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The Grand New Sojourn: Dream Theater

American progressive metal veterans Dream Theater’s vocalist James LaBrie decodes their mammoth 34-track concept double album ‘The Astonishing’

Anurag Tagat Feb 17, 2016
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Dream Theater. (From left) Mike Mangini (drums), John Petrucci (guitars), James LaBrie (vocals), Jordan Rudess (keyboards) and John Myung (bass). Photo: Roadrunner Records.

Don’t be surprised if dream Theater frontman James LaBrie starts developing multiple personality disorder after running through the American prog metal band’s epic 34-track new album The Astonishing. After all, he provides voice to eight different characters on the concept album, their 13th full-length record that is a sci-fi/fantasy offering about an oppressed class rebelling against an empire. LaBrie voices old and young, male and female characters all by himself on The Astonishing, which releases on January 29th on Roadrunner Records. And it was certainly no easy task. Says LaBrie over the phone from Toronto, “At one point, I was in the studio and my head was spinning, because you try to keep everything in line and you’re going from one character to the next.”

Written by guitarist John Petrucci, The Astonishing is Dream Theater’s first concept album in 17 years. Their last record, the psychological-leaning Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes from a Memory, came out in 1999. Sure enough, the band are going all out with The Astonishing. Their upcoming Europe and North American tour features the two hours-plus set comprising all 34 tracks, with specially designed visuals for accompaniment. LaBrie adds, “It won’t detract from us being on stage and interacting with the audience, but at the same time [it will be] a very powerful tool that we need to use live in order to really embellish the whole message and the story itself.”

In an exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE India, the vocalist details the process behind the making of The Astonishing, the band’s legacy and hopes for a India show.

How are things shaping up for the album release?

Well the album is going to be released a week and a half from now, on January 29th. It will be released worldwide, so we’re pretty excited about it. We all feel incredibly happy with the result and we feel it’ll be an exceptionally well-received release. We’re pretty stoked.

 

I would say the most astonishing thing about this album is the number of tracks! How did it get so expansive?

Due to the fact that you’re making a concept album, you never know how many tracks there are going to be. Last time we did a concept album was 1999, Scenes from a Memory ”“ that was on one album. But with this album the storyline was much more precise and elaborate. Because of the amount of characters involved ”“ eight characters, one of which was deceased ”“ but seven very strong, identifiable characters, it just really lent itself to a very elaborate, almost like a movietelling kind of environment. It easily shaped up. Once the lyrics being what they were and to support the lyrics musically, it ended up being 34 tracks, six of which are really more or less instrumental interludes. 28 songs are full ensemble songs featuring an orchestra and ensemble choir. I think it was just because the kind of story that we were trying to support, you had to do it right. And it so happened that it took over two hours and 10 minutes to do so [laughs].

 

John wrote the concept since he said he’s a big Sci-Fi and Fantasy fan ”“ are you also into that?

Yeah, I love Star Wars and Harry Potter and stuff like that. I know John has definitely said he’s into those kinds of stories and movies. When he was thinking of the concept ”“ he went to a future world, a world that’s existing in a liberal and common world for everyone to live in a fair environment. I can see why he wrote the story as such, being a fan of the movies and books he is. It was very effective.

 

Has the way you worked on concept albums changed after staying away from them for so long?

Like I was saying, the last time we did a concept album was 1999, so you’re looking at 16, now approaching 17 years ago. With this one, it was quite different. We approached differently in the sense that it was really musically composed with John and Jordan [Rudess, keyboardist]. At a later stage, the band was brought in, Mike [Mangini] doing the drums, John [Myung] on the bass and myself sitting down and going through the lyrical content with John and also going through the melody structures for each song, making sure that it was the absolute best it could be. It would be something that’s memorable, resonate and stay with you. In that sense, the fact that John and Jordan were in the studio by themselves and putting this studio double album by themselves was a whole new approach for us. But I think it really proved itself to be quite rewarding. I think that has a lot to do with how it came out as such. It’s extremely piano-driven and vocaldriven. You have the guitar, bass and drums being more supporting the other two instruments ”“ piano, synth, organ and vocals ”“ and that’s why this album is concise and cohesive as it is and very seamless. It all makes sense, it all flows because of that. It was very organic, the way it was made and that’s why I feel it’s turned out as refined as it has.

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I like to think we’ll still be doing shows in 2025, but I really don’t know. It’s really up to us.


 

 

You did songs in different characters for this one ”“ how do you turn lyrics into vocal melodies? What is your process like?

The vocal melodies were something that John and Jordan were piecing together as the album was being written. And then what happened was, we got together ”“ the three of us ”“ we went through the vocal melodies for each and every song, making sure that they were definitely the best they could be, tweaking them. Once I got into the studio, I tweaked them even further, because it’s one thing to demo your vocals and once you get in and start singing for real, you’re hearing things you may not have heard before, so some things need to be changed, retweaked.

