When Mike Portnoy suddenly left Dream Theater it came as a blow for both the band and long-time fans. No-one could quit see how the progressive behemoth could continue without the member that many saw as their driving force, and yet the remaining members unanimously decided to go on and thus began the lengthy process of choosing a replacement (a process that is helpfully, if somewhat over-dramatically, documented on the bonus DVD included on the special edition) finally settling on world-renowned drummer Mike Mangini, a likeable and powerful player who fits into the band like a perfectly machined cog.
Arguably Dream Theater’s last album saw a creative slide. While ‘Systematic chaos’ had demonstrated a band operating at their peak, the culmination of the log, hard slog to the top, ‘black clouds and silver linings’ was only half a good album with several weaker tracks and some truly mawkish lyrics detracting from the overall flow of the record. With a new drummer on board, however, Dream Theater suddenly found themselves with a point to prove once more and ‘A dramatic turn of events’, largely penned by the band as a whole, with guitarist John Petrucci shouldering the majority of the lyrical burden, succeeds in a way that ‘nightmares…’ did not thanks to some thrilling heavy passages and a far greater emphasis on overall cohesion. The result is an album that showcases Dream Theater operating as a unit to create a powerful and memorable album that rivals ‘systematic Chaos’ in the quality stakes and demonstrates clearly that they were right to continue.
Opening with ‘on the backs of angels’, a track that many DT fans have already eagerly listened to on the net, ‘a dramatic turn of events’ starts heavy with a stirringly dramatic sound, contrasting the thrillingly metal-tinged guitar work of John Petrucci with huge swathes of synth choir and orchestra. James LaBrie sounds typically honed and professional and if any doubted the ability of Mike Mangini to keep up, the multiple tempos unleashed in the first two minutes are enough to demonstrate that the man is no slouch around the kit as he forms a lock-tight groove with John Myung with which to propel the track forward. It’s a great lead-off track but better still is the grinding, hulking menace that is ‘build me up, break me down’ which has a satisfyingly heavy guitar riff and sees the band firing on all cylinders for one of their heaviest tracks to date complete with a distressingly memorable chorus that will see voices raised in unison come the world tour. After such a heavy opening one-two punch, experience would suggest DT would soften the pace and the ten-minute epic that is ‘lost not forgotten’ does indeed begin with a gentle, classical piece of piano work before the guitar comes crashing in and we are treated to a grandiose, sweeping intro that is part Wagner, part Muse.
Finally moving into ballad territory, ‘this is the life’ is actually one of the best and most moving ballads the band has recorded, with a strong Pink Floyd feel in the beautifully fluid solos and an emotive, rather than overegged, vocal from James. It’s round about this point that you realise that this is Dream Theater putting in one of the best all-round performances of their recorded history and it’s clear that Mike’s departure has really fired the band to do their very best work. Another epic, ‘bridges in the sky’ is a track that opens in decidedly odd fashion with ethnic instrumentation and a strong sense of atmosphere. As a choir take over from the decidedly odd beginning, there is a film-score feel to proceedings that really pulls you into the track and when John’s scything riff cuts through it’s a great air-guitar moment and Mike’s propulsive drumming sends the whole thing into orbit for what is easily the heaviest track on the record. ‘Outcry’, meanwhile, is another epic beast (also coming in at eleven minutes) and the huge symphonic sound the band have opted for on this record is once again pushed to the fore. It’s a brave move that sees the band operating outside the comfort zone the established on the last three or four albums to really deliver the sort of crunchy, epic metal that they promised on previous outings but didn’t always succeed in crafting.
A brief detour in the form of the sub-four-minute ‘far from heaven’ sees James backed by Piano in a track that sounds remarkably like Steven Wilson side-project No-Man, and which offers a more melancholy glimpse of DT’s current state of mind. A short track it soon gives way to the nimble, harmonised guitar work of the massive ‘breaking all illusions’ which sounds like Dragonforce playing King Crimson covers in a slow motion. Full of complex rhythms and some of John Petrucci’s best playing, it’s the most progressive of the tracks on offer here and a clear demonstration of just how honed DT are as a unit. Final track ‘beneath the surface’ closes the album on a satisfyingly sentimental note without being cloying and you’re left with the lingering feeling that you’ve just witnessed one of Dream theater’s finest moments, as they have not only released one of their best albums in years but also they have triumphed over adversity with far more aplomb than was predicted.
As a bonus, ‘A dramatic turn of events’ also comes with a DVD documenting DT’s search for a drummer. An hour long special, it comes across very much as an American TV special with the drummers speaking into their private camera to record their thoughts intercut with footage of the band discussing their thoughts and feelings and the rehearsals that took place. Obviously edited with commercials in mind, there are annoying recaps which disturb the flow and it’s all done in a very serious way, with the band candidly discussing the departure of Portnoy in a manner that to the uninitiated might suggest the man had died! Nonetheless the sense of loss from a band who considered themselves family is palpable and the rehearsal footage is interesting, particularly watching Mangini tear into the songs with unexpected gusto. It is unlikely that you’ll want to watch it twice, but it is still a nice extra feature that provides insight into the turmoil surrounding Mike’s departure and the process of replacing a key member of a successful rock band.
Overall ‘a dramatic turn of events’ is a strong album that will see Dream Theater deservedly flourish. John Petrucci proves himself to be more than capable of steering the band and the sense of purpose that radiates from each and every track is awe-inspiring. Far better than the band’s last outing and up there with the very best of their back catalogue, this is a Dream Theater album that is a pleasure to listen to without once reaching for the dreaded skip button. A cohesive, often brilliant record, that keeps Dream Theater’s place at the top of the progressive metal tree secure, this is an unmitigated triumph.