Dream Theater

Mike Portnoy Rejoins Dream Theater

Yesterday, Dream Theater announced the return of founding drummer Mike Portnoy. When I read the news, I thought it was some sort of April Fools joke or troll post, especially because of the poorly photoshopped picture of the group with Portnoy in the lower right. It seemed genuinely unreal that this was happening because there had been no build-up to this reunion whatsoever, besides a couple of pictures of Portnoy attending Dream Theater shows and taking pictures with his former bandmates. It seemed as if their split was finally amicable.

Dream Theater

The most insane part of this was that, ten days prior, I had asked the Dream Theater subreddit how they would feel if such a thing were to happen. As the news rolled out, I started getting dozens of comments asking if I was affiliated with the group, if I was some sort of clairvoyant and whether I could predict the next lottery numbers. My jaw hit the floor to think that I had pondered this very question so soon before it actually happened.

To my surprise, however, the answers seemed to be tremendously in favour of a reunion with Portnoy; I had guessed that the answers would be more split down the middle. I realised that my opinion about a reunion was *gasp* unpopular…

Let me give you some credentials so you can see where I’m coming from. Dream Theater was my gateway to being a lifelong fan of progressive rock in all its forms. As a drummer, I had been looking for more challenging, satisfying music to learn after realising that most songs on the radio had the same 4/4 beat and were typically boring to play. I really didn’t know what kind of music I was looking for, but when a friend of mine lent me two Dream Theater CDs – Falling into Infinity and Systematic Chaos, for anyone interested – I realised that this music was the missing puzzle piece for me.

I skipped straight to Trial of Tears, which would have been the longest song I’d ever heard until that point. I decided to play the song on my headphones on the cycle ride to school, and the song lasted so long that I had to listen to the rest of it in the common room, sitting in awe as my classmates milled around me, unaware of the musical transformation that was happening to me. By the time I had finished all thirteen minutes of it, I was stunned that a single song could be so complex yet cohesive and satisfying all at the same time, and knew that this would become an obsession. For a solid twelve months between 2008 and 2009, Dream Theater was the only music I listened to and my dreams came true when I saw the band live at the Graspop Festival in Belgium, coincidentally one day after Michael Jackson died.

Dream Theater

Dream Theater

Dream Theater

Dream Theater
[My pictures from the Graspop Festival, June 26th 2009]

Though I was a novice drummer, Portnoy’s accessible yet sophisticated patterns were a joy and a challenge to learn, and I appreciated his attention to detail in every song he played. While some drummers are happy just to keep a beat and will switch up their playing from one live performance to the next, Portnoy comes from the Neil Peart school of thinking where drums play just as large a part in the performance as any other instrument. It was clear that he took his time to write his parts carefully, and it was rare to hear him deviate from even the smallest drum fill when playing live. In the commentary for the Live Scenes from New York DVD, Portnoy gave a shoutout to one of the audience members who was captured doing an air drum fill near the beginning of The Spirit Carries On saying “He got it right!” That was the thing about Portnoy’s drumming: it was so essential to the music that it would feel like a mistake if he was to play something else, and it felt like something that fans could rely on.

After I had worn out all the band’s records by playing them hundreds of times, I began exploring Dream Theater’s progressive roots, rather than their metal roots as I knew that I was more interested in the experimental, complex, long-from side of things rather than the heavy. I had more or less ditched the band altogether for a year by the time the shocking news emerged that Portnoy had split from Dream Theater. Just like now, it felt unreal. The core trio of Petrucci, Myung and Portnoy seemed like the very DNA of Dream Theater, so how could you take that piece out of the puzzle?

But the warning signs had been there. In 2007, Mike Portnoy’s song Constant Motion showed his struggle with the perpetual record-tour-record-tour cycle, coupled with his obsessive tendencies. In interviews, he had hinted at wanting a break and mentioned that he was in charge of everything from recording to producing to the packaging to the scheduling… the list went on. It’s no wonder he wanted a break when he asked the band for a hiatus in 2010.

The band, who did not feel the same way as Portnoy, said they had no desire to stop. We’ll never know exactly what happened in that room when Dream Theater made the split, but I am quite sure Portnoy had the attitude of “It’s my way or the highway!” I can’t help but think that it was all unnecessary and I have felt sore about the way Portnoy has handled this ever since.

He knew that he had obsessive tendencies, as he wrote multiple songs chronicling addiction battles and other related problems, yet he let himself get burned out by trying to manage everything in the group. Rather than delegate other tasks to his fellow bandmates for his mental health, he kept them to himself to keep his perfect vision of Dream Theater going. When he could no longer do it, he selfishly asked for a hiatus, stopping everyone from working, rather than allowing the band to work more democratically. It was all so avoidable.

