In the now infamous YouTube videos of Dream Theater’s drummer auditions of 2010, a posse of percussion princes came to conquer, ready and able to prove that they and only they were the rightful heirs to departing drum leviathan Mike Portnoy’s throne. They were progressive metal’s best: Mike Mangini (Extreme, Annihilator, Steve Vai), Marco Minnemann (Necrophagist, Joe Satriani, Steven Wilson), Thomas Lang (Stork), Aquiles Priester (Hangar, Angra), Virgil Donati (Planet X), Derek Roddy (Nile, Hate Eternal, Today Is the Day), and Peter Wildoer (Darkane, Pestilence).
As legend has it, a furious battle ensued, and when the dust had settled, one man, sticks in hand, emerged to grab the crown. His name was Mike Mangini. Bloody but unbowed, this particular superdrummer knew this was truly the Big Time, and was more than up for the challenge. Indeed, he’d been preparing himself for it all his life.
“I felt the same pressure as always,” he says matter-of-factly. “I know how to prepare for an audition; I’ve done it for decades, preparing for the environment and prepping the material. And going up against friends made it that much more fun. I have tremendous respect for the drummers I auditioned with – it just made me dig in.”
Of course, the digging in required this veteran of countless eclectic sessions to assess how much he’d have to adapt his drumming to fit the sound and form of Dream Theater. It’s an issue that the former associate professor at Berklee College Of Music addresses in somewhat scholarly terms.
“There are two components to my perspective on fitting in: my pattern recognition, and the way that I have developed certain cognitive connections in my brain. We as music lovers have a choice to wire ourselves to be able to comprehend what we’re listening to. I wired myself by listening to music that my brothers and sisters played; my brain got accustomed to listening to different key signatures and different modes and different emotions, with progressive music of all kinds.”
The hard science of musicianship is a source of endless fascination for Mangini. And he suggests that most anyone can wire themselves to play the complex polyrhythms of progressive rock bands like Dream Theater – anyone motivated to do so, that is. These are ideas he’s published in two books about his drumming techniques titled Rhythm Knowledge.
“If musicians don’t start to study the brain,” he says, “then they’re just going to be artists that think certain things with no proof at all as to what they’re talking about – as opposed to human beings who want to learn more about being human beings.”
Warming to the subject, Mangini cites an MIT paper which proved that no human beings are born with an inherent understanding of polyrhythms, and that the comprehension of compound rhythms requires wiring into the brain via study and practice, practice, practice.
“Before playing with Dream Theater,” he says, “I had previously wired not only those areas of the brain necessary to comprehend what I’m listening to, but because I comprehend what I’m listening to, I can then make a musical choice: I like it or I don’t like it. No one’s going to be able to make an objective choice if their brains don’t allow them to comprehend it and if the feeling inside them is one of discord and discomfort, simply because they really don’t know what they’re listening to.”
Mike Mangini is famed for his formidable array of chops, notably for the almost perfect symmetry of his arms and legs in complex polyrhythmic patterns. He’s also reknowned for setting five World’s Fastest Drummer (WFD) records, evidence of which was shown on the Discovery Channel’s Time Warp program in which he displayed his awesome skills for high-speed cameras.
Mangini is also at great pains to portray his role in music as something above and beyond that of a mere technician. Yet he acknowledges that an ability to apply substantial technique is crucial to his musicianship. “I’m not a technical guy,” he says. “I’m a kid who loves The Beatles, who loves Buddy Rich and Zeppelin and Sabbath. I like Christina Aguilera! But I also love progressive music, and I love the idea of playing it knowing what I’m doing.”
Wiring himself for the job of recording Dream Theater’s eponymous new album wasn’t difficult for Mangini, because their music was not just something that he comprehended. He liked it, too. “With pattern recognition, I could understand Dream Theater’s music pretty easily, but that I liked it on a musical level made me feel not only that I liked it when I heard it but that I could fit in,” he says.
Dream Theater’s melodic landscapes are usually created within the time signatures created by guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and, according to Mangini, “You can’t help but sing a melody over it. And I would not have trained myself to play it at all if at some point I didn’t enjoy it. When you put together the two worlds of comprehension and enjoyment, it’s gotta work.”
You can hear Mangini’s sheer joy on the album’s “Surrender To Reason,” whose introduction explodes with odd-timed percussive bursts played in what must have been difficult side-vs.-side coordination moves. “Check out the first three drum fills that open ’Surrender,’” he says. “The first is a 15 tuplet on the snare drum, before I do a triplet for the second fill. Note that I did this not by being a scientist and calculating, ’Gee, I think I’ll play a fifteenth-note tuplet just because I can.’ I played an odd amount of notes because it gave me a certain feeling.”
He did the same thing with the third fill, a devilish 29-against-5 polyrhythm that he swears came bubbling out of pure feeling and musicality. “In fact, the first fill I played instead of the 29-against-5 polyrhythm was a more even set of triplets. Now, to me, sometimes sixteenth-note triplets are too square and studied, and it’s because most of us don’t practice to go beyond that to experience this other world. But [Dream Theater singer] James LaBrie got out of his seat like a banshee, pointing at me, and said, ’No, Mike, the other one you played, that was gold!’ I’m like, Really? So I looked at my drums and I calculated and said, ’Oh, wow, it was two notes on every drum on the kit, plus five on the kick drums. So it was 12 times 2, plus 5 = 29.”
Despite Mangini’s hardwired facility for executing the most hair-raisingly intricate rhythmic patterns, there were tracks on the album that raised his personal bar even higher. On the epic ’Illumination Theory’ there are a couple of spots where Mangini uses limb pairs against one another, such as his left foot playing a china-stack sound that his hands would normally hit, and throughout one section the left side of his body is playing in 3/16 while the right side is playing multiple time signatures, following Jordan Rudess.
“In ’Enemy Inside,’ I had to reach so far from one side of my kit to the other, hitting the effects cymbals as I’m following the guys melodically, that the entire trunk of my body had to turn from left to right in less than so many thousands of a second, and while I was doing that I had to whack the bass drums. I’m sorry, but I’m not a robot!”
Even the band’s simpler, more overtly pop songs such as “The Bigger Picture” required Mangini to create as much air and space as possible while still strutting his technical stuff. You hear him play parts that closely resemble the melodies and riffs from the other musicians – and note that his bandmates asked Mangini to play more, in order to create a unique drum part for each song. Throughout the album, the production is a minefield of sonic surprises, such as the stereo nature of the kit actually changing with the sharps and flats in the charts.
“I’m following the key signatures of the music, I’m changing cymbals based on key signatures, my tom toms are following the unison runs exactly,” he explains. “If Jordan Rudess goes up the keyboard then I go up the drums; if John Petrucci goes down his guitar in sets of triplets or threes, I go down my drums in triplets or threes.”
He would also like to point out the substantial time he took playing simple parts for perhaps just two minutes without missing any hits off the grid. That’s a tough job for any drummer, a difficulty aggravated by the microscopic exactitudes of modern recording technology.
“My challenge was keeping the velocities extremely high – if I hit one hit light in the middle of a run, it got lost. And to me it wasn’t light, because I could hear it perfectly fine. But with the recording software we use today, if it’s just a couple of dBs shy, it’s no good.”
“I often question why I do what I do, because it is so pressure-filled, but there's something about stepping it up in front of everyone and seeing smiles after I nail a part. It feels like scoring a hockey goal did when I was young!”