Grammy-nominated progressive rockers Dream Theater have forged a career from lofty musical ambitions and intricately conceived music, with epic songs and long-running albums their norm. But they decided it was time for a change.
Having last released the double CD rock opera "The Astonishing" three years ago, which actually had many normal-length compositions that contributed to a larger whole, the band members purposefully chose to contain their 14th and newest album, "Distance Over Time," within an hourlong framework. They aimed for more concise songwriting. Indeed, four of the 10 new tracks (bonus cut included) clock in around four minutes.
Doubling again as producer, guitarist John Petrucci sought to capture the sound of their playing live. In his conversations with keyboardist Jordan Rudess, they specifically shirked more electronic sounds, letting Rudess improvise on piano and Hammond X5 organ.
“A lot of the solos you hear him playing are from the demos and we were tracking live,” reveals Petrucci. “There's definitely more of a rock organic approach to the keyboards. Because of the way that we were all set up in a really great sounding room at this barn up in Monticello, guitars were cranking, and it just lent itself to latching onto more groove-intensive and heavy riff things.”
A more primal vibe emerged in this environment, and the group’s majestic prog tendencies were leavened by a more riff-based metal sound. “We did a similar [approach] with 'Train of Thought' and with 'Awake,' ” says Petrucci. “Those are two of our heaviest albums for the same reason.” Further, the guitarist has recently enjoyed expressing a simpler elegance in certain solos to balance out his impressive shred, and singer James LaBrie has become more nuanced in his delivery. These contrasts play out well in "Distance Over Time."
Dream Theater began life in the Long Island area in the mid-1980s., Petrucci is the one member who remains here. (They were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2010.)
Rudess resides upstate, LaBrie lives in the Toronto area, bassist John Myung in Pennsylvania, and drummer Mike Mangini in Boston. To write and record "Distance Over Time," the five members sequestered themselves at five-acre Yonderbarn Studio in upstate Monticello between June and September. On recent albums, the five members commuted to work, as it were. This was more of a band retreat where they lived, created, and even cooked for each other, which resulted in a more collaborative effort.
Whereas Petrucci wrote the story and lyrics for "The Astonishing," he, Myung, and LaBrie all contributed lyrics here. Topics on "Distance Over Time" include small-town struggles, compassion for our planet, and abused women struggling with PTSD. Now on his fourth studio album with the band, Mangini also contributed his first lyrics to the song “Room 137,” which was inspired by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s obsession with that number and its relation to a constant in physics. Pauli died in a hospital room number 137.
“The lyrics can sometimes really change the landscape of the song and how it comes across,” observes Petrucci. “Even though the music is written collectively, the individual lyricists can set a mood that I might not necessarily be thinking of at the time. But from their perspective, it definitely contributes another creative element to the song.”
The band strived for a balance between technical complexity and melodic grandeur and found inspiration in old school U.K. prog rock like Genesis and Marillion for “Barstool Warrior.” “We’re still old school as far as fantasizing that people listen to an album the way you'd watch a movie, from beginning to end,” says Petrucci. “We want to have that experience be something that kind of takes you on a roller coaster, so that means that we like to vary what we're doing.”
Metal and prog rock have two of the most fiercely loyal fan bases in the music world. It also means that they have a sense of possessiveness about their icons and will passionately debate the merits and flaws of every new album. Those critiques began anew with the first music previewed for this release.
“I remember being the same way with my favorite bands,” acknowledges Petrucci. “I get it, I understand that. I think the important thing as a musician, as a creative person, is just to always have it come from a really genuine place. As long as you're always conscious of that, the music will be true. Then the chips fall where they may, as far as what people think about one record or another. It's not something you can really, really think about too hard because that will drive you crazy, and you'll start to change your motivation.”
For two decades, with the exception of switching drummers, Dream Theater has maintained the same roster. That means they have spent a lot of time in the studio and on the road. “You learn how to interact, not only as musicians and people that make music together, but as business partners,” says guitarist John Petrucci. “You learn to travel with each other. The guys are more like brothers. You accept everybody for who they are, accept each other’s idiosyncrasies and faults, and love all the good things about one another.”
Cooking helped bond them during the recording of "Distance Over Time." Singer James LaBrie made his “famous burgers” (but did not reveal the recipe), drummer Mike Mangini served up his special chicken wings, and Petrucci cooked steaks and smoked chicken. They reveled in the good food and company.
“It was great being in that location over the summer,” said Petrucci. “The weather was beautiful again, no distractions, we were just fully immersed in the record. We're all really proud with what we came out with. It was a very collective experience, and I think the music speaks to that. If you're a fly on the wall listening to the band, this is what we sound like when we get together and play.”
Too bad we didn’t get their recipes in the liner notes. — BRYAN REESMAN
The "Distance Over Time" album is now available. The band will play Manhattan's Beacon Theatre on April 12.