Dream Theater: Modern Machine Music
On their thirteenth studio album, prog metal overlords Dream Theater deliver a futuristic concept opus that cleverly uses technology to critique the very topic itself. The band’s resident keys maestro discusses the themes that make up The Astonishing, as well as how the band are shaking things up musically after this long in the game.
What’s your favourite song of all time? Think about it: those wild riffs, pounding drums and powerful vocals that make you want to stand up, rip your shirt off and scream at the top of your lungs. Now imagine if that song was penned and performed by a machine. Kind of kills the impact, doesn’t it? Yet in a world where technology is deeply connected to our day-to-day lives, the idea of art being nothing more than a mechanical output isn’t quite so far-fetched. So what would happen if that day comes? How would we feel and, most importantly, would we lose anything in the process?
It’s a subjective question, which is why Dream Theater don’t try to predict any answers while exploring these topics on their latest album, The Astonishing. Instead, they’ve crafted a story that should, at the very least, encourage some musings on the matter according to keyboardist and composer Jordan Rudess. “You can relate [The Astonishing] to current the day, the whole idea of technology ticking over and almost leading people to a place where they’re not in control,” he explains. “It takes place hundreds of years in the future, and it’s about the whole dynamic between these sound machines called NOMACS, who take over and have people almost in a trance; people don’t even know what real music is anymore.”
The extent of this contemporary critique is up for interpretation, but the character-driven narrative, which was penned by guitarist and primary lyricist John Petrucci, still encourages reflection. One of the main characters has retained the gift of music, and uses his talent to bring organic sound back to the world which, in turn, causes an uprising against the NOMACS whose artificial tones have all but replaced natural music. While the story plays an important role in presenting this dynamic, Rudess used the opportunity to explore the concepts through sound, while turning part of Dream Theater on its head.
“It’s always up to the artist to use the tools that are at hand, and if they’re technological tools then in the long run it’s up to the person to control it.”
“Stylistically, there’s elements of what we’ve done before but there’s also a lot that we haven’t done before,” he says enthusiastically. “There’s everything from electronic sounds, which represent the NOMACS, to symphonic moments. We’ve got a full orchestra, we have a choir, and the contrast exists because we also used as many organic, natural instruments as possible. I played on a real nine-foot Steinway grand piano and a real Hammond organ, and that contrast and dynamic pertains to the story.”
The result? A two-disc epic that clocks in at over two hours, with eight key characters and a deep, intricate narrative that expands far beyond the core story of NOMACS vs. man into love, drama and violent confrontation. While previous Dream Theater records have been large, The Astonishing is immense, almost theatrical in scale, with a film-like or operatic tone that borders on grandiose. Everyone was on board from the get-go; they knew it was going to be big and Petrucci had an idea of the story’s direction. But when he showed Rudess the synopsis at the end of their last world tour, the outcome was still surprising.
“[Petrucci] didn’t say it was going to be over two hours long because he didn’t really know at that point,” Rudess recalls. “The first thing we did when we got home from the tour was, I started to write a bunch of musical ideas at my piano which I would record onto my phone, then I’d send them to John as we were going. After that, we began to get together at each other’s home studios for a while, almost informally, then things got to the point where we then needed to go into the studio to work every day. That’s when it got pretty focused. We’d have morning meetings before we started to write music about the story; we’d look very deeply at the characters and the mood.
“It’s about the whole dynamic between these sound machines called NOMACS, who take over and have people almost in a trance; people don’t even know what real music is anymore.”
Its theatrical tone isn’t a happy accident. Rudess felt like he was composing a film score rather than a record that was, in some ways, pretty far removed from the typical Dream Theater structure. “This was the first time we’d ever done anything like this,” he continues. “The story which he was putting together was like a puzzle, and the music was done in a similar way. We had themes, we had motifs, even sound colours, and they needed to be placed in different areas because of the story. And we would do our best to craft the characters, not only in a story sense, but in a musical sense as well.”
From then on, it was simply a matter of letting the collaboration take its natural course. The pair have been the driving force behind Dream Theatre’s music since Rudess joined the band, however the other members usually have some form of creative input. This time, the rest of the guys didn’t come in until the writing was complete and yet Petrucci and Rudess managed to keep the music focused – with a little electronic assistance. “We had a couple of computer programs that let us almost lay out the story to see what was happening in the different scenes and acts, and that really helped us to position all the different musical ideas, along with what was happening in the story,” says Rudess.
Still, it’s hard not to feel a hint of irony when Rudess speaks about using electronic instruments and computer programs to write an album that seems to oppose such things. And maybe on some level it does, but that conclusion would require a pretty superficial reading of a multi-layered record, which leaves the door open for fan interpretation. In any event The Astonishing wants people to consider the impact of an artificial culture on art, and whether we’re heading towards a world where creativity has been replaced by mechanical production. All we need, according to Rudess, is a little responsibility.
“It’s always up to the artist to use the tools that are at hand, and if they’re technological tools then in the long run it’s up to the person to control it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using technology and machines to create, but when a person doesn’t have the artistic control and the vision to bring it into some form of creative output, that’s when it begins to be a problem.”