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Why You Should Be Listening to Dream Theater (Writers, Especially)

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

Music is personal. That’s no statement of great insight. When I worked for Xbox , I marketed everything from games to movies to TV to books . . . to music. One thing I learned: Far and away the “product” or “content” to which people of all stripes have the most emotional attachment is the music they listen to. In point of fact, big corporations are constantly trying to find a way to harness this consumer attachment to their own advantage. There’s a smart outfit out of the the U.K. called FRUKT, that takes a close look at these efforts and their relative success.

But here’s the thing: Music is personal.

Why do I state it again? Because I’m going to spend some time talking about what I believe are the very real reasons you should be listening to the band Dream Theater. I do believe much of what I have in mind transcends personal preference. But to be transparent with you, I’m going to tell you up front that I’m a Dream Theater fan.

But I’m also a classically trained vocalist. A published novelist and storyteller. A former marketing professional of fifteen years with Microsoft who spent his time (beyond doing the things above) deconstructing products to see why they work, if only to try and replicate success. I don't mean any of that to sound high-minded, only to set the context for what will follow as perhaps something more than: “Dude, they rock!”

Though, to be slightly glib, Dream Theater does, in fact, rock.

First, I feel like I should address DT (short for Dream Theater) detractors, since I don’t want to simply stand up as a “rah rah” guy. If I’m going to be thorough, I need to acknowledge that there are those who, more than just not knowing who DT is, have listened to them and formed an unfavorable opinion. Fair enough. Let’s have a look.

There’s a camp that will say Dream Theater is sterile because they rely too much on their technical proficiencies as musicians. My knee-jerk on this crowd is to reply, “Sour grapes,” and assume that this tribe is comprised mostly of musicians who have been neglectful of their own craft. The Dream Theater analogy for the fiction writer is a student of writing who has taken time to learn and master the various techniques of voice, pacing, plot, characterization, setting, etc. I could, on the other hand, be a writer with loads of talent with pacing and none of the rest; but that wouldn’t make it defensible for me to throw stones at writers like George R.R. Martin (the Dream Theater of fantasy) who possesses all the skills I just listed. Thus, sour grapes.

If, on the other hand, my assumption is wrong, and it isn't that this contingent has been neglectful of their craft, but rather that they aren't capable of the level of technical facility or simply choose a different set or level of tools to create their songs, that's fine. But neither of these facts makes a tenable case for deriding DT for how they choose to create music. Tearing down something you don't like just because you don't like it is simply petty.

To those who would hold to the “sterility” argument and are also not musicians, I mostly scratch my head. The only thing that comes to mind is the line from Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II says: “My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening.” He’s talking to Mozart, gang. Mozart.

There’ll be a few who will say, “Yeah, well, I never cared much for Mozart, either.”

And you know what, I don’t fault you for it. I may not understand, really. Mozart, in my opinion, rocks. But as I said up front: Music is personal. Still, if you’re a music lover, and you can’t appreciate Mozart, then, you might want to cut over to another blog now, since the rest of what I have to say probably won't interest you. Because I want to get into some of the heart of why I think this band matters at a level that goes beyond: “Dude, Dream Theater rocks!” And, if we can’t agree on appreciating musicianship, we don’t have common ground.

Now, there’s another group of detractors who simply hear metal--I've even heard DT classified as 80's metal. This baffles me a bit. I suppose it’s like me hearing Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks and Dwight Yoakum and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Charlie Pride and Conway Twitty and saying: “Yeah, they’re all the same.”

Do they all share some conventions of the country music genre? Sure. But the generalization is a refuge of an over-simplified understanding. What’s happening is music fans are hearing heavy guitar and sticking Dream Theater into a very broad group. For their part, I’m not sure DT would mind sharing company with Led Zeppelin and Rush and Journey and Metallica. But to say they’re the same simply because there’s distortion on the guitar is dismissive and naive to the point of embarrassing the commentator.

Unfortunately, such sweeping generalizations aren’t the sole province of music fans. Folks who get wrapped up in their politics like to paint the other side of the aisle with a roller brush, don’t they? Personally, I’ve long since found such criticism of any use or (when the attempt is made) funny. Even when it comes from popular comedians. It’s lazy. And (though I’m loath to lapse maudlin here) it’s dehumanizing.

“All right, Orullian,” you’re saying. “I was trying to read your blog for fun.”

Sorry, stepping off the soapbox I’d crept up onto. Here’s my point. If any listener disregards an entire category of music because they draw simple (and often) irrelevant associations between a few artists and all musicians/bands who play a heavy guitar riff, I think it’s more a comment on the one who is generalizing than it is on the metal or rock or progressive music genres.

