How Dream Theater made prog-metal the genre it is today

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By Peter Hodgson

A look at Dream Theater’s influence and legacy as progressive metal legends

It’s easy to forget now, but by the late ’80s and early’ 90s progressive rock was dead in the water, and had been for quite some time. It was a genre associated with caped keyboardists, flutists standing on one leg, guitarists using large Gibsons, and sprawling concept pieces.

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In other words, it was considered a dead genre since the ’70s, and although there were bands like Queensryche and Fates Warning occasionally slipping the time signature or concept track into heavy rock, the prog was an outlier. Even the most rock’n’roll darlings of the 70s, Rush, had gone in a heavier direction on the keyboard and electronic sounds.

Then Dream Theater’s Images and words came out of.

Images and words: A model for the future

This 1992 album was Dream Theater’s second, their first, When the dream and the day unite, is a compelling listen but doesn’t feel fully realized – and neither should, since the guys were practically babies when they recorded it. After their first album cycle, singer Charlie Dominici was replaced by James LaBrie and the band was on fire after an intensive postmortem on the record uncovered areas for improvement in songwriting and performance. arrangement. John Petrucci’s guitar playing and sound found a clearer, more individual voice: for every run inspired by Vai-ism or Steve Morse, there was one that was clearly his own voice.

But perhaps the most crucial element of Images and words in terms of its prog influence is in its heaviness. It was a time when the latest wave of ’80s hard rock bands were hitting the charts, and audiences were ready for something heavier, especially after Metallica’s eponymous “black” album hit the charts. makes everyone pay for a brutal chuggage. The thick, voluminous riff that powers the heaviest tracks on the album is the perfect framing device to wrap your head around Dream Theater in the first place, creating a context for the band to leave and return no matter what. point non-rock elements are abstract. like ragtime and fusion.

Mike Portnoy also represented a new god of the drum, and while his Images and words the sound was obtained with an electronic kit, in the years 1994 Awake the guy was absolutely besieged by drums from all sides, once telling this writer, “Everybody always asks why my kit is so big, and the answer is because I can!” It’s like being a kid in a candy store, with an open tab! Whatever I want, whatever kind of setup I dream of, the guys at Tama and Sabian will do it for me. I’ve always liked to play big kits. My favorite drummers when I was younger played big kits and I always dreamed of playing a big kit. Now, with the ability to build anything my imagination can imagine, it’s a nice position to be in.

And yet, while we’re all vulnerable to a little hardware acquisition syndrome every now and then, Portnoy said that’s not what drove his kit to evolve. “What’s strange is that I’m not a reducer at all,” he said. “Most of our fans are complete reducers and go through every spec, nook and cranny and nut and bolt on every one of our instruments, but I’m not a reducer at all. I just think about these setups, then I go and I don’t care!

From radio friendly to real progressive metal

There were many pivotal moments for Dream Theater in the years that followed: Awake-heavier, more aggressive and more virtuoso; epic A change of seasons was complete with numbered sections in true prog tradition, but with an overwhelmingly heavy guitar throughout much of the piece, and with the addition of keyboardist Derek Sherinian; Fall into infinity was a bit more radiophonic (and has a mix that really stands out, over two decades later). Then Metropolis II: Scenes from a Memory arrived (bringing with him keyboardist Jordan Rudess), and is still regarded by many fans as the group’s masterpiece for its blend of different musical and narrative devices to tell a story that seems to be inspired by the film. Dead again, on past lives and revenge and all kinds of juicy stuff.

It’s when we get to Train of thought in 2003 that we do see Dream Theater hit a pivotal moment though. Because while every album before this has had its heavy moments, it was the first Dream Theater album to truly qualify as progressive metal. The keyboards are still there but this time they’re dirtier, more aggressive, almost functioning like another metal rhythm guitarist. LaBrie relied heavily on a more raucous and angry vocal register. Petrucci picked up bass guitars and added more bite to his guitar sound. The record has an energetic, almost powerful presence, from John Myung’s distorted opening bass harmonics to the epic “In The Name Of God” with its mysterious, dark melodies and complex instrumental sections.

The new era of Dream Theater prog

When Mike Portnoy left the group and Mike Mangini stepped in, the feeling of Dream Theater definitely changed. Mangini is a more precise compositional drummer than Portnoy, who describes his approach as more intuitive and improvised. The musical tension caused by the push-pull between Portnoy and Petrucci may not be part of Dream Theater anymore (although the guys are working together again in Liquid Tension Experiment and Petrucci’s solo stuff), but in its place is a sound that seems to fill all the eras of the Dream Theater. Mangini can play anything, and as a new album A view from the top of the world shows, they always explore new perspectives.

A view from the top of the world is a collection of trustworthy, mostly pretty epic songs that explore rhythm, melody, and harmony in a way that works outside of standard rock. It doesn’t sound like the Dream Theater of Images & Words, but it definitely sounds Dream Theater, perhaps the way every AC / DC album is identifiable as Acca Dhaka. What this shows us is that even as Dream Theater pushes its progressive references to intense new material, the foundation they laid three decades ago between albums number one and two continue to inspire both. the progressive and familiar aspects of their sound.

Progressive Music Titans Dream Theater Release New Album A view from the top of the world October 22, 2021.


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