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Dream Theater

Roadrunner (2013)
Rating: 8/10

Dream Theater has been a staple in the world of heavy metal since their 1992 breakthrough release Images And Words. While not the band’s debut, this album brought critical praise, hit songs and was certified gold.

What followed is a string of brilliant albums that meld metal and progressive rock in a way that is palatable to the masses and adored by musicians and critics alike. This is a nearly monumental feat, and the fact that the band has been able to do so for over two decades with more success than failure is a testament to the individual members’ excellence and the quality of the sum of those combined abilities. 2013 sees Dream Theater back to provide another round of mind blowing technical and musical ability with the release of a self-titled album.

If you’re familiar with Dream Theater, you know what to expect before you hear a single track on this release. James LaBrie’s cutting voice and intelligent lyrics weave in and out of John Petrucci’s lightning fast guitar, the intricate keyboard technique of Jordan Rudess, and the often staggering timing by bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Mangini. Indeed, the opening track, ‘False Awakening Suite’ (a suite in three parts), sets the tone for an album that will delight both music nerds spending hours locked away to become the next Steve Vai, or in this case Myung, Petrucci, Rudess, or Mangini, as well as the average Joe Metalfan. The sound is thick, dark and heavy, bringing to mind the likes of Queensrÿche while presenting a distinct sound that is unique to Dream Theater.

‘The Enemy Inside’ is the first track to feature vocals, and LaBrie does not disappoint in performance or lyrical content. As this nearly six and half minute song winds on one hears bits of Queensrÿche, Iron Maiden, 70s rock and some obvious classical motifs. While the instrumental opening track is a nice primer to the Dream Theater formula, it’s when the whole band comes together like this that the band truly rises to the top of the metal mountain. Shifting rhythms and jaw dropping solos are held together by LaBrie. In many ways this is the bond that allows Dream Theater to remain a commercial success, and not be relegated to the dustbin where prog rock records so often go to die.

A primary strength exhibited by Dream Theater is the breadth of the material they release. ‘The Looking Glass’ is reminiscent of Genesis or Yes, but remains firmly in the world of Dream Theater, and the realm of heavy metal greatly (and that greatly due to Mangini’s powerful drumming). Nestled among dark, heavy tracks is a nugget of power pop gold, a welcome and wholly unexpected delight. Preceded by ‘The Enemy Inside’ and followed by the brilliant, heavy ‘Enigma Machine’ this song would sound out of place if not for the musicianship and arrangement that gives it the Dream Theater trademark.

‘The Bigger Picture’ is another oddity that fits into this musical landscape surprisingly well. This is closer to melodic rock than the metal that Dream Theater is known for, starting with a slow piano riff, then building to a powerful crescendo. Dream Theater’s lack of boundaries is awe inspiring.

There are some moments on this release that leave me confused, especially in the area of keyboards. For a band known for rampant creativity, many of Rudess’ keyboard tracks are so derivative of other songs as to leave one crying “rip-off”. The keys in ‘Surrender To Reason’ are so similar to the Rush classic ‘Freewill’ I initially thought it was a cover. Similarly, the keys in ‘The Enemy Inside’ sound uncannily like they were pulled directly from a Kansas album. In other places, Rudess shines. The atmosphere he creates on ‘Along For The Ride’ adds depth, but then again, his solo in this track sounds an awful lot like Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s ‘Lucky Man’. One is left assuming these obvious likenesses are a tribute to musical heroes, but they don’t stand up against the creativity that flows among the other instruments. I can’t decide if Jordan Rudess is Dream Theater’s secret weapon or Achilles’ heel.

Complaints about keyboards aside, Dream Theater has given the fans another great album. Songs like ‘The Bigger Picture’ and ‘Along For the Ride’ are sure to become fan favourites and stand up to any of the band’s classic songs. Somehow, Dream Theater manages to make brilliant, complex music and still remain relevant when others of a similar ilk survive on the brink of obscurity. Whatever the reason, the band’s music endures and 2013’s self-titled release is a worthwhile addition to the Dream Theater catalogue.

Jim McDonald

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