Okay, I think that probably accounts for most of those who have heard (or think they know what) DT is all about, but have turned a deaf ear. So, if you’re one of those, or if you’ve never heard DT, or if you’re a fan on some level and just want to see where the hell I’m going . . . read on.

I’ve mentioned the musicianship. On one level, I suppose this doesn’t matter. You could be the guy or gal who would be happy forever listening to songs with chord progressions that conform to the old blues standards. But it’s like any art–painting, writing, sculpting: The more tools you have to fashion your art, the more options you have. If you listen to DT’s catalog, you’re going to find plenty of times they elect to go with more minimal instrumentation. That’s a choice, folks, not a limit because they haven’t the ability to do more. That’s stating the obvious, but I do it to suggest that the inverse is likewise true: Musicians who don’t work at their craft have fewer options. Which doesn’t mean they can’t make hella great tunes. Many do. But don’t buy into the weak arguments of minimalists (whether musicians or fans). Great painters choose to sometimes render an image in black and white. but they also paint with lavish color when it suits their vision. What a bummer if they could see an image in their head, but hadn’t the tools to realize it. In music, arpeggios, soaring vocal high notes, precision and odd-time sections, etc, are tools at the disposal of one who learns how to use them--like color paint to the artist; or fine-tipped tools for the sculptor, who elsewise has a hammer and nothing more to appoint the expressions on the face of his David. Uh, no. We needs to get in there and refine, I say!

What, then, is there beyond the musician’s toolbox, which the players in Dream Theater paid dues to acquire in places like the Berklee College of Music, Juilliard, and the endless hours of practice?

I’ll start with composition. (And for you writers, it might be worth paying attention, since this is where story begins.) See, there are formulas in music. <Gasp!> Again, you may dig these. Most songs have them in spades. It’s: verse, bridge, verse, bridge, chorus, break, bridge, chorus. Or something quite like that. There’s a level of predictability and monotony that render these songs rather saccharine and tired after very few spins.

So, when you hear an “epic” tune, whether by Dream Theater, or any other band, I hope you’ll rejoice a bit, unless monotony is your thing. My side-bar here (and mini-rant) is that American culture has become so transient and attention-limited, that we want everything in bite-size morsels. I’ve had recording folks tell me that three-minute tunes were getting long. Holy ****, really? How are these kids going to do long-division, sit for an essay exam, read a book? I’m only half-kidding when I say, “Turn on an ‘epic’ tune for your children's sake." It’s no laughing matter that studies show kids are consuming so much fast-cut media that they can’t focus on problem-solving. Let’s not become that culture who must have something new while the last new thing is still onstage. In my opinion, this is one of the ways in which music outside the United States is often a better experience. The U.S. is so transient in what's popular. It seems to me others aren't so readily moved by "trends" in music. I kind of hate that we have to fall in love each year with a new American Idol, or X-Factor kid, or whatever.

I think the whole reality music star business jumped the shark for me when I heard a girl who couldn’t have been much more than seventeen say through tears, when she was chosen to advance to the show: “I’ve paid so many dues." Lord help me. I know musicians who’ve got callouses older than that--gifted players trying to build a career.

“Orullian,” you say, “that sounds like sour grapes.”

Maybe a little. But the salt earned by real musicians working at their craft, writing their own songs, learning and sacrificing to inform their art . . . that’s the stuff. And no, I don’t mean starvation or any such silliness. But did you ever wonder why the lyrics and songs that bubble out of those L.A. song-factories lack substance? I suspect it has much to do with the above. It's packaging.

Okay, soap box set aside, again.

Back to “epic.” This term, when applied to music, and to DT, in particular, means a lot more than simply long. It goes to the idea of composition, which is my meta-point, here. The DT fellas are putting forward a considered compositional framework that tells a story, even before they pen the lyrics and invite their vocalist, James LaBrie, to interpret those lyrics with his voice (when James isn’t writing the lyrics himself).

This fact was made apparent to me again over the last few weeks as I’ve been listening to their most recent CD. “A Dramatic Turn of Events” is the latest effort from a twenty-five year career. I could use any album in that long history to illustrate the same points, because the quality has been a constant. Oh, sure, I have my favorites. But the elements that have made DT a success are the through-line; things like we’ve been talking about: musicianship, composition, lyricism . . . and add in dynamics, rhythm, melody, emotional resonance, etc.

