-bass heavy metal grooves and more precise prog syncopations alike. He is a joy to listen to on Distance Over Time, providing a perfect rhythmic foil to the remainder of the band. You have to imagine, hearing these performances, that this is what they envisioned his role in the band to be when they hired him. At last, his full talents — not just as probably the best living drummer in terms of technicality but also a supreme musical talent as well — come clear and mesh fully with the band.

Another major performer on the record is James Labrie. His vocals have always been take-’em-or-leave-’em, but on Distance Over Time, the value he brings to the band and the image he helps them create is the clearest it has been since Octavarium, another standout record for him. His performances have been up and down over the past decade or so, but that’s largely been due to a combination of noted personnel problems behind the scenes with Portnoy and then being often sidelined for lengthy instrumental excursions which didn’t always justify themselves. On Distance Over Time, the band seem to remain aware of his presence and how undeniable he is as a figure within the group, having given voice now to all of their greatest songs and tying himself tightly to a vast number of their greatest triumphs. They give him ample room to shine and, like on every album since Portnoy left, he delivers the goods; he’s simply given more room to deliver them and vocal melodies that sit more comfortably within his maturing range.

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Jordan Rudess likewise has tightened up his playing, leaning more toward the tasteful than the extravagant, not unlike his playing on Train of Thought, an album which provides as well the clearest reference point for the overall timbre of this album. You can never really fault Petrucci for running long on a solo: he has always exercised more taste than he’s given credit for as a shred-capable guitar god (and Myung is so rarely given that spotlight that each moment is treasured), but Rudess hasn’t always been the best at self-editing when it comes to which patches to use and how to construct a solo. He is, like all the others, an undeniable talent, and Distance Over Time shows him by and large restraining himself to tasteful selections which show his incredible harmonic understanding and keen ear for complementary developmental melodies.

“Barstool Warrior” may be a worrisome title, bringing to mind the idea of Dream Theater engaging in the same kind of cheap and thin veteran hard-rock bullshit we’re forced to suffer through on contemporary Deep Purple records, but reveals itself to be a tender progressive rock track about the existential troubles of middle-agedness delivered in well-written lyrics married to moving post-Rush prog riffs. It sits alongside “S2N” and “At Wit’s End” as the standout tracks of the affair, each representing a chief characteristic of the record’s identity as a whole, those being: heavy thrash riffing, the more emotive and theatrical end of progressive rock, and then the weirder, knottier, loose-limbed side. These motives are tied up most succinctly in bonus track “Viper King” which reads like a goofy and joyous Deep Purple pastiche played too heavy for its own good, a recipe which on paper should sink the entire affair but instead in their hands reads as (hold your shock): fun-loving rock-‘n’-roll.

This all leads to the defining spirit of the record, a key reason why the band seems to be so successful with this material. They sound at last like they are confident again. A Dramatic Turn of Events and their self-titled have strong material that work outside of the context of those records, but at their worst, the weaker moments of those albums felt very much like a band that was keenly aware of the size of the boots Portnoy left to fill, not just as a drummer but as a compositional guide, a producer, a director of the energies of the band, and more. The Astonishing likewise felt like a project produced half from joy and half under duress to just show that they could still do it. Hell, if we’re honest, even the final two albums with Portnoy (2007’s Systematic Chaos and 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings) felt like a band undergoing an identity crisis, with Portnoy’s increasing dissatisfaction with the group likely contributing in some fashion.

Distance Over Time feels unburdened, confident, free. They played and wrote the album while living together in a house in upstate New York over a long summer, and you can hear that in the compositional choices and individual recorded parts of the record. Dream Theater sounds like a rock band again, not overthinking their compositions or sterilizing their sound in poor production choices. The mix is bright, heavy, rich, and full of sonic separation of instruments clean enough to make them legible without sacrificing that human and hoary sense of rock energy. Playing Images & Words in its entirety helped the band a great deal apparently, as did announcing their upcoming tour would feature Scenes From a Memory (still their masterwork) in its entirety.

Dream Theater remembered that they were the band that wrote those albums and, in doing so, made themselves the most important and influential progressive metal band of all time. It is premature to say if Distance Over Time places itself on a pedestal as high as those records; as of now, I’m leaning toward no. But making itself a fine bedfellow to records such as Awake, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Train of Thought, and Octavarium still makes it a fine addition to their catalog. It comfortably dethrones A Dramatic Turn of Events as their greatest achievement of the Mangini era, and is easily Dream Theater’s best album in well over a decade now. In an era of groups like Periphery and Haken, both incredible bands deeply indebted to Dream Theater’s storied body of work, this band still has vital and noteworthy music left to make.

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