Wow… so, this happened! On October 25, 2023, Dream Theater announced that founding member and drummer Mike Portnoy had returned to the band! I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see that coming. Yes, there were signs of warming relationships, but you always had to take them with a grain of salt because of the somewhat contradictory remarks you heard from the band. Regardless of whether I saw it coming or not, I am thrilled! I have absolutely nothing against Mike Mangini, but how could I not be excited about the original drummer returning home to where he belongs?

Let’s not dwell too much on the past grievances that led to Mike’s departure. Suffice it to say, there were tensions between the two camps for a while after he left. A quick Google search will reveal numerous sources and fan theories based on old interviews and statements. The truth is that both sides needed time to heal their wounds and it looks like they had that time!

A few years after Mike’s departure, fans learned that Portnoy and John Petrucci maintained contact and seemed on friendly terms. They shared photos of them hanging out even before collaborating on musical projects. It helped that their families were friends with each other, too. In fact, the families were so close that I believe Mike and John’s daughters were roommates at one point. When you combine these with the fact that Petrucci and Portnoy already had a significant history together and achieved so much, the reconciliation of their relationships wasn’t that surprising. There were also signs that Mike was communicating with Jordan and John Myung. So, if all these were happening, why was the reunion still so surprising?

Well, it’s because the band was fairly careful about not getting anybody’s hopes up. It’s hard to tell when exactly the idea of a reunion was discussed between the two camps. Still, I don’t think it was their intention when Mike Portnoy started musically collaborating with John Petrucci on Terminal Velocity. For those who may not know, Portnoy was asked to play on John’s second solo album, recorded during the pandemic’s lockdown days. While the two guys were already on speaking terms by then, this was the first time they had played together since Mike had left Dream Theater. The two would later collaborate on a new Liquid Tension Experiment album as well. But I vividly remember Petrucci’s interviews during the press tour for the album. He emphasized that Mike Mangini would stay in Dream Theater. He even said, and I’m only paraphrasing, that he had the best of both worlds as he got to play with both Mikes, depending on what band he was playing with. That suggested that a musical collaboration with Mike Portnoy did not mean he was returning to Dream Theater. It did, however, signal that the personal and professional relationships were on their way to becoming what they once were.

Of course, Dream Theater is more than Petrucci, Myung, and Rudess. Despite all the musical collaborations and the mending of the ties with the other members, it seems Mike Portnoy had one last person to make amends with: James LaBrie. The reasons for the decline in their relationship are multi-faceted, but if you google the topic, you’ll get the picture. (Side Note: This is why Portnoy used the word “renewed friendship” when he shared his happy birthday message to LaBrie on May 5). It’s pretty complicated, but the truth is James’ heart needed to be won.

The final sign that Mike Portnoy was at least on speaking terms with everyone in Dream Theater came when he attended Dream Theater’s concert (with Mangini on drums) in March, 2022. I’m sure it felt a bit awkward for him to watch the band he had co-founded from the audience, but as a fan I was so happy to see that update. LaBrie even gave him a shout out during the show and made more people aware that Portnoy was in attendance. Of course, Mike’s attendance drew media attention. Yes, a part of the reason was seeing a former member watching the band with their new drummer. That alone would get people talking. But metal news outlets also rightly highlighted Portnoy sharing a picture with LaBrie from backstage. Mike had either already mended relationships with everyone else or never had a falling out to begin with. LaBrie was the exception. There were no public indications that the two were on speaking terms. (They were quite honest about that when the band was interviewed by Rolling Stone.) But then it happened… I don’t know if they had any contact before this show, but it looks like this was the catalyst to the two of them reconnecting. James shared a pic a day later and captioned it “onward and upward” … Still, there was no news of them reuniting in Dream Theater. After all, Mike Mangini had just played the drums at that very show!

And we finally got the news! On October 25, 2023, Dream Theater went public with the update that Mike Portnoy was back in the band! As you would expect, everyone had very professional and positive things to say in the news release. That includes Mike Mangini, who had played drums in the band for 13 years at that point. He said he understood the band’s decision, thanked them for the time he had and wished them the best. Like I said at the beginning, I do feel a bit bad for him. It sounds like he would have gladly stayed in the band if Portnoy wasn’t returning. But I’m sure I’m not alone in being so excited with Portnoy’s return.

I will add this. I loved Mangini’s energy in the drummer audition videos the band put out around the time he joined the band. But watching some of the live footage, I couldn’t see the same level of energy. Did anyone else feel that way? The notes were there; he was always as solid as you would expect. He was always a professional. But I’ve seen Mike Portnoy live with DT twice and watched a lot of videos of him over the years. His energy is quite something! When I saw him live on stage with the band, I couldn’t take my eyes off him! He had all those technically demanding songs to play but that never stopped him from having fun! The energy was contagious. I love DT, but the guys in the band don’t really run around and do too much moving. It’s just not their style. Portnoy’s energy was missing. I believe his return will be a great boost to audience engagement. I look forward to seeing that on a Dream Theater stage again.

Sometimes, it’s not one thing that leads to a conclusion, but rather a combination of events that sets an inevitable end into motion. That’s what we got here. The Portnoy family being close to families of other members, Petrucci and then Rudess playing with him on musical projects, Portnoy finally mending his relationship with LaBrie… With the benefit of hindsight, we can see these all brought us here. I still don’t buy it when anyone says they “knew” this was going to happen, though. I think the surprise elements was very much there when we all got the announcement.

As I’m writing this, the band has finished tracking drums and guitars for their new album. There’s not much to talk about yet as we don’t really know anything about the musical direction or how Portnoy’s presence has changed the songwriting, if at all. The band has also announced a massive tour starting later this year. More dates will surely be added. There’s so much going on in the Dream Theater camp and it doesn’t look like they’ll slow down any time soon.

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