Even after hundreds of shows, 15 million records sold, three GRAMMY® Award nominations including one GRAMMY® Award win for Best Metal Performance in 2022, and almost four decades together, Dream Theater continue to look ahead. Their collective gaze never wavers from the future. Instead, the progressive metal trailblazers —James LaBrie (Vocals), John Petrucci (Guitars), Jordan Rudess (Keyboards), John Myung (Bass), and Mike Mangini (Drums)—consistently explore uncharted territory with the same spirit of sonic adventurousness. On their fifteenth album, A View from the Top of the World [Inside Out Music/Sony Music], the New York quintet rush forward at full speed again with seven tracks equally steeped in articulate arrangements, groove-laden guitars, and skyscraping melodies.
“We just love to play our instruments,” observes Petrucci. “That never goes away. I love to be creative, write, and exercise that part of my mind. We’ve been able to do this for a long time, and we don’t take it for granted. Whenever we get together, we know we can’t disappoint ourselves or our fans, so we manage to try even harder. Nobody is jaded. Nobody is tired of doing it. In the studio, we share pain, laughter, and enthusiasm. We’re on the same page, and that’s what enables us to push forward.”
“We approach every album like it’s our first,” adds LaBrie. “It’s been such a great ride, but we’re not going to stop. These guys are my brothers. We’ve been through ups, downs, and everything in between. To be able to experience this together is beyond words.”
Dream Theater’s presence quietly reverberates throughout music and culture. They’ve left their mark everywhere from the 2002 Winter Olympics where excerpts of A Change Of Seasons scored NBC’s coverage of Downhill Skiing to Broadway where they’ve sold out Radio City Music Hall twice. Rolling Stone included the gold-selling Images & Words on its “100 Greatest Metal Albums of All-Time,” and Guitar World ranked its successor Awake in the #1 spot on “Superunknown: 50 Iconic Albums That Defined 1994.” Fans championed Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory as the “Number One All-Time Progressive Rock Album” in a Rolling Stone poll. Classic Rock lauded it as the “15thGreatest Concept Album.” To date, they’ve earned three Top 10 debuts on the Billboard Top 200. Most recently, 2019’s Distance Over Time marked their fifth Top 25 bow on the Top 200, and it attracted widespread praise, even registering the band’s highest cumulative score on Metacritic. In an “A- ” review, Consequence of Sound raved, “the musicianship is flawless,” and Classic Rock hailed it as “superior thrash.” Perhaps, KERRANG! put it best, “Dream Theater at their most accessible, and they lose nothing for it.”
In 2019, they embarked on a sold-out tour in support of both Distance Over Time and the 20th anniversary of Scenes From A Memory planned to stretch well into the next year. Nevertheless, a Global Pandemic foiled those plans. The musicians found themselves at home with LaBrie in Canada and the rest of the group in the States. As fate would have it, they’d just finished construction on Dream Theater HQ—a combination live recording studio, rehearsal space, control room, equipment storage, and creative hive. It proved to be a Godsend for recording, Pandemic or not.
“The tour had just stopped, and we were on hold,” recalls John. “We weren’t going to sit around and do nothing though. I broke in DTHQ with my solo record and a Liquid Tension Experiment record, so we absolutely felt like we could do a Dream Theater album there. It’s our home, and it sounds great. Looking ahead, I don’t see any reason why we’d go anywhere else to record. After being pent up for so long, we were all just happy to be playing, writing, and doing what we love together. The ideas flowed. Everyone brought his A-game. To a degree, it was influenced by revisiting Scenes From a Memory on the last tour as well as incorporating modern elements from Distance Over Time. Despite the state of the world, we were in a positive headspace.”
“It was awesome to have our own place,” Rudess grins. “We didn’t have to deal with the pressure of being in a studio with time limits. I could sit, compose, take my time, and deliver what I feel is some of my best work.”
With LaBrie in Canada, he initially wrote with the band via ZOOM on a monitor in DTHQ. In March 2021, he flew down to New York, quarantined, and recorded his vocals face-to-face with Petrucci. The album ultimately threaded together lean and uncompromising hooks with tried-and-true technical proficiency.
“The riffs are so important, but we were equally focused on the melodic structure and big hooks,” Petrucci goes on. “All of our favorite bands have done that. A great hook, melody, or groove will make you play air guitar or get up and dance. That’s important to us.”
Fittingly, the album opens with the slamming syncopated thrust of the first single “The Alien.” Over the course of nine minutes, thick distortion upholds expansive vocals as the track culminates on an arena-size chant.
“It’s the first one we wrote together,” Petrucci says. “It gives people a window into what it was like when we initially met up after all of those months off. It has the adventure, the untraditional structure, the heaviness, and the hooks. It really set the tone for the album.”
“My son suggested I watch Joe Rogan’s interview with Elon Musk,” adds LaBrie. “I was so inspired by what they were talking about as far as discovering other planets so we can terraform and create another home for ourselves. In essence, we are the travelers who are creating a new world. We become the alien.”
The follow-up single “Invisible Monster” hinges on a head-nodding mid-tempo trudge offset by cinematic keys, lyrical shredding, and a sweeping refrain. “It’s about how anxiety plagues people,” Petrucci explains. “It’s like there’s an invisible monster beating you. You don’t see it, but it’s haunting you all of the time.”
The cinematic “Sleeping Giant” reaches its apex with some signature solo trading between Petrucci and Rudess. It pairs this virtuosity with yet another chantable refrain uplifted by LaBrie.
“It’s about embracing your dark side and understanding it so you can live your life more completely,” Petrucci reveals. “We all have one. Some people take it too far and do evil. Other people ignore it and get taken advantage of. Embrace your sleeping giant. You don’t want to wake him, but know he’s there.”
“Transcending Time” translates “the flow state” into a sonic rollercoaster. Elsewhere, Petrucci employs an 8-string guitar for the first time on the simultaneously crushing and soaring “Awaken The Master.” However, the title track remains not only the crown jewel of the record, but a crown jewel in the band’s catalog. A 20-minute epic of uncompromising scope, “A View from the Top of the World” highlights the interplay of the group as it twists and turns through lush keys, gravity-defying guitar, brain-numbing rhythms, a moment of heavenly reprieve, and vocal fireworks.
“We went in with the goal of writing a crazy epic,” grins Petrucci. “There’s no ballad on the record, but ‘A View from the Top of the World’ does have a breakdown in the middle. It helps create a story and dynamic flow. I was thinking of people doing dangerous things like surfing 80-foot waves, slacklining across canyons, deep sea diving, scaling Everest, and climbing up mountains free solo. I’m always like, ‘What drives you to do that?’ One wrong move, and you’re dead. Besides being addicted to the adrenaline, it makes them feel more alive—perhaps the most alive they’ve ever been. I wrote this along the lines of when you’re on the brink of death, you’ve never felt more alive. Our extreme is being in this band. We’re just not going to die while doing it,” he laughs.
In the end, the view right now is pretty good for Dream Theater.
“When you hear this, I hope you get the very best Dream Theater have to offer,” Rudess concludes. “We tried to build a vital sonic experience. None of us have slowed down. If anything, we’re moving faster.”
“Even with everything going on, this was meant to be positive,” LaBrie elaborates. “We can’t wait to get back out in front of everyone and play these tunes.”
“Music has the power to speak to you on an emotional level,” Petrucci leaves off. “If we’re connecting with listeners emotionally through this record, I don’t think we could ask for anything more.”
– Rick Florino