This Dying Soul from 2003’s Train of Thought (11:27)
The Root of All Evil from 2005’s Octavarium (8:39)
Repentance from 2007’s Systematic Chaos (10:43)
The Shattered Fortress from 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings (12:49)
My fascination with Dream Theater is unusual in that it was Mike Portnoy’s drumming that caught my ear before anything else. Unless one is a drummer (and lacking any sense of rhythm, I’m certainly not a percussionist or drummer by any stretch of the imagination), the drumming/percussion generally isn’t the first thing one notices about a band. Portnoy’s drumming is so fantastic that it actually got me to start appreciating the drums/percussion more in other bands I enjoy that much more as well.
Over the course of the past 7 years and 5 studio albums Mike Portnoy has chronicled his recovery from alcoholism with his 12 Step Suite. Some argument could be made, that the 12 Step Suite actually started on Dream Theater’s Awake album back in 1994 with The Mirror which thematically tackles facing oneself in the mirror and not liking the face looking back—there are multiple mentions in the suite about looking in a mirror that can be seen as a reference to the earlier song which predates the suite. However, for the purposes of this review, only the material that has actually been designated as part of the suite by Mike Portnoy will be discussed.
Each song covers a handful of steps in the 12 step plan of recovery. Together all 5 songs clock in at just under an hour in a predominantly heavy metal onslaught.
The Glass Prison has a long instrumental intro showcasing how and why Portnoy is one of the most respected and technically proficient drummers in the world, not to mention demonstrate the guitar prowess of John Petrucci. When the vocals finally do start (at about the 3:03 mark) they start as a call and response between Portnoy and the initially distorted vocals of James LaBrie. The vocals ride on hard driving locomotive-esque guitar riffing by Petrucci inspired by the late Dimebag Darrel of Pantera (Portnoy and Petrucci had attended a Pantera concert the night before they started composing The Glass Prison and the influence is not only evident, it’s quite conspicuous).
This Dying Soul picks up right where The Glass Prison leaves off without giving the listener a chance to catch his breath —Portnoy’s intense battery of the skins comes off as a racing heartbeat. LaBrie’s vocals joining in the instrumental onslaught at the 2:13 mark. Much like with The Glass Prison, there’s a use of distorted vocals, this time its Portnoy’s voice that gets distorted in an angry frenzy with a rapid fire staccato rap. Keyboardist, Jordan Rudess flexes his classical piano chops briefly at about the 5:43 into the song, in a way that sounds interestingly and unusually appropriate for a metal song before LaBrie and Portnoy continue their vocal onslaught. The song ends as it began, with an aggressive onslaught of drums and guitar.
The Root of All Evil showcases the keyboarding wizardry of Jordan Rudess with a slow build to a similar musical frenzy as the one which ended This Dying Soul with Portnoy, Petrucci, and bass player John Myung joining Rudess shortly into the song. LaBrie’s vocals start much earlier (at about 1:28) on this piece than on the previous two. The tempo is a bit slower but still features the crunchy guitar riffs of The Glass Prison and This Dying Soul. The vocals are the most melodic of the suite so far and clocking in at just under 8 minutes 40 seconds this is also the shortest movement in the suite making this the most accessible (to non-traditional Dream Theater fans) portion of the suite thus far.
Repentance shifts gears from angry to a more somber and melancholic vibe. The vocals start with the same lyrics as This Dying Soul:
So glad to see you my friend
It’s been awhile
This time the lyric is sung by Michael Portnoy (instead of James LaBrie who opens with those lyrics in This Dying Soul) before James LaBrie takes over the vocal duties. Musically the themes are similar to that of This Dying Soul but with a slower tempo and the aforementioned melancholic vibe. Between John Petrucci’s emotive guitar solo and the samples of people speaking about repentance and regrets played over the somber theme that acts as the backbone to the song, if ever there was a song that captured not just the definition of the word Repentance but also the emotions associated with being penitent, Dream Theater hit the nail on the head with this song.
The Shattered Fortress pulls the musical and lyrical themes from the previous songs together in a musical summary that acts as an exclamation mark to the suite as a whole. The call and response element between Portnoy and LaBrie that was used to strong effect in certain previous movements makes another appearance. The song opens with a driving guitar riff not unlike a racing heartbeat over Portnoy’s rapid-fire drumming and keyboard wizardry of Jordan Rudess. Once again, as in Repentance, samples are used over the musical themes used in previous movements of the suite—this time the themes from The Glass Prison and The Root of All Evil are most obvious. There is a special 3CD edition of Black Clouds & Silver Linings which also includes an instrumental version of The Shattered Fortress which is also enjoyable to listen to, however in the context of the Twelve Step Suite, the absence of lyrics leaves the song wanting (On the other hand, in the context of Black Clouds & Silver Linings the instrumental version works quite well).
All in all, the 12 Step Suite is a musical tour de force, an onslaught of emotion and human struggle and introspection showcasing not just Portnoy’s recovery, but also his abilities as both a lyricist and composer. It’s almost unfortunate to note that in recent interviews Portnoy indicated that once the suite was complete that he’d likely be stepping away from songwriting to focus more on his drumming and leaving the songwriting to his bandmates. While his drumming will always be welcome and a joy to listen to, his songwriting talents will be missed on future Dream Theater releases. However, if this does indeed mark the end of Portnoy’s songwriting—as he has indicated-- he’s certainly chosen to step away at a definite high water mark with a very memorable bookend to an exceptional string of songwriting credits.
The Glass Prison
This Dying Soul
The Root of All Evil
The Shattered Fortress