Last night progressive metal legends Dream Theater held their first-ever media listening party to preview their forthcoming self-titled album. Their 12th release — the fourth with Roadrunner Records overall and their second with drummer Mike Mangini — is an hour-long, nine-song opus that harkens back to the melodic, slightly more traditional songwriting of their early days and meshes it with the chops, speed and epic ambitions that they have become known for since. Most of the songs are five to seven-minute morsels, two of which (“The Looking Glass” and “Surrender To Reason”) recall vintage Rush, while the majestic, multifaceted, predominately instrumental 19-minute closer “Illumination Theory” has a gorgeous neo-classical centerpiece courtesy of keyboardist Jordan Rudess that makes for an unexpectedly serene break during an often frenetic number. There is a slightly more mainstream slant to the album that will allow Dream Theater disciples and fellow prog heads to play this release to a non-genre fan who could appreciate it and not instantly be overwhelmed by a maelstrom of notes. Dream Theater have explored different approaches over the years, but it seems that the stigma of dauntingly ambitious, epic music has stuck with them. Frontman James LaBrie told me that the catchy, U2-ish song “I Walk Beside You” from Octavarium was sent to commercial radio for airplay consideration, but he suspected that they ignored it simply because of the connotations associated with the band’s name. Obviously Dream Theater do not aspire to be played on Top 40 stations, but some of the new material is more commercially friendly in a good way.
“What has always been our nemesis is the preconceived notion of what Dream Theater represents musically, and there so many facets to us,” LaBrie told me during the playback. “I always feel that on every album there is a song that is right for a crossover and could allow us to reach a wider audience. The problem has always been that people look at us as superfluous or self-indulgent, that we’re technically based and not song based. That’s bulls**t and the furthest thing from the truth. We’re always trying to create something that is memorable, and to me that’s what a song is about.”
As I chatted with LaBrie and the other band members — Rudess, Mangini, guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung — it was apparent that they are very proud of this release. They confirmed what I had noticed after a couple of listens: more melodic passages, more space within the music, balancing a display of chops with structure. Petrucci pointed out a section that was stripped down to just bass, drums and guitar, and Mangini indicated to me a section that he improvised, adding that many of his performances came from the first take.
Petrucci smiled a lot last night during and after his announcement to the media present, including staffers from Billboard, Sound & Vision, the Aquarian Weekly and Metal Insider. He praised the “incredible work” of mixer and engineer Richard Chycki. The album was mixed at Germano Studios in NYC, where last night’s listening session was held. (Kanye West worked there recently; that’s a contrast.) The guitarist explained that the group self-titled the album “because we want to show that the best is yet to come. We’re just as passionate, or even moreso now, about writing, creating and playing together as a band and moving forward. There is no better way to illustrate that than to self-title an album and say this is an album you can point to as a new fan — maybe that the first time you heard of our band was this album. Or maybe you’ve been listening to us for a long time and have something that you can really identify with.”
“The problem has always been that people look at us as superfluous or self-indulgent. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Rudess added that this was a really special event because the band had never done this kind of listening party before. “Personally I’ve always wanted to do this — I’ve done some really fun ones in the past — and I feel that this is a really great album for us to have this,” he remarked. “We all really feel good about what we’ve created and hope all of you feel the same way.”
Dream Theater arrives in stores on September 24th. It will be worth the wait.