Dream Theater: the reconquest of the throne

James LaBrie & Jordan Rudess - Dream TheaterScene From A Memory, released in 1999, is not only one of the most emblematic works of Dream Theater but also one of the most recognized conceptual albums of the metal world. Therefore it’s not surprising that for years, the fans have been calling out loud and long for a new conceptual release of this caliber, especially after a series of albums in recent years, in which Dream Theater has more or less rested on its laurels. The group finally heard, offering this year what appears to be, on paper at least, the most ambitious album ever envisioned by the group, called The Astonishing.

Two discs, thirty-four tracks, an orchestra, various choirs and a complex history. In 2285, in a world where the rich Great Northern Empire Of The Americas (embodied by Emperor Nafaryus, Empress Arabelle, Daryus and Faythe) is opposed to rebel militia Ravenskill (embodied by Evangeline, Gabriel and Arhys) living in poverty, art no longer exists, replaced by « noise machines » called Nomacs. Gabriel is the hero who shows to people emotions, passion, happiness and hope that comes with the music, which obviously worries Emperor Nafaryus who fears an uprising.

The story has been conceived and written by guitarist John Petrucci and music composed by him and keyboardist Jordan Rudess. It’s the latter, with singer James LaBrie (unfortunately with mild laryngitis the day of our interview), who faced the challenge of incarnating no less than eight characters for the sake of history, we have met to talk about this monumental undertaking that has been theirs for two and a half years and which result is about to see the light of day.

Dream Theater

« With the member change, at that point, the focus was on letting our fanbase know that we’re still the same band […]. So after doing two albums with Mike Mangini, it just felt appropriate and natural that this was the time to approach another conceptual piece. »

Radio Metal: Your new album is called The Astonishing. Being a rock opera with 34 songs spread over two discs and featuring a big conceptual story, it sounds like the most ambitious album the band ever did. So how was this massive project born?

James LaBrie (vocals): I’d say the seeds were born about two and a half years ago. John [Petrucci] had a musical inspiring moment and, from that musical inspiration, he came up with also a concept, a storyline. I can barely talk! (Note: James had a sore throat)

Jordan Rudess (keyboards): I’ll start it while you drink some water. Basically the band knew that we wanted to create a concept album, it’s something that we wanted to do for a while. But to do that and do it right, we needed to have a really solid story. So as James said, two and a half years ago, John started to kind of plant the seeds for the story and begin to write something. And a little over a year ago he presented it to us and we all found it really inspiring, and it really was a good time to start working on a concept album. So after he showed it to us, he and I started to work on the music. What started out with us both in different locations, him in his house me in my house writing stuff, eventually we got together and gathered to work every day on this very detailed story and kind of put together this huge concept album.

Actually, James, in the promotional biography, you’re quoted saying that « this album is something you guys had to do.” Why this urge?

James: Well, it’s been sixteen years since Scenes From A Memory. We’ve been talking for the last three or four years that, when time’s just around the corner, it would be cool to do another concept album sometimes soon, and I think, with the member change, at that point, the focus was on letting our fanbase know that we’re still the same band, we’re still going to pump up great music, but that wasn’t the right timing to go and do a concept album. I think at that point in our carrier, in 2011 with A Dramatic Turn Of Events, 2013 with the self-titled album, those albums did have to happen before we found ourselves in a situation where we felt: “This is the appropriate timing.” Those albums are albums that we can be absolutely so very proud of. So after doing two albums with Mike Mangini, it just felt appropriate and natural that this was the time to approach another conceptual piece. So yeah, they did need to happen before we were back in the situation again.

As you said, Jordan, the music on the album was written as a duo, between you and John. Can you tell us more on how you two collaborated on the conception of this album?

Jordan: For the sixteen years that I’ve been in the group, pretty much what happens is that we go to the studio, sometimes all together, sometimes not completely all together but anyway, John and I are very close as far as writing the music for Dream Theater and have always been. But on this album, we decided that it was going to be such a detailed kind of focused project, it’s something that’s almost like scoring for a movie, that we really should be in a quiet space, almost like a classical composer point of view or position. So we did that and we told all the guys what we were going to do, we booked time to be together just with my keyboards and my computer, John with his guitar and his computer, and we just set out to do this big job. Of course, it was a humongous job just from a story point of view, and that’s what John did, he created the story and wrote the lyrics, but the two of us wrote the music together. As far as writing the music, what was interesting about it was that we had to come up with styles that are beyond what we usually do for Dream Theater which is of course a mixture of prog and metal and some others elements too, but we had to reach a little further, go a little deeper and bring stuff. There’s a lot of orchestral elements, there’s a lot of really beautiful melodies you can sing along too, so the scope of it is a lot larger. So being together in a room like that for an extended time gave us the opportunity to really focus in on the job that needed to happen and craft this thing, so that all the thematic material would relate to the story; the colors and the music would directly kind of tie into this very involved story as it weaves along.

Apparently, you guys took the story and scored the music around it. Can you tell us how challenging it was to proceed in such manner, having the story before the music?

Jordan: Well, it was really important to have the story before the music.

