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There’s nothing like a carnival. Especially at night. Where eccentric Carnies and veteran attractions furnish some off-road, temporary grassland with an allure of charm, comfort, a sense of familiarity, and a succulent hint of danger. The hiss, click and pop of the Tilt-A-Whirl safety bar (assuming it has one) securing you in as the Carnie grins, and you brace yourself for the most exhilarating, perilous, or dullest ride of your life. If this funfair fetish induced by a state of terminal boredom born of lockdown seems excessive, it also happens to serve as a tidy introduction to ‘Terminal Velocity.’ The spirited, dynamic, and second all-instrumental solo album from guitar virtuoso and Dream Theater mastermind, John Petrucci, delivering a damn good time for all, and referencing all, even during those moments it probably shouldn’t.
John Petrucci, considered by many as the greatest guitarist of his generation, has just released his first solo effort in 15 years, Terminal Velocity. For the first time in 10 years, he is joined by his longtime musical collaborator, one of his closest friends, and undoubtedly one of the greatest drummers on the planet, the incomparable Mike Portnoy. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, moments like this don’t come around all that often, and for longtime fans of Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment, this moment could not have come soon enough. If you’re reading this review because you’re wondering if JP and MP were able to recapture their storied musical chemistry, catalogued on over a dozen classic Prog Metal albums, then let me make it clear that they did indeed—and then some. Terminal Velocity is an instrumental guitar masterwork and one of my favorite albums from what has been an already bumper year for the Prog genre.
As Petrucci shreds, soars and solos melodically throughout, his fingers sound as if they’ve been reared on steak and caffeine. Unrelenting, unforgiving, trying to learn these songs by ear is probably about as manageable as trying to catch smoke. Particularly on “Temple of Ciradia,” easily the albums heaviest number, as the Portnoy/LaRue dynamic truly takes hold. As it does again in “Gemini”, capturing a grittier, heavy rock vibe with the main riff that fizzes past. After several brief interludes that echo early Velvet Revolver, waves of Flamenco guitar wash over you and its all-glorious good fun. Though, lest we forget its more somber moments found in the ballad “Out of the Blue” which hauntingly captures the spirit of Gary Moore. And yet, ‘Terminal Velocity’ continuously detours back to genial solos boasting a broad, pop-punk smile. Most notably in “Happy Song,” sounding as if Big Country instrumentally reimagined the Sum-41 hit “Still Waiting”. This should sound like the musical equivalent to sampling pickles dipped in mustard when, in fact, it winds up with more peanut butter and chocolate relationship. Like a doughnut burger it really shouldn’t work, but, wonderfully, it kind of does!
The opening riff and emotional impact of “Out of the Blue” most reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Steve Vai instrumentals “Tender Surrender”, which itself was inspired by another instrumental “Villanova Junction” by Jimi Hendrix. This is a romantic and enthralling song that gradually builds as Petrucci layers guitars on top, culminating in a satisfying crescendo, while Portnoy and LaRue keep the bluesy, underlying waltz-of-sorts locked down. Mike’s drumming on “Out of the Blue” is some of my most favorite that he’s recorded in years. While subtle, it stands alongside the best he’s done with Dream Theater, The Winery Dogs, and Flying Colors. Most importantly, it perfectly compliments this beautiful song, giving it the necessary feeling and sense of triumph—a balance present only in the best of instrumentals.
Petrucci began work on Terminal Velocity in March, at the onset of the COVID pandemic, the latter of which resulted in the cancellation of all Dream Theater touring for the remainder of 2020. He spent 5 days a week and over 2 months writing and recording the songs at the DT headquarters in Long Island with longtime engineer James ‘Jimmy T’ Meslin. One thing is abundantly clear after listening to these songs: Petrucci endeavored to make a positive and uplifting album to contrast with the current state of the world. This is further evidenced by the unorthodox decision to release the album nearly two months early on streaming services before its physical release on CD and vinyl towards the end of October. Petrucci stated in an interview that he wanted his new music to be heard as soon as possible, and this gesture is no doubt commendable and appreciated by his legion of fans worldwide, including myself. Terminal Velocity is a balanced, yet eclectic album that works to display Petrucci’s varied songwriting talents—a beautiful album from start to finish, especially if you are a fan of instrumental, guitar-focused music. With that in mind, I’d like to focus on and discuss my four favorite tracks from the record.