Portnoy’s behaviour since the split has been deplorable. He played with Avenged Sevenfold for a few months until they also threw him out the same year. He then tried to go back to Dream Theater unceremoniously and, rightfully, they wouldn’t take him back. It had the flavour of a man leaving his ‘boring’ wife with a ‘fun, exciting’ younger girlfriend, but when the girlfriend dropped him, he went crawling back to the wife. It was pitiful behaviour.

Dream Theater

Since then, he’s ungraciously complained about a fan who wore an A Dramatic Turn of Events t-shirt to one of his signings and also about the British NHS, who he complained wouldn’t see him urgently even though he told them he had a concert full of fans waiting. He has since apologised about both of these things, but his inability to censor what he writes on social media shows that he has a problem with self-control and needs to heal from it.

Dream Theater

Meanwhile, Mike Mangini has been nothing but the perfect gentleman, whose online interactions with fans have been refreshingly wholesome. Stepping into some of prog’s biggest shoes must have been one of the most daunting challenges, and Mangini must have known to brace himself for the thousands of criticisms and comparisons with Portnoy that have come his way, from fans and critics including myself. Through all of it, his behaviour has been outstanding and even when fans said they straight up didn’t like the songs he was calm and agreeable in his comments with fans.

Then yesterday happened. I was shocked as I read the press release that began with Mangini’s words:

“As was said from Day 1, my place was not to fill all the roles that Mike held in the band. I was to play the drums in order to help the band carry on.”

This did not vibe with the way I had perceived Mangini’s role in the band. The band had kept Mangini’s role in Dream Theater a secret for several months when he was announced in April 2011, waiting to do a three-part video special showing the audition process which included such exalted drummers as Marco Minnemann and Thomas Lang. The way he was announced made him seem like a full member of the group, not a placeholder until matters with Portnoy were resolved.

Imagine if Jordan Rudess also said that he “was to play the keyboards in order to help the band carry on” and the band had always been hoping to reunite with Derek Sherinian. Or if James LaBrie was unceremoniously cast out in favour of Charlie Dominici. It would make no sense because these are full-time members, not simply hired hands. When Mangini was announced, he was marketed as a full-time member of the group, worthy of all the respect Portnoy ever had.

With this press release, it seems as if the other four members of Dream Theater have always had a secret hope to get Portnoy back and were ready to cast Mangini out at the first opportunity. It doesn’t seem as if he was ever considered a full member of the group, despite being allowed to start writing music for the group, such as the excellent Room 137 from Distance Over Time. It’s difficult to tell how Mangini truly feels about this, but it seems like he’s been asked to downplay his own part in the group since 2010, for the sake of making the press release look like a win-win for everyone involved.

The press release continues with the four members saying one or nice two things about Mangini before saying how much better it is that they’re back with Portnoy and that with him back in the band it’s a more true Dream Theater. All of these statements read like backhanded insults towards Mangini who seems to have had very little say about whether he stays in Dream Theater or not. All four of them are essentially admitting that the last thirteen years were dogshit compared to their time with Portnoy, and I can’t help feeling sorry for Mangini who has to read all of what he has lacked in comparison.

Even though it’s true that the music did lose a lot of the magic when Portnoy left, with Mangini’s more forceful style missing Portnoy’s subtleties, the new incarnation had really begun to gel, with 2021’s A View from the Top of the World being arguably one of their best albums since the band’s glory days. With Mangini proving himself to be a more wholesome addition to the group than Portnoy, I had come to accept and embrace this line-up. It feels like a slap in the face to be told by every member of the group that the ‘classic’ line-up was always better, that I was a fool to adjust myself to the Mangini line-up that they created and touted as legitimate for 13 years.

What’s especially insulting is the lack of transparency, which I’m hoping will come in further interviews. The band have not made it clear why or how this decision was made, why this was the right time, and how involved Mangini was. For fans who have been following the group for decades and invested time and money, we deserve to know the real deal. I honestly wonder if one of the reasons why the band chose now to do a press release is because they saw my poll on the subreddit and acted based on the positive result. I unwittingly did the band’s market testing for them.

It’s unclear if the group are truly friendly with Portnoy again or if this is a calculated move to appease fans. I strongly suspect the former but, with the feeling of having the carpet pulled out from underneath me, I’m not sure what to believe any more. What the press release also fails to answer is whether the five of them – and especially Portnoy – have mended all the problems that caused the split in the first place. What’s to stop Portnoy from becoming a control freak once again and burning out yet again? Has he had therapy to work on his self-control? To use LaBrie’s words from the press release, how can we be so sure that this will be the final incarnation of Dream Theater?

The upside to this is that there’s a strong chance that the music will be better, and for that, we can be thankful. I reckon that’s why so many fans were hopeful of Portnoy’s return, and why the outpouring of support has been tremendous. My more negative opinion of the situation has been shaped by following the band’s path in the intervening time and realising just how problematic an individual Portnoy really is. I hope for everyone’s sake that Portnoy can be more self-reflective and calm than he was in the past and that Mangini was truly okay with leaving the group. I will cautiously anticipate the sixteenth album and see what the band members have to say in the meantime.

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