Some bands carve out careers based on subtlety, good taste or an ability to tune into whatever style of music is popular at the time. The mandate for Dream Theater, on the other hand, has been to go so far over the top that they might as well be astronauts. Fusing the pompousness of progressive rock and the bombast of heavy metal in equal measures, the US-based five-piece have become the missing link between Metallica and Rush on the one hand, and Yes and Marillion on the other.
Dream Theater: Uniting Prog And Metal
The story of Dream Theater, the band so uncool they're now officially cool...
Since day one, their astonishingly high levels of musicianship have been regularly mocked (mostly by those unwilling to put in the practice), rendering Dream Theater unfashionable. But their very lack of cred, plus an unmistakable ‘X’ factor, have enabled them to thrive beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Each of their albums now sells upwards of half-a-million copies. In London on their last UK tour in January 2004, the band played a sold-out Hammersmith Apollo (approximately 5,000 fans, with seats removed downstairs). When they return in October, either Wembley Arena or the Royal Albert Hall now beckons.
“Are we so preposterously uncool that somehow we became cool?” laughs guitarist John Petrucci, amused by such an improbable yet possibly valid suggestion. “You know what, you might just be right.”
September this year (2005) marks the 20th anniversary of Petrucci and bassist John Myung’s first meeting with drummer Mike Portnoy, in the cafeteria at Berklee College Of Music in Boston. The prompt was Portnoy’s T-shirt of the band Talas. Veterans of bassist Billy Sheehan’s shows in the New York suburb of Long Island (also Portnoy’s home), Petrucci and Myung immediately knew they shared a common love. Later, with the usual modest goals, the trio were joined by keyboard player Kevin Moore and formed a band called Majesty.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think any of this would happen,” Portnoy says. “I hoped someday to be in Modern Drummer magazine. Now I’ve been on the cover twice, received 22 awards and been put into their Hall Of Fame. At the time, the thought of touring with Iron Maiden, Yes and Queensrÿche – all bands we’d grown up admiring – would have been surreal.”
As Majesty’s professionalism grew, Charlie Dominici replaced their initial choice of singer and the group signed to MCA subsidiary Mechanic Records. On the eve of their 1989 debut album, When Dream & Day Unite, a lawsuit from another band also called Majesty arrived, and they became Dream Theater, after a disused cinema in California.
When Dream & Day Unite was well-received by the critics, but the band’s grave doubts regarding vocalist and label – Dominici had to be told what to sing; and they were “guinea pigs” for Mechanic, who later went bust – ensured that both were short-term arrangements.
“Charlie was older than us, and he had a great sense of melody,” Portnoy explains. “He was very talented, but in the wrong band. It was like Billy Joel singing with Queensrÿche. In the mid-to-late-80s we wanted someone with a high, operatic voice.
“The debut album was a big learning curve because it taught us all the things not to do,” he continues. “We recorded it in the summer of 88, and it sat on the shelf for seven months. By the time it came out, Mechanic had already moved on to another of their bands.”
Before the label’s cash-strapped demise, Dream Theater could only afford to gig on the local New York circuit. The situation only worsened after Mechanic’s liquidation,,which contributed towards the dismissal of Dominici in late 1989. It would take the band two years to find the right replacement, during which time the prospect of continuing as an instrumental four-piece was considered.
Up in Canada, one-time Coney Hatch frontman Kevin LaBrie was oblivious not only to Dream Theater’s fruitless audition process but also to their very existence. Then in January 1991, Pierre Paradis, manager of Canadian proto-thrashers Voivod, informed the then Winter Rose singer of the vacancy. One listen to the demos of the group’s new material was all it took.
“When Pierre told me how good the guys were, my whole attitude was: ‘Send me their stuff and I’ll believe it when I hear it’,” LaBrie laughs now. “But they totally blew me away. Especially when you consider how young they all were. Little did I know, but Pierre had also sent Dream Theater a Winter Rose demo, and it made them want to fly me down there.”
Younger, more charismatic and more camera-friendly than Dominici, LaBrie was exactly what Dream Theater were looking for. With one Kevin already in the band and confusion between the two Johns in mind, just one thing needed changing. Reverting to his middle name of James, LaBrie was hired. By now a deal with Atlantic Records spin-off Atco wasn’t far away.
Years of almost religious devotion to playing their instruments were about to pay off. When Kevin Moore quipped that all the band’s groupies were male musicians, he wasn’t far from the truth. Portnoy’s excesses (more of which later) were still in control at the time, and the band’s hunger for success would not be sidelined by any of the usual distractions that have ended many a career.
