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Buyer's Guide: Dream Theater

Pushing prog-metal to its limits (some would argue even beyond), they’ve boldly taken the genre to where no band has gone before.

For the average rock band, indulgence is something to guard against at all times. But then Dream Theater are far from your average rock band, in any sense of the term. For this US-Canadian five-piece, extravagance and excess are positive watchwords.

“Yes, we are indulgent, we are over-the-top and we do play drum, bass, keyboard and guitar solos in our live show,” original drummer Mike Portnoy admitted unapologetically to Classic Rock back in 1999, responding to criticism that his band were guilty of over-egging the instrumental pudding. “But that’s what’s made our fan base so incredibly fanatical. We don’t make records for the press.”

To their credit, in recent years Dream Theater have wisely elected to trim those solo spots, though in all other respects their music remains as grandiose and complex as it has ever been. With shows lasting for three hours, no song is too epic, no undertaking too ambitious – in the past they’ve performed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Iron Maiden’s Number Of The Beast albums in their entirety. On record they’re no less complex – multi-part, heavily conceptual suites are their signature.

Twenty-odd years in, Dream Theater still have the capacity to surprise. And certainly surprising was the departure of Portnoy in September 2010. The drummer, who had recently joined Avenged Sevenfold after the death of their drummer, had floated the idea of the band taking a lengthy sabbatical. His bandmates disagreed, and the man who had spent the previous 25 years as an omnipresent force, writing, co-producing and making most of the key decisions in the Dream Theater, resigned.

Even more unexpected was the fact that, post-Portnoy, Dream Theater have silenced the nay-sayers and also flourished. The wryly-titled A Dramatic Turn Of Events, their first album with replacement Mike Mangini, earned them their first Grammy nomination.

With those tumultuous events behind them, the ship is as steady as it’s ever been. While the acrimony between Portnoy and his former colleagues has largely abated, the band continue to move forward. These days Dream Theater aren’t just the biggest prog-metal band around, they’re also the living, breathing manifestation of the genre’s boundaries.

ESSENTIAL:   Images And Words

Atco, 1992

Dream Theater had to overcome a number of hurdles in order to create their early masterpiece. Recovering from the embarrassing failure of their debut album, When Dream And Day Unite, for Images And Words they brought in new singer James LaBrie and also butted heads with their producer, David Prater, who drummer Mike Portnoy later called “one of my least favourite human beings on the planet”.

It’s difficult to fault Images And Words, which did far more than just enable Dream Theater to let in a vital chink of daylight. In fact its start-to-finish excellence served to open up a skylight to the cosmos.

ESSENTIAL:   Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory

Elektra, 1999

Dream Theater set up what they called an “inspiration corner” in the studio during the recording of their fifth full-length album. Existing storyboard standards by Genesis, Marillion, Pink Floyd and others were used to “channel” their own conceptual debut, which told the complex tale of a man who undergoes regressive hypnosis and discovers that in a previous life he was a woman murdered in the 1920s. 

The record’s myriad twists and turns are at times macabre (Strange Déjà Vu, Fatal Tragedy) and uplifting (T_he Spirit Carries On_, Finally Free), and never less than compelling.


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