The Twelve-Step Suite, also referred to as The AA Saga, is a group of five songs spread across five albums, from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence to Black Clouds & Silver Linings. The lyrics were all written by Mike Portnoy, and each one deals with his recovery from alcoholism. Each of the song contains two or three movements, which represent the Twelve Step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous. Each song is dedicated "to Bill W. and his friends," which is a reference to Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Eventually, Portnoy would have wished to play all of these songs together in concert with Dream Theater, even planning to play the whole suite after the Black Clouds & Silver Linings Tour, and saving The Shattered Fortress for this eventual tour. Unfortunately, Portnoy left the band before this could come to fruition, and the band premiered The Shattered Fortress live in 2014 on the Along for the Ride Tour. However, he was eventually able to play the suite live in its entirety in 2017 during the Mike Portnoy's Shattered Fortress tour with Eric Gillette from the Neal Morse Band and the band Haken backing him up.
- Mike Portnoy - Drums, percussion, backing vocals/co-lead vocals, lyrics
- John Petrucci - Guitars, backing vocals
- John Myung - Bass
- Jordan Rudess - Piano, keyboards, continuum
- James LaBrie - Lead vocals
- I. "Reflection"
- II. "Restoration"
- III. "Revelation"
- IV. "Reflections of Reality (Revisited)"
- V. "Release"
- VI. "Ready"
- VII. "Remove"
- VIII. "Regret"
- IX. "Restitution"
- X. "Restraint"
- XI. "Receive"
- XII. "Responsible"
For those looking for a briefer, musical overview of the entire suite without The Mirror, here is a song-by-song analysis.
The Glass Prison
Main article: The Glass Prison
This song, and the suite itself, starts with the same white noise that ended the previous album, Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. After a while, bells can be heard ringing out in F#. After the third ring, the bell is joined by a natural harmonic on bass, leading to a calming melody in the higher register of the bass. After this reprises a couple of times, the rest of the band explodes in to accompany the melody, though they eventually join the melody in unison with the keyboard synthesizing some sort of stringed instrument and a synth solo. The band slows down to give way to John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy delivering fast, thundering 7-string riffs and drum fills. While this is happening, Petrucci incorporates many fluid, sweep-picked and alternate picked passages before the band settles on a riff pattern before the vocals start. Mike Portnoy and James LaBrie alternate vocal passages for the first verse, with LaBrie's vocals having a distortion effect before finishing the verse with clean vocals. The band continues with reprising the thundering riff from the beginning of the song, though with the whole band while Portnoy delivers pounding double bass patterns under the riffs. Rudess uses the keyboard to emulate Petrucci's fluid arpeggios while LaBrie sings with an odd effect over his voice (Possibly a chorus or ring modulator). The band changes tempo once again to deliver a sort of chorus to the song, The key of this section seems to change multiple times while the subject talks about his "glass prison," first starting in B, then switching to G.
The next section of the song starts with a reprise of the heavier version of the intro, switching back to the key of B. Police sirens are heard under the the song at this point. This once again slows down, giving way to another chugging riff that one could very easily headbang to. The drums keep time while record scratches are heard. Once again, Portnoy and LaBrie alternate vocal duties in the verses, while the subject speaks about the anguish and pain his addiction has caused him. Chanting can also be heard here. This moves to a more progressive part in what sounds like an odd time signature, with multi-part harmonies and an organ clearly being heard while the subject begs for help. The song moves back a variation of the heavy riff heard earlier in this section. There are alternating vocals occurring again, with more chanting. The riff continues while Portnoy and LaBrie continue to alternate vocals. The multi-part harmonies continues with another cry for mercy.
This section begins with a fast-paced instrumental section, complete with synchronized instruments and thundering double bass on drums. A short guitar solo starts, making way for a keyboard solo. The guitar begins soloing again, and another keyboard solo is heard before Rudess and Petrucci start a unison with their respective instruments. This concludes and leaves the bass and keyboard to fill the rhythm. The band jumps back in with another riff, and the bass and keyboards come back in for a few more seconds, before the band comes back in with more heavy, thundering riffs and complex passages on guitar. The vocals come back in with the subject finding a possible way out, with the band keeping a steady groove under the vocals for the rest of the song. The song ends with the sound of a glass being broken.
