Progressive titans Dream Theater — which has enjoyed a 30-year career thanks to lengthy, dynamic compositions; impressive performance prowess and merchandising savvy — has packaged those elements and pumped them up with steroids for its upcoming project, The Astonishing (Roadrunner Records, Jan. 29). The band’s 13th studio album is certainly the most ambitious one it has yet recorded, and it’s a cinematic effort in both concept and scale.
The Astonishing is a story set about 300 years into the future about a dystopian world ruled by an emperor named Nafaryus where humans no longer create music: Instead, it is produced by noise machines. Meanwhile, the common folk look to a peasant man named Gabriel, who is a born musician, to lead them out of oppression.
The double album is a multicharacter story that’s divided into two acts. It was inspired by co-founder/guitarist John Petrucci’s love of science fiction and such franchises as Game of Thrones, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, but also from an observation he has made about modern-day society.
“I was thinking of all of the things now that people used to do that they don’t do anymore because they’re automated or done by robots: lots of jobs, self-driving cars coming right around the corner,” he explains. “My thought was, ‘What would happen if with all the advances in technology in music that music [became] all artificial?’ ”
Billboard is exclusively premiering the first vocal track from act two, “Moment of Betrayal.” The song is about Gabriel communicating to his brother Arhys that he has a plan that he thinks can save them, “but there’s a betrayal theme that’s going on in the story that comes to a head,” says Petrucci. Listen to the song below:
Petrucci, who wrote The Astonishing with keyboardist Jordan Rudess, says that for the album to have the right dramatic impact, the band needed arrangements for a real orchestra and choir that were handled by a major professional. Arranger/composer David Campbell (who has worked with everyone from Beyonce to Bon Jovi to U2, and also happens to be Beck’s father) was his first choice. “He immediately said yes, which was incredible, and he did this amazing job … I think that actually makes this album really special, having his involvement and having it all be the real deal. We’re really proud to have his involvement.”
Petrucci conceived the album not just as a double-CD, but as a project that turns “into much, much more.” For instance, he knew he wanted it be the length of an “evening with Dream Theater” concert, which runs at least two hours. When the band embarks on a world tour on Feb. 18, beginning at the Palladium in London, it will present The Astonishing in its entirety, and it booked such venues as symphony halls to make it a special occasion. Petrucci describes the show’s production as using video panels “to help tell the story via animation and also help transform the stage into the environment that the story takes place in.” (The North American leg begins April 14 in Quebec and ends May 11 in Seattle.)
“Other things could come out of it because the story is very rich as far as the characters and plot, so a video game, novel or anything else might happen; a movie or even a musical,” says Petrucci. “A bunch of those things I mentioned are in the works, and as they get closer we’ll reveal the schedule of [release].”
However, he knows that even by Dream Theater standards, The Astonishing holds a lot of material to absorb, so the band is providing such tools as lyrics written in screenplay form, character illustrations and a map to help better understand it. Petrucci credits his wife, Rena Sands, with the idea of creating a mini website where fans can discover more about the story, so on the street date TheAstonishingFanGuide.com will go live to provide more information.
“We didn’t want this to be any kind of arbitrary process or some big mystery,” he says. “We want it to be a story that people could get engrossed in and follow.”