For me, with this album especially, I’m representing seven characters ”“ two female and five male. I really had to immerse myself deeply within each and every character. Literally becoming who they are, their personalities ”“ their beliefs, morals and principles and through me, I would be able to bring in my emotional spectrum and my interpretation. This was very challenging. This was something I never really approached to that extent. Having to think of seven characters and to really be able to give them something that would vocally enable the listener to identify with them ”“ so I had to think on a textural level, being light, being pure and even ethereal. And with the males ”“ whether it was Nafaryus, who is old and somewhat bitter and self-absorbed or Gabriel, who is at times calm, cool and collected. Arhys, somewhat being his brother being the military type – hotheaded and temperamental, I had to give him a gruff voice. With Arabelle the queen, Nafaryus’ vibe ”“ give her some control and constraint. It was Faythe ”“ who Gabriel falls in love with and vice versa ”“ giving her a sense of hope and promise. Bringing all these aspects of each and every one of them ”“ it was a huge challenge that I found exciting and quite rewarding. By the end of it, I had the feeling of accomplishing something.

 

John said you’re going to need some serious therapy after getting into so many characters!

[Laughs] For sure, absolutely. At one point, I was in the studio and my head was spinning, because you try to keep everything in line and you’re going from one character to the next. Each time I was coming up to the character from before, I would actually have Rich [Richard Chycki] ”“ the engineer who also mixed the album ”“ go back to Nafaryus and play me a little bit so that I can get back in that headspace vocally and then I would sing whatever new song of Nafaryus and be back in that particular headspace and making sure the sound is consistent.

Dream Theater (with former drummer Mike Portnoy on the far left) at Vic Theater, Chicago in 1993. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Dream Theater (with former drummer Mike Portnoy on the far left) at Vic Theater, Chicago in 1993. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Who was the most fun character to portray on The Astonishing?

Definitely the two characters that I could really relate to were Nafaryus and Gabriel. I loved them. I also loved singing Daryus ”“ the emperor’s son ”“ a spoilt brat, jealous, envious and irate. I really kind of related to him ”“ if you were to go back to the album, listen to “Tempting Offer” and the “X Aspect” and you’ll know what I mean. When I sing those songs, it’s about Daryus being a real bastard when he speaks. I really had an amazing time singing those songs.

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It is amazing to hear that there’s going to be a total overhaul to the band’s live show to promote this album ”“ how is that going?

It’s quite thrilling, I’ve got to tell you. We’re really stoked with where we’re going to go for the live show. The presentation, the production on this tour is going to be phenomenal. Obviously, I’m sure you agree, listening to the album ”“ it’s very cinematic and visual. Because of that, there’s going to be a lot of visuals and imagery going on throughout the show, nothing that will be distracting from the show, though. We start rehearsals in about a week and everything is coming together tremendously and we’re incredibly excited to get it out on the road, because everything that’s going into it, I don’t think we’ve ever done before.

I think the fans, when they see it live, they’re going to be blown away [laughs]. I hope, I know I’ve said it before when I’ve done interviews with India, is that we’ve never played there and we want to get over there. Unfortunately, it’s never kind worked, so I’m hoping that this tour that we can finally see ourselves playing in India, because we know we have a big fanbase there. I think it’s been far too long a wait for our fans in India to wait for us. It’s well overdue.

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James LeBrie (left) and John Petrucci performing in Jakarta in 2014. Photo: Roberto Pudyanto/Getty Images.

You’re going on a Europe tour and then North America ”“ but is it going to go back to a regular set with some songs from The Astonishing after that?

At this point, the focus is really The Astonishing from the beginning to the end. As far as us coming back and going to places and playing various songs from our catalog, I really can’t say at this point. All the focus right now is we’re doing one kind of show where we’re just playing The Astonishing. And we’re advertising it as such, because we don’t want our fans to get there and be surprised. We want them to know we’re playing the album from beginning to end, and that’s it.

 

What does the future look like for Dream Theater? What would the band be up to in 2025?

I’d like to say at this point, it’s all about this tour coming up. I think we’re going to keep doing what we do as long as we feel we’re doing something that we can be absolutely proud of and feel that we’re still growing as a band, making music that is relevant and that speaks loud not just to our fans but also to us… I like to think that we’ll still be doing shows in 2025, but I really don’t know. It’s really up to us. At this point, I can say because of how enthusiastic we are and committed to the band, that yeah, I could still see us making incredible music at that point and putting out an album and make it different with that release. But who’s to say what we’ll be doing? But I like to think we’ll be doing something that’s relevant and fun for our fans.

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