This Dying Soul
Main article: This Dying Soul
Album: Train of Thought
IV. REFLECTIONS OF REALITY (REVISITED)
When played back to back with The Glass Prison, this song picks up immediately where it left off. The guitar plays descending chords before letting out a massive B5 chord. The drums fully kick in, with a basic metal pattern with fast double bass sixteenth notes. The B5 chord sustains until it feeds back into the amp, where upon the keyboard can be heard entering the cacophony of sound. Petrucci scrapes his pick along the string of his guitar before launching into a heavy 7-string riff on the low B string. He repeats the riff twice before throwing in a tritone with C as the root. He repeats the the pattern again, and then again with the bass, tritone and everything. At this point, Portnoy's bass drum pattern is mirroring that of the riff, with cymbal crashes on the tritones. The band plays notes in unison before starting another riff while Petrucci solos a little bit. He throws in some two-handed tapping licks, before he starts a unison/harmony, which starts with legato, and then transitions to straight alternate picking before the passage ends with a full step bend, paving the way for a melodic keyboard solo. Once this ends, the bands transitions to a slower, but still heavy riff. They repeat the riff a few more times before the guitar switches to a clean sound. The subject talks to the "Mirror" about how it's "been a while." While the clean guitar continue, the subject begins looking for a way to help heal himself and the pain he's caused to people. The guitar abruptly switches back to a distorted sound while someone, presumably one of his friends or his counselor, tells him to "trace his hell back." At this point, the band bursts back in while the subject speaks about how he needs to face his problems head on. The clean melody returns, but with a distorted sound on the guitar. After the song's chorus, the guitar unison/harmony from the beginning reprises, albeit with a slightly different ending, which goes immediately into a rapid synchronized passage to end the phrase. The tritone riff, also from the beginning, gets played again in the key of B with a spoken word section overtop. The difference, though, is that the vocals here are distorted and following the same rhythm that the guitar and bass play. After this finishes, there is a reprise of the chorus melody, before the distorted spoken word section starts up again, although with the root in this part being C#, instead of B. This gives the tritone a root of D. This continues for a bit, but not as long as the first section. The chorus is played again, with the same unison/harmony from the start of the song, but with the same ending. This moves into a quieter part with piano, while the subject is being told about how their past sins will help them become a better person and overcome their addiction.
The song turns heavy again, even reprising a riff from the middle of The Glass Prison. This later starts a section with prominent keyboard before the band settles on a groove while the vocals show that the subject is asking for help, and a person is offering help. There is a cry for help, the subject saying that he can't "break out of this prison all alone", before another section with the keyboard standing out starts. This quickly passes, however, to another spoken word section with a choir in the background. LaBrie's vocals are clean in this part, but are in unison with a very heavily distorted version of the same lines. (In the "Making Of" tape for Train of Thought, Portnoy described this section as "Dave Mustaine meets Satan.") This section basically speaks of how the subject must admit to everything before he can begin to recover. The subject then speaks out, asking those around him to believe him when he says that he's ready to "break through [the] prison wall," and begin the road to recovery. The rest of the song is instrumental, being mostly heavy headbanging riffs while staying progressive, but a part starts, which moves slow, being heavily palm-muted, then moving to a repeating descending pattern. The palm-muted chords return again, but are less muted this time. This quickly moves to a slightly longer version of the descending pattern. The chords come back, but they are not palm muted anymore. The descending pattern comes back, but this time, a new pattern of notes, sounding like a back and forth sort of thing, is added into the mix. The chords come back, and then the descending and back and forth patterns are played. The chords start for the final time, with a violin being heard in unison with the chords as the drums and instruments get louder and louder. This culminates in a very fast keyboard solo, complete with double bass pounding away underneath Rudess' playing. This leads to a complex passage which transitions to an equally fast guitar solo with just the right amount of wah pedal mixed in. The guitar solo ends, and the guitar, bass, and keys play the complex passage from earlier in unison. They stop, and all is quiet for a second. Then the band explodes back in for a huge finale. Myung plays a simple but complex walking bassline, and Portnoy smashes his drums, almost bordering on blast beats, but not quite yet. All the while, the guitar and keys are locked in a hypersonic unison pattern, playing thirty-second notes perfectly in time with one another as they both weave their way higher and higher up the registers of their instruments, before quickly descending down to the low B where the song started, ending with the same low B string riff from the start at a much higher tempo, complete with the C tritone to end the song completely.
