CD Comments – Dream Theater, Dream Theater

(Image from, used for review purposes only.)

Dream Theater – Dream Theater (2013).
This self-titled album is what I’m talking about regarding the fourth stage of innovation, where the use of synthesizers becomes “all about the song”. Jordan Rudess is a master at the keyboard, and he puts sounds exactly where he wants them because that’s what the song calls for. This is good, because if you’re looking for a tight, solid rock album (again, I think DT has a goth feel to it, and some of the guitar stings are straight out of a Dethklok cartoon), this is it. On the other hand, if you’re a student of synthesizers and electronica, it’s becoming almost impossible to separate specific synth patches from the rest of the song, and in some cases I can’t be sure if I’m hearing a fuzzed-out electric guitar, or a synth playing a guitar patch.

But there are places in several of the songs on this album where synth keyboards do stand out, either on intros or specific solos. What I find a bit disappointing is that the lyrics are usually navel-gazing pretentious pieces that border on theatrical goth, and James LeBrie often does that “Elizabethean accent slurring” you get from college students trying to write gothic stories (such as pronouncing “fear” as “feah”). There are a couple songs where he just flat-out sings, and when that happens he does a pretty good job of it. But, the songs I like best off Dream Theater are the two instrumental pieces (False Awakening Suite and Enigma Machine), which are straight heavy metal rock.

After listening to the album a number of times, I started taking notes, writing down my opinions of the songs and listing places where I recognized certain effects. I was about to type them up when my curiosity got the better of me and I went to youtube to see what LeBrie looks like (because my mental image didn’t align with what he sounds like). I watched the live footage of Illumination Theory, accompanied by the Boston orchestra and just tossed my notes away. Music in a studio recording can be manipulated so many ways that you just can’t say “this is someone playing a synth sample, and now this is someone playing an actual acoustic instrument”. But, when you see the live performance and all the acoustic players everywhere, it’s a lot easier to tell where the synth comes in. More importantly, though, the Illumination Theory video illustrates just exactly where Jordan is coming from as a keyboardist – the patches are fixed and he focuses solely on the keys and the pitch bend wheel. Everything is about the song, and not the instrument. (Well, on the performance, since he sometimes switches to a portable shoulder-strap guitar/keyboard hybrid to get out in front of the audience.)

Regardless, of all the keyboard players I’ve seen, (Wakeman, Kingsley, Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, Keith Emerson, DEVO, etc.), Rudess is the most fascinating to both watch and listen to. I’d recommend any of his material from both Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment in a New York second.

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