After the mixed reception of The Astonishing, Dream Theater decided to regroup and recalibrate, which was a natural step after something as ambitious as a massive 2 disc concept album. In interviews, John Petrucci mentioned that the band decided to do what they had done for many of their most classic albums: isolate themselves in a live-in recording studio and knock out an album, together. The product was Distance Over Time, a focused, solid, and joyous effort from one of progressive metal’s most important and influential bands.
Petrucci has explained that Distance Over Time was significantly more collaborative than previous releases (The Astonishing was mostly written by John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess). This album has several songs that are credited to James Labrie, credits for John Myung on two songs, and even has a song that is attributed to not-so-new drummer Mike Mangini. Collaboration was the right choice on this record, as it has made for a much more diverse statement, both lyrically and sonically.
The three songs that were released as singles (“Untethered Angel”, “Paralyzed” and “Fall Into the Light”) sound like classic Dream Theater tracks, with catchy melodies an blistering, complex solos and instrumental passages. However, I have found myself preferring other tracks on the album much more than the three singles. For example, “Barstool Warrior” has all of the trappings of a classic progressive metal track, overflowing with melody, with a liveliness and vibe that is reminiscent of Rush.
Choosing to call the 6th track “S2N” instead of “Signal to Noise” was a cheesy choice, but this is one of the strongest songs on this album, with epic melodic lines, interesting lyrics, and solid overall songwriting. Dream Theater has written its fair share of catchy choruses, but this is one of their most memorable choruses in decades. This track is credited to the two Johns (Myung and Petrucci), and though Myung’s monster talent as a bassist and songwriter have been subdued in past releases, I’ve always loved and appreciated his contributions, and this song is no exception.
“Pale Blue Dot” is an absolute musical tour-de-force. There are numerous moments on this album where each member gets a spotlight, but on this song, every member has turned up to 11. Like the unison runs in “Blind Faith”, or “The Dance of Eternity”, these brilliant moments of interplay between some of prog’s best musicians are what Dream Theater fans live for.
I have been a fan of Mike Mangini’s drumming for decades, and the drum sound on the last few albums has been disappointing to me; the mix has felt thin and has lacked cojones. One of the first things I noticed on this new album is that Mangini’s drums have a more prominent spot in the mix. This also has historically applied to John Myung’s bass as well. On Distance Over Time, the dizzying instrumental sections are crisp and the heavy parts are chunky and loud. When you have so much going on musically, you have to find some way to achieve a balance, and I think Ben Grosse and Tom Baker (who mixed and mastered the album, respectively) deserve a shout out for finding a mix that plays to everyone’s strengths (though you could always turn up Myung).
With a band like Dream Theater, it’s hard to say who shines the most. A major part of Dream Theater’s enduring success has been the technicality of their music. But, If I had to pick an album MVP, it would be Mangini. As a professor of drums, he has historically played the “right” drum parts in Dream Theater songs. He mentioned in early interviews that many of his parts were guided by Petrucci or based on existing programmed drum parts. But we’re approaching almost a decade with Mangini in Dream Theater, and I feel like his personality is finally coming through in full force now. Mangini is one of the most technically competent drummers in a scene that is overflowing with amazing musicians, and if you have Mike Freaking Mangini (I think that’s his middle name…) playing drums on your album, you let him shine as much as possible. I am a drummer, and there are several moments on this album that absolutely blew my mind.
In closing, I’ve fallen in and out of love with Dream Theater since I first discovered them in the late 90s, but I feel like this album is a huge step in the right direction. The songs are catchy and well written, the instrumental parts are both tight and flashy, and there is a joy and exuberance on this album that I feel like has been absent in previous Dream Theater releases. I hope that, as Dream Theater continues to fine tune their formula and progress, they capitalize on what worked best for them on this record.
Dream Theater’s 14th studio album, Distance Over Time, was released on February 22, 2019 through InsideOut/Century Media. Order it here.