Wednesday, April 2, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Lifting Shadows: The Authorized Biography of Dream Theater

The new, updated and revised edition

Amongst all of the different genres of rock music, prog(ressive) rock is always treated as the red-headed step-child. Stereotyped as overblown, pretentious, and consisting entirely of quadruple-album concept pieces about silver-robed wizards trekking across the galaxy in magical starships in order to clash with demon-dragons on far-off planets in order to save humanity (okay, I made that up), it is also music that, according to its detractors, is written and performed by humorless muso nerds who never moved out of their parents basements (metaphorically speaking).  This is, of course, completely incorrect and one only has to read the story of Dream Theater in their authorized biography, Lifting Shadows, in order to be enlightened to the story behind one of the most successful, influential, and enduring prog bands of all time. 

***special thanks to Rocket88 Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Author Rich Wilson is a massive DT fan, "getting in at the beginning" in 1989 as he states in the book's introduction. Clearly a labor of love, the first edition of the book was released in 2007. In addition to the deep personal connection I have to the band and their music, I've also got a personal connection to this book: when the original edition was released, it was available as a standard hardcover, but a special deluxe boxed set edition was available for anyone who pledged money in order to sponsor the initial print run. This box set was a slipcase with the hardcover book ("Words) along with a unique book of glossy images ("Images") and a CD of rare tracks compiled by the band themselves. For those who pledged money, you'd receive the deluxe box set as well as your name printed in the "Roll of Honor" at the back. This boxed set is one of my treasured possessions, and to have my name in the back of the book is something I'm very proud of. (You can see my pictures of this boxed set at the end of this review).


A lot has happened in the world of DT since this book was first published in 2007, not least of which was the departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy in 2010, as well as the release of a few new albums with new drummer Mike Mangini. This, of course, necessitated an updated edition and this new version published in late 2013 will be the subject of this book review. As with the earlier edition, Wilson has had access to all of the members of the band, past and present, dating back even to their earliest vocalists when they were still teenagers in Long Island. He also interviewed all of the various producers, managers, crew members, and family members who have something to share about the band's story. Finally, there are of course extensive and candid interviews with the core members of the band, who pull no punches and show a refreshing honesty to talk about both the good and the bad as it pertains to their career.

Starting with their childhoods on Long Island, Wilson traces the band's first forays into music and the eventual first meeting of childhood friends John Petrucci and John Myung with fellow Long Island native Mike Portnoy at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1985. Instantly forming a personal and musical bond, the three recruited another of John Petrucci's friends from high school, Kevin Moore, and dropped out of school to form the band Majesty. Bringing in yet another friend of the two Johns, Chris Collins on vocals, the fledgling band sent their raw demos around and gigged locally, building up a small but dedicated (and growing) following in the New York City area and in underground magazines by playing their (at the time) unfashionable mixture of progressive rock and heavy metal. What set them apart from the crowd, then as now, were their musical virtuosity, their single-minded devotion to their craft, their developed and intelligent songwriting, their sense of humor, and their down to earth personalities.  Realizing Collins was not the right fit on a musical or personal level, they auditioned for a new singer (and changed the name of their band!) on the eve of recording their first album in 1989 and brought in Charlie Dominici, ten years older than the rest of the band and perhaps not vocally or visually suited to their image or sound who nonetheless was a positive force in their early years. However, the first several years of their career were marred by problems with their record label and management; their first album was critically acclaimed in the music press yet they barely gigged in support of it and weren't able to capitalize on its success due to disinterest from their label. Eventually, they replaced Dominici with James LaBrie, got new management, a new label, and the rest, as they say is history (or is it?). Their classic Images and Words albums was released in 1992 and the album, coupled with the band's relentless touring, is what finally broke them through in terms of success. Wilson takes us through all of the ups and downs of the band's career, through each album, various line-up changes (Moore's departure in 1994, Derek Sherinian's stint in the band from '94-'99, Jordan Rudess joining in '99, Mike Portnoy's departure in 2010 and Mike Mangini replacing him), and notable incidents, both memorable and best forgotten. I don't intend to get into all of the details, but I will say that the level of candor and honesty the band express, whether the subject reflects positively or negatively on them, is refreshing and makes me respect them all the more for it. Luckily, Dream Theater are, in their own words, "boring" family men, so there is nothing salacious or controversial in terms of incidents over the years...they boil down mainly to disagreements or the occasional weird gig story.

The part of the book I was looking forward to the most in this updated edition was that which covered the departure of Mike Portnoy in 2010. Before I proceed, let me state that I am a huge Mike Portnoy fan. He's one of my favorite drummers of all time and I follow all of his side projects with great interest, especially his work with Neal Morse, both on Neal's solo albums as well as their work together in the supergroups Transatlantic and Flying Colors. I've read all of the information regarding the split that was posted on both Mike's and Dream Theater's official websites when it all went down, so I knew the general idea of why it happened, but what I was looking for in this book was more detail from the band members themselves. The book did not disappoint and honestly, the level of candor with which they all discussed the situation with Mike Portnoy was a bit shocking but very welcome. I respect all of them, on both sides, all the more for it. It was also nice to get a detailed portrait of Mike Mangini...even though I was familiar with him (being a fellow New Englander myself), it was great to get his perspective on joining the band and being absorbed and welcomed into the Dream Theater family. And like the other fellows, he seems to be a genuinely nice, down to earth, and supremely talented guy.

As for criticisms, I have a few but they're all very minor and don't really detract from the overall quality and enjoyment of the book. The first is that, simply, there are no pictures! I understand that there isn't to be an accompanying book of images like there was in the earlier edition, but in books such as this, there is usually a section or two of band pictures from throughout their career, which would have been nice to have included in this edition. As far as stylistic complaints, I have but two. The first is that, it seems the author (who is British) may have inserted some of his colloquialisms into the mouths of the band members and their entourages...it's not that he's changed in any way the substance of what they're saying, but I find it hard to believe that guys born and raised on Long Island, and who continue to reside in the area, use the words "bloke," "lad," "pear-shaped," and so on. While these are of course understood by Americans, these are not in any way expressions that are used by anyone here in everyday speech (and certainly, in all the years that I've been a fan, I've never come across any of the members of DT using them in the numerous interviews I've listened to/seen/read with them). Lastly, while there have been stylistic tweaks to the earlier sections of the book that allow them to flow better, a lot of the writing dates the book and makes it feel as though it's mainly the previous edition with the new section tacked on. What I mean by this is that, for 3/4 of the book, Mike Portnoy is still talking as though he *is* still in the band. This is a minor complaint but still one that I noticed as I went through the book. However, as I said earlier, these do not in any way take away from the enjoyment and overall, the book is still excellent.

Dream Theater have built a massive and loyal fanbase around the world by sticking to their guns and playing the kind of music they want to in the manner they want to. Unlike a lot of bands, they're a band who truly care about and appreciate their fans. Besides getting to read about their career in this great book, it shows them as they truly are: gracious and kind men who are devoted husbands and fathers, and who also happen to be virtuosos playing insanely complex, heavy, and melodic progressive rock music to millions of fans around the globe. Lifting Shadows sheds light on the nearly thirty year (and counting) history of one of the greatest progressive bands of all time and is essential reading for any fan of the band particular or this genre of music in general.

MY RATING: 9/10


***below are some pictures of my first edition of this book. The rarities CD is in a box in storage which is why it is not shown, but I do still have it!***

The slipcase box embossed with the band's "Majesty" logo

The two books removed from the slipcase: the first edition of the biography (Words) and a book full of glossy photos from throughout their career (Images)

A feather in my cap: my name in the Roll of Honor at the back of the first edition book!

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