Dream Theater have long kept the progressive metal flame burning strong and bright. Not content just with cult status, the multifaceted quintet have continued to push personal and genre boundaries and reap impressive album and concert sales. In 2011 the group earned their first career GRAMMY nomination for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for "On The Backs Of Angels," a track featured on their Top 10 album A Dramatic Turn Of Events.
Their forthcoming 12th studio album, the self-titled Dream Theater, is set for release Sept. 24. The album is their second with drummer Mike Mangini and one of their most accessible to date. While the idea of mainstream appeal and progressive traditionalism seems mutually exclusive to many, they coalesce fluidly here evidenced by the contrast between the hard-edged first single "The Enemy Inside" and the newly premiered melodic track "Along For The Ride."
In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Dream Theater co-founder/guitarist John Petrucci discussed the group's latest opus and how they continue to strive for musical bliss nearly three decades after their inception.
As Dream Theater make more albums and keep getting more complex, will your hands eventually fall off in concert?
I really hope not. [laughs] That would be horrible.
Some fans expressed concern when my recent report on the new album mentioned how the new songs were more catchy. Do you think they worry that the new music won't be the same thing that they originally fell in love with?
I think it's really hard to describe music without alienating somebody. You can say that this album sounds a lot heavier, and people would say that sucks. Some people might be really happy about that. Or you could say it's a lot more melodic, and people could get mad like you said. To me, that mentality where it's one or the other drives me nuts. To give you an example as a guitar player, there has always been this argument, like these two sides where guitar players can only be technical or play with feeling, it's one or the other. But to me that makes no sense whatsoever. My favorite guitar players have both. Just because you have developed the craft on your instrument doesn't mean that you don't have the ability to be expressive emotionally on that instrument, or vice versa. Just because something is melodic or catchy doesn't mean that it doesn't have depth and substance and progressive sensibilities. Just because something is very technical or heavy doesn't mean that it's not melodic. You know what I mean? To me, it's not one or the other. That's part of the progressive spirit, that's part of the spirit of Dream Theater — we try to keep all of those elements in mind when we write.
As we're doing this interview, the ProgPower USA festival is taking place in Atlanta. It's interesting because the bands this year really seem to stretch the definition of the genre.
Absolutely, which I love to see. I think that's part of the genre, that there's this whole big family tree that has all these different branches and splinters that may not have all the classic elements of what you would consider prog, but they have those elements infused into their style and take it into a different direction. I think if you ask different people, they have different definitions as to what prog is. Some people are real traditionalists, and some people are more progressive thinkers in that sense. I love the way it kind of splinters, and I think that two years ago when we got the GRAMMY nomination, I felt so proud not only because it was for the band but the song that was nominated. "On The Backs Of Angels" was eight minutes long. I felt like it was this beacon that we were so proud of, kind of like the presence and the power of progressive music today as it further infiltrates throughout all the different musical styles.
How do you think Mike Mangini has helped the band grow and progress in different ways?
He was amazing in the studio. After getting to know him and recording [our previous studio album] A Dramatic Turn Of Events with him [and] then going on tour for 15 months, we spent so much time together as a band and played so many shows, we really got to know Mike Mangini the person and the drummer. So by the time he got to the studio with us [again], everybody was comfortable and relaxed. We had this incredible musical chemistry, and because of that it was just a real natural and creative environment. He was able to come in not as the new guy anymore but as an established guy and share his ideas in a really respectful way and help us take the music even further. Mike can do things on the drums that really nobody else can do, so when we're writing stuff and want to take something even further, he's right there along with us pushing it. He has a ton of great creative ideas and input. His drum performances brought a lot of spontaneity to the album. Things that you're hearing were things that we were capturing when we were writing. He's that good.
What inspired "Along For The Ride"?
There's really not a ballad on the album per se, but that's probably the closest to it. It's very different than a lot of the songs on the album. I don't think I would've written something like this lyrically 15 years ago. The theme of the song is very free-spirited and was inspired by a stream of consciousness writing style that I like to do sometimes where there's no music in front of you at all and you just start writing. You start writing words, and as those words are coming out one thing leads to the next, and you develop a theme.
While we were in the studio this past year, the Boston bombings happened as that song was being written. I had some of the verses and found that there was a contrast between this attitude of we're all on this planet floating along and the idea that there are some people out there [who] are willing to do some really bad things to us and make us change that attitude and live in this hyper vigilant, paranoid way. If you listen to the bridge of that song, it takes on a little bit different mood and says that this crazy stuff does happen, that there are bad people out in the world, but it's not going to break me down and not going to pull me away from that original attitude that I had when this wasn't going on a lot. It's also another way of saying that there are so many situations that are out of our control, and this is one of them unfortunately, but it shouldn't break down our spirit — not as a country, not as a people. It shouldn't break down our belief in the good of people.
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)