John Petrucci: The Prog Whisperer
GW The album’s closing track is “The Count of Tuscany,” which, at nearly 20 minutes, is the longest song on the entire record. The song is a journey through many different themes, moods and complex passages, but it culminates with a very anthemic, positive progression and a very uplifting, melodic solo. After having heard so many dark passages through the piece, and through the entire album as well, it’s a nice way to end the “movie,” so to speak.
PETRUCCI Absolutely. And if you think about the way the album, or the “movie” starts, it begins really dark with “A Nightmare to Remember.” We initially called that song “Halloween.” It could be in the next Tim Burton movie! You travel through the entire album and arrive at this triumphant conclusion.
For us, that chord progression at the end of “The Count of Tuscany” indicates a big-time Rush influence. They have always had the ability to write majestic-sounding music—very royal and uplifting. That chord progression evokes a moving and positive end to the story.
GW When working on an album, is there a point at which you look at the tracks and a possible running order and think in terms of an “arc” to the story that the album tells? In this case, you’ve bookended the album with the two longest songs.
PETRUCCI We do look at it that way, and I think we have gotten better at this as the years have gone by. We might be asking a lot from the audience, but we’d like it to be an overall listening experience, like how it was when [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon first came out. People would get together for the sole purpose of listening to and experiencing the entire album. Of course, “Money” was a single that was on the radio, but the way to experience that album was to listen to the whole thing, just like watching a movie. We try to make our records work in a similar way.
People may comment one way or another on the individual songs, that one song might not be heavy enough, or another is too heavy and progressive, but we are trying to create a sense of movement, so that the entire listening experience will be interesting and fulfilling. I compare it to classical pieces. Talk about long songs! Orchestral pieces by composers like Beethoven and Mozart have a long progression of themes and repetitive parts, segueing from the powerful and bombastic to the delicate and beautiful. Themes are allowed to evolve through many incarnations, and that’s how classical symphonies are written. We try to approach things with the same mentality, to take the listener through some sort of aural adventure.
GW You mentioned meeting Brian May recently for the very first time. Your solo on the Black Clouds track “Wither” has a strong Brian May character.
PETRUCCI That solo is like a “tag” to the chorus vocal, and though it’s not harmonized, it is double-tracked and I’m using a chorus effect and a wah. I was going for a very melodic, Ozzy/Queen vibe.
The neat thing about that is, first of all, I played the solo on a baritone guitar [a six-string guitar with a long scale length, normally tuned a fourth lower than standard tuning] tuned down to Bb, so the strings are like giant cables! While I was cutting it, a couple of the guys were like, “John, that totally sounds like Brian May. You can’t do that.” And I said, “Screw you guys, it sounds awesome. What, I can’t play 16th notes followed by eighth-note triplets?” I love Queen and I love Brian, so it’s obviously influenced by that. I’ve also heard Zakk Wylde do that type of wide, doubletracked solo that’s very melodic and more like a theme than a flashy solo.
It was great meeting and hanging out with Brian. He’s been in one of the most influential bands of our time and has written some of the greatest rock music ever, and as a guitar player he’s inspired and influenced millions of people. It’s incredible to me that a guy like that is such a warm, sweet person. Very humbling.
GW There are few bands that have dedicated themselves to continuing in that tradition, and in Dream Theater the art has become more finely honed over the years. It’s clearly apparent that, on Black Clouds, the band is completely in control of the genre.
PETRUCCI We are from that same school of thought; it’s just wrapped in a different package. It’s post-metal, so our music doesn’t sound like Yes’ Close to the Edge, but it is written in the same spirit.
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