The Root of All Evil
Main article: The Root of All Evil
This song begins with the same piano note that ended In the Name of God, the last song on Train of Thought. This also continues the meta album cycle. A pulse of the same note is heard a few seconds later, albeit much quieter. This segues into another type of pulse, possibly done with some sort of synth. This continues for a few seconds while other sound effects can be heard. A blast of static can be heard. The noises continue. The static is heard, but now it can be heard that drums are being hit, and the drums are following the main riff pattern from This Dying Soul. After the drums stop, a tritone on guitar is heard with a root of B. The guitar is clean and has heavy delay on it. More sound effects are heard, such as a person walking on a hard surface and another blast of static accompanied with drum. The static and drums play once more, followed by another clean B tritone. The noises continue for a few more seconds, before the drums come back by themselves. They play the same pattern they have the past couple of times, but the tritone is now distorted and playing in one speaker. The drums play the pattern again, followed by a tritone, this time in the other speaker. The same drum pattern is played, another tritone the same speaker as the first time. The last time is is played, the tritone is played through both speakers before the the rest of the band comes in with a heavy riff in the key of F, matching the concept of Octavarium, with each song corresponding to a note in a piano's octave. The riff changes once before a descending power chord riff signals the start of the vocals. The lyrics show the subject listing all of the things that is wrong them as a result of their addiction. He finishes listing everything before stating that he can't have "just a part of it" and that he needs more and more everyday to get by and fuel his addiction, and that he needs to get down "to the heart of it" and recognized that the "root of all evil" has been controlling his life. The first heavy riff from the start reprises again and plays before the subject begins listing more negative things that have manifested as a result of the aforementioned addiction. He goes on to say how easily he or others are easily mislead and how or sins blind us. He moves to say he is ready to leave his problems behind and break free. The next verse is the subject asking somebody to "take all of [him]", and the "desires that keep burning [him] deep inside", and to cast them away to help him face the day anew. This section ends with the subject saying that he is ready to begin his recovery, and asking those around him to "help [him] be what [he] can be." This section ends with the song slowing way down before building into a new riff, which climaxes with a pinch harmonic before the new riff pattern cements itself.
The riff pattern from the end of the previous section continues for a few bars before the vocals begin again. The subject has started his recovery, and is starting to feel the effects of withdrawal. He describes the feelings of "self-centred fear" and "self-righteous anger" affecting him. He also describes how his obsessions and his dependancy on alcohol "won't leave his head". He asks for help again, saying once again that he can't break out of his prison all alone, reprising the theme from The Glass Prison and This Dying Soul. The subject goes on to say that his only hope is to show humility. The drums under these lyrics seem to match the same drum pattern under the lyrics from The Glass Prison, where he mentions that he's "drowning" and "hopeless on [his] own." The subject asks that someone heal "this dying soul", which is a direct callback to that same song. The verse after this follows the same chorus pattern as This Dying Soul, saying that he can feel his body "breaking" and "shaking", which makes sense, since bodily tremors, vomiting, irritability and mood swings are all symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. He eventually realizes it boils down to the "root of it all", before a short instrumental section starts. All the instruments stop playing, leaving the keyboard to carry the song for a few seconds with a heavy pattern of notes before the drums join with a slow roll which builds into the guitar and bass joining with different tapping patterns while the keyboard plays sweeping arpeggios until the song builds into a keyboard solo, which segues into a guitar solo. Once the solo finishes, the ending verse from the previous section reprises, with the subject asking again for someone to take all of his desires and move them away from his thoughts to continue his recovery. He once again says he is ready to be what he can be, but this time he asks for those around him to come to him and take him away from his temptation. The song moves back to the beginning riff, albeit a bit slowed down. The riff continues while the piano plays the Octavarium theme alongside the riff before a F power chord is played and the drums roll into silence while the piano plays the Octavarium theme one last time, ending with the C# note on the right hand.
Main article: Repentance
Album: Systematic Chaos
When the song starts, the listener will already be able to tell that this song is much slower compared to the rest of the songs in the suite, and every other song on Systematic Chaos. The song starts with the guitar on its own. Petrucci slides from B up to C#, picks the note an octave up, then goes a half step up on the octave, then pulls off to the C# octave. He repeats this pattern hundreds of times throughout the song, but there isn't much to it other than this. The other instruments join in, and this goes on for a while. After a few minutes of this, Portnoy comes in with vocals, describing the subject as he looks in the "mirror", and remarks that it's been a while, and possibly time for reflection. The guitar pattern changes for the next couple of verses. The subject goes into detail about him staring at an empty page of paper, and thinking about all the atrocities he has committed through the years. As he writes down all the things he's done, he realizes that they should have warned him about the spiral he was going down, but he ignored the signs and now he needs to repent for them. He goes to say that he used to think it was better to "regret things that [he's] done, than haven't," saying that sometimes you need to learn the hard way and be wrong, and be strong when you think that it's "too late."The next verse shows that he has finished writing all of the things he's done, he finally realizes the damage he's caused and that he needs to apologize. A task that he greatly fears, but know that it could be the "beginning of the end." He repeat his sentence about regretting thing he's done, but finishes with saying that "just when you're through hanging on, you're saved," meaning that when you feel like you been working towards something for so long and you feel like giving up, that that will be the time you will be rewarded. This part transitions into a melodic guitar solo by Petrucci. There are no other lyrics in this song, except for spoken word segments in the next section.
The guitar solo ends, and the band moves back into the same pattern they have been using for most of the song. This supports the spoken word section, which includes contributions from many musicians, such as Corey Taylor, Steve Vai, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Joe Satriani, Steve Hogarth, and many others. They are all apologizing for things they have done in their lives. Some of them specify what they did, but not everyone. The section gives way to another change in the song structure, with LaBrie, Portnoy, and Petrucci all harmonizing with "ahhhh"'s, for the rest of the song. The "ahhhh" section repeats four times. On the third repetition, Portnoy begins speaking in a pitch-shifted version of his voice, talking about how if we make an effort to stay on the good path, the things we work towards will materialize, slowly but surely. The song ends with David Ellefson saying that we are only as sick as our secrets, but that the truth will set us free. The last sample is of Corey Taylor saying, "The truth is the truth. It's all we can do, is live with it."
The Shattered Fortress
Main article: The Shattered Fortress
The song begins with silence, and then fades in with another heavy riff, while the drums play a heavy pattern with steady double bass underneath everything. The heavy pattern played by Portnoy is actually a 3:2 polyrhythm (3 evenly spaced beats played with the right hand, and 2 evenly spaced beats with the left hand played at the same time). The song continues to grow in volume, while the band keeps on playing. The riff is similar in sound to This Dying Soul or Repentance. This continues until the keyboard joins in, emulating the string section of an orchestra, with the drums adding in a snare hit on every second downbeat. This continues for another while until the guitar changes the pattern, which is the same as before, but an octave up with a few extra notes. This goes until the drum groove changes once more to sound more like the beginning instrumental from This Dying Soul.
This finishes and the guitar switches to chugging on the low B string of the seven string guitar with shots from the drums and bass. This settles into a basic metal pattern until the vocals kick in. This is one of the only parts of the song that does not reuse musical cues from other parts of the suite. The lyrics speak of how the subject is nearly free of his addiction ("Freedom calls my name") and how the serenity and happiness in his life makes his recovery easier. Compared to where he began, he has made great strides in being more honest with the people around him, being willing to understand others better, showing kindness to people, knowing when to hold back his words if they will be hurtful, and being open to other ways of rehabilitation and being much more courteous where he might not have been before. As he looks in the mirror at himself, he sees a "shattered fortress" where his glass prison used to be, no longer holding him back. The next segment reuses the frenetic arpeggios from the beginning of The Glass Prison while the lyrics spell out an inverted scenario compared to where The Glass Prison started ("Fateful ascent" as opposed to "Fatal descent"), as the subject speaks and says he has found the correct path to carry him higher and further towards sobriety.
