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There are many things that may alter the dynamics, sound and general attitude of a band. One of the most drastic of these would be the loss of a founder member and key writer of the band’s music. When drummer Mike Portnoy decided to leave Dream Theater in 2010, the future of the entire band was up in the air; however, with new drummer Mike Mangini stepping into the enormous shoes left behind, this album is still very much a Dream Theater album in the style that fans are used to.
The album still contains all of the progressive touches that are associated with these metal titans. Odd time signatures, complicated modal keys, extended solos and even some sound effects from Himalayan shaman throat singers (that could be misheard as burps) on the song ‘Bridges in the Sky’. This album has been compared by others to some of the best albums in the band’s 26-year existence. I agree that the album does sound “fresh and frankly stunning,” even with the obvious comparisons that would come with changing line-ups, Mangini shows that he definitely has the ability, expertise and know-how to achieve great things and help write the next chapter in Dream Theater’s already epic tale. After such a great shake up in the ranks, however, it is only natural that there is a theme of loss and change that runs through the album, especially as Portnoy was such a prolific contributor to the sound of the band.
Everything about the album is large, which is probably partly due to the big record label money behind them. Epic sounding keyboard sounds which seem to soar, massive guitars, blistering solos on every instrument and long songs (lots of them – only 1 of the 9 tracks on the album is less than 5 minutes long). However, there are no multi-section epics that are commonly associated with the band, and these are conspicuous by their absence. Having said that, there is nothing here that resembles a standard song format. Even ‘Far From Heaven’ (the album’s shortest track) still sounds very epic, even with mostly a piano and strings backing.
The band are still hard to fault from an instrumental point of view. John Petrucci’s guitar riffs are, as ever, complex and serve to further to consolidate his reputation as one of the best guitarists ever. His playing style continues to astound and his skills only seem to improve with time. His solos remain exercises in the impossible, flying round the fretboard at dizzying speed. The keyboard wizardry of Jordan Rudness is as impressive as always, able to set the moods of slower sections of songs or increase the impact of large, epic sounding compositions. His backing on ‘Far From Heaven’ is truly beautiful, less metal keyboards, more lounge piano. His introductions seem to dominate most of the songs on the album, setting a calmer mood before the rest of the band enters with big, metal riff-based sections. Having been voted the best bass player of all time in 2010 by readers of MusicRadar, Myung’s lines have an understated power. Never treading on the toes of anyone else, but definitely keeping a firm foundation over which the rest of the band seem free to explore their own virtuosity.
Vocally, James LaBrie is as strong as ever, the operatic tenor of his voice allowing him to hit high notes that many singers would not dare to attempt. Unfortunately, he is still the most underrated musician in the group, never really having been voted as a great vocalist or front man. Which is a shame, as his voice is one of the best out there, with a range that easily encompasses both softer and heavier styles.
Overall, this is a very good album, despite the comparisons brought about by line-up changes and complaints that people have that it’s ‘just not the same’; but this is still epic progressive metal at its very best.