So when it comes to composition, the many parts create a tapestry that virtually evoke story. It’s visceral. It goes to that ineffable quality of music that makes us listen and debate and take sides and put on that one album when things in our life just suck and no one is going to understand and we just need to have the right song turned up loud.

Hopefully, you've felt that way about music. If you haven't, my supposition is that Dream Theater might be a group which could give you that experience, because they have the tools with which to capture emotion and stories inside us.

The last thing I’ll say here is this: They surprise me, and yet after I’ve listened to their albums a few times, I find my self saying: “Ayeah, it had to be written that way.” The significance of what I said there (at least to me) is this: I don’t get bored. If I can anticipate where a song or musician is going next, I’ll tune out pretty fast. When it comes to DT, they surprise me so often that it’s like an act of discovery each time I listen to their music. Then, after I’ve internalized the music, I come to the opinion that the music has been authored “just so,” meaning, ain’t no better way. That’s a bit high-minded, I admit. But then, it’s a feel thing, too. Put another way, they make it seem so fresh and effortless that I lose sight of the fact that they’re doing things musically that is rare among musicians.

My departed vocal instructor, David Kyle, used to say this to me: The art of the art is the art that conceals the art. Make sense? It’s like a writer who can pen a story that the reader experiences without ever being aware of the writer. The story-tellers job is not to draw attention to himself, but to immerse the reader in a tale. And in the same way, DT succeeds in drawing me into a sonic experience that makes me lose sight of the myriad things they’re executing to make it happen.

Which is why the latest CD is that much more amazing, as DT just replaced their drummer. If you’re not familiar with the band, you need to understand that the previous drummer, Mike Portnoy, is excessively gifted. Never fear, the guys found Mike Mangini.

On a side-note (and though I’m not really that guy who must see/hear everything from a band he likes), I did watch the DT drummer auditions on Youtube. I knew Mangini was the guy long before he got to the audition, when he corrected his own remark: “No, this is not a gig. That’s the wrong term.” He understood intuitively that becoming part of the band was more than banging a snare in odd-time. I’ve had great exchanges with Portnoy over the years, and have immense respect for his gift, but my point is this: In listening to “A Dramatic Turn of Events,” I’ve never once said to myself, “Yeah, cool Dream Theater album with that new drummer guy.”

It’s just Dream Theater. The art of the art is the art that conceals the art.

Now, lyrics.

Many of you just groaned. Admit it. Well, fair enough. Not everyone cares about what the singer is saying, as long as he’s on time and in key. But you’re reading the wrong blog if you think I’m going to let the lyrics pass by un-examined.

I can’t go into them all, of course. I’ve got my next novel to write, and my editor wants it on time. Plus, I’ve my own next record to finish, as well. So, I’ll have to abstract a bit, and use a few examples. In keeping with my theme, I’ll use “A Dramatic Turn of Events,” to illustrate that these guys are still at the top of their game.

Take the following:

In the heart of your most solemn barren night

When your soul’s turned inside out

Have you questioned all the madness you invite

What your life is all about

Some of us choose to live gracefully

Some can get caught in the maze

And lose their way home

This is the life we belong to

Our gift divine

Like the music itself, lyrics have personal connotations, given meaning by your own life experiences, or those of people close to you. I suspect this is why music is so powerful, and why different songs and artists resonate with different listeners. But let me tell you why the above hits me.

I’ve had those solemn, barren nights. I’ve laid awake and couldn’t find the right word for the color of grey and orange and sadness that I saw seeping out from around the window blinds. I think most of us have had those nights. They’re long. They’re filled with suffering. And often it’s not about your own pain; often it’s wishing you could take away the pain of someone you love who’s suffering. That’s what having “your soul turned inside out” can mean. At least to me.

But then, you know (and yeah, this is going to lapse maudlin, sorry gang), it just so happens that often we bring this suffering upon ourselves. We’re also usually aware that we’ve done it to ourselves, and that doesn’t feel too great, either. It’s my experience that these long nights give us the opportunity to change, and sometimes the clarity of vision to do just that. That’s how I see questioning “all the madness you invite / What your life is all about.”

And the crux of it all is this: It’s your choice, right? Your choices, quite often, are how you got there to those solemn, barren nights. And its your choices that can help pull you out again, which is precisely what I hear in the idea that any of us can choose, then, to “live gracefully.”

But for every one of us who goes through those long nights and emerges with the desire and will to live on, there’s one who doesn’t emerge. The solemn barrenness has claimed its share of lives. I have a friend I hadn’t spoken to in years who was this latter type. A good man. A thoughtful man. A broken man. And he just recently took his own life. He got “caught in the maze,” and damn if I don’t wish I’d been there to walk him out.

My friend “lost his way home.”

That's as much as I can say about it here.

But we all belong to the life given us. It comes with difficulties and heartache and grace. It’s a divine gift. Whether you’re a religious person, a spiritual person, both, neither. In my mind “divine” means many things, one of which might simply be beneficent, beautiful . . . worth a hell of a lot more than we believe. Or, it means God-given. In any case, it’s sad when someone can’t see a way out of the darkness, can’t see that they matter. You see my point, I think.

So, John Petrucci, lyricist for “This Is the Life”–the tune I quoted above–didn’t know he was kicking my ass when he wrote those words. But he did. I had the good fortune of speaking with John when he was here in Seattle recently, and I sheepishly asked him, “Is everything okay?” Or somesuch question. Because a few of the tunes really slice to the bone. He laughed and told me everything was fine, that he’d just imagined the scenarios that fueled the lyrics.

I think he’s modest. I think he’s an observer of the world around him, and he’s used those things to speak honestly in a way that makes the powerful music that much more resonant. That’s my opinion. But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts after you listen to the song I’m referencing:

I won’t paste in more lyrics for my second example from the latest CD, but I’ll give you the link below to “Beneath the Surface.” If you take the time to listen to the song, I invite you to move beyond the conventional association of a man and woman becoming estranged, and consider the power of the lyrics as they might apply to a parent and their child. Tell me if it doesn’t hit you hard and give you chills:

Maybe it’s just me. But then, I told you music is personal, didn’t I?

And that’s part of what I find so fascinating and compelling about Dream Theater. Their music moves from epic sounds that literally stir you to want to take heroic action–listen to the beginning of “Outcry” from “A Dramatic Turn of Events” if you think I’m waxing hyperbolic; then (and often in the same song), they’ll drop to a sound so close and intimate that you can relate to it on a very small, human level.

Life’s like that, right? I mean, it’s up, then down, then up. Our passage through mortality (duck, as again, I’ll lapse maudlin) isn’t a sonically compressed three-minute experience that is all sex and grind and hopping up and down. Sometimes we’re heroic, if only in making it home on time for a little girl who just wants to wrestle with her dad; or we disappoint someone we care for and who depends on us because we forget important things; or we throw our lives at hardship and the loss of dreams because someone needs us to do it, even when it breaks our own heart for the unfilled hopes we held for so long.

For the most part, I want music that can inspire me to stand back up when it’s not easy to do so. Music that will thrill me even when all is well. Music that will remind me to be grateful when I’m feeling a bit full of myself. Music that will tell the stories that matter, because I don’t have enough time to waste on the wrong kind of fantasy and heroism.

I want to rock. And when I do, I co-create with the musician as I listen to their music and give it an audience, and meaning. Dream Theater is the kind of band I want to co-create with, to listen to, to be inspired by, and yes, to rock out to, because their music touches on everything I’ve shared above.

And you know, you could ignore it all and just listen to their songs, and I’m guessing you’d experience the same things on an instinctive level. You don’t need to examine and deconstruct it as I’ve tried a bit here to do in order to appreciate it. It’s every bit as valid just to put the CD in (or stream) and turn it up, just letting it take you wherever it can.

But of late, I’ve found added meaning in DT’s music. And that’s not something I can say as often as I’d like; and I listen to a lot of music.

Left to right: John Petrucci, John Myung, James LaBrie, Jordan Rudess, Mike Mangini

From John Petrucci, the guitarist and predominant lyricist of DT, who stuns us with his guitar gift and the poignancy of his melody and story; to John Myung, who plays the bass with a facility most guitarists only dream about, and who seems to speak less frequently, but when he does, says the exact right thing–some day I’ll write more about the words I exchanged with John backstage a few weeks back, he has no idea how it impacted me; to James LaBrie, whose voice is a national treasure (James is from Canada, but has long since been adopted by fans everywhere), and who delivers a lyric with equal parts power and perfect timbre, and who gives me personally more inspiration than he’ll ever know–one of the best rock voices ever; to Jordan Rudess, a Juilliard grad, who is not only one of the the finest keyboard players tickling the ivories, but likewise one of the most decent people I know–plus a music innovator, Google him; to Mike Mangini, who I admittedly know less well, but about whom I can say is a genuinely funny guy, and who is so deceptively skillful that you should start to pay attention, plus he has a Boston accent, so what’s not to love.

And to go one level deeper, with each of these guys before closing out this blog.

