Monthly Archives: September 2013

Dream Theater ratchet up everything on new album

Dream Theater 2013

Dream Theater have done it again — dazzling us diehard fans with some superbly crafted songs and an overall collection of masterful works.

Admittedly it is hard for me to be impartial when talking about Dream Theater. I have, after all, been a fan of the band since 1994. However, I think the new self-titled album is something rather special.

That’s saying something. This is Dream Theater album no. 12 so at this stage they shouldn’t be surprising fans as they did in the preceding 11 albums. True to form, Dream Theater have outdone themselves and produced a stunning album with perhaps 2 or 3 of their best songs ever.

For the uncompromising prog rock fan, there’s 22 minute opus Illumination Theory, the 6 minute scorching instrumental Enigma Machine and a haunting, cinematic sounding intro entitled False Awakening Suite.

The album is superbly well thought out in terms of overall contour. It’s a total listen rather than a pick and choose kind of album with several high points on the way to the massive denouement provided by Illumination Theory.

Dream Theater promised that this self-titled work would be indicative of their entire career but would stand alone as an innovative and individual piece of work. I think they achieved that quite beautifully with sounds dating back to earlier albums such as When Dream and Day Unite, Images and Words and 1994’s Awake (regarded as the band’s best album by many).

The band explicitly reveals their influences on a few tracks, notably Rush and Metallica, but there are also some touches of Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis in places. Instrumentally, every member of the band brought their ‘A’ game to the recording studio. Guitarist John Petrucci and Keyboardist Jordan Rudess drive the bands electic mix of melodies, harmonies and jaw dropping solos. Fans however will note the emergence of somewhat reserved bassist John Myung in the mix. Myung’s bass seems to really jump out in places and the effect harkens back to classic Rush and Yes era where the bass drove the band solidly.

Drummer Mike Mangini seems right at home on this his first album as a true creative contributor from day one. His chops are phenomenal in songs such as The Enemy Inside where his blend of syncopation and double bass play elevates the band into the stratosphere.

James LaBrie is in top form vocally, especially in songs where the meter of the song is so off the wall it is a challenge to hum let alone sing. This album could potentially contain LaBrie’s best vocal performances of his career.

Here is a song-by-song breakdown of Dream Theater. The [Bright spot] label indicates what songs I think are the high points of the album.

False Awakening Suite

Short but suite! The song seems to be an intentional opening track — The percussive opening adds drama and intrigue as we instantly know this is a Dream Theater album, but remain uncertain as to which way the song and album is going to go. The snake like melodies at the beginning of this track and ensuing riffs are classic Dream Theater.

The Enemy Inside

The past three albums had On the Backs of Angels, A Rite of Passage and Constant Motion. The Enemy Inside is this album’s installment of the continuing Dream Theater tradition of beginning an album with a well crafted, power song with a memorable riff. These are usually the songs that I want to learn how to play on guitar first and make good singles (usually abridged of course). This track was released 6 weeks prior the album release date, giving us a taste of the music to follow. The song makes a lot more sense in the album context rather than as a standalone track.

The Looking Glass [Bright spot]

Lots of memories invoked by this song. The feel is very much like Rush with the upbeat Lydian main riff. The song, though, is very reminiscent of the Images and Words/Awake era in sound and structure. The solo beginning at 3:13 is classic Petrucci, nice scalar flourishes and a melody that fits the music perfectly. The first of a handful of songs on the album to have touches of Rush’s Moving Pictures sound.

Enigma Machine

Angry, haunting and sure to be recognised in the same breath as The Dance Of Eternity when mentioning Dream Theater’s best instrumentals. The interplay between guitar and keyboard, along with the melodies and heavy 7-string riffs really do recall the best moments of the Scenes From A Memory album from 1999 with heavy touches reminiscent of Train of Thought. One of the many champagne moments on the album.

The Bigger Picture

The song sounds like it could have easily been a song originally written for the 2007 Systematic Chaos album. A catchy chorus and a nice ‘come down’ from the craziness of The Enigma Machine. Overall a nice melodic structure and great songwriting. Probably top candidate on the album for radio airplay, despite clocking in at over 6 minutes.

Behind the Veil [Bright spot]

Could well be my favourite track on the album. A quiet atmospheric opening brings to mind Yes and Rush again (Xanadu maybe?) before Petrucci launches into a Megadeth style power riff. The verse settles in and the sound is unmistakably Dream Theater. Another catchy chorus, this time preceded by a lovely open string chordal figure. The breakdown comes and we hear the odd time signature riffs that have become Dream Theater staples. Behind the Veil is a triumph of musicianship that the layperson could happily listen to whilst also satisfying us diehard prog fans.

