Bands changing members is as old as the hills. For some bands it can be a traumatic experience, often driven by tragedy (Bon Scott‘s death, Cliff Burton‘s equally tragic demise) others through “musical differences” (John Frusciante‘s exit from Red Hot Chili Peppers). For Dream Theater, the sudden departure of mainstay drummer Mike Portnoy was the talk of the alternative music press. Portnoy‘s personality, musical dexterity and drive had been, arguably, the force behind Dream Theater‘s growth and enduring success as the prog rock band de nos jours. Could the band survive and, even, thrive without Portnoy? If the evidence on “A Dramatic Turn Of Events” is how we should judge these things, the answer, it would seem, is a resolute and defiant yes.
Dream Theater can be a bit of a Marmite-like “love em or hate em” band. If you’re already a fan of Dream Theater, you’re probably going to love this record. If you’re not, you’re unlikely to have your head turned by the fayre on offer on this latest release. The biggest problem that I have with Dream Theater is just how occasionally cold and unengaging they can be. They can be aloof to the point of arrogance, indulgent to the point of overload and so desperately pleased with themselves that you’d think they’d discovered cure for cancer rather than, as they have here, delivered a decent slab of prog metal.
What’s surprising to me is just how defiantly positive the band have become since Portnoy‘s departure. There’s clearly plenty of life left in the old dog and you know what? “A Dramatic Turn Of Events” is not half bad. Alright, smart alec, I know this must mean that half of it is bad but you get my drift- it’s a damn sight better than you fear, if not quite the record you secretly want it to be.
‘On the Backs of Angels’ starts things off well, all keyboard flourishes, massive production and big choruses about lambs off to the slaughter. The sighs of relief are almost palpable. ‘Build Me Up, Break Me Down’ has a decent sense of drama and dynamic and a cracking riff- the first of many- from the redoubtable John Petrucci. ‘This is the Life’ drops the tempo and brings in the piano and echo-strewn vocals: I don’t doubt the sincerity of the emotions and sentiment but it feels contrived and forced. Elsewhere, ‘Beneath the Surface’ is, frankly, irredeemable guff.
Things take a turn for the better with ‘Bridges in the Sky’– a proper prog epic- all eleven or so minutes-and it’s much more like what we want from Dream Theater– choirs, keyboards, massive riffing, guitars, drums, kitchen sink (just kidding). You get the idea. Just when you think it can’t get any bigger or more epic they throw ‘Outcry’ at us which is, for me, the album highlight. It is as huge and portentous as you’d expect, full of melody and invention- it seems ready made to become a future fan favourite. There’s some fabulous guitar playing, some exceptional keyboard work and enough prog to keep even the most gnarly and wizened prog aficionado entertained for weeks.
On “A Dramatic Turn of Events” there is no dramatic change of pace or focus: what did you expect, metalcore or space polka? Hardly: this is a Dream Theater record after all; they have a template and they are, some 26 years in, unlikely to deviate from it too much. If they added a bit more warmth, took on board a bit more editing and we might be talking classic- as it stands, no real dramatic turn of events but, on balance, we’re talking solid effort.