The next section of the song uses the main riff and drum pattern from This Dying Soul, before the lyrics shift to the point of view to of a person in the life of the subject. This person states that the subject is now "smart enough for [them] to trust", having made a complete 180° from the lyrics stated in The Root of All Evil ("Dirty enough... leaving nothing left to trust"). This person just reminds the subject to keep the 12 steps in their life, and they'll be able to overcome most anything, and if they should ever be unsure, then to follow the golden rule ("Do unto others as they would do unto you"). The lyrics about looking in the mirror at the "shattered fortress" and the more positive version of the verse from The Glass Prison repeats, before moving to a heavier version of the "chorus" from Repentance. These lyrics speak of how the subject once thought that it was best to always be right about everything, but now that he has rehabilitated, he's "seen the light" and now knows that it's better to be wrong sometimes and learn from the mistakes he makes. This step's lyrics finishes with him stating that he now lives with no hate in his heart.
Instrumentally, the band moves into a half-time feel while playing the first heavy riff from The Glass Prison. After playing a few measures of this, the band cuts off as Rudess ascends an arpeggio on his keyboard. The band bursts back in with a faster version of the Glass Prison riff while Rudess plays a chaotic keyboard solo overtop. Eventually the band switches to a more slowed down riff while Rudess moves over to his Continuum synth to solo on that for a bit. This pattern repeats (slow Glass Prison, fast Glass Prison, slowed down riff) while Rudess continues his keyboard solo. The drums begin to pick up steam in the second slowed down riff, with some steady double bass, before graduating to thundering fast kicks while Portnoy goes to town on the ride cymbal. Finally, the band moves into one more repetition of the slow Glass Prison riff before moving as a unit into the next step, and therefore the next part of the song.
This step is very slow, and offers a much-needed breather after the frenzy of the keyboard solo. The drums play a simple beat with the ride cymbal while the guitar picks along some chord with a clean tone. Eventually, Portnoy begins narrating the St. Francis Prayer with his voice pitched down a few semitones. This prayer is commonly recited at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The lyrics come back with a reprise of the final verse from Step IV, broken up with lines of the St. Francis Prayer. The music starts to pick up before launching into a reprise of the "chorus" from The Root of All Evil.
These lyrics show the subject possibly praying to his god of choice, asking it to keep his destructive desires that his addiction fueled far from his mind so that he may stay strong and live to "carry out [their] will." He finally states that he is ready to be the best he can be, and asks his god, and the people in his life to help guide him as he declares himself free of his alcoholism, and thus, truly sober.
This section moves into a slower version on the main riff from The Root of All Evil, while Petrucci navigates a complex guitar solo, laden with legato, fast alternate picking, sweep picking, and other techniques while the rest of the band weaves through various tempos and drum beats.
The riff switches to a new riff, not previously heard anywhere else, while Petrucci continues his signature brand of impressive guitar playing. This escalates until he hits a pinch harmonic on C to resolve the solo and the final set of lyrics are heard. The subject, now that he has completed his 12 steps, feels that he now has a duty to those that are in the position he used to be in. If anyone ever admits that they have a problem and need help, he wants to be the first to offer his hand and walk them through the steps to guide them to sobriety, peace and freedom.
The band moves through a number of keys, before ending up in the key of B, where the intro from The Glass Prison is reprised. The bells in F# begin to ring once again as the band plays through the reprise, before slowing down... and ending the segment with a triumphant B5 chord accompanied by the bells. As the instruments fade out, Portnoy begins to play the pattern from the intro to The Root of All Evil on his low toms. After a few seconds rest, he plays the pattern again, this time followed by a tritone chord, and white noise similar to the start of The Glass Prison, ending the entire suite on a tense note as the possibility of relapse comes to mind.