In 1992 the new-look Dream Theater released their second album, Images & Words – which many still rate as their definitive work – and went out on the road opening for Iron Maiden on their Fear Of The Dark tour. With reviewers falling over themselves to praise Dream Theater, and the track Pull Me Under getting radio and MTV exposure, Atco couldn’t believe their luck.
“We signed our fair share of girls’ tits in those days, but it was their boyfriends that really paid attention to us,” Portnoy recalls. “And when we shook off the very short spell of MTV attention that came our way, our entire audience was again made up of computer nerds, musicians and prog fans.”
It was a situation of the band’s own creation. For years they had stressed the importance of remaining true to their original vision. “Having 10,000 die-hard fans who appreciate what we do is more important than passivity,” Portnoy said at the time, adding: “We’re not trying to reach people who want three-or four-minute songs.”
Of course, record companies are mostly in the business of pursuing a more short-term fix, and over Dream Theater’s next few albums the issue of commerce versus artistry became ever thornier, ultimately creating festering resentment on both sides. Along with other issues, it would almost cause Dream Theater’s demise.
“The pressure was definitely on with the next two records,” Portnoy acknowledges of the 1994 and 1997 albums Awake and Falling Into Infinity, the latter not only introducing a new keyboard player in Derek Sherinian, but seeing the group bowing to the label and collaborating with hit-maker songwriter Desmond Child (Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, etcetera), even if it was on just one track, You Not Me.
“We almost caved in under the pressure on Falling Into Infinity,” Portnoy admits. “It was the music business at its worst.”
Clearly, things couldn’t continue as they were. But strong grass-root sales and a near-obsessive cult following around the world eventually tipped the scales in Dream Theater’s favour. The group had long-since broken their duck in the UK, where they recorded 1993’s mini-album Live At The Marquee. They also appeared at the legendary London jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s in January 1995, where they played their Uncovered concert. Running through material made famous by Deep Purple, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Journey, Kansas,U2, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Tori Amos, Genesis and The Beatles, Dream Theater were joined on stage by Steve Howe from Yes, Marillion’s Steve Hogarth and Steve Rothery, and Barney Greenway from Napalm Death. Many of the evening’s performances later appeared on the mini-album Change Of Seasons, which, in typical Dream Theater fashion, featured a grandiose, 23-minute title track.
“Playing with all those guys was a truly fantastic experience,” Portnoy enthuses. “To receive the approval of somebody like Steve Howe meant such a lot to us all.”
In 1998, as touring Falling Into Infinity drew to a halt, the band and their record label held what Portnoy calls “clean-the-slate” crisis talks. “I’d pretty much quit, but the band persuaded me to stay till the end of the tour,” he reveals. “I agreed to continue only if we regained our artistic independence, and got rid of outside producers and A&R guys. We had to seize back control to survive. From now on, the label wouldn’t hear a note of music till the product was finished.”
For Portnoy, the sea change presented the opportunity of a further, personal watershed. He entered Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I’ve been sober for five years now,” he confides. “We’ve never been a big party band. The guys would dabble here and there, but I was the destructive one who’d always be hanging out with the opening band or the road crew to get wasted.”
He insists that no one specific incident inspired the clean-up, “it was just the typical alcoholic’s story of surrender. You become sick and tired of being sick and tired. Coming off stage each night with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and sometimes being rude to fans out by the bus makes you take a look in the mirror. Some mornings I’d wake up and not know if I’d spat in the faces of the road crew, got into a fight or cheated on my wife.”
“Mike’s whole personality has been transformed,” Petrucci adds. “But, thinking back, although he was sometimes hard to deal with I had no idea he was drinking during the shows. His getting clean is the best thing that could’ve happened for himself, his family and the band.”
By now, in order to move forward, a further step backwards was necessary first. Derek Sherinian had no idea of what would happen next, having told me at the Uncovered show: “I can see my trial period in Dream Theater coming to an end.” And he was right – sort of. In January 1999 it was an ignominious dismissal, not full membership, that he received. “Some of the most beautiful orchids grow from manure,” Sherinian told Classic Rock resignedly as he headed off for his own project, Planet X. “In these situations you’ve just got to make lemonade of the lemons.”
The flip side of the group’s new-found independence from the label was that it ratcheted up the pressure. And from a UK perspective, Dream Theater’s popularity lagged behind countries like Italy, Holland and Brazil, where they were bigger than more fashionable names like the Foo Fighters. In a 1997 interview, Portnoy dismissed the British market as “lame”, lamenting that playing here jeopardised each European tour’s profitability, and telling me with a shrug: “When we do come, we just get slagged by the magazines”.
It has been a long haul for Dream Theater to turn that situation around – Portnoy acknowledges: “Our ability to have done so probably owes a lot to a magazine like Classic Rock” – but even this publication has expressed moments of doubt. Back in issue two, 1998’s ambitious, solo-strewn Once In A LIVETime concert double album was highly praised, but still our reviewer baulked at “the kind of over-indulgence that had brought the band’s heroes to its knees”. “That same quote applies to Live At Budokan – probably more so,”
Portnoy chuckles, referring to the group’s latest live album, their uncompromisingly excessive three-CD set from 2004 that almost made ...LIVEtime and 2001’s Live Scenes From New York sound about as ruminative as Never Mind The Bollocks... “But we’re about solos and epic songs,” he points out, “and all the things that the critics hate about us are what makes our fans love us.”
Bringing ex-Dixie Dregs keyboard player Jordan Rudess into the band in February 1999 was one of the things that helped to smooth Dream Theater’s commercial breakthrough. The truth is that Sherinian was ousted in order to accommodate Rudess (who studied music at the prestigious Julliard Academy), with whom the group had played one solitary gig after Kevin Moore’s departure.
“It was a cold, harsh thing for us to have done to Derek,” Portnoy admits, “but although he was a great player his personality was very different to ours. He’d wear platform shoes and a feather boa on stage and was like a Liberace or Elton John-type character.”
Although in the beginning Dream Theater were democratic, Portnoy and Petrucci soon not only handled the production but also began calling all the shots. “The early to mid-90s were some of the band’s worst times,” Portnoy recalls. “We fought over absolutely everything, from set-lists to the third note in the fourth bar of a given song. And I’d get my way every time, no matter what. So we just stopped bullshitting. Somebody had to take charge. And it fell to John and myself. And these days we never, ever fight.”
Asked about surrendering to the band’s new de facto leadership, LaBrie explains: “John and Mike don’t treat the rest of us as buffoons. Nobody is made to feel like a subordinate.”
With the band left to their own devices by the label, 1999’s Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory cemented Dream Theater’s future. Their first full-blown concept album told the unlikely tale of a man who, under regressive hypnosis, learns that in a previous life he was a woman who was brutally murdered back in the 1920s. To make the record, the band admit to having tapped into the vibe of records like Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime, and even OK Computer by Radiohead. But it was Pink Floyd’s The Wall that inspired them the most.
“It was a do-or-die time for Dream Theater,” Portnoy says. “But the album’s success put our destiny back into our own hands.”
What came next, in 2002, was a two-CD set that Portnoy now calls “a modern-day version of Tales From Topographic Oceans”, Yes’s controversial 1974 concept piece. The title track alone – _Six Degrees __O__f Inner Turbulence_ – took up 42 minutes.
The following year’s Train Of Thought _turned out to be their heaviest and darkest album so far. Now comes album number eight, _Octavarium, which sees the group consciously attempting to play shorter material (although there is also Sacrificed Sons, the 10-minute-plus song about September 11, and the full-on assault of its 24-minute title track), and also recording with an orchestra. Unlikeliest of all, the album was influenced by U2 and... Coldplay? “I only just discovered those guys,” Petrucci says of the latter. “But Coldplay are such a cool band, they really move me.”
In 2005 Dream Theater stand on the verge of a significant breakthrough. Arguably among the best live bands around, whenever they play consecutive nights in a venue they play another band’s classic album in its entirety during the second show. Among the albums they’ve reworked so far are Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Iron Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast. As well as encouraging fans to attend both gigs, it also helps to keep things fresh.“Not naming names, but most bands are on a downslide after 20 years,” Portnoy
offers. “They’re playing clubs, with sales dwindling. We’re still selling more records each time and playing bigger venues. We had a hit with Pull Me Under, but it was a fluke. It’s a blessing that we built our career around albums and not singles. Pearl Jam did the same thing, and it’s probably why they’re the last of the grunge bands still standing.”
This year Dream Theater will open for Megadeth and Iron Maiden, having also gigged with Yes. Straddling both genres, Dream Theater are in the virtually unique position of appealing to both sets of fans.
“Most people who like Dream Theater enjoy Yes and Peter Gabriel, but also appreciate Machine Head and Slipknot,” Portnoy says. “They like good music, regardless of the genre. That’s the sign of a true progressive audience.”
This was published in Classic Rock issue 82
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