Judging by Dream Theater’s characteristically complicated arrangements, accumulative song structures and academically informed instrumentation, it’s easy to identify that relaxation is not their strong suit. Dream Theater’s non-stop working regime has seen them release 12 albums since forming in 1985, with a brand new self-titled studio LP landing this week. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess says their unrelenting work ethic is essentially founded on subsistence.
“It is a business. In order to have a business, we have to work – we have to produce an album or we have to be touring. If we sit around for too long the business will fall apart. It’s not like Dream Theater’s at the level where we could take a year or two off and expect to continue to put food on the table.”
Dream Theater have released seven albums this century alone and when you factor in non-stop touring, a handful of live albums and a lengthy list of side projects (including instrumental project Liquid Tension Experiment, solo albums from both guitarist John Petrucci and singer James LaBrie, and Rudess’ recent work in Levin Minnemann Rudess) you’ll likely find yourself suffering from vicarious exhaustion. However, even though Rudess refers to the band as a business, it’s not as if they view their constant activity as a chore.
“There’s an element of ‘work’ to it because sometimes it’s a little bit challenging or maybe something’s technically hard to pull off and you’ve got to make it happen. It’s work but it’s work that I and we enjoy doing, on that level it’s OK.”
The new record is the first self-titled release of Dream Theater’s 28-year career and Rudess reveals the album title was prompted by their supreme confidence in the new material. “We feel it’s good enough and representative enough of who we are, and the musicians and people that we are, that we could put that official title to it for the first time.”
Rudess adds that from the outset they approached this album with a plan to create a more concise entity than much of their previous work. “We didn’t necessarily want to have everything on the album stretched-out, broad and wandering, if you will, like some prog albums or even like some Dream Theater music. We wanted to say, ‘OK guys, we’ve got these cool ideas, we’ve got these chops, but let’s see if we can write some songs that are not all nine to ten minutes long’.”
The finished product reveals that Dream Theater didn’t completely adhere to this manifesto. “There’s a 22-minute piece on this album, but we’re Dream Theater so we’re allowed to do that. There’s also a couple of four-minute things and a couple of six-minute things, so we wanted to try to be a little bit more to the point about some of the songs,” says Rudess.
Dream Theater is also significant as the first album to feature drummer extraordinaire Mike Mangini (who replaced founding member Mike Portnoy in 2011) as a creatively contributing member. Each member’s technical strength is irrefutable – in addition to Mangini’s multiple ‘World’s Fastest Drummer’ titles, a number of accolades have been bestowed upon Rudess, Petrucci and bassist John Myung. Rudess doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the band’s technical prowess, but he admits their instrumental wizardry alone is not enough to make emotionally affecting music.
“It’s really, really important to us to have that emotional connection. Some people might say Dream Theater are virtuosos or whatever but that’s not our primary concern. The bigger concern for us is that we write really cool songs and they feel good to listen to and not be off-putting by being too complex or too academic. We like to stop and have a good hook or a nice melody, you know, a chance to breathe a little bit. The technique is just a vehicle to make music. The reason we tried to become good at our instruments is so we could express ourselves and that would definitely mean that we’re trying to get an emotion across.”
Even though Dream Theater are almost 30 years into their career, they continue to conduct sell-out tours across the globe, which is a sure indication of their dedicated fan base. Despite the passionate following, Rudess says the band still seeks to attract new fans with each release and ultimately hopes to push into a higher stratum of the popular culture sphere. “We want to keep the fans we have and make some new ones; broaden our horizons. We’d like to have Dream Theater move to the next level, become more like what Rush means to the world of music. That would be great.”
Rudess’ ambition to emulate bands of gigantic stature, such as Rush, indicates Dream Theater are aware each record they produce impacts upon their place within the cultural milieu and contributes to the next chapter of their continually evolving story. “We’re very conscious of that when we go into an album, like, ‘What have we done, what haven’t we done, where are we in the story, what would we enjoy doing now, what should be done at this point in our career?’ For any recording we do, or any touring that we do, those types of things are definitely taken into consideration, because the bigger picture really is the more important thing in all of this.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY