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From The Outside Looking In: Dream Theater's Keyboard Wizard Talks 'Images And Words' And Beyond

Wednesday, 12 April 2017 Written by Simon Ramsay

When it comes to any artistic form, masterpiece is a word that should be reserved for works of true genius; those unique creative expressions that are pioneering, inspiring and timeless. Dream Theater’s hallowed sophomore record ‘Images and Words’ more than fits the bill, having birthed a legion of imitators by fusing metal riffage, melodic beauty and progressive experimentation together into a ball of virtuosity and emotion that’s as powerful today as it was in 1992.

To mark the 25th anniversary of a genre-defining album, Dream Theater are playing that magnum opus in full on a world tour that’s due to hit the UK next week. It seemed like a great time to get a unique take on the record from the ultimate outsider turned insider: Jordan Rudess.  

The keyboard maestro may not have joined the band until ‘99, but he’s since performed the songs from ‘Images and Words’ hundreds of times and has truly made them his own. We spoke to ‘The Wizard’ about that iconic record, the reaction to last year’s highly divisive rock opera ‘The Astonishing’ and what fans can expect from Dream Theater’s next album.

Can you remember when you first heard ‘Images and Words’ and what your initial impressions were?

I heard it right after [previous keyboard player] Kevin Moore left and I remember it had a very unique impression on me. I’d heard lots of progressive music, I’d heard metal, but I hadn’t really heard that combination before. And what impressed me about it, what I liked, was that there was this sense of stylistic glue between the two styles, but also a lot of virtuosity, which I was not used to hearing in rock music. It was the first time I’d heard anyone play that clean, fast and tight. I thought, 'I can relate to this’, coming from Juilliard where we cared about technique and virtuosity.

What’s your favourite song on the record?

The song that made the initial impression on me was Take The Time. There are parts of that song that really made me feel like: ‘This is something very special. These guys have a unique sound and are really great players.’ So I can point to that.

What do you think about Kevin’s work on ‘Images and Words’?

I really like the work that Kevin did. I think he is very, very talented. Knowing more about the different people in Dream Theater and what they bring to the table, I can totally understand how Kevin was a very influential part in creating the style they put together. He had a very nice sense of melody and flow and was obviously a good lyricist. As far as favourite parts, Metropolis has many cool instrumental parts and there’s some really great leads. Under A Glass Moon has a very cool lead in it. Take The Time has a really good synthesiser lead. I think I relate to some of the influences he obviously had.

When you’re performing those parts do you stay faithful to the album or do you alter them at all?

My approach is that I try to be respectful of what was created with the idea that I can, in some cases, add my own touch to something. A lot of times I like to have the freedom to improvise a solo. But the other place I might change something is where I feel the technology, at the time, didn’t allow for the expression that might have been intended. Synthesisers have gotten so much better, an example being playing a string patch in Another Day. I feel like ‘Well, if he would have had these tools he could have done this’. I’ll kind of extend it a little bit and maybe make it a little bit more glorious, a little bit more round and full. Things I can do with today’s technology to hopefully bring it to another level.   

During the making of ‘Images and Words’ there were numerous trials and tribulations in the background, particularly friction with producer David Prater. Are you surprised how well the album came out considering its troubled genesis?

I think there was a very timely thing going on with these guys who were at a great place creatively. They had something to say as a group and were gonna do it no matter what. From my understanding, even though it seems like David Prater was very difficult to deal with and had some very strange interactions with the band, he was obviously very musical and creative. Artistic people can sometimes be really weird and luckily the end result was able to capture some great stuff.   

Mike Portnoy was very critical of the sound of the record because he hated the triggered drums Prater insisted on using. What do you think about that device?

