Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Just a cursory look at Dream Theater’s The Astonishing reveals several key points of interest: first, it’s a concept album (about music saving the world from dystopian rule, natch), which the band has not done since the band’s magnificent Metropolis, Part 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999). Second, it’s also a double album, which looks back to Dream Theater’s past, back to 2002’s uneven Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Thirdly—and, most shockingly—there are no songs longer than eight minutes on this album (this from a band with several songs over twenty minutes). The other two points notwithstanding, I say this quasi-facetiously, as someone who has been listening to them for over five years—can this really be Dream Theater?
I approached this album with serious trepidation; after all, Dream Theater’s last excellent album was 2003’s Train of Thought; their last good album was 2005’s Octavarium; and they really hit the creative rock bottom with 2007’s Systematic Chaos and 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings (listen to the song “The Count of Tuscany” for a master class in how to write ridiculously random and bad lyrics). Of course, with the 2010 departure of founding member Mike Portnoy, who was the band leader and drummer, I am not alone in feeling like something was missing with their most recent albums, 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events and 2013’s Dream Theater. Mike Mangini, Portnoy’s replacement, is talented but even with his efforts the drums aren’t as integral or innovative as they once were. For me, the last bunch of albums felt like a decline, with Portnoy’s departure hastening the drop from exciting into eye-rolling.
Fortunately, on the music and production-related side, this album is miles above Dream Theater’s nadir of Systematic Chaos and Black Clouds and Silver Linings. All but one song is above seven minutes long; with an album with this many tracks, this was an absolute necessity to begin with because having multiple long songs would have made the album impossible to digest. The melodies and themes established in “Dystopian Overture” are charming and catchy, and the band seems to be completely refreshed and renewed since 2013’s disappointing Dream Theater. The best part of The Astonishing is the vocal performance of James LaBrie, who finally seems to have recovered from his 1990s vocal injury which left him with limited range and control. Yet here he is able to play many different characters within the dystopian world of The Astonishing, modulating his voice and pitch to play both male and female roles. At times he even manages to make it seem like Dream Theater hired a different singer, which is as it should be with a narrative concept album.
The album starts off strong with Jordan Rudess’ sharp and downright jazzy keys and piano contributions, rather than plodding on endlessly, tinkering with his fancy instruments and tools. Of course, Rudess’ restraint, except when necessary and when appropriate, may be due to the fact that Dream Theater recorded The Astonishing with a symphony orchestra. In this way, Rudess doesn’t need to use keyboard synths to approximate the sounds of stringed instruments. There are also no ten-minute Jordan Rudess-John Petrucci keyboard-guitar battles which I so dislike. Essentially, The Astonishing shows restraint and discipline on the compositional side, which, at 34 songs, should have been a given already. I was distinctly excited when I heard the “Dystopian Overture” which almost sounded like a callback to 1999’s epic jam “The Dance of Eternity”—I had thought that Dream Theater had finally gotten it back.
Yet so much of The Astonishing is, if not disappointing, then just not even memorable. After listening through the entire album twice, I can recall the choruses or melodies of maybe five of the 34 songs, because it’s just too much for one album. Additionally, because I don’t have the time to sit for 2 hours and eleven minutes to listen to this album in full, as one really should with a narrative concept album, the songs make for strange, disjointed listening. I went through the album trying to listen to groups of songs at a time, and ended up struggling to remember the earlier parts of the story that transpired in the previous songs. Additionally, I can’t give them too much grief for the generic nature of their story, which is both predictable yet so needlessly complicated that I will just link the readers of this piece to the Wikipedia page. I understand that dystopian fiction is really popular right now, but that doesn’t mean that Dream Theater has to jump into the fray with an unmemorable story. At least 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory’s story, with its tales of past lives, reincarnations, and 1920’s flair, is weird and original enough to work with a haunting twist at the end that blew me out of the water. Yet The Astonishing is such a slippery album—indeed, it exits your mind as quickly as it enters it, managing to be good, but just not that impactful.
Dream Theater’s greatest weakness has been their lyrics ever since the departure of Kevin Moore as keyboardist and co-lyricist in the mid-1990s. When it comes to telling the insanely complicated story of revolt and revolution and love and betrayal that The Astonishing seeks to tell, the words fall far short. Every rhyme is completely and utterly predictable; any chance at subtlety or mystery is blown out of the water by the too-simplistic quality of the writing. Scenes From a Memory also had this problem to a degree, but then again, they had Mike Portnoy helping out with occasional contributions by bassist John Myung. Now the burden falls almost squarely on John Petrucci’s broad shoulders, and it’s just not sophisticated enough, given the potential for something more interesting.
On an additional note, Dream Theater is trying to make The Astonishing more than an album—it’s meant to be an interactive experience, with online and in-concert interactive elements meant to get you to engage with the story. Yet Dream Theater should know that no one comes to them looking for the story or the lyrics—in fact, Dream Theater could create an entire album of instrumentals and it would probably be pretty decent. As Nightwish did with the tie-in movie for their album Imaginaerum and Within Temptation did with their movies and comic strips for their album The Unforgiving, so Dream Theater wants to do. I cannot understand why anyone would consider it a good idea to waste energy on tie-in media to this extent.