Surrender to Reason

If the Looking Glass was channeling Rush’s Moving Pictures, the Lydian riff in this song and the opening passages sure bring to mind Freewill from the Permanent Waves album with touches of Chemistry and Distant Early Warning from the Signals album. The acoustic verse is a nice contrast before a heavily phased/chorused guitar sound enters, which serves to further bring the Rush sound. The solo is also very Alex Lifesonesque, both in tone (washed out wah flavoured) and in attack. Another very well crafted song.

Along for the Ride

Beautiful clean tone and song structure. The only ballad on the album, is similar in atmosphere to The Ministry of Lost Souls from 2007. It is a fantastic piece of songwriting that serves as a setup for perhaps the most remarkable and majestic finale to a Dream Theater album ever…

Illumination Theory [Bright spot]

Wow. I could write an entire blog post breaking this song down and salivating over how great it is. This is Dream Theater at their epic and sublime best and it is going to be one mother of a song when witnessed live. It has everything: A great anthemic beginning, power riffs, insane interplay between keyboard and guitar, great drumming, haunting chorus… Even an extended string section followed by funk bass guitar that propels the song into the final sections. A scintillating masterpiece reminiscent of A Change of Seasons and just as epic. The denouement that the album needed to fully satisfy the committed listener and the grandeur to inspire awe.

If you need a machine to work your abs you’re doing it wrong

There is a never ending supply of new exercise machines that are supposed to build miracle abs. The truth, however, is that they’re virtually all gimmicks and completely unnecessary.

You don’t need any machines to work your abs. None. So turn off the Shopping Channel and get on the floor and work those abs. In the time you’ve made the call and ordered one of those miracle ab machines you could have pumped out 2-3 sets of cross body mountain climbers. You could have done a 3 sets of 30s of RKC planks*.

Part of the problem behind these ab machines and marketing in general is that they create a false need. You’re made to think that normal exercise is hard and ineffective. Marketing serves to muddy the waters and distract you from finding out what truly works.

The typical ab machine advertisement depicts traditional training as arduous and sometimes dangerous. They’ll show some poor guy or girl straining through crunches and situps and holding their back as if they’ve slipped a disc. Trouble is, the way the abs and core work means you don’t ever have to do crunches (many trainers warn against it — for good reasons) and situps are virtually outlawed in many gyms (there are much safer and effective exercises).

Beyond crunches, back pain and poor posture

Crunches involve pulling the neck forward to isolate the abs. In doing so you’re reinforcing poor posture as well as pushing the lumbar spine into the floor. It’s therefore unsurprising that crunches are used as fodder by marketers to show much easier their ab machine is.

What the core and abs actually do and how to work ’em

Biomechanically, the abs and core generally, have two major functions: core stability and rotational power. It is becoming more apparent that the core’s primary function may in fact be to prevent movement rather than produce it.

For that reason, stability planks are great starter exercises for core development as they can be progressed a number of ways. The logical step from planks on the floor is to move them to a stability ball. Providing an unstable platform for the hands and elbows while in a plank posture will help challenge the core to prevent movement through the hips and thoracic spine.

RKC planks mentioned earlier involve a less stable arm arrangement while pushing the arms forward more to provide a greater challenge to the core. Squeezing the glutes forces the core to activate even further. Here is a demonstration.

Ab rollouts are also great exercises particularly for the anterior core. This can be done with a small roller, stability ball or simulated by walking the hands out while in a kneeling or plank position.

Complement these exercises with side planks and you have a great all round routine that will target the entire midsection.Side planks can also be progressed by raising one or both feet on a couch, bed, chair or stability ball.

Additional exercises:

To this point I’ve ignored some of the best challenges to your core — leg raises. Hanging leg raises being the challenging version and lying variations being a great starting point. Start with bent knees and then move to straight legs for more challenge. Try performing a figure 8 with your feet while lying flat on your back, legs extended. This great variation will hit the core muscles from many different directions providing for more muscle activation.

Mountain climbers are simply plank positions with the legs thrust forward (or diagonally) as if climbing. This article is the best I’ve found on how to perform mountain climbers and how to throw in variations for maximum impact on the core. These can also form the theme of a great conditioning workout.

No machines?

If you think a stability ball or small hand roller count as machines, consider that (a) they’re optional but incredibly worth it, and (b) you can pick them up cheaply. Whereas ab machines are designed purely to cost you as much as possible and only for single use, a stability ball will open up an entire range of workout opportunities, from leg work (hamstring curls) to hyper extensions for the lower back. You can use the ball to challenge your push up.

Whatever you do, don’t fall for an ab machine that is promoted as being the most awesome, ultimate machine ever. It is only the ultimate machine ever until the next piece of junk replaces it.

*RKC — Russian Kettlebell Certification.