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’
Don’t be surprised if dreamÂ Theater frontman JamesÂ LaBrie starts developingÂ multiple personality disorder afterÂ running through the American prog metalÂ band’s epic 34-track new album The Astonishing.Â After all, he provides voice to eightÂ different characters on the concept album,Â their 13th full-length record that is a sci-fi/fantasy offering about an oppressed classÂ rebelling against an empire. LaBrie voicesÂ old and young, male and female charactersÂ all by himself on The Astonishing, which releasesÂ on January 29th on Roadrunner Records.Â And it was certainly no easy task. SaysÂ LaBrie over the phone from Toronto, “At oneÂ point, I was in the studio and my head wasÂ spinning, because you try to keep everythingÂ in line and you’re going from one characterÂ to the next.”
Written by guitarist John Petrucci,Â The Astonishing is Dream Theater’sÂ first concept album in 17 years. TheirÂ last record, the psychological-leaningÂ Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes from a Memory,Â came out in 1999. Sure enough, the band areÂ going all out with The Astonishing. Their upcomingÂ Europe and North American tourÂ features the two hours-plus set comprisingÂ all 34 tracks, with specially designed visualsÂ for accompaniment. LaBrie adds, “It won’tÂ detract from us being on stage and interactingÂ with the audience, but at the same timeÂ [it will be] a very powerful tool that we needÂ to use live in order to really embellish theÂ whole message and the story itself.”
In an exclusive interview with ROLLINGÂ STONE India, the vocalist details theÂ process behind the making of The Astonishing,Â the band’s legacy and hopes for a IndiaÂ show.
How are things shaping up for theÂ album release?
Well the album is going to be released a weekÂ and a half from now, on January 29th. It willÂ be released worldwide, so we’re pretty excitedÂ about it. We all feel incredibly happy withÂ the result and we feel it’ll be an exceptionallyÂ well-received release. We’re pretty stoked.
I would say the most astonishingÂ thing about this album is the numberÂ of tracks! How did it get soÂ expansive?
Due to the fact that you’re making a conceptÂ album, you never know how many tracksÂ there are going to be. Last time we did a conceptÂ album was 1999, Scenes from a MemoryÂ ”“ that was on one album. But with thisÂ album the storyline was much more preciseÂ and elaborate. Because of the amount ofÂ characters involved ”“ eight characters, one ofÂ which was deceased ”“ but seven very strong,Â identifiable characters, it just really lent itselfÂ to a very elaborate, almost like a movietellingÂ kind of environment. It easily shapedÂ up. Once the lyrics being what they were andÂ to support the lyrics musically, it ended upÂ being 34 tracks, six of which are really moreÂ or less instrumental interludes. 28 songs areÂ full ensemble songs featuring an orchestraÂ and ensemble choir. I think it was just becauseÂ the kind of story that we were trying toÂ support, you had to do it right. And it so happenedÂ that it took over two hours and 10 minutesÂ to do so [laughs].
John wrote the concept since heÂ said he’s a big Sci-Fi and Fantasy fanÂ ”“ are you also into that?
Yeah, I love Star Wars and Harry Potter andÂ stuff like that. I know John has definitely saidÂ he’s into those kinds of stories and movies.Â When he was thinking of the concept ”“ heÂ went to a future world, a world that’s existingÂ in a liberal and common world for everyoneÂ to live in a fair environment. I can see whyÂ he wrote the story as such, being a fan of theÂ movies and books he is. It was very effective.
Has the way you worked on conceptÂ albums changed after staying awayÂ from them for so long?
Like I was saying, the last time we did a conceptÂ album was 1999, so you’re looking atÂ 16, now approaching 17 years ago. With thisÂ one, it was quite different. We approachedÂ differently in the sense that it was reallyÂ musically composed with John and JordanÂ [Rudess, keyboardist]. At a later stage, theÂ band was brought in, Mike [Mangini] doingÂ the drums, John [Myung] on the bass andÂ myself sitting down and going through theÂ lyrical content with John and also goingÂ through the melody structures for each song,Â making sure that it was the absolute best itÂ could be. It would be something that’s memorable,Â resonate and stay with you. In thatÂ sense, the fact that John and Jordan were inÂ the studio by themselves and putting this studioÂ double album by themselves was a wholeÂ new approach for us. But I think it reallyÂ proved itself to be quite rewarding. I thinkÂ that has a lot to do with how it came out asÂ such. It’s extremely piano-driven and vocaldriven.Â You have the guitar, bass and drumsÂ being more supporting the other two instrumentsÂ ”“ piano, synth, organ and vocals ”“ andÂ that’s why this album is concise and cohesiveÂ as it is and very seamless. It all makes sense,Â it all flows because of that. It was very organic,Â the way it was made and that’s why I feelÂ it’s turned out as refined as it has.
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 turnÂ lyrics into vocal melodies? What isÂ your process like?
The vocal melodies were something thatÂ John and Jordan were piecing togetherÂ as the album was being written. AndÂ then what happened was, we got togetherÂ ”“ the three of us ”“ we went through theÂ vocal melodies for each and every song,Â making sure that they were definitely theÂ best they could be, tweaking them. Once IÂ got into the studio, I tweaked them evenÂ further, because it’s one thing to demo yourÂ vocals and once you get in and start singingÂ for real, you’re hearing things you mayÂ not have heard before, so some things needÂ to be changed, retweaked.
