Inside Dream Theater's Wildly Ambitious New Concept LP

Hear "The Gift of Music," first single from upcoming double album 'The Astonishing'

"We needed to have the storyline, a plot, places, characters, maps — you name it," says Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci (right) of working on the band's upcoming double album. Credit: Jimmy Fontaine

Even for a group that has blazed new trails consistently, there's never been anything to compare to The Astonishing, the full-blown rock-opera, jumbo-size concept album that pioneering prog-metal band Dream Theater is set to release on January 29th. Put simply, the new release lives up to its title in every way imaginable.

Familiar elements are all in place: extraordinary flights of technical prowess, instantly memorable melodies, James LaBrie's heroic vocals, John Petrucci's daredevil guitar feats, Jordan Rudess' elaborate keyboards, John Myung's agile bass and Mike Mangini's fiercely precise drumming. But this time, Petrucci deployed his estimable compositional and lyrical skills in service to a fantasy-oriented plotline in which a determined band of rebels defies the might of an oppressive empire — and the power of music plays a central role. Rather than simply stringing songs together, Petrucci and Rudess fashioned sounds to suit disparate settings and situations, and devised recurring themes to signify characters in the story.

Heightening the drama, Dream Theater bolstered its sound on The Astonishing with a full orchestra, multiple choirs and a clutch of unorthodox instruments. Enlisted to muster those forces was David Campbell, a veteran conductor and orchestrator whose extensive credits include work for film, Broadway, and more than 450 gold and platinum albums by the likes of Paul McCartney, Rush, My Chemical Romance and Campbell's son, Beck. 

"They knew what they were doing," Campbell says by phone from Los Angeles of the music he was given to expand from ambitious demos into full-fledged orchestral scores. "From whatever they were thinking about, or whatever they'd been listening to over the years, when all was said and done and we'd rendered all of this for real people to play, the music that they wrote was really valid."

"With all of his experience, all the movies he's done and all the bands he's done, he said this was the biggest project he's ever done," Petrucci says of Campbell by phone from London. "I was like, 'Wow, what are we getting ourselves into?'" Easing into the grueling cycle of what likely will be an unusually probing press cycle, Petrucci elaborated on what gave rise to The Astonishing, and where he hopes to see it go.

What prompted The Astonishing — not just the idea of creating a rock-opera concept album this elaborate, but also inventing a full, detailed storyline?
The idea to do a concept album as a band felt right. The last one we did [1999's Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory] was about 15 years ago, and it really felt like we were in a good place to do this. I knew that what needed to happen, first and foremost, is that we had to have a story to base this on, because the idea of basing an album off of a loose concept or something that was sort of arbitrary, that didn't interest me at all. I wanted this not only to be a concept album, but really to write a full show. And to have all the elements in place, the story needs to drive that. We needed to have the storyline, a plot, places, characters, maps — you name it.

So that started about two and a half years ago; it took about a year for me to get that story done and ready to present to the guys. And I wanted to write from a place that was familiar to me, so I knew that music had to play a role in the story somehow. I'm a huge fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, so I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go. But it was a matter of really diving into it and working on it, revising and revising again, and working on it every day until I had something solid. 

I'm sure you're bracing yourself for the kind of Hemispheres-meets–Hunger Games media shorthand that's going appear, but is it completely off base to sense a reflection of your feelings about the commercial music industry in this record?
Besides the main storyline, there is an underlying sort of theme that's going on. Thinking about how today robotics are taking over a lot of jobs that were once done by humans, and a lot of jobs are becoming obsolete, and that possibly as technology advances and electronic music becomes more advanced — the way people can record, the portability of music, how digital technology is developing — if that was to exponentially grow and develop, what would happen if music actually wasn't made by humans anymore? If there were no need for humans to make it, because some sort of artificial intelligence made it, what would be missing in our souls as a society? And that is an underlying theme; there's kind of a juxtaposition throughout the album of this sort of noise music, this music made by the Noise Machines, this artificial intelligence, and how that compares to the music that Dream Theater is playing as our musical score, which has real piano, real organ, real orchestra, real choir, real instruments.

Were there specific albums by other performers or bands that emboldened you to tackle a project this big?
My thought was that this could be taken as far as our imaginations could take it. Not as an album, not only as a standalone show, but it could be novelized, it could be a movie, it could be a musical — it could be all these different things. The one instance that kept speaking to me — where a band had this presentation where it wasn't only about the album, but there was a movie connected to it, there were animations, and there was a show that was immersive — was when Pink Floyd did The Wall. At the same time, I purposely didn't want to really think too much about other concept albums or rock operas, and come from more of a storytelling perspective, take my love for everything — whether it be Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, Les [Miserables], Jesus Christ Superstar, Disney movies — and come from the perspective of the elements that make those things so special, and such a big part of our lives.

