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Dream Theater Forges Ahead With New Album

Guitarist John Petrucci talks about moving ahead and what Mike Mangini brought to the new album

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Bobin James Dec 10, 2013
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DREAM TEAM: The new album is heavier, ushering in the change in sound that new drummer Mike Mangini brought to the band
Photo: Courtesy of Roadrunner Records

When American progressive metallers Dream Theater announced earlier this year that their new album was going to be self-titled, it came as a bit of a surprise. After all, bands usually tend to put out eponymous albums at the beginning of their careers, not when they are 11 studio albums in and firmly established as one of the leading lights of the progressive metal movement. Founding member and guitarist John Petrucci fends the question easily over a phone interview, saying, “When we were discussing the kind of album we wanted to make, we wanted to make a really strong, powerful, confident album that really pushes forth Dream Theater. We are now also moving onto the future in a very positive way. We felt that the best way to illustrate that would be to self-title it.” 

The future Petrucci refers to, is to be seen in the context of the band’s recent history. Three years ago, when Dream Theater founding member and drummer Mike Portnoy announced that he was leaving the band, he left a lot of fans dejected and shocked. But the band chose to move on. They zeroed in on Mike Mangini (who’s bashed the skins for Extreme, Annihilator and Steve Vai) at the end of a reality-TV-style audition process, to take position on the drum throne. Since most of their next album, 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events, had been written before Mangini came on board, he ended up playing parts that guitarist John Petrucci had programmed. “Mike came in with the best attitude. He just came in ready to put his best foot forward,” says Petrucci.

The album was well-received, and it even snagged the first-ever Grammy nomination for the band. But it would have to be the next album that would really showcase the band as a whole unit again and it was this crucial lineup change that resulted in the self-titled twelfth album. Adds Petrucci about Mangini, “His ability and talent as a drummer are like no other person’s out there. He can do unbelievable things. So having him in there while we were writing and interchanging ideas and jamming, that was amazing,” says Petrucci. “That helped us take this album somewhere we have never gone before, and technically do things we have never before. And musically, just be more spontaneous and adventurous.”  

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The twelfth album Dream Theater, which was out in September, is certainly different from its predecessors, in more ways than one, beginning with the title and the album art. Dream Theater has always had surreal album art that fans would dissect and find hidden meanings within. The new album, though, stands out in its stark simplicity ”“ featuring only an eclipse and the Majesty symbol. “We wanted this one to be real minimal and not give any preconceptions,” explains Petrucci. “It’s sort of like the idea when you know a movie is coming, and you sort of see that one symbol that something’s coming. You are not sure what it is, but it creates a mystery.” The band, he says, wanted the album to be successful on the strength of the music inside, without any distractions. “Again [like the self-titling], it’s making that understated bold, confident statement ,” says Petrucci. 

While the album has the unmistakable DT sound written all over it, it does sound heavier than their previous releases. “Tonally, yes, it has a heavier sound. It has a lot of attitude and a lot of adventure to it,” Petrucci agrees. “[Engineer] Richard Chycki makes the guitars and drums sound really powerful. I am not sure [it’s] darker, but it’s definitely heavier.”Dream Theater also sounds a lot more cinematic ”“ starting with the album opening instrumental, “False Awakening Suite” (the band’s first instrumental track since “Stream of Consciousness” from 2003’s Train of Thought.) “There is a lot of variety and diversity and adventure on the album,” says Petrucci. “We wanted to make sure that when you listen to this album, it was an experience, like watching a movie where you’re taken on a journey, with its different moods and musical atmospheres.”

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With Portnoy’s departure, John Petrucci had to take on the sole responsibility of being the producer for the band, a role he once shared with the band’s former drummer. While undoubtedly his responsibilities have increased, Petrucci does not seem to mind it too much. “Producing is something that I love to do,” he says, almost gleefully. “But it’s just a matter of wearing different hats. So when I’m writing and playing guitar, it’s different; when I’m producing, it’s a little bit different. I am able to separate myself out, and keep that producer’s headspace even when I’m playing or writing with the band.”

Evidently, Petrucci doesn’t wear those multiple hats lightly. Nor does the band take their success lightly. After having been around for 28 years, Dream Theater are one of the flagbearers of progressive metal today. “We have a career that we are so proud of. We chose the path that was not the easiest musically. We got criticized a lot in the beginning ”“ people would say our songs were too long and we didn’t know how to write music,” says Petrucci. But the band, unfazed, kept at it and have now made progressive metal almost mainstream. “We have always believed that there are a lot of people in the world that are fans of progressive music, and that it’s really a lot bigger a scene and audience than people realize.” “On the Back of Angels” from A Dramatic Turn of Events got a nomination in the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category at the 2012 Grammy Awards, underlining, in a way, the arrival of DT into the mainstream. “An eight-minute song was nominated, which means that the people in the Recording Academy got the power of that kind of music, the significance of our music. And it means a lot,” says Petrucci. “Anytime you can do what you love to do, with confidence and be recognized as successful for doing that, it’s really that makes you incredibly proud.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Rolling Stone India      

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