For me, with this album especially, I’mÂ representing seven characters ”“ two femaleÂ and five male. I really had to immerseÂ myself deeply within each and every character.Â Literally becoming who they are,Â their personalities ”“ their beliefs, moralsÂ and principles and through me, I wouldÂ be able to bring in my emotional spectrumÂ and my interpretation. This was very challenging.Â This was something I never reallyÂ approached to that extent. Having toÂ think of seven characters and to really beÂ able to give them something that wouldÂ vocally enable the listener to identify withÂ them ”“ so I had to think on a textural level,Â being light, being pure and even ethereal.Â And with the males ”“ whether it wasÂ Nafaryus, who is old and somewhat bitterÂ and self-absorbed or Gabriel, who isÂ at times calm, cool and collected. Arhys,Â somewhat being his brother being the militaryÂ type – hotheaded and temperamental,Â I had to give him a gruff voice. With ArabelleÂ the queen, Nafaryus’ vibe ”“ give herÂ some control and constraint. It was FaytheÂ ”“ who Gabriel falls in love with and viceÂ versa ”“ giving her a sense of hope and promise.Â Bringing all these aspects of each andÂ every one of them ”“ it was a huge challengeÂ that I found exciting and quite rewarding.Â By the end of it, I had the feeling ofÂ accomplishing something.
John said you’re going to needÂ some serious therapy after gettingÂ into so many characters!
[Laughs] For sure, absolutely. At one point,Â I was in the studio and my head was spinning,Â because you try to keep everything inÂ line and you’re going from one character toÂ the next. Each time I was coming up to theÂ character from before, I would actually haveÂ Rich [Richard Chycki] ”“ the engineer whoÂ also mixed the album ”“ go back to NafaryusÂ and play me a little bit so that I can get backÂ in that headspace vocally and then I wouldÂ sing whatever new song of Nafaryus and beÂ back in that particular headspace and makingÂ sure the sound is consistent.
Who was the most fun character toÂ portray on The Astonishing?
Definitely the two characters that IÂ could really relate to were Nafaryus and Gabriel.Â I loved them. I also loved singing DaryusÂ ”“ the emperor’s son ”“ a spoilt brat, jealous,Â envious and irate. I really kind ofÂ related to him ”“ if you were to go back to theÂ album, listen to “Tempting Offer” and theÂ “X Aspect” and you’ll know what I mean.Â When I sing those songs, it’s about DaryusÂ being a real bastard when he speaks. IÂ really had an amazing time singing thoseÂ songs.
It is amazing to hear that there’sÂ going to be a total overhaul to theÂ band’s live show to promote thisÂ album ”“ how is that going?
It’s quite thrilling, I’ve got to tell you. We’reÂ really stoked with where we’re going to goÂ for the live show. The presentation, the productionÂ on this tour is going to be phenomenal.Â Obviously, I’m sure you agree, listeningÂ to the album ”“ it’s very cinematic and visual.Â Because of that, there’s going to be a lotÂ of visuals and imagery going on throughoutÂ the show, nothing that will be distractingÂ from the show, though. We start rehearsalsÂ in about a week and everything is comingÂ together tremendously and we’re incrediblyÂ excited to get it out on the road, becauseÂ everything that’s going into it, I don’t thinkÂ we’ve ever done before.
I think the fans, when they see it live,Â they’re going to be blown away [laughs]. IÂ hope, I know I’ve said it before when I’veÂ done interviews with India, is that we’veÂ never played there and we want to get overÂ there. Unfortunately, it’s never kind worked,Â so I’m hoping that this tour that we can finallyÂ see ourselves playing in India, becauseÂ we know we have a big fanbase there. I thinkÂ it’s been far too long a wait for our fans inÂ India to wait for us. It’s well overdue.
You’re going on a Europe tour andÂ then North America ”“ but is it goingÂ to go back to a regular set withÂ some songs from The Astonishing after that?
At this point, the focus is really The AstonishingÂ from the beginning to the end. As farÂ as us coming back and going to places andÂ playing various songs from our catalog, I reallyÂ can’t say at this point. All the focus rightÂ now is we’re doing one kind of show whereÂ we’re just playing The Astonishing. And we’reÂ advertising it as such, because we don’t wantÂ our fans to get there and be surprised. WeÂ want them to know we’re playing the albumÂ from beginning to end, and that’s it.
What does the future look like forÂ Dream Theater? What would theÂ band be up to in 2025?
I’d like to say at this point, it’s all aboutÂ this tour coming up. I think we’re going toÂ keep doing what we do as long as we feelÂ we’re doing something that we can be absolutelyÂ proud of and feel that we’re still growingÂ as a band, making music that is relevantÂ and that speaks loud not just to our fans butÂ also to us…Â I like to think that we’ll still be doingÂ shows in 2025, but I really don’t know. It’sÂ really up to us. At this point, I can say becauseÂ of how enthusiastic we are and committed toÂ the band, that yeah, I could still see us makingÂ incredible music at that point and puttingÂ out an album and make it different withÂ that release. But who’s to say what we’ll beÂ doing? But I like to think we’ll be doingÂ something that’s relevant and fun forÂ our fans.