Progressive rock has sure taken its lumps over the years. Back in the ’70s, British prog bands like Yes, Genesis, and Jethro Tull were all the rage, selling mountains of vinyl, but punk put a major kibosh on popular music that favoured technical virtuosity and complex arrangements. There are a few survivors of the antichops purge, though. Canadian power-trio Rush has managed to thrive and continues to pack arenas worldwide, but it also enjoys the support of commercial radio. Dream Theater hasn’t been so lucky. Without access to the airwaves, the New York–based quintet has had to travel the fan-driven, underground route, but it’s done so brilliantly, and with amazing results.
Dream Theater’s latest release is a two-disc collection titled Greatest Hit (”¦and 21 other pretty cool songs), referring to the only song—1992’s “Pull Me Under”—that has garnered significant airplay during the group’s 19-year recording career. But the times they are a-changin’, and progressive acts like Dream Theater may yet break into the mainstream. One need only consider the full-on embrace of prog by hipster-approved acts such as Coheed & Cambria, Black Mountain, and the Mars Volta. As Dream Theater vocalist James LaBrie explains in a call from Barrie, Ontario, the return of the 20-minute epic might not be too far off.
“I think that it’s definitely trying to make a resurgence,” he says of the prog-rock genre. “There are bands that really care about the quality of music that they’re writing, and that just don’t want to go down the same avenue as most of the bands you hear on the radio today. Unfortunately, radio basically says to a lot of the listeners out there that what you hear is what music is. There’s so much more to it.”
Dream Theater’s ninth and latest studio album, 2007’s Systematic Chaos, certainly doesn’t qualify as typical top-down, radio-on cruising material. It opens and closes with a two-part epic, “In the Presence of Enemies”, that spans more than 25 minutes. LaBrie feels that his band has been pigeonholed somewhat by the length of its material.
“When a lot of people hear the name Dream Theater, they automatically think, ”˜Oh, that’s a progressive band—they’ve got these long, very involved, meandering songs. Granted, we do have songs that are a little longer than most bands would even attempt to write, but at the same time, we’re not just a progressive band. We’re hard rock, we’re heavy metal, we’re classically influenced, we’re pop-influenced. With that stylistic diversity, there’s a lot more to offer, which gives us that potential to break into these ”˜hit’ areas, but unfortunately they’ve eluded us.”
Realizing early on that big radio wasn’t the conduit for its adventurous musical mindset, Dream Theater set out to build a dedicated following through intense touring. Over the years the relentless gigging has taken a toll on the group, though. “We still love the buzz of going on-stage and playing for our fans,” LaBrie notes, “but I think that we’re all, for the most part, burnt out on travelling. The novelty of flying all over the world—the planes, trains, and automobiles—basically wore off after a coupla world tours.”
One of the more bizarre aspects of the band’s touring history—for Vancouver fans, at least—is the fact that it’s never performed here. In fact, the furthest west it has ever been in Canada is Toronto. Local Dream Theater freaks would continually see their heroes booking gigs that brought them within spitting distance of the B.C. border, but never across it.
“For many years, we’ve been playing in Seattle,” LaBrie says, “and you’re basically just a hop-skip from there, but it all came down to the promoters in that area not being aware of Dream Theater as a musical force. Lately they started saying, ”˜Wait a second, where’s the buzz on the streets coming from?’, and I think with Vancouver, a bit of that has come our way because Roadrunner [the band’s new label] has been extremely aggressive in marketing us into areas of the world that have been previously left alone.”
Engineered and mixed by Paul Northfield (Rush, Queensrí¿che), Systematic Chaos continues the virtuoso melding of ’70s-style prog and ’80s-style metal that the band—LaBrie, guitarist John Petrucci, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, drummer Mike Portnoy, and bassist John Myung—is noted for. Most of the lyrics were penned by coproducers Petrucci and Portnoy, but LaBrie, the sole Canadian member, provided the words for “Prophets of War”, a damning indictment of Dubya’s disaster in Iraq.
“That song is about the frustration with the powers that be for having their ulterior motives create such a horrific, no-win situation,” he explains. “Basically the message there is that we really have to start questioning our politicians—no matter who they are, where they are, and what they’re saying—because it is our right. I think people have forgotten that the power is in our hands, and that if there’s enough voices behind it, we will see things change rapidly.”
Those changes can’t come fast enough for LaBrie and his American mates. “That goes without saying,” he stresses. “I don’t think I’m alone on that one.”
Dream Theater plays the sold-out Orpheum on Tuesday (May 6).