I decided to wait a month before I posted my impressions about this album to really let everything sink in. The TLDR version? It’s my one of my favorite Dream Theater albums.

Due to the sudden departure of Mike Portnoy, this album was one of my most anticipated albums for the year. To fill the drummer void, Dream Theater held auditions with seven “world class drummers” and in the end, Mike Mangini took the coveted spot behind the kit.

Although there is some fresh blood playing the drums, the nine tracks on this album feature everything that Dream Theater is known for: abrupt stylistic and meter changes, soaring melodic passages, and mouth dropping solos and instrumentals.

Whether for good or bad, many new sounds enter into play. Notably, “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” starts with an electronic drum beat and “Bridges in the Sky” starts with an aboriginal drone. They’re definitely sounds that throw the listener off, but they do make for a much more interesting experience.

Off the bat, one notices that keyboardist Jordan Rudess is featured more prominently. Keyboard runs and solos abound in this album. Another thing that I appreciate is that John Myung is brought out in the mix — in past albums, the bass was sadly absent.

In terms of James LaBrie’s vocals, “Far from Heaven” and “Beneath the Surface” bring out his voice in a way that was only previously done in his solo albums. In particular, “Beneath the Surface”‘s super stripped down instrumentation paired with LaBrie’s emotional singing gives this album a solemn, yet uplifting closure — a perfect way to close out this transitional chapter in the story of Dream Theater.

That’s not to say that John Petrucci’s virtuosic guitar playing is no longer present, rather, everything else seems to be much more balanced. However, I feel like the drums could be turned up in the mix a little bit more.

Aboriginal drones and mixing issues aside, this is definitely one of my favorite Dream Theater albums. To cap it all off, here’s a great rendition of “Breaking All Illusions”, 8-bit style!

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