DREAM THEATER can lay claim to devoted international fanbase, with some of those followers bordering on fanatic. It's just a question as to which side of the room is waving that particular banner. There are the ones that find worth in every album the band puts out regardless of how much Dream Theater deviates from what's been deemed their signature sound (established by their first three records, When Dream And Day Unite, Images And Words, Awake). Then there are those that pick and choose their favourite DT records and will gladly cyber-stomp on anyone that tells them they're out of their proggy little minds. So it went that when music from the band's new self-titled album started circulating, the widespread accolades for a job well done (save for the expected Mangini versus Portnoy bitching) was surprising. Sure, some folks have dismissed the new music as a letdown, but guitarist John Petrucci couldn't be happier with the result or the positive feedback that's been coming his way since the record landed in the laps of the press.
"One of the great things is that the press has been very genuine and very up front about the way they feel about our music," says Petrucci. "The album has been getting a very positive response, and what's interesting is that we set out to do certain things on this album and people have picked up on those things without us really saying what they are. That makes me feel that we were successful in following through on what we initially planned to do."
Ditching the journalistic neutrality schtick for a moment, my long-standing personal view on Dream Theater is that somewhere down the road they forgot how to write songs. Hard to say when, but as much as I enjoy prog rock and metal, the widdly 10+ instrumental virtuoso epics that have dominated the last several albums sucked the enjoyment out of the listening experience. It felt like math class; the foundations of the exercises were familiar but they'd become too damn complicated to follow. The new Dream Theater album, however, feels like a step back to the era of real songwriting for the band some 15+ years ago.
"It was definitely a conscious decision to do that," Petrucci insists. "Every album that we make, we do what we feel at that time. Whatever the strength is that we focus on for any particular album, it's definitely done on purpose. In doing that, I think it's done a couple of things for us. It's created a lot of variety, but it can also be divisive because the albums are very different. Fans might like a certain period of Dream Theater history or a certain style, but I don't think that takes away from the overall catalogue. The new album is so different because we went in wanting to write a more focused album."
"I was looking at the tracklist to Awake yesterday and I noticed some similarities in song length," he adds. "This new album has a lot of songs in the five and six minute range like Awake does. I think when you do that, you really have to hone in on the songwriting, the power of the music and how it's going to hit you after that five or six minutes ends. It's a way different mindset than doing a bunch of 12 minute songs, because it's a totally different writing style in a lot of ways. I think that's what you picked up on."
The departure of original drummer Mike Portnoy in September 2010 hung over the making of Dream Theater's previous album, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, like smog. His replacement Mike Mangini proved to be up to the task of taking Portnoy's place, and the tour that followed cemented his position in the band despite the expected amount of online character assassination. With Portnoy making noise down other avenues over the last couple years with ADRENALINE MOB, FLYING COLORS, NEAL MORSE, and his supposed mainstay band THE WINERY DOGS, his fans have been eased up on Dream Theater somewhat. Going in to do the new album with only Mangini as the only drummer in the cards proved to be a great thing.
"It was really good," agrees Petrucci. "I think a lot of that actually contributed to the sound of this album because, for me, it has this feeling of freedom about it. It's a bit more spontaneous, and I think we were less guarded this time. On the last album we had this sense of having to more or less prove ourselves. We knew we were going to be under a microscope so we couldn't really experiment too much. It didn't seem like the right time. For this album, Mike Mangini has been in the band for a couple years, he's done a full world tour with us; everybody has accepted and loves him, so with Mike coming in from the beginning, writing with us and having all that other stuff behind us, it was almost like a sense of relief. The music felt a lot more spontaneous and alive. We were able to be ourselves, and Mike was a great contributor in that."
Vocalist James LaBrie's former WINTER ROSE bandmate Rich Chycki - best known as producer and engineer for RUSH - was another major influence on the new album. Not only in terms of his technical skills, but his in-studio approach to six straight months of skull-to-grindstone work.
"Definitely, Rich had a lot to do with the way the album turned out, too. You know him; he's got a great attitude, he's hysterically funny, so there was a light atmosphere in the studio. We hung out together, ate together, laughed together, so we bonded as band an engineer the whole time and I think that contributed to the kind of album that came out. I self-produced the album, Rich engineered and mixed it. Having said that, he has so much experience as a producer and an engineer and mixer that I absolutely bounced ideas off him. It was amazing having him in the studio from Day One. It was important to us because we knew we'd be in the studio for several months. We couldn't have someone intermittently walk in and out. We needed a partner that would be in there with us the whole time. Rich was willing and able to do that, and he was there literally every day with us, he worked harder than I've ever seen anyone work in the studio."
"The whole idea of going into the studio, put microphones on everything, and getting all the sounds that would end up on the album within the first week was something that we never did before. So, the way that you're hearing Rich's mix is what it sounded like when we were writing it."
Returning to the fans' take on the new album, and Petrucci's singling out of Awake as the record their new outing resembles most, he admits that everyone seems to be on the same wavelength regarding where it fits in the Dream Theater universe.
"People have brought up Images & Words, Awake, Scenes From A Memory and Train Of Thought, and this is what we're always trying to do. We're trying to be a progressive band with a heavy metal sound, but with well-written songs that are very melodic. That's our goal all the time."