A couple of strong songs does not a full album make, and this constantly-working cycle that Dream Theater is on seems to have passed the point of diminishing returns.
On December 28, 2009, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan, drummer for metal band Avenged Sevenfold, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 28. Avenged Sevenfold was preparing to go into the studio in early 2010, so they reached out to one of their idols, Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, to fill in for the new recording. Portnoy went on to spend the summer of 2010 touring with Avenged Sevenfold, and in late September, announced that he was leaving Dream Theater. The official reason for his departure was that he was starting to get burnt out on Dream Theater's endlessly repeating two-year album-then-tour cycle. He suggested that they take a hiatus. The rest of the band refused. Speculation ran rampant, however, that Portnoy was having so much fun with Avenged Sevenfold that he wanted to join them full-time. It didn't work out for him there, either, as Avenged Sevenfold announced in December of 2010 that they were parting ways with Portnoy, whom they had never intended to be more than a fill-in member of the band. After all of this, Portnoy even admitted on his website to contacting Dream Theater to try to rejoin the band, but they weren't having it.
Meanwhile, the rest of Dream Theater got busy auditioning new drummers. Being the biggest working band in progressive rock/metal, they chronicled the audition process in a web documentary, The Spirit Carries On. Eventually the band settled on veteran drummer Mike Mangini (Extreme) and got to work on their new album. Accordingly, they named the album A Dramatic Turn of Events. If that seems a little too on the nose, consider that Dream Theater is a band that has spent 20-plus years demonstrating that the word "subtle" isn't part of their vocabulary. Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the drummer situation, this album arrives right on time, just a tick over two years since the previous Dream Theater album.
"On the Backs of Angels", the album's lead single and opening track, demonstrates that not much has changed for the band. "Angels" has the sound and structure of classic, early '90s Dream Theater, right down to Jordan Rudess' keyboard sounds. In fact, the song is a virtual rewrite of the band's only legitimate hit, "Pull Me Under". I suppose this is a way for Dream Theater to make a statement that they are still here and still the same, but like the album title, it goes beyond "making a statement" into "I'm a bit uncomfortable with that" territory. Second song "Build Me Up, Break Me Down" opens with some intriguing processed drum machine sounds and a muted guitar riff before opening up into a crunchy mid-tempo rocker. It comes complete with a by-the-numbers chorus and some doomy string keyboard patches, and the processed drums come back again and again. Sadly, the overall impression this track leaves is one of Dream Theater attempting to emulate '00s pop-metal like Linkin Park or H.I.M.
"Build Me Up, Break Me Down" is a poor attempt at trying something different for the band, but the bulk of A Dramatic Turn Events finds Dream Theater perhaps too settled into their ways. It's clear from watching The Spirit Carries On that a big part of why they hired Mike Mangini was the sense of familiarity about him. The band talks about how he nailed all of Mike Portnoy's drum parts and didn't try to add his own spin on those parts, unlike many of the other auditioners. He also has connections to the Berklee College of Music like guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung, and lives in the northeast United States like the rest of the band. Clearly Mangini is a supremely skilled player, but he's also a person who isn't going to challenge the band's established way of doing things. There are some small differences in the drum playing on the album. Mangini seems a bit more groove-oriented than Portnoy, a little more comfortable with sticking to a beat without adding extra flourishes. The key word there is "a bit." Mostly the band sounds exactly like they have for the past dozen years or so.
"Lost Not Forgotten" and "Bridges in the Sky" both have fakeout beginnings that tease interesting curveballs before quickly settling in to the band's typical prog-heavy metal jams. The former has a lovely piano intro that even includes some timpani playing. The latter opens with quiet world percussion and creepy, low-pitched throat singing that leads into an abstract chorale and keyboards passage. But neither of these tracks is bold enough to continue those elements into the main song, and "Lost Not Forgotten" quickly revs its way into a tuneless "Here's a pile of notes played as fast as we possibly can" duet from Rudess and Petrucci that's one of the most aggravating the two have ever created. Stuck between those two songs is "This is the Life", a seven-minute power ballad that screams "it's our change of pace song!", and isn't particularly compelling.
It isn't until the back end of A Dramatic Turn of Events that the band finally starts to show some spark. "Outcry" has the somewhat typical "war is bad, okay?" narrative that the band seems to pull out once every album or so. Musically, though, the song employs drum machine sounds to much better effect here than on "Build Me Up, Break Me Down." The song also transitions quite effectively from its hard-rock sections to its quieter passages and has an effective succession of impressive solos in the middle. Similarly, "Breaking All Illusions", the album's longest song at 12 minutes-plus, benefits from a loose, anything-goes kind of feel. It jumps from a heavy metal opening that could've soundtracked a Mega Man game in the '90s to a quiet section that's actually bass-driven for a change. It also helps that James LaBrie's vocal melody is unsually strong in the track, and Jordan Rudess' desire to play around with different keyboard sounds gives the song a crazy, fun chunk at its midpoint.
Album closer "Beneath the Surface" is a surprisingly affecting ballad, and one of the best quiet songs the band has created in years. The song is vocally-driven, highlighting LaBrie in his best light. His high-pitched tenor voice has been a point of ridicule among metal fans for years, but it works beautifully in this sort of setting. Lyrically, the song is kind of marvelous, a lost love song that describes a person pining for another for years and eventually giving up in frustration and sadness. Musically, the rest of the band makes its smartest choice on the album by just getting the hell out of the way. Petrucci and Myung stick to acoustic instruments for the entire song, and the string quartet accompaniment is masterfully arranged. This is the sort of song that could easily be a treacly mess, but it works because the band gives LaBrie the space to sell it.
Dream Theater has always been a group that gets by on musical pyrotechnics. Every now and then they'll come up with a great riff or a memorable melody, but their output over the decades is largely comprised of epic showoffy pieces designed to highlight the pure technical skill of Petrucci, Rudess, and (formerly) Portnoy. The band was still coming up with new ways to show off that skill through 2005's Octavarium, but that was three albums ago. At this point it's pretty clear that the band is comfortably ensconced in their lifestyle and content to just keep doing things the way they have been for years. A Dramatic Turn of Events only really comes to life when the band loosens up a bit. It's a bit sad to say this about a band I've followed for 20 years, but maybe Mike Portnoy was right (however disingenuous his motives may have been). A couple of years off to work on other things and recharge their batteries may have been the best thing for them. A couple of strong songs does not a full album make, and this constantly-working cycle that Dream Theater is on seems to have past the point of diminishing returns.