Well, the triggered drums are not my favourite thing about it, but I think the album sounds good. I will say that when I first heard ‘Images and Words’ it wasn’t like ‘Oh my God the drum sound’s terrible’. I didn’t think about it until I heard what Mike had been saying to the media. And I went ‘Oh yeah, right, the drums do sound a little weird.’ I understand that for a drummer that could be undesirable, but as a listener, somebody who wasn’t thinking about that at the time, it didn’t really bother me. I feel like one of the things about Dream Theater that we continue to this day is a desire to have things be really precise and clean and well executed. I feel like there was some of that back then and it helped to create an album that does, in my mind, stand the test of time.

Is ‘Images and Words’ a bit of a double edged sword for you guys? It’s the album that laid the foundations for Dream Theater’s career but, whenever you release a new record, fans always ask how it sounds in relation to that and often complain it’s not as good?

Well luckily it’s an album we can all relate to stylistically. It’s a great combination of progressive rock and metal and so, yeah, it definitely set a mark with the group. If, in any way, things go off track, we can always look back and go, ‘This is the magic that started this entity so let’s look and see what people really liked about it, what was inside the players to create that’. I don’t think there’s any negatives about it. I think it’s good for a group to have a core identity and that helps, to have that album.

You’re also playing A Change of Seasons on your current tour. It’s a true fan favourite that was controversially left off ‘Images and Words’ and released as part of an EP in 1995. Do you think that was the right decision?

I think the album is very complete with what it is and so it makes sense to have it be a separate entity. And I also really like that piece. It has some great ideas, some really cool riffs. I enjoy playing it, it’s a lot of fun.   

Derek Sherinian played keyboards on that track when it was finally recorded. What are the differences between yourself, Derek and Kevin as musicians and how has that influenced the band’s sound?

Luckily for Dream Theater they’ve had really good keyboard players that all have something to offer. My classical background is really very serious and extensive. I was going to be a concert pianist before I heard ‘Tarkus’ and everything changed. So it was that harmonic and rhythmic approach I was able to bring. Over the years the possibilities of keyboard orchestration has reached higher levels, and I’ve always been into that since the early days of my using synthesisers, finding colours and tracking and creating orchestral sonic layers. That sense of orchestration really led us into the future, where we were able to create a lot of the music we’ve done today. Things like Breaking All Illusions or Count Of Tuscany become very large and epic orchestral.

So, the other guys. Kevin created the beautiful Wait To Sleep and played very nice piano on Another Day. There was obviously a bit of melodic, classical background that he brought but he, especially in those days, didn’t have the orchestrational sense that’s possible now. When Derek came in he didn’t have the opportunity to really influence Dream Theater’s style. So we don’t get a sense, on the albums he did, that there was much chance to be a composer of influence, although Derek plays great leads and organ and really fits the bill very well.  

What was expected when you joined in 1999?

I feel like when I got in the group, John Petrucci was really looking for a compositional partner. He needed somebody to function in a way that Kevin did, to give musical ideas that wouldn’t come from him. The sound of Dream Theater needs to come from a keyboardist’s mind and a guitarist’s mind and be this combination. We had the experience of doing the Liquid Tension Experiment together and it was in those sessions we found there was this really cool writing chemistry.

So they asked me again, after the second Liquid Tension album, to rethink about joining Dream Theater. I did and felt like it was very much about, not only somebody who could be as serious about their musical instrument as all those guys were and virtuosic, but about somebody who could bring in a compositional sense which would round out what Dream Theater was doing.   

There are some people who say Dream Theater value technique over emotion. Does that perception annoy you at all?

I understand that Dream Theater’s music has a sense of adventure or challenge in it that, for an average listener, might be a little intimidating. If somebody hears a song that has parts on it that are really technical with lots of meters and fast notes and says ‘These guys are just technical, there’s no emotion’, they haven’t heard the catalogue or even what we all do beyond Dream Theater.