James: That actually puts you in a great situation, to have the story already written, because it was immediately visual and Jordan’s the kind of musician that reads something and it already sounds or flow through his head at lightning speed. He is very instinctual with music as a whole. It’s a gift that not many people know, but he reacts immediately to anything. I mean, the storyline being developed before just puts both of these guys in an amazing situation.

Jordan: I guess that is a reality that, like, when James or John talks to me about something to do with an idea related to the music, usually, during that conversation, I’m processing [chuckles], thinking, almost like creating music as we speak. I probably shouldn’t because I should pay more attention to what people are saying, but the way my brain literally works is that I’ll be responding almost in a musical manner. So with this story, it was great John wrote the story because maybe that’s why, as soon as he handed it to me, almost immediately I started to think, to create emotions. My experience as a musician is being able to take the emotion and naturally kind of put it out to sound. So that’s what the creation of this album was all about. Of course, composing music is yet a further task because then you have to start making decisions. Like if there’s a piano here, I could sit here and play music you’ve never heard during all day and non-stop, but if we’re actually going to stop and compose it and say this is the stuff you want to keep [chuckles], then this can take more time to go to a different head space. Like there are themes in this music, themes that recur, and first of all we had to decide when they recur, related to the story, and how they recur. Like one time we had to do this one theme we knew we wanted it to recur towards the end but we had already done it a couple times before, and I wanted to do something different with it and I couldn’t think of how I wanted to do it. So I said to John: “I’m going out for a walk, I’ll be back.” And I got half-way on this walk and I heard the chorus in my head. I got back and said: “I got it!” I played it and he was like: “Oh my God! It’s great!” So it’s just that you have to get space and get away from it, and then come back and, you know, good things are going to happen.

Dream Theater - The Astonishing

« When James or John talks to me about something to do with an idea related to the music, usually, during that conversation, I’m processing [chuckles], thinking, almost like creating music as we speak. »

James, on the nine tracks that we’ve heard from the record, you sometimes sound very theatrical, like on “Lord Nafarius”. So how different was it for you to sing on a rock opera? How did you approach your vocals?

I wish I had a good voice to talk about this right now! Well, I think what assisted me in knowing how I wanted to prepare and approach this was that, in the past, I was involved in the album called The Absolute Man, with Trent Gardner, where I was personalized as Leonardo Da Vinci, and I also did an album with Arjen Lucassen, The Human Equation, where I was the lead role on that. So those environments had already been [theatrical] and I remember taking those experiences and thinking about how I approached them. But this was on a completely different scale because there are eight characters, seven of which who are alive, one was deceased. So I had to really immerse myself into the story first and foremost. And then, from there, being very comfortable with how the story unfolded, with what the story was about, by the time that John got me the lyrics, it was a matter of becoming each and every one of those characters, feeling that I was as close to them and I’d become them as much as possible. And then, figuring out through the lyrics, at any given moment, what the expression had to be, what the emotion was that I should have been feeling, how that character would interact and what sound I should create for each of those characters, including the females, Arabelle and Faythe. So it was an unprecedented challenge, I think, just because of the size of the scope of the music, and the story itself being a classic, a very extremely well written story, it really enabled me to be able to take it to another level vocally.

The Astonishing pictures a retro-futurist post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by medieval style feudalism. This is the first time we see such themes in Dream Theater’s music. What was the inspiration for such story?

Jordan: John says that he is inspired by things like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones, Harry Potter and all of those kind of sci-fi fantasy and ideas. We all love that, all of us really relate to that. So that was a theme that really worked for us. One of the challenges was actually finding an artist who could do it the way we were all envisioning it. So after looking around a whole lot, we found this Chinese guy, his name is Jie Ma, and he just had this amazing style, kind of mixing those elements together. He’s managed to create visually this whole world, which is so helpful because people respond to music, certainly it’s a Dream Theater album, but to have the visual element to go along really help people to immerse themselves in this world that we’re creating.

The songs we’ve heard from the album feature all the classic elements we expect from Dream Theater but also, here and there, some new elements, such as medieval music inspired parts. You briefly mentioned that previously, but did having a story-driven album allowed you to explore territories you wouldn’t have thought of exploring without the concept?

James: Yes, of course. I mean, we even had to dig much deeper and expend the source of style, inspiration and what was appropriate for that particular point in the story.

Jordan: It was cool because we got to actually use some styles that we’ve always had maybe within us but we never had the opportunity to use before because it was never appropriate. Like all the electronics is a good example. I mean, I’ve always been in electronic music and done stuff outside of Dream Theater but now I have the opportunity to really go for it and do these bits. There’s a bunch of different Nomacs (note: Noise Machines that have replaced artists in the story) kind of scenes during the album, and they’re totally electronics and I got to produce them with all my synthesizers and computer. It was great fun! But that’s not all, like you said, there’s these interesting romantic classical parts, there’s parts where a James is singing a kind of beautiful… almost like a love theme… We haven’t really done that before. So having the story opens things up for us to expand even more, which I think is so personally rewarding. It’s so exciting! An example being, even beyond what I did musically, compositionally, and what John did, to be able to present James with the music that we did that has all these dynamics and all these soft and really beautiful floating melodies, and really aggressive things too. It was fantastic because one of my favorite things that he does is that he goes from that amazing gentle tone to the energy sound, and to hear that full-range on this album is like: “Yes!” It’s like a tour de force for him!