Petrucci. There isn’t any arguing the man’s technical facility. “A Dramatic Turn of Events” has plenty of places where that’s on display. Likewise, there are some more intimate, acoustic songs. But I’d turn your attention to about minute 4:24 on “This Is the Life,” to listen to his solo. It’s an amazing blend of soulfulness and melody that perfectly match the song. This is what I mean when I talk about John’s gifts. He has the ability to move between emotions with his playing, since he’s as good with the heavy bone-crunching riff, too. In addition to all this, you’ll find the example I give above also demonstrates John’s strengths with phrasing in his solos. Lots of guys with speed, few know how to use it.

Myung. In the song “Outcry” from about minute 3:30 on for about a minute are a series of grooves that owe, in my mind, most of their “grooviness” to Myung. Beyond his ability to match the musical figures that Petrucci and Rudess often play, Myung is equally strong at laying down a solid and unique low end for the band to layer on top of. However, it’s that other thing, his absolute technique to pick up and play those challenging musical figures, that elevates him above other bass players. In fact, I would say that it’s part of the reason that some claim it’s hard sometimes to hear Myung; it’s because he’s so integrated into what the other guys are so often doing.

LaBrie. There’s a lot to say here. You can listen at that same 3:30 mark of “Outcry” for about thirty seconds and hear him absolutely nailing vowel sounds. What I mean is, LaBrie doesn’t just phonetically sing the word vowels; he gives them a resonance that seems to fill up all the space in the room. This isn’t a digital effect. I’ve heard him warm up, it’s the way he vocalizes the vowel that gives it a largeness most singers wouldn’t even be aware to try, let alone understand how to execute. One other thing, in “Bridges in the Sky, at about minute marker 10:06, when I fully expected LaBrie to ascend to some big note, he drops. There’s a restraint for effect and the good of the song that speaks to his vocal maturity. Nicely done.

Rudess. Listen at about minute 3:00 to “On the Backs of Angels” and slightly down in the mix is Rudess absolutely tearing it up with melodic runs. This sonic information gives a richness and energy to the song here that it otherwise would be missing. Another keyboard player might sit back on a key pad. But to go past this, Rudess does add some chilling goodness to “Beneath the Surface” with a solo that is a surprise, and that later you realize you’d hate never to have heard be part of the song. He captures the feeling of loss and perhaps some small bit of hope in his line, and all with a sound that just feels right. The selection of sound and notes is inspired. It gives me chills.

Mangini. The first, best thing I can say about this guy is that he works inside the many parts of these songs to transparently massage transitions from one section to another. This is something you don’t hear, and that’s surely what he’s trying to achieve. He’s giving the songs body and drive and cohesiveness. Drummers with this ability, well you can probably name on one hand the ones who can do this with a band at the level DT is playing. Listen at about 2:55 in “Bridges in the Sky” at the subtle transition he makes from one heavy riff to the next. These kinds of nuances, I think, go largely unappreciated by most music fans. Great drummers make the rest of the band look that much better. Mangini is one of these.

In the same way that in, say, fantasy fiction, it's arguable that George Martin is a top practitioner of that particular genre, so too is DT at the pinnacle of their musical genre. Leaving room for argument due to taste–some readers don’t like Martin, just as some music fans don’t like DT–in the main, you start to find consensus when you poll fantasy readers. So, what I’m saying is that Dream Theater is a band of consummate musicians hitting on all cylinders that may, tragically, somehow have escaped your radar. They’re a band you should be listening to because of both the stunning music and because (particularly if you’re a writer) they are employing a great many tools to move us sonically and story-wise.

Of course, it’s fine just to crank it and blow off steam. DT will serve that function as well as any band. The beauty is that their music has depths to plumb, should you find yourself interested. That’s just not the case with every band.

For all the reasons I’ve walked through, it's my humble opinion that you should be listening to Dream Theater. Especially you writers, since I think they are the musical counterpart to our best storytellers. There’s much to learn here about your own craft. If you want to see what I mean, wander over to my series on fiction and music, where I explore the relationship between fiction and music in light of dynamics, melody, lyricism, tempo, harmony, etc.

Or, if you’re not a writer, and you’ve stuck with me until now, it’s time to go listen to some DT. If you don’t have “A Dramatic Turn of Events,” you can listen to it all on Youtube or any other streaming service. But hey, if you like it, go get the CD, or buy one of their shirts or something? I’m hoping you believe in supporting musicians who are putting their hearts into this for their own livelihood. You’ll never spend a better ten bucks.

Yours in rock,


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