John Petrucci: The Prog Whisperer
Originally published in Guitar World, October 2009
Over the past two decades, Dream Theater have been the leaders of the prog-rock pack, guiding the genre forward with technical mastery and a sense of “darkness and light.” John Petrucci explains how the two blend harmoniously on the band’s new album, Black Clouds and Silver Linings.
“The greatest challengeis writing something simple that will work in conjunction with what is often very complex and intricate music. It’s all about the ‘arc’—the musical story that album, as a whole, has to tell. If all of the music is intensely technical and crazy, it might be interesting for a while, but there will not be enough substance, and the listening experience as a whole will not be as enriching.”
John Petrucci is discussing the philosophy behind the music on Black Clouds and Silver Linings (Roadrunner), Dream Theater’s latest release and 10th studio album since the band’s 1989 debut, When Dream and Day Unite. “There has to be a natural balance between the different musical perspectives,” he continues. “And it’s just as much of a challenge, if not more so, to write something simple that is as musically satisfying and original as the complex material.”
Dream Theater were formed in 1985 by fellow Berklee College of Music students Petrucci, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy. Vocalist James LaBrie joined in 1991 and keyboardist Jordan Rudess in 1999. The band’s 1992 sophomore release, Images and Words, featured the hit “Pull Me Under,” and over the years the group has sold in excess of eight million albums worldwide.
A large measure of Dream Theater’s long-term success can be attributed to the band’s ability to seamlessly blend a leaning toward pop-style rock (à la the most accessible songs by Rush or Queen) with some of the scariest progressive metal ever imagined. Throughout Dream Theater’s 20-year history, they have shown a penchant for pushing the boundaries of progressive metal beyond the status quo. The great depth and substance of their music would not be possible without the remarkable musicianship of the individual members.
Guitar World caught up with Petrucci while he and the band were in the midst of a European summer tour, on the way to Belgium to play the humongous Graspop Metal Meeting Festival, which features a massive lineup of Mötley Crüe, Heaven & Hell, Slipknot, Korn, Journey, Mastodon, Killswitch Engage, Anthrax, Lamb of God, Death Angel and others.
Petrucci explains, “We’ve been playing festivals on the weekends and filling in between with headlining shows. The biggest one thus far was the Download Festival at Castle Donington in the U.K. There were 80,000 people there, and it was just insane. I was hanging out with Neal [Schon] of Journey, which was nice, and [Queen guitarist] Brian May watched our entire show from the side of the stage. On the expanded edition of Black Clouds and Silver Linings, we did three Queen covers—“Tenement Funster,” “Flick of the Wrist” and “Lily of the Valley”—and apparently Brian really liked it. It was a great feeling to get the thumbs-up from one of our biggest heroes.”
GUITAR WORLD What is the significance to the album’s title, Black Clouds and Silver Linings?
JOHN PETRUCCI Whenever we work on an album, we write all of the music first, and the title comes way after all of the lyrics have been written. Toward the end of working on the album, Mike told me he had a revelation: he was driving in his car and, while thinking about all of the different subject matter addressed on the album, he noticed that the sky was filled with black clouds. Though the songs are not tied together in any way, there is a running thread wherein many of the songs feel dark and ominous, but there is a twist as the songs progress where you can envision the bright spot on the horizon. So Black Clouds and Silver Linings seemed to describe this collection of music very well.
GW Jimmy Page has often talked about Zeppelin’s music being a balance between “darkness and light,” and there is a very similar feeling on this record. The threatening, dark side has always been a part of Dream Theater’s sound, but there are also some really uplifting, positive musical statements, with the impression of salvation lurking just around the corner.
PETRUCCI I think there is a good blend between darkness and light on this record, a push-and-pull between those elements, and the title is very appropriate for that reason. But it’s easier to write in a “dark” mode than the “triumphant” mode; it’s much harder to write something in a major key that doesn’t end up sounding corny.
When we were writing the main riff in “The Best of Times,” I had said to the guys, “Let’s write something in a major key, to balance against some of the other compositions.” In rock, it’s hard to write in major without it sounding, on a good day, like the Who, or, on a bad day, like a NAMM instrument demo or something. There can be “greatness” in those major keys, but it’s not easy to write something that sounds convincing.