James: It was incredibly inspiring! It’s a musical home that hasan unbelievable pallet for a singer to be able to immerse himself. I mean, oh my God! I was flipping out, I was so excited! But, you know, as extreme as Dream Theater has been in the past, where everybody pushes the envelope, I think that these guys, Jordan and John, even took it further this time. There were no holds barred with them going to extremities with styles that might have been done in the past but even taking it that much further, and being unexpected, but being perfect for what was necessary to get this message across both musically and the story being represented to the forced. It was incredible!

Dream Theater

« As extreme as Dream Theater has been in the past, where everybody pushes the envelope, I think that these guys, Jordan and John, even took it further this time. »

Does the name of the album, The Astonishing, has mainly to do with its ambitious nature or does it have something specific to do with the concept itself?

Jordan: Well, The Astonishing really does relate to the whole story in a positive kind of outcome that comes from the story. You know, in general, the story’s about this technology that is basically taking over and it’s almost like controlling what’s happening in this [14:53 – culture. Then a culture] of people within it realize that there’s something that they’ve been missing, and there’s a character in a show that has this gift of music. And what happens along that show and between these noise machines that are happening and this amazing character that represents music, all the elements of that and all the details of the story are The Astonishing.
James: Right. You know, the world is dystopian, you could say, but it’s become sterile, it’s become soulless, it’s become faithless, and this character Gabriel is brining all that back. He’s infectious, he’s magnetic, because he’s once again showing what’s been lost and that is the artistic elements that existed within human beings and that we can express ourselves unlike any other animal or any other thing that exists on this planet. There is nothing that creates this such profound, artistic awakenings. And that’s what he did. He was able to see and show people the relationship with instrument, as an extension of oneself, that organically had something that we need to reattach or once again make a reality in that world, and do away with the desensitizing that these emperors and machines have created. Because they’re also the monitor, they also watch how society operates, pretty much controlling and making sure that everyone is living within the confines of rules.

On this album, you’ve used a real orchestra and choir, arranged by David Campbell. How did this collaboration go?

Jordan: It’s funny, I was thinking that one of the things about this album is that, you know, you hear about bands sometimes and they’re like: “Okay, this is the album where we did everything! We did the whole kitchen sink! You have all these elements and orchestras and choirs…” It sounds kind of funny, but for us, in this album, this is the one where we did do that! We had an orchestra, we had a choir, we had a gospel choir, we had a boys’ choir, we had a bag pipe player, we had cellos, we had a soprano, we even had James LaBrie singing on it, which is an honor!

James: [Chuckles] Yeah, you’re a funny guy…

Jordan: So, yeah, working with David Campbell was great because we had so many elements, so many things that we wanted to do, that we needed someone who’s capable to make that level of everything happen. Not only to write it out for the orchestra and the choir, but to also understand how to get it all done, how to record it, where to record it, what do you use, what to do, the time frame, the budget, the scope of the music – some of it is rock music, some of it is classical sounding music… So David Campbell was the one that we wanted to do it because we had heard about him do lot of things but also he had done a Rush project… Oh, not Rush, a project with Muse (note: the 2012 album The 2nd Law, and more specifically the performance of the song “Survival” for the London Olympics) that we watched and thought it was really cool, so we figured this is the guy. So we asked him. We got through to him and he said he wanted to do it. We were like: “Wow!” Because that guy’s resume is unbelievable!
James: And he did work with Rush as well.

Jordan: Oh, he did?

James: Yeah, he did do a little bit of work with Rush (note: on the 2012 album Clockwork Angels).

Jordan: And then what happened was that, originally, John and I were in the studio writing all this music, and we thought that we would just write songs and then kind of do our general thing – piano and organ, whatever, and guitar -, give it to him and let him do like whatever he was going to do. It seemed like that was maybe what was going to happen. But it didn’t quite turned out that way because when we got into the studio, you know, the kind of people we are, the kind of musicians we are, we realized that we really wanted to sound like what we wanted to sound like! [Chuckles] So I ended up using all my virtual instruments to make it sound orchestral and choiry before we even handed it to him. Which is great because I love to orchestrate and I got a chance to kind of do a lot of that, and then when I handed it to David, he had a really good idea of what we wanted and he could take what I played and make it for real instruments, which is not my specialty. I’m good in a MIDI studio but David is a master orchestrator. So if I played a string chord, he could say: “Okay, well, these are five notes in that string chord, the top note we’ll give it to the violin, the bottom one’s the cello…” There’s a lot of work to be done when a keyboard player plays a string chord, as an example. So David was amazing because he really understood what was going on, he understood how to take what I did and make it real and make it sound right. He was just a really nice, great guy to work with.

Interview conducted 4th, december 2015 by Valentin Istria.
Retranscription: Valentin Istria (with Vordaï Mercier).
Introduction: Nicolas Gricourt.

Dream Theater Official website: www.dreamtheater.net.

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