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Customer Review

79 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, complex and very nearly a masterpiece of modern music, 12 Sept. 2011
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This review is from: A Dramatic Turn Of Events (Audio CD)
Dream Theater fans tend to be an obsessive bunch, almost invariably skilled and knowledgeable musicians themselves. As I sit here writing this on the morning of the CD's release in the UK, there are debates raging on various forums about Dream Theater's latest album. Some are analysing the music like it's a crime scene, dusting through every bar looking for odd time signatures and evidence of earlier influences. Others are obsessing over the mixing and mastering. And yet another group is combing through the lyrics (particularly those by John Myung) looking for clues to the secret of life. I'm going to take a radical angle here and discuss the music itself, and how it affects me. I'm not saying those other issues don't matter. Clearly they do, or else so many people wouldn't write so passionately about them. But I'm not a gifted musician, I know nothing about the techniques of recording and mastering music, and if I want great words, I tend not to look to rock stars for them. Why I fell in love with Dream Theater back in 2001 was the exceptional musicianship and gorgeous textures of their music. So this is how I'll try to appraise this latest album.

Firstly, as we all know, Portnoy left in September 2010. What affect has this had? Well, immediately, only Labrie sings. There are no more growls and toe-curling death-metal rapping, for lack of a more apt description of that abomination that marred A Nightmare To Remember. And Labrie sings brilliantly. Nowhere on this record does he sneer or snarl or bark or shriek his way through passages, as he occasionally did on the previous 2 or 3 releases. He merely sings, and his voice has colour and charm and beauty and power. It is becoming a cliché on those forums I mentioned, but it is nonetheless true: this is the James Labrie of Images and Words and Awake. It is among his best work.

His contribution to the song-writing is also evident. Build me Up, Break Me Down sounds like something that would have fit nicely onto one of his solo albums, and has a wonderful chorus. Not my favourite track on the album, but a good, solid piece. Lost Not Forgotten works for me on many levels (Petrucci's guitar solo is wonderful. Echoes of Under A Glass Moon, but this could never be a bad thing). The opening contains an over-the-top segment of (it seems to me) completely aimless widdling, but it doesn't last too long.

The real surprise on this album was the 3 ballads. With a few notable exceptions (Anna Lee, Hollow Years, Disappear) I've never really taken to DT ballads. Too sickly, too banal. The appeal of Dream Theatre is usually the formidable musicianship and wholly unique arrangements of their pieces. Water them down to a 3rd-rate Coldplay and what's the point? But on this album, the ballads (I'll repeat, 3 of them!) are a) well placed on the CD, and b) beautiful. This Is The Life has a soaring guitar solo (2 of them in fact), and tasteful playing from Rudess. Far From heaven ddn't do it for me at first, but after many listens, is now one of my favourite DT tracks. It's a short one, but...such a beautiful, gorgeous vocal line from Labrie. And finally, what may be the most purely sublime piece DT have ever written, the album's closing track: Beneath The Surface. I like to think I hold myself together quite well, I'm not an overly-emotional person, and very few things move me to tears - but this track did, the first time I heard it. And with each repeated listen, it somehow becomes more and more beautiful. One of those tracks (for me at least) which, once it's sunk in to your soul, it's hard to imagine a time before it was a part of your life.

The other tracks on the album are very strong. Bridges In The Sky begins oddly, with a noise that any lover of a spicy mutton vindaloo will find familiar, but turns into quite an epic song, with a soaring melody and - lord be praised - a tasteful instrumental section which fits with the song, as opposed to a collection of impossibly difficult technical exercises. Some chap on the Dream Theater website's forum is currently engaged in a forensic examination of this song, claiming that its structure exactly mirrors that of Metropolis. Maybe so, maybe so. I personally couldn't care less about that degree of analysis. To me, it's just a great song, and to my ears sounds nothing like Metropolis. Besides which, I'd much prefer Dream Theater draw on their own catalogue for inspiration rather than any other band's, which is what I feel they were sometimes doing with Octavarium, Systematic Chaos, and Black Clouds. After all, nobody ever did it better than they themselves did.

Outcry is an album highlight, a great balance of technique and beauty. Breaking All Illusions is the album's masterpiece, with one of the most beautiful and spine-chilling endings I've ever heard in a song. I know the album is still fresh and it's tempting to be hyperbolic before it's really had a chance to sink in fully, but nonetheless, if I were stranded on an island I honestly think I could be happy with only this track for company. Dream Theater have often written exceptionally beautiful endings to otherwise mediocre tracks (Octavarium, Best of Times), but here, the entire track is one flawless gem.

So, in conclusion...I loved Mike Portnoy (still do). I think his drumming on In The Name Of God was a masterpiece of technique counterpoised against emotion. He was that rarest of entities - a truly musical drummer. But I didn't like the direction DT was taking with recent albums, and I feel that he was the reason for that change. Too much death metal growling. Too much musical masturbation, too little music. Sometimes it was just plain silly, and other times, embarrassingly derivative (watch the Systematic Chaos `Making Of' DVD and count the number of times Portnoy says things like: "Wow, this is great, we sound like Biohazard here!" Or "This is our cool Meshuggah section". Just be freakin' DT please!). This album is the sound of a group of preternaturally talented musicians playing as a tight unit. The songs are well constructed and brilliantly executed. They are original and inspiring, sometimes sending chills down the spine. There are moments which are supremely beautiful, but never childish and mawkish as seen on previous albums ("The Answer Lies Within" - is that right? There was I thinking an unexamined life was the way forward). This is not an easy record, it takes time to even begin to get a grasp of all that is going on here. Hence, it is classic Dream Theater. God forgive me but I'm happy Portnoy left if this is the result. This is what made the group wholly unique, and this record - while drawing on their past - is entirely new and fresh.