I don’t think it’s possible to say that if you’re really aware of who we are as people and musicians. One of the reasons Dream Theater has been as successful, and had the long career we’ve had, is because we’re not afraid of a beautiful melody. We understand that the idea of a musician appealing to people’s hearts and emotions is vital to making music. When we’re in the studio composing we think about things like that, we think about the audience singing along and really feeling something. Yeah, we’ll go on musical adventures that do cool things with time signatures and faster passages, but it’s more about creating an entire scope, musical landscape, that travels into these different areas to create an experience.  

And one final thing to say is that people get confused about musical technique and I always point out that having a really great musical technique does not mean just playing really fast and really clean. It means you’re able to express what’s in your mind, having the means on your instrument to execute it well. To me, that’s technique. So if you listen to John Petrucci playing a beautiful soaring melody on Breaking All Illusions and it flows, his technique within that is exceptional. To me, that’s a higher level of skill.

Last year you released your rock operatic concept record ‘The Astonishing’, an album that polarised your fan base more than any other Dream Theater effort. Are you surprised that some people were really turned off by it?

I agree that the fan base was polarised, but in a group’s career, especially one that’s as long as Dream Theater’s, and with the abilities that the group as a whole has, it’s important to take chances and make turns and do artistic, interesting things. We don’t want to do the same thing all the time and, for John Petrucci and I, to write that music was a work of pure passion. We enjoyed it so much. Everything from creating the story to sitting in the studio and, almost like a movie score or a musical theatre piece, crafting this music to follow the story.  

One of the things that makes Dream Theater is the ability to blend styles and on ‘The Astonishing’ we just used other available styles to tell the story. It wasn’t like we were playing music we’ve never played before. I mean, I grew up playing Bach and Chopin and Broadway songs, all different kinds of things. So it wasn’t a departure on that level but it was a very different album than what Dream Theater fans had gotten used to. It had a lot more softer parts, it was more film scorey at times. Personally it’s one of my favourite things we’ve ever done together. I think there’s some really beautiful music in it. I feel a little bit sad that it didn’t totally take off and make every Dream Theater fan happy.  

It seems some fans missed the point of the album. You were writing a soundtrack with a very specific tone, so something as heavy as The Dark Eternal Night wouldn’t have fit the musical vision you were executing.

Exactly. And Dream Theater developed, over the years, a lot of people who were really into the metal side of what we do. Although ‘The Astonishing’ did have parts that were really heavy, if you’re a metal fan and listening to it and there’s all these really soft parts that come in, I can imagine them going, ‘What is this?’. It wasn’t the ultimate album for the metal fan, I understand that.   

In spite of that, it’s probably your most accessible album because of how melodic it is.

A lot of people came into our world and became fans because of ‘The Astonishing’. People who didn’t necessarily even like Dream Theater heard it and came to our shows and were all of a sudden into what we were doing. Also, these big works, things like Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ or ‘Tommy’ by The Who, they weren’t what they are today the year that they came out. There’s the test of time and who knows [how it will be perceived] in five or ten years. It’ll be an interesting thing to watch.      

With such polarisation in mind, it seems like a savvy move to tour ‘Images and Words’ because it’ll probably bring back fans who were put off by that release.

Yeah, definitely. We got to a point with ‘The Astonishing’ where we realised that, ‘OK, we love this album, we put our best work forward and put on what I thought was an amazing show, but that’s enough of that’. It’s time to go back to the core, restart the engines and let everybody take a deep breath and go on.

And, finally, what direction do you envisage the next Dream Theater album going in?

I feel like what’s going to happen, and we’ve kind of been talking about it, is revisiting what we feel is the core of who we are to bring back the global audience that enjoys Dream Theater. Something that will make the band really happy to play musically and something that will make all the fans be like, ‘This is what I love about Dream Theater’.  

Dream Theater Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue April 18 2017 - BIRMINGHAM Symphony Hall
Wed April 19 2017 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Thu April 20 2017 - GLASGOW Royal Concert Hall
Sat April 22 2017 - CARDIFF Motorpoint Arena Cardiff
Sun April 23 2017 - LONDON Eventim Apollo

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