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In November of 1968, The Beatles released their ninth studio album, a self-titled, double-LP filled with strange, bold and beautiful music that refused to conform to any kind of accepted norm. What's remarkable about that album – what we know about it now, at least, in hindsight – is that it was the sound of collective solo artists, a band in name only, one that was in the process of falling apart.
This month, on 24 September, Dream Theater, 11 albums and 27 years into their career, will release a self-titled album, and it, too, is packed with strange, bold and beautiful music – nine songs brimming with volcanic and dynamic energy but also a subtle sense of mystery and spellbinding charm. But the key distinction here is that this is a band that almost fell apart but didn't. This album is the sound of a band coming together.
"On our last album, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, we had a lot to prove," says guitarist John Petrucci, referring to the late 2010 split by founding member and drummer Mike Portnoy. "We were put under the microscope on that record. There were a lot of questions in the air. But the success of that album and the tour that followed really energized us, and we felt like a new band again. We took all of that positive energy into the recording of the new album."
The decision to go with an eponymous title is usually arrived at late or at the end of a recording process, but the members of Dream Theater (Petrucci, vocalist James LaBrie, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, bassist John Myung and not-so-new-guy-anymore, drummer Mike Mangini) made their call before a lick of music had been tracked. In fact, the name of the album helped shape their music. "When we chose to call it Dream Theater, we knew we had to make the kind of record that warranted a self-title," Petrucci says. "We were intent on making something that looks back on and respects our past, but it also pushes us forward in a very passionate and fiery way."
In addition to picking a title, Petrucci, who produced the record, sat down with the band to map out an agenda. "Before we set foot in the studio, we talked about the kind of record that we wanted to make," he says, "and I put together a proposal outlining my thoughts. One of my jobs is to corral the team and build a plan: Who’s the engineer? Who’s our mixer? Where are we going to do it? It’s all part of formulating what direction the record should take."
As was the case with A Dramatic Turn Of Events, the band recorded at Long Island's Cove City Studios, beginning in January and continuing into the spring. Significant and profound differences were the addition of engineer and mixer Richard Chychi, who had worked with the band before but never in such a sustained capacity, along with the fact that Mike Mangini was now a fully integrated creative member of the quintet. "Mike was with us from day one," says Petrucci. "There he was with his big drum kit from the tour, ready to write, ready to work. The level of commitment and brilliance he brought to this record is remarkable."
According to Petrucci, Mangini's ability to respond intuitively to the new material was a constant joy to behold. "Mike did so many off-the-cuff things that were just astounding" the guitarist raves. "We would be working on a piece of music, and he would be sitting there listening, maybe playing along a little bit. Then when we’d go to play it all together, we’d ask him if he had any ideas, and he’d let loose with the most ridiculous, sickest thing you’d ever heard. It was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ [Laughs] A lot of times we kept what he did. We’d be like, ‘That’s it. Don’t even think about it any further.’”
Petrucci is no less effusive in his praise of the veteran DTers: "James constantly blew me away with his vocal performances. Every time I heard something he did, it was better than anything I could have imagined. Jordan never ceases to amaze me. His creativity is so inspiring. And John Myung always comes up with the perfect parts and these home-run riffs right when you need them. Everybody pushed themselves in pretty remarkable ways. And the great thing is, we had fun, too. There were a lot of laughs, glasses of wine with meals, all of the usual bonding stuff that happens when a band is in a good place. It felt really special."
For close to 30 years now, Dream Theater have reigned as something of the gold standard for instrumental excellence, and to be sure, there are moments – too many to count, in fact – of musicianship on Dream Theater the album that could qualify for landmark status. But there's another kind of benchmark they've hit here as well: They've never sounded so passionate, so alive and so unified. A Dramatic Turn Of Events was a powerful and convincing statement by a band refusing to give up their dreams. The new album is solid proof that they've hatched new ones.
Dream Theater will be released on 24 September. You can order a Limited Edition Collector's Box Set at this link. On the following pages, John Petrucci walks us through the writing and recording of the album track-by-track.