Album highlights, in order:

Breaking All Illusions
Beneath The Surface
This Is The Life

My whole-hearted recommendation is to buy this album. And thank you Dream Theater, on the off-chance you're reading this. The music you create makes my life so much better.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 21 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 12 Sep 2011 19:17:44 BDT
Last edited by the author on 2 Oct 2011 16:57:01 BDT
G. Young says:
This is an interesting review and an absolute pleasure to read. I agree with so much of this, especially regarding Mike Portnoy - he is an amazing drummer, some of my favourite drum moments come from him; Learning To Live for example, has some beautiful fills, his use of splash cymbals on These Walls is a delight, I love that kind of detail. However, those (bad) death-metal vocals on songs such as A Nightmare To Remember were kind of embarrassing and would often cloud (i.e. ruin) exceptionally good tracks. Then there was the whole horror of his control problem and it was a problem. I remember when Systemtic Chaos was released (an album I love by the way, two tracks too long but there is a fantastic album within...) and remember thinking it should have been subtitled (Mike Portnoy's) Dream Theater, the DVD edition simply confirmed this view after watching just how controlling Mike had become with almost every aspect of the band. When it was announced he was leaving, I was actually delighted, a feeling I have never experienced with a favoured band before. It is a bittersweet feeling however, the new album simply highlights just how good (actually brilliant) a drummer Mike really was within Dream Theater even though Mike Mangini puts in a first class performance on the new record I am still adjusting to the new feel of Dream Theater that he brings. Some of the drum fills and timings on Breaking All Illusions are amazing and a delight to listen to, I just wish the drums were a little more present in the mix, they lack the power that is clearly already there within the playing. The curse of being fascinated with drumming, they are never loud enough for me! Moving Pictures by Rush or Lateralus by Tool are those rare albums (for me anyway) where the drum sound and the music are perfectly matched, brought to life by a near-perfect production. Awake by Dream Theater is another example of this, an album so well produced that I use it when buying or testing new hi-fi equipment.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your review, it is one of the best I have read on Amazon, a real pleasure.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Sep 2011 20:46:34 BDT
Slaphead says:
If you like dream theater try Seventh Wonder, they are every bit as good.

Posted on 12 Sep 2011 21:18:45 BDT
Paul McNamee says:
Indeed, this review is so well written, thoughtful and well argued that despite my not agreeing with most of it (I'm still not a fan of Jame LaBrie and at times the album goes on a bit) I no longer want to submit a review of my own. Have another helpful vote.

Posted on 12 Sep 2011 21:46:24 BDT
Last edited by the author on 12 Sep 2011 21:46:43 BDT
KayJay S says:
Well Dave Hall..That is one great well written review. I more or less agree with it all., I am on my second listen as I type this and I am loving it. James La Brie's is signing as good as ever....and having watched the DVD (have seen it online but so much better on a big screen) they certainly made the right choice in Mangini. I will pobably do a review of my own when I have digested it all properly. But for ther time being your views tell all...just buy it : )

Posted on 13 Sep 2011 07:43:30 BDT
T. Draper says:
Best review I've ever read on Amazon and couldn't agree more. A truly awesome album.

Posted on 13 Sep 2011 16:44:09 BDT
G. Cole says:
Great review, thanks for taking the time to write such a long one. I was going to get the album anyway, but still interesting to hear what people say.

Posted on 13 Sep 2011 20:33:07 BDT
Mr. P. Allan says:
I agree entirely with this review. DT under Portnoy were too Metal this is true Dream Theater best since Train of thought.

Posted on 14 Sep 2011 09:46:57 BDT
Traian says:
Can anybody help: what is the difference between the two packages? Is the CD+DVD in a digipack or in a double CD jewel pack? I want to decide which one to buy but I hate packages from which the discs fall out all over the place. Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Sep 2011 11:22:46 BDT
Last edited by the author on 14 Sep 2011 11:24:08 BDT
Agma says:
Traian, the CD+DVD edition is the 2CD digipak: it has a bonus DVD on it with a 60 minute documentary "the spirit carries on" which is fabulous; clearly however the choice is yours. I recommend the CD+DVD one. I don't own the jewel case version but I would think it just have the album and not the DVD. No bonus tracks on A dramatic turn of events either. Hope this helps, Agma.

Posted on 14 Sep 2011 18:24:14 BDT
Thanks for this most excellent review. I agree with absolutely everything you said. I'm on my very first listen as I type and very much looking forward to hearing it all from what you said. I honestly hope James is singing better than I thought he did on the last 2 albums - both of which I absolutely hated. Looks like MP did the right thing in leaving - from all points of view. I hope so.
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