It’s very hard for me to write about my favorite bands objectively, and Dream Theater certainly falls into that category. For that reason, I’ve waited what some would probably consider an inappropriately long time to review their latest-but I’m glad I did. On the day this album was released I mentally pronounced it a masterpiece: a glorious return to form for a band that had stuttered a bit on previous releases. And while it certainly is the best DT album in a while, the more I’ve listened to it the less it’s seemed like a 5 star album to me.
To be perfectly clear, I do think that this is the band’s best release since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. A Dramatic Turn of Events is more consistent than either Train of Thought or Octavarium, less cheesy than Black Clouds and Silver Linings and just straight-up better than Systematic Chaos (though to be fair that’s among my least favorite DT albums). That said, it’s not perfect; there are moments that feel rehashed or overdramatic (no pun intended), but overall it’s a pretty solid release from this legendary band.
“On the Backs of Angels” is the first track on the album, and I don’t think it was an accident that this was the preview track for the album. With a 9 minute running time, it’s clearly a signal that the band’s prog-influence is still going strong, with multiple instrumental breaks and the kind of extended structure that Dream Theater is known for. However, it’s also among the most accessible tracks on the album, with a big melodic chorus that recalls tracks like “A Rite of Passage.” “On the Backs of Angels” is a good opener, but it’s far from my favorite track, with a sound that’s far less organic and far more “let’s intentionally make some prog music” than most of the album.
“Build Me Up, Break Me Down” catches a lot of flak, but I really, really like it. True, it’s far more straightforward than some of the knotty compositions Dream Theater has put out there but so was “Pull Me Under.” Speaking of which, that’s a pretty good reference point for the sound of this track, with a huge, anthemic chorus that simply screams for radio play. I don’t say that as a negative, either (if they played this on the radio I’d listen to more radio), but this is definitely not a prog epic. If you can appreciate a simpler song among the slew of epics on the disc than you will probably really like this one, if not, well, there’s plenty of long songs ahead.
Unfortunately, the first over-ten-minute song isn’t one to write home about. I don’t want to sound like I’m judging too harshly; “Lost Not Forgotten” is a good song, but not a great one. It’s biggest problem, I think, is that there’s nothing that really makes it stick out from the pack with regards to Dream Theater’s other work: it lacks the pounding intensity of “The Glass Prison,” or “In The Name of God;” it doesn’t have the hooks of “Home” or the emotional “take your breath away” instrumentals like “The Ministry of Lost Souls.” In short, it’s a bit forgettable, and while I can forgive that in a short track, it’s a bit harder to swallow in a song this long. Again, it’s not bad, but if I want to spend ten minutes listening to Dream Theater I can think of better ways to do that. Still, I don’t think anyone will find himself or herself skipping it if they’re listening through the album. “This is the Life” luckily picks up again on a high note. I suppose you could label this as a “ballad,” though with a seven minute run-time and definite prog metal leanings that’s a bit of a hard label to apply. Nonetheless, it definitely fits into the “softer” side of Dream Theater, with James Labrie delivering remarkably restrained vocals for much of the track until the intensity finally bursts through in the climax of the song. This results in yet another John Petrucci solo to add to the archive of great guitar moments in Dream Theater history, with emotional playing that should be more than enough to dispel criticisms that Dream Theater is nothing but technicality. “This is the Life” is a great song that proves the band can still write softer songs and make them come out amazingly.
Our second 10+ minute song comes next, and it’s far better than “This Is The Life.” “Bridges in the Sky” starts with a sound that’s either throat-singing or a didgeridoo before transitioning into a dramatic, atmospheric section that’s a bit reminiscent of Gregorian chant. After this little introduction, pounding riffs come in and the song hits its stride. Another track with a great central hook and solos aplenty, it’s also has some of the heavier moments on the album, and most of the song probably wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Train of Thought. That said, the chorus opens up a little bit, creating a nice “heavy/light” contrast that keeps the track from being too crushingly heavy, if that’s not your thing. Great, varied songwriting and always impressive playing makes this an excellent entry in the Dream Theater canon.
And speaking of great entries in the canon, the next track is “Outcry.” This song, more than anything else, made me incredibly disappointed I couldn’t see DT live this year, because I can’t imagine the live performance of this one is anything less than spectacular. Beginning with a simple piano part, the track quickly launches into a galloping, full fledged anthem, with orchestral synth parts and one of the best vocal lines in recent memory. The lyrics, while perhaps a bit cheesy (“do we look the other way/or do we face the light/though it seems so far away/freedom’s worth the fight”) are nonetheless heartfelt, and as a result “Outcry” comes across as one of the catchiest, most uplifting Dream Theater tracks in years. I would love to be in the audience for this because I can see everyone there screaming along with the vocals. Probably my favorite track on the album.
“Far From Heaven” is next, coming in as the only track on the album under 5 minutes. Primarily consisting of simply piano and voice (there are some other keyboards as well, but they’re pretty minimal), “Far From Heaven” is one of the most stripped down Dream Theater songs ever, and after the double whammy of 11 minute songs that just happened it’s a welcome break. Additionally, I think it’s one of James Labrie’s best vocal performances, with the vocalist singing remarkably tenderly and emotionally and not going for any super-high, super-dramatic lines. It’s a very effective, if simple, track, and a welcome breather on an album that doesn’t give the listener much time to rest.
“Breaking All Illusions” is often cited as the best track on the album, and, while it loses out in my personal opinion to “Outcry,” I’m forced to admit that this one is pretty darn good. I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is, but something about the composition just has an air of subtlety and sophistication to it that can sometimes get lost under the barrage of solos that appear on the average Dream Theater song. Labrie delivers another great, subtle performance here as well, a great delivery from a singer who’s not necessarily known for his subtlety. The instrumentalists are great here as well, with Rudess and Petrucci performing excellently as always and a surprisingly pronounced bass part courtesy of Mr. Myung. Of course, if subtlety isn’t your thing there’s plenty of virtuosic performances as well-but thankfully it never seems like the players are noodling or anything like that. Though the track eschews any super-big hooks in favor of a more holistic vocal melody, but it certainly doesn’t lose anything for it and definitely ends up being one of the best tracks on the album.
After three straight albums ending with gigantic epics, you might expect the album to end there. However, the group decided (wisely, I think) to end this album on a different not. To that end, the five minute “Beneath the Surface” is the concluding track here. Another “ballad” of sorts, the track carries an incredibly hopeful feel and is a great, optimistic note to end the album on. My one complaint with the track is that after nearly a whole song of singing in a low, calming register, James Labrie shoots for the stars on nearly the last line and bafflingly goes up to metal belting range in a song backed only by acoustic guitar and some soothing synth. I understand that they were probably trying to give the end of the track a sweeping sense of drama, but in my opinion it really doesn’t work, instead clashing with the music and marring what would otherwise be a perfect ending for the album. This is a minor complaint, however, and except for a strangely corny synth texture used for the solo I have no complaints with the track.
So, while not a perfect album, A Dramatic Turn of Events is still a great release and a hopeful note for the future of a band already well into its 3rd decade of existence. Though one could feasibly complain that the album sounds too much like the group’s earlier work, when the songwriting is this consistently high-quality, I really don’t have too many complaints. This is a no-brainer for fans of the group (though I suspect most fans probably have it already) and I’d certainly recommend it for other prog-metal fans as well.