Jordan Rudess "The way we were perceived in 1985 is the same way that we were perceived in 1995 and the same way we are perceived in 2007," says Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy.
"We aren't part of what's on MTV or what's in Rolling Stone," Portnoy continues, "We haven't succumbed to trying to be what is popular, because usually that stuff passes within a year or two. But what we've done and continue to do has been on our own terms, so Dream Theater strikes a chord with young musicians and rock fans all around the world, and that's what has sustained us."
Indeed, Dream Theater has always done precisely as Dream Theater does. The New York-based quintet's new, ninth album, Systematic Chaos, is comprised of the kind of punishingly complex, technically accomplished, and simply sprawling -which is to say, uncompromising- progressive rock that has endeared them to fans all over the world for over 20 years. "How uncompromising?" you may ask. How about the fact that the shortest song, "Forsaken" runs just over five and a half minutes, and the longest, "In the Presence of Enemies" a two part epic that opens and closes the album, spans over twenty-five minutes? How about the fact that each track features the kind of demanding musicianship that has landed each instrumentalist in the band the long-term respect of peers and aspiring virtuosos?
In total, Systematic Chaos demonstrates the cold, hard fact that Dream Theater is the most prominent progressive metal band on Earth. The band has not only paved the way for similarly inclined artists like Spock's Beard, Porcupine Tree and a host of others, but has gone some distance in rehabilitating the much-maligned prog-rock genre. "As a metal band," explains guitarist John Petrucci, "we've taken elements of music that aren't deemed cool by younger people into a more modern light."
According to Portnoy, the record's title "describes the sound of our music, which is methodical and meticulous on one hand, but on the other is acrobatic and abstract." Systematic Chaos takes rock and metal to epic extremes: The Pantera-esque "The Dark Eternal Night" portrays the battle between a heroic protagonist and a demonic antagonist, while the "The Ministry of Lost Souls" and "In the Presence of Enemies" are reminiscent of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and Rush's "La Villa Strangiato," respectively.
The band-Portnoy, Petrucci, bassist John Myung, vocalist James LaBrie and keyboardist Jordan Rudess- recorded Systematic Chaos in New York City's Avatar Studios with engineer Paul Northfield (Rush, Queensryche) in the fall of last year. Portnoy and Petrucci co-produced, as they have done on every album since 1999.
Portnoy and Petrucci have led Dream Theater since its inception, having met during their freshmen year at Boston's Berklee School of Music in 1985. Oddly enough, they grew up less than an hour from each other in Long Island: Portnoy in Long Beach, Petrucci and Myung in King's Park. The latter two had been pals since junior high as budding musicians, and both spotted Portnoy through a rehearsal room window playing with other guys shortly after arriving at Berklee.
As Petrucci puts it, "we were away from home, and to meet another Long Islander who's a drummer and was into Rush and Iron Maiden was fate." "In 1985," Portnoy adds, "Berklee was strictly a jazz school, and we were the heavy metal rebels. Everyone else wanted to practice alone, but we wanted to practice together and be in a band, and after a year, it was obvious that that is what we wanted to pursue. Now," Portnoy laughs, "Berklee is filled with Dream Theater fans."
Calling themselves Majesty, Portnoy, Petrucci and Myung returned to Long Island and set about finding singers and keyboardists, as well as getting down to some serious woodshedding. "We never sat down and said we want to make a mixture of ‘70s prog and ‘80s metal: it just flowed out," Petrucci says. "Our initial purpose and sound hasn't really strayed from when we got together." By 1989, the now-renamed Dream Theater released their debut When Dream and Day Unite, now considered a progressive metal landmark.
The band found James LaBrie in 1991, a Canadian who would henceforth be the voice of Dream Theater. With LaBrie, the band recorded Images and Words, which yielded "Pull Me Under," an MTV hit in the age of grunge, Guns ‘n' Roses and an increasing anti-chops ideology in music. After that brief dalliance with the mainstream, the band focused on crafting six ever more complex, uncompromising studio records from 1994 to 2005, including the 1999 concept album Scenes from a Memory (the first to feature Rudess, formerly of the Dixie Dregs and Portnoy's side project Liquid Tension Experiment) and 2003's dark, ultra-heavy Train of Thought.
But nothing is more crucial to the Dream Theater experience than the band's dogged touring schedule, one that has seen them blowing minds around the U.S., Europe, South America and Japan, cementing not only a devoted worldwide fanbase, but paving the way for an upstart progressive metal scene. "We're the metal version of Phish," states Portnoy. "Like them, we have this fanatical hardcore following that follows us no matter what we do, and I write completely different setlist for every single show. Even occasionally covering entire classic albums," he says, referring to concerts that found the band covering classics such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Metallica's Master of Puppets in their entirety.
Which brings us back to Systematic Chaos, in its own way as unrelenting as Metallica's 1986 breakthrough. "If there's anything we did on this record on purpose," confirms Petrucci, "it was that we left out more sensitive, softer material." Although the music therein is written jointly by all members, the lyrics to each song were written completely by either Petrucci, Portnoy or LaBrie. Petrucci, who penned the lyrics to "In the Presence of Enemies," "The Ministry of Lost Souls," "Forsaken" and "The Dark Eternal Night", describes his lyrics as "total fantasy, about alternate worlds, vampires, dark lords, the internal battle between good and evil."
Two songs on the album, though, take on issues with very real consequences. LaBrie's "Prophets of War" is a searing indictment of the war in Iraq, and Portnoy's brooding "Repentance" is part of what will eventually be a musical exploration of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 Step program. "I've been writing about 12 steps for four albums in a row, and "Repentance" represents the eighth and ninth steps," Portnoy explains. "It's been incredibly therapeutic to write about the steps, because every time I write one of these chapters, I'm doing the steps in my life, and writing about it cements it into my being. Once the saga concludes with the final three steps on the next album, it will make for a 60 minute epic that's a healing piece of music."
In its 22nd year, Dream Theater finds itself on a new label, Roadrunner Records, and with a new album, but it's still enhanced by the same grit, single-minded determination and independence that has set the band apart from the pack. "You can't compromise with the type of music that we play and the relationship we have with the fans," says Petrucci. "The integrity factor always has to be there, otherwise people see right through it."
That said, Portnoy stresses "with all of our achievements, I feel that the best chapter of Dream Theater has yet to be written."