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.