Interview by David Thrower
If you could have one wish what would it be? World peace? A cure for cancer? For Metallica and Lou Reed’s ‘Lulu’ to be wiped from your memory? For Peter Orullian, huge fan of Dream Theater, accomplished author and vocalist with the reformed US metal band Fifth Angel, his wish came true. With the release of ‘The Astonishing’ Dream Theater not only gave the public a magnificent slice of conceptual progressive metal but they also planted the germ of an idea in the creative mind of fantasy writer Orullian. Aware that the album could never fully realise the ideas and images guitarist John Petrucci had envisioned when writing the piece Peter decided to drop him a formal proposal.
“John [Petrucci] had envisioned ‘The Astonishing’ reaching many creative mediums,” Peter recalled. “John and Jordan [Rudess] were aware I write professionally so it didn’t come out of left field for them. But, of course, we all needed to do some diligence – they didn’t simply give me the gig.”
Several hours of phone conversations followed before Peter was invited to write a sample chapter – a scene to the song ‘A Savior in the Square’. Peter was also given the latitude to take the story in new directions.
“I added new characters, new motivations, world building elements, etc.,” Peter said. “Then I wove in what I knew of his story, including audio design elements from the album itself. He loved it all, and gave me the job.”
Set in a dystopian future ‘The Astonishing’ follows Gabriel and the Ravenskill Rebel Militia as they attempt to defy the Great Northern Empire of the Americas using the power of music and while Orullian was not the only author pitching to the band he did have one ace up his sleeve.
“So much of my own fiction is centrally about music,” he said, “and has music as a system of magic and power. My fantasy series ‘The Vault of Heaven’ trades precisely on this so writing ‘The Astonishing’ is right up my alley. Plus, John and Jordan know I’m a trained vocalist so I can bring a lot to a character like Gabriel that another writer maybe can’t.”
Thanks to the writing of Dream Theater ‘The Astonishing’ already had scope and grandeur but lacked the pacing and character a novel would require to fully represent the vision of Petrucci. There was still much work to be done.
“In seven or eight very long phone conversations, and at least one in-person discussion, we crawled through [John’s] entire summary,” Peter explained. “I asked a ton of questions, and [John] shared a lot of context and subtext that wasn’t on the page. During those sessions, I was constantly brainstorming, pitching John on new ideas, story development, character backgrounds, new characters, etc. He loved it all. We shared a few moments where we got goose-bumps. He and I are on the same page.”
Fans of the album need not fear that Peter will take reverential care of the material entrusted to him.
“The spine of the story is still there and I want it to be true to [John’s] vision,” he said. “but his vision was broader than the album could convey – that’s just a function of the reductive nature of lyrics and the way a concept album is meant to tell a story. The novel will take in a lot of elements in John’s brain that fans haven’t been exposed to yet. I asked John from the get-go if he wanted me to remain slavish to his materials, or if I was free to extrapolate and expand. He told me I was free to grow the world and story.”
“Pivotal events from the album will be present,” continued Peter, “and some character motivation will carry through but I’m going quite a bit deeper on motivation and relationships. I’m providing more backstory, I’m adding characters to the narrative, I’m answering some questions, I’m introducing new technologies and I’m adding entire scenes and action. My opinion is that ‘The Astonishing’ goes several layers deeper than the rather canonical story-structure it’s built upon. Most of us can recognise the critical plot-points but I believe a close listen of the album reveals some interesting subtext. These are the leap-points for where I’m going deeper and broader with the novel.”
Just when Peter thought he couldn’t be any more astounded he had one more amazing experience.
“When Dream Theater came through town on The Astonishing Tour, John brought me backstage after the show,” Peter explained. “We talked about the book but we also spoke about the house sound that night, and music, and family, and other stuff. Later in the evening Jordan and two other fans came in and we widened the circle of conversation. Then James [Labrie] came in. After half an hour things began to break up [and] when the seat next to me vacated, James slipped into it and proceeded to tell me how much he loved my books. He began relating scenes from them and asking questions about characters. It blew me away. Apparently, he’d been giving John book reports on all my books. James went on to name some big-name writers he reads and knows, and how much better he likes my books than the others. I was floored!”
Whether this could be start of a new story arc remains to be seen but for now it has given Peter a completely new appreciation for Dream Theater.
“John gave me a ton of material to review, including unreleased audio, video, imagery, written notes, etc.,” he said. “As I’ve built onto the world he created, talking with him, pitching him expansion ideas, the creative bonding deepened my affection for the band, what it tries to do, and certainly for their music.”
As well as writing ‘The Astonishing’ novel Peter is providing vocals for the newly reformed US band Fifth Angel and writing his own concept album based on his fantasy series of books but rest assured his priority is the book he was probably destined to write. Set to be published in the late spring of 2017 ‘The Astonishing’ looks set to broaden the world and characters created by John Petrucci and perfectly compliment Dream Theater’s masterpiece.
“I’ve been a Dream Theater fan since ‘When Dream and Day Unite’. I’ve written about James Labrie’s voice, defended him to those who don’t quite understand voice. I’ve written about why people should be listening to this band. I’ve even worked with the guys in the course of my day job at Xbox. I love their music. So, the chance to partner with them like this is kind of a wish fulfilment.
“I think fans are going to be both surprised and excited. That’s my hope, anyway.”
Our review of Dream Theater’s album that provides the inspiration for the book is here: