Dream Theater overcomes infighting on its way to crafting its magnus opus.

Theater of Pain 

Dream Theater overcomes infighting on its way to crafting its magnus opus.

In today's instant-gratification-driven musical climate, in which persistent hooks and immediate melodies provide the quickest route to all-important airways access, Dream Theater remains an enigma, a band that practically challenges listeners to get through one of its records. It's no surprise that U.S. fans have kept their distance, with only a handful willing to hang with songs that just get started at the seven-minute mark, cheesed-out synthesizers delivered straight from Asia (the band, that is) and month-long guitar solos that hammer on and wail away as if punk never happened. It also goes without saying that Dream Theater is massive in Europe, where it just spent several weeks playing giant venues for rabid throngs of prog-rock diehards.

"It was an awesome start to the year," says drummer Mike Portnoy. "We do arenas over there, so it's like a whole 'nother world. It's very encouraging to us. It makes us remember why it's worth it to keep on truckin' along."

Dream Theater's musical journey began nearly sixteen years ago, when Portnoy met guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung as freshmen at Boston's Berklee College of Music. The trio hit it off immediately, and soon it was devoting more time to its own music than to recreating scales. Within a year, all three musicians dropped out.

"Berklee is totally competitive, but in a very positive, healthy way," Portnoy says. "In fact, that's a big part of the reason why we decided to leave Berklee after a year: If you wanted to succeed, you had to really give 100 percent into the school work. And the way we looked at it, if you want to succeed in the music business, you also have to put 100 percent into your career."

Dream Theater's 1989 debut, When Dream and Day Unite, contained all the ingredients of the group's sonic soup: adventurous soundscapes with heavy focus on exploratory instrumentation, commercial considerations be damned. And damned they were. Though critics cheered Dream and Day, the group's label, MCA, offered almost no promotion, and the disc stiffed in stores. Frustrated, the band began fielding offers from record companies that promised to make Dream Theater a priority. Unfortunately, MCA wouldn't let the group out of its deal without a fat wad of cash trading hands.

"We had to buy ourselves out of that contract," Portnoy says with a sigh. "We begged them to drop us because they weren't doing anything with us. And sure enough, they didn't want to let us go because they held the leverage of the contract."

It was nearly three years before Dream Theater returned to the limelight with the Elektra-issued Images and Words. The release featured new vocalist James LaBrie, but musically much was the same. Images proved a commercial breakthrough for the outfit, whose prog-rock marathons were beginning to cause a major stir in Europe. Despite this success, however, things began to fray at the edges.

The recording of 1997's Falling Into Infinity was fraught with external pressures, internal squabbles and bad vibes. Portnoy had tired of industry sharks with little other than money on their minds and was disgusted with some of his bandmates, who seemed all too willing to hand over the artistic reins to others.

"We had the record company breathing down our necks, and we had managers and producers and lawyers trying to steer us in certain directions and tell us what we can and can't do," the drummer recalls. "As a result, there were a lot of internal disagreements because some people in the band were willing to bend with the record company's suggestions, and other members were not."

This sea of negativity was soon threatening to drown the group. Near the end of the Infinity tour, an embittered Portnoy called a band meeting and announced that he was calling it quits. The other Dreamers begged the drummer to stay, determined to make a final bid for creative freedom. Portnoy demurred.

"We went to our new managers and said, 'Look, you have to get us our complete, artistic control back or else tell [Elektra] we're not going to do this anymore, and they won't have a band at all,'" Portnoy says. "So when faced with that ultimatum, they took a step back and let us do our thing."

Dream Theater did just that, immediately issuing a live double-disc set and holing up in the studio to craft the ambitious, self-produced Scenes From a Memory. A sprawling concept work, the 1999 opus proved the artistic breakthrough the band was searching for. Elektra stayed true to its hands-off promise, giving the group enough breathing room to do its thing. For once, the results were positive creatively and financially.

"If the album had failed, we probably would've been dropped, and who knows if the band would've even stayed together," Portnoy admits. "So it really was a do-or-die situation for us. We knew we had to regain our artistic control, and the only way to do that was to make this record and cross our fingers that it would succeed. And luckily it did."

Dream Theater's luck nearly ran out last September 11, the release date for the triple-disc Live Scenes From New York City. Though the project was epic in scope -- a Big Apple concert packaged with a Portnoy-directed film of the event -- the artwork proved untimely. The Live Scenes cover depicted a bombed-out New York skyline, complete with the twin towers of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames. The artwork was swiftly replaced after -- what else? -- another battle with Elektra.

"They wanted to just put a sticker on the cover," Portnoy says. "But when people got home and opened it up, the twin towers in flames would still be there. We didn't want the CD to be a reminder of September 11, 2001. It was supposed to be a reminder of August 30, 2000. So we insisted on changing it."

At the time of this latest calamity, the members of Dream Theater had just returned from Bear Tracks Studios, where they were ensconced for months writing and developing the music for their latest effort, Six Degrees of Turbulence. While many musicians would rather lose a finger than spend months hibernating in the studio, Dream Theater happily toiled every day for nearly half a year.

After months of hammering away, the band had a new record ready to go, only to discover that there were still two weeks of remaining studio time. Rather than split with the finished record and call it a day, the group opted to write and record one final number.

"It was just full speed ahead writing and brainstorming ideas," Portnoy recalls. "And next thing we knew, two weeks later, the track was up to forty minutes. That's when we called up our manager and said, 'Tell the label we have two CDs here; it's gonna be a double.'"

Six Degrees of Turbulence may be Dream Theater's most ambitious effort to date, a mere six songs filling two CDs. The second disc contains only one number -- the final one recorded -- but what a song it is: an epic, six-part musical journey that covers just about every genre of music in the book.

"It's everything you've ever wanted to know but have been afraid to listen to in 42 minutes," jokes Portnoy, who seems more content than ever with his band's position in the music world. More important, the drummer appears to have made peace with the brass at Elektra. "Here we are, a band delivering ten- to fifteen-minute songs, everything that is completely anti-MTV and antiradio, and they don't know what to do with us," he says. "But I think they've finally accepted that we are what we are."

At long last, Portnoy and company seem to have done the same.


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