Dream Theater is hands down, one of the most established prog-rock metal outfits on the circuit and have been for the last thirty years. It’s been three years since we’ve heard from the pioneering band, however, Dream Theater are about to drop one of their richest and most musically dense albums to date. Self assured, immersive and constantly evolving, 2016 will see them release the highly anticipated double concept album, The Astonishing. Jordan Rudess spoke to me from New York City whilst caught in a whirlwind of preparation.
Rudess knows better than anyone else that timing is crucial. He says that they’ve been sitting on the idea of doing another concept album for years. “We had wanted to do a concept album ever since we did Scenes from a Memory in 1999. One of the things that stopped us from doing one sooner is the fact that we had a new drummer join the band, and it just didn’t feel like the right time.”
Playing the waiting game has certainly paid off, as this is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. Conceptualised by guitarist John Petrucci, The Astonishing is an immersive experience. It’s a beautifully dark cinematic piece, providing us with 34 tracks spread over 2 acts that form a post-apocalyptic world. Within this world, eight rebels rise above debris and empires where music is the principal theme. The concept came from Petrucci, as Rudess distinctly remembers the moment he was approached. “John came to me at the end of the last world tour with this really cool story. I read the synopsis he put together and I was really touched by it. I think it’s a really classic story. So I brought it home with me and I sat down at my piano and proceeded to have all kinds of ideas in terms of composing.“
It’s hard to fathom the extensive planning and time that would have been involved in such an epic and untamed project. Having already had every aspect of the story nutted out before showing Rudess, a solid year of writing followed. “It was like composing music for a film score or musical theatre” says Rudess on writing the album.
Dream Theater took on a decidedly different approach to recording The Astonishing. Rudess confirms their schedule turned into a more formal and structural affair. “We decided we needed to put ourselves into a work environment and work every day. And that’s what we did. We would have meetings every morning about the story and where we were at.” The writing of the music formed organically over the course of a year, allowing for opportunities to arise such as having the orchestra and choir, which features heavily in the album. The integrating of the orchestra and choir have pushed the boundaries like nothing ever before accomplished by Dream Theater. “Instead of using a lot of digital instruments like in past albums we decided to strip it back and do it with the real thing to make it as raw as possible. So we used a real organ and piano initially and that was our starting point. All the past Dream Theater albums were written with a bunch of guys in the room. Even though it was always Petrucci and I doing all the composing, the other guys are still there and they can chime in and it’s a nice vibe. For this album we decided that because it was so deep, detailed and conceptual that it would be John and I composing in a room and we would tell the other guys they could come in and play when they were ready and it was amazing, really unique.”
Jordan credits the understanding, experience and vision of composer David Campbell to moving the project forward. Campbell was able to see the intricacies. He was able to interpret and translate the complexities created by Petrucci and Rudess, to the soloist musicians, orchestra and choir. This has created a truly unique piece of musical theatre. “He was able to make this happen. He knows how to get things done and the kind of music you’re writing for the time and the budget you have.“ Rudess, who initially thought Campbell was out of reach or too busy to work with, sent a spontaneous email not expecting to hear anything back. Shortly after, confirmation was made to work with the legend that has a mere 450 gold and platinum albums to his name.
It’s hard to miss the excitement and sense of accomplishment in Rudess’s voice as he moves on to talking about the rst leg or their tour in Europe. Rudess confirmed with me that it will make up part of an extensive world tour, and ended the interview with a hint of a visit to Australia. "This album truly is one for the mantelpiece, in all my years with Dream Theater, which is going on 16 years, I feel like this album really allowed us to go very deep. I feel like it truly is not just an accomplishment for the band, but for myself.”
The Astonishing is out now via Roadrunner Records.