Dream Theater’s first album without founder member Mike Portnoy has been one of the most eagerly awaited releases of 2011. Following his somewhat acrimonious departure from the band many fans loudly declared that the band were finished without their charismatic drummer. But others, including myself, had felt the band had been coasting for the last few albums, and wondered if the enforced lineup change might be just be the thing the band needed to shake them up and make them hungry again.
I wasn’t sure about this album for quite a few spins. At first it felt like just another recent Dream Theater album, good but not especially outstanding. All the trademark sounds of the bands that defined prog-metal as a genre are there; machine-gun riffs, tricky time signatures, neo-classical piano fills, and of course all those solos. But on repeated listens the songs started coming alive and lodging in the brain. This is definitely an album that a bit of time before it hits home, but when it does, it hits hard.
There’s a noticeably stronger sense of melody than on recent albums, whether it’s the anthemic stadium-rock chorus of “Build Me Up, Break Me Down”, the gentle opening section of “This Is The Life”, or the piano-led ballad of “Far From Heaven”. James LaBrie, sometimes the weak link in the band, sings far more than he screeches, especially during the less heavy moments.
Naturally, being a Dream Theater album, there are still plenty of opportunities to showcase the band members’ virtuosity in some serious instrumental wig-outs. But this time the technically superb musicianship doesn’t completely overwhelm the songwriting. Petricci shines in particular, and his solo on “Breaking All Illusions” is one of the high spots of them album.
So, while this album isn’t quite a career-defining masterpiece, it is a significant improvement on the last couple of albums; “Breaking All Illusions” and “This Is The Life” have all the makings of Dream Theater classics, and there’s relatively little in the way of filler. As the first album with new drummer Mike Mangini the band have something to prove, and it shows.