In their 30-plus years of existence, they have scored three consecutive top 10 albums, sold millions globally, explored intricate concept records and written epic songs — and even recorded live with the Berklee World Strings and Concert Choir from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Given all of their achievements, one might think that the members of the progressive rock band Dream Theater would ease back a little and take the easy road for once.
Their newest offering, “The Astonishing,” is a double-disc concept album that takes place in a retro-futurist dystopian world where a dictatorial regime (the Great Northern Empire of the Americas) ruled by Emperor Nafaryus mandates the creation of artificial art, including “music” generated by oppressive noise machines called Nomacs. But a growing underground (the Ravenskill Rebel Militia) craving the return of human-made music is swelling into rebellion, and they are led by Gabriel, a young man who was born with the gift of music. The story is ripe with intrigue, conflict and forbidden love (between Gabriel and the Emperor’s daughter Faythe), and the impressive, multilayered album spans 34 tracks and over two hours of music.
“I don’t know what the hell’s the matter with us,” jokes guitarist John Petrucci, who wrote the story and lyrics and co-composed the album with keyboardist Jordan Rudess. “Every time we go to do something we think of it way in advance. How could we do something to challenge ourselves, make it fun, and make it fun for everybody who’s a fan of Dream Theater? That’s one of the great things about doing this as a career. The creative part is the most rewarding.”
The Long Island-based group’s new album, first conceived by Petrucci in mid-2013 and released Jan. 29, was inspired by how technology and art are merging in sometimes uncomfortable ways at a time when the arts are suffering setbacks.
“Music is the first thing to go in schools with budgetary cuts and things like that,” he says. “It’s so much easier for anybody to create something in the palm of their hands. It’s moving in a direction that’s a little bit scary.
“It’s not to say that there aren’t true artists out there or great art that’s being made, but even though people are consuming music and streamlining and downloading a song here and there, people look at us like we’re crazy. ‘Oh, my God, you guys go into the studio and still make full albums?’ This is like bucking the system.”
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Given the album’s theme and ominous cover art, one might expect the album to be rich with dark musical moments, but it really offers a vast palette of sounds and emotions. “The music on this album is all stemming from the story,” says Petrucci, who grew up in Kings Park. “In those moments where something dark is happening, it is going to be ominous and dark. But in the case of presenting songs where Nafaryus is the main character, we almost present those in a comical way, so there’s an evil comedy thing going on. In cases where the storyline is more introspective, the music gets real sensitive and real pretty. When you talk about the more military scenes, it almost gets battle-hymn-like. And it does the big epic, cinematic thing too, which is a big part of the storytelling.”
To get the big sound they wanted, the band hired composer David Campbell (whose extensive arrangement credits include work for Michael Jackson, Muse and Adele) to arrange and record a full orchestra and choir. “I knew that he was the go-to guy, and fortunately he said yes when we asked him,” says Petrucci. “He was awesome.”
Campbell recorded the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in their home city and different choirs in Los Angeles. He also cameos on violin on one song. The band recorded lead singer James LaBrie’s vocals in Canada, and they went to Queens to record the Steinway grand and Hammond B3 organ.
The band recorded the bulk of their parts at Cove City Sound Studios in Glen Cove, which is owned by former Billy Joel band member Richie Cannata. “We’ve recorded several albums there now, and it’s great,” says Petrucci. “For me, it’s not too far from home. We move in there and take over the studio. We have all the comforts of home and just plant ourselves there for months. It’s great, Richie is great, the staff is great. We keep going back there because it’s our Long Island home away from home and is just such a great studio. We’re always happy with what comes out of there.”
Hitting the road with Dream Theater
From the beginning, John Petrucci and his bandmates knew they wanted to create a two-disc release that would be presented as a two-act live concert like Pink Floyd’s 1980-81 “The Wall.” Their “Astonishing” tour starts in select European cities (beginning Feb. 18 at the London Palladium) before coming to the United States to play prestigious venues such as Radio City Music Hall (on April 23). “People can come, sit down, get some popcorn, and watch this combination of us performing this album live and this cool visual show that we have planned as well,” says the guitarist.
He says the band also hopes to create a book and a game of the storyline concept. Fans seeking further information can access a map and character profiles on the band’s site (dreamtheater.net/theastonishing) as well as various character Twitter accounts.
Video design for the show began a year ago with Lucion Media. During concerts, theywill present animated imagery from the story and portray the environments for the different scenes throughout the story. As the band performs live, the studio orchestra and choir parts will be played back as the corresponding video clips are shown on screen. “Unfortunately we can’t bring an 80-piece orchestra on tour with us,” says Petrucci, who does not rule out the idea of a special larger concert being filmed for a DVD in the future.
For now, fans can experience the album’s cinematic nature at home. “I feel bad in a way because people’s lives are so busy, and here we are — listen to this 2-hour, 10-minute album with this complicated story,” says Petrucci. “One of the things that might be fun when the album comes out will be to read the lyrics of the album as it’s being played. It’s written like a screenplay, so you can see who’s singing and what’s going on.”
— Bryan Reesman