In short, while The Astonishing is a step up from the last couple of Dream Theater albums, it doesn’t come close to touching their work from the 1990s and early 2000s. Fans like me need to accept, I guess, that we won’t get that same band back again. At this point, Dream Theater’s rockers aren’t the scrappy, energetic youngsters fresh out of Berklee College of Music—they are practically the progressive rock band nowadays, with reviews and features in publications like Rolling Stone, and thus don’t have the same need to prove themselves. They’ve amassed enough goodwill and repute to never need to try again, and while The Astonishing isn’t exactly a symptom of coasting, I won’t know until I hear the next couple of albums if this one is a blip on the radar or the beginning of a cresting wave.
The Astonishing Tracklist:
- Descent of the NOMACS
- Dystopian Overture
- The Gift of Music
- The Answer
- A Better Life
- Lord Nafaryus
- A Savior in the Square
- When Your Time Has Come
- Act of Faythe
- Three Days
- The Hovering Sojourn
- Brother, Can You Hear Me?
- A Life Left Behind
- A Tempting Offer
- Digital Discord
- The X Aspect
- A New Beginning
- The Road to Revolution
- 2285 Entr’acte
- Moment of Betrayal
- Heaven’s Cove
- Begin Again
- The Path That Divides
- Machine Chatter
- The Walking Shadow
- My Last Farewell
- Losing Faythe
- Whispers on the Wind
- Hymn of a Thousand Voices
- Our New World
- Power Down
Featured image courtesy of http://img.cdn2.wmgecom.com
Your review has a point, but I need to point something important out:
1. Mangini’s arrival has definitely not dampened the musical potential of DT, if not brought DT to a new level. Portnoy is a great drummer and surely one of the best. His drumming is fast and fluid.But let’s be real, Mangini is just too much of a beast. His technique is on a different level. His ability to use high hats and tom-tom to compensate for melody lines is unparalleled. Meanwhile, he has both speed and control on his bass. Listen to “the enemy inside” if you don’t know what I’m saying.
2. I agree that systematic chaos wasn’t too great of an album, but the two after, Blacks clouds and silver linings and a dramatic turn of events are just dope, probably my favorite so far(aside from metropolis 2). Their arrangement and technicality are impeccable . Take “a nightmare to remember” as an example, the song starts with rapid double bass and heavy down tuned riff. About a third way through, the style of drumming suddenly got groovy and the guitar part turned into a series of arpeggiated chords with a lush chorus effect. A sheer contrast with the opening. About two thirds into the songs, the intensity came back and solos came it. All the transitions are incredibly smooth. A perfect combination of technically and arrangement. I don’t know how you can dislike that.
3. John petrucci’ new guitar tone. If you don’t understand guitar/amplifiers, you won’t realized how much petrucci’ sound has changed over the years. Back in his Ibanez days, his tone was too scratchy. Too much high end frequency and not enough mid. (Images and words). Fortunately he switched to Ernie ball, long before I even know dream theater and his guitar tone had been quality ever since. His newest model, Majesty is a really a master piece. He has been using it for the last two albums. In addition, he just released his signature amp with Mesa boogie, which I believe he used in the astonishing. The bottom end is extremely tight and focused. Plenty of gain, yet the high end is crystal clean. I personally think his new guitar tone is so much better than it was before.
4. People listen to DT for different reasons. I have been an avid fan for five years, and I can’t give less of a damn about their lyrics. I follow them because of their technicality and musicality. Feel free to criticize the lyrics of the count of Tuscany. I don’t care what the lyrics say, as long as the music is good. Sure, the story line of the astonishing is corny as hell. But I dont give a damn. As long as they keep producing good music with technicality and musicality, I am okay with bad lyrics.
5. Last but not least, DT is done proving themselves to the world. They are the best progressive metal band in the world right now. Period. With the astonishing, they are not trying to make any statements. They are trying to enjoy themselves in a different
type of musical journey. This concept album is just yet another platform for musical expression.
6. Last but not least, who else in the world would write a 135 minute album with 34 tracks, a map, 8 characters and a story line? In this world of short attention spans, DT’s new album is a bold approach and they have certainly pulled if off better than anybody else could’ve.
Adding on to DQ ’19, I strongly agree that Mangini has made the band worse. “A Dramatic Turn of Events” is my favorite DT album, and as he says, check out the drumming on The Enemy Inside if you want an example of his talent.
I do agree that LaBrie and Rudess do quite well on the album, and I would have liked to have seen Myung have a more active role. Music-wise, A New Beginning is fantastic, and The Gift of Music, Moment of Betrayal, Lord Nafaryus (which sounds like it came straight from a musical), and Ravenskill are all strong songs that can be listened to on their own.
As for the story, yes it’s cheesy, no self-respecting listener can deny that. But as DQ said, DT lyrics are very often cheesy, and it’s not the main thing I’m listening for when I listen to these albums. I probably like the album less than DQ, but it definitely has its high points and I think DT still has a lot of strong music left in them.
Sorry Mangini made the band better**