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The legion of fiercely devoted DREAM THEATER diehards around the world expect nothing less than a smart, fully immersive, experiential journey through otherworldly soundscapes from each and every live performance, full-length album, and song.
Rightfully so, given the band’s three decades of continually redefining the parameters of hard rock and progressive heavy metal, overcoming obstacles, surpassing critical expectations, and resisting the incessant winds of industry uncertainty. Staying an exciting course in a sea littered with also-rans, pretenders, and opportunists, Dream Theater’s body of work endures with singular triumph.
The Astonishing is undisputedly the most ambitious undertaking by a band whose cerebral compositions already define the vanguard of progressive hard rock. “This is the next natural step in our evolution,” declares longtime frontman James LaBrie. “This is a pinnacle moment for us. This is something we had to do.”
As instantly recognizable as Eddie, Vic Rattlehead, or the Misfits skull to those in the know, Dream Theater’s iconic symbol represents both the band and an entire lifestyle of strength through music and empowerment through expression. For their staunch determination, diverse compositions, and effortlessly authentic output, Dream Theater has been rewarded with Grammy nominations, over 12 million in worldwide album sales, and countless accolades from guitar, keyboard, drum, bass, and vocal publications, students, and aficionados in particular. They’ve shared stages with iconic institutions like Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (to name but a few). But most importantly, they’ve earned a fanbase whose loyalty, deep involvement, and passion is unmatched.
Dream Theater’s fans expect the best, always, and they welcome progression, change, and the pursuit of creative muses in equal measure. It’s this tireless devotion that’s allowed cofounders John Petrucci (guitar) and John Myung (bass), enduring cornerstones LaBrie (vocals) and Jordan Rudess (keys), and five-years-deep Mike Mangini (drums) to build a liberating creative environment where they seamlessly transition from the Rush-meets-Metallica shred of early ‘90s MTV hit “Pull Me Under,” to the Pink Floyd infused atmosphere of “Peruvian Skies,” to the 20 minute epic “The Count of Tuscany,” with some of their most inspired work erupting in just the past few years across modern, legacy-cementing platters A Dramatic Turn of Events (2011) and Dream Theater (2013).
Dream Theater’s first conceptually driven masterpiece, Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999), is spoken about by the Dream Theater faithful in the same reverent tones as cultural touchstone concept albums by The Who, Pink Floyd, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails.
A sprawling, densely rich, fully realized world awaits within the band’s grandest concept album and most creatively courageous statement, The Astonishing. It’s a retro-futurist post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by medieval style feudalism. It’s a place aching for a Chosen One to rise above the noise and defeat an Empire defined by the endless drone of noise machines and the illusion of safety in bland conformity. The Astonishing launches a brand new fantasy mythology, The Hunger Games buttressed against Game of Thrones, with an infusion of Escape from New York, all through the unique prism of Dream Theater. The new mythology was conceptualized and meticulously forged by Petrucci.
“He’s a man of extreme focus,” Rudess says of the band’s guitarist, primary songwriter and lyricist. “He really dove into this, and from the moment he started on this, he was rewriting, doing research. It was a nonstop investment of his energy into the whole thing.”
“The whole experience was new. From the beginning, I knew the story needed to come together in order to set the tone for everything else,” explains Petrucci. “I had an idea a few years ago, while in Europe on a promo trip for the last album, which I put down on my phone. That was the seed. Jordan and I had a big library of musical ideas we’d collected, from each of us writing at home, or jamming together on the road backstage, but when it came to sitting down and putting it together, we took the story I had and scored the music around it.”
The Astonishing is enriched exponentially by the integration of a real orchestra and choir, arranged by conductor David Campbell, whose work graces over 450 gold and platinum albums, including watershed releases from Adele, Justin Timberlake, Linkin Park, Evanescence, Beyoncé, and his son, Beck. The Astonishing was produced by Petrucci with engineering and mixing by Richard Chycki, whose resume includes work with Rush, Aerosmith, and Mick Jagger. Other organic sounds are more abundant than at any point in the band’s history, with Rudess in particular relishing the tones from a grand piano and Hammond organ.
Like Tommy or The Wall, the songs on The Astonishing work as both singular compositions and overall story components. Writing the music as a duo, Petrucci and Rudess venture into unexplored corners of their sound without sacrificing their musical identity.
“You definitely start doing things you might not have done before, in service of the larger story. That was really exciting for Jordan and I,” says Petrucci. “Music is a very emotional art form. So to take elements of the plot, characters, and settings, translating those building blocks into musical pieces, it was exhilarating.”
“With a concept album, it’s all based around the characters. How powerful are they? How much can each of us relate to the characters and the story?” LaBrie adds. “John is a perfectionist. He is the kind of person to sit down and take as long as necessary to get things to a level we need to be in order for us to maintain who and what we are.”
LaBrie notes the band’s willingness to challenge themselves like never before and Rudess concurs: “This album has taken so much focus. It’s been a lot more work, more compositional focus musically and lyrically, than anything we’ve ever done.”
As Petrucci points out, The Astonishing is the culmination of everything that’s come before and the arrival of the purest, most complete realization of Dream Theater imaginable. The experimentation with form, structure, length; orchestration; with epic storytelling; everything Dream Theater has done since the group began finds its ultimate fulfillment here. As songwriters, as performers, as a collective unit, Dream Theater is now the definition of fully realized potential.