So, when you presented this to the band and to the label, did anyone look at you like you'd finally lost it?
[Laughs] Well, they might have thought that. But I have to say, as far as the band, you know, when I had this idea, I put it together in a very detailed proposal, because it really is asking a lot for everybody to come on board with. And the guys were just totally into it, right on board, thinking that the time was perfect for this. Everybody had the "go for it" mentality. And from the very first meeting that we had with Dave Rath at Roadrunner, when I presented this and even just said the title, he was 100 percent on board. The involvement of everybody at Roadrunner has been absolutely unbelievable, so supportive. It kind of ignited the secret nerd in all of us that loves this sort of stuff [laughs], because it's fun, it's different. Creatively, there's so much that can be done. 

What was it like to construct something this elaborate — not just the music and playing, but the sound design, story, and presentation — in practical terms?
Because of the sheer volume of music — you're talking, when all's said and done, probably two hours, 10 minutes' worth of music — every step of this has been a huge process. I don't think I've had time to do anything else over the last year or so [laughs]! In order to do this right, I had to be really, really organized about it. Jordan and I wrote the music as really a prog-metal score to the story. We didn't sit down and say, "Let's write a song, here's the first chorus, whatever." We would go through the story and say, "What's happening here, where is it taking place?" We had to make sure the mythology was right, the timeline was right. And that carried through on every level. When it came to presenting the orchestration to David Campbell and getting him involved; when it came to writing the lyrics, and then me having to go through it song by song, character by character; even things like the artwork, creating the map and all those different towns and cities and roads — every sort of level and layer took a lot of organization and focus. 

What was the collaborative process like?
When Jordan and I were writing the music, we would demo the songs in a very basic way — click track, piano, guitar and some orchestration that Jordan would do using his sample library and synths to put down string lines, choirs, things like that. By the time we were done with all the music, we had these fairly elaborate demos that had sound-library orchestrations and MIDI information that David could work on. It wasn't the ideal situation, because there were no vocals, there were no drums, the lyrics weren't written yet. He had the story, the demos, and the orchestration that we did. In some cases, he wrote out basically what we did and adjusted it according to what he thought would be right for orchestra, for choir. A lot of times he changed things. He used his expertise to really make the songs grow, and in a lot of occasions wrote his own orchestrations for songs where we maybe had a minimal part — "The Answer" is a good example of that. 

How much did you work with James on portraying a range of different characters? Did you essentially direct him?
I've honestly said this, and I'll say it again: I don't think there's any other singer but James who could have really pulled this off the way that he did. He's going to need some serious therapy — I think there's only one character that doesn't have a singing part, and he played all of them [laughs]. Basically, I had given him descriptions of the characters and the way that I felt he should approach them. I would say things like, "For Gabriel, I want you to sound like you're 25-year-old James LaBrie." Faythe is a female, so I wanted him to sound female. Arabelle is an older female, so: "I want you to sound wise. Nefaryas, give him some attitude and wrath, be a little snarky with him — he can have a little bit of an attitude." But then he took that information and basically came up with that stuff on his own. In fact, the vocals were recorded up in Canada at Rich Chycki's studio; it was just James and Rich. I had the ability to listen in to the sessions via stream, but James didn't want that; he wanted the privacy to experiment and explore those characters. Every once in a while he'd be singing ... maybe he sang something from Arhys, who's a rebel commander, and I would say, "James, if that's coming from him, I think you should sing it with a little bit more strength, because he's supposed to be a commander." He was just so open to doing all that, and I think the end result, not having any other guest vocalists, the way that he pulled that off on this album to me is just so impressive. I'm so thankful to him for believing in this, and for putting his best artistic foot forward. 

You'll be playing The Astonishing complete on tour in 2016. Thinking less about The Wall than when Iron Maiden irked fans in 2006 by playing A Matter of Life and Death from start to finish, are you concerned about the reception?
I'm not concerned about it, because we're being very transparent about what we're doing. By very clearly billing this as The Astonishing Live, and letting people know that we're playing in very special seated theaters and symphony concert halls, and we're presenting this show as a stand-alone show — that's how we wrote it, that's how we intended it — it's its own special event. Dream Theater has been touring forever; we've played the different stadiums and arenas, ice halls, gymnasiums and whatever. We wanted to make this different — we wanted to make this special. And so as long as people know that going into it, I don't think anybody is going to show up in a Dream Theater shirt, saying, "Why didn't they play 'Pull Me Under?'" They're going to totally understand what we're doing. 

Will you be augmenting the band at all when you play The Astonishing live?
We're not going to be augmenting the band as far as other performers — if we were to film this for a DVD or do a really special location, that would be the instance where we'd have a live orchestra and choir. But we decided to take a lot of time and a lot of care to enlist a company that could create the visuals, so that this is as much of a visual show as it is an aural experience. Because this is character-driven and there are locations, we're going to try to make the stage almost like a transformative stage, an immersive stage, where the settings come to life, and a lot of the artwork is going to be animated. We wanted it to be the closest thing to watching a movie while the band is playing a live score, basically.

But right this minute, no plans to open The Astonishing on Broadway with a full cast, sets, and all next year?
Next year might be too soon, but I'll tell you, in coming up with this plan, we have thought about all of the possibilities. The Who did it with Tommy and Green Day with American Idiot, so it's not out of the question. It's something that would be fantastic — I would love it to happen. All of the elements and ingredients are in place. Hey, it could be the next Disney movie musical [laughs]! Everything is geared up, and the sky's the limit.