Published on 20th March 2016
Dream Theater – The Astonishing
What can I say? I am surely not the first (nor the last) to admit that I am indeed astonished by Dream Theater’s latest oeuvre, but the effects of this album go well past the shock factor that the band have decided to achieve something this monumental so late in their career.
The shock is doubled, of course, as their last album was such a damp squib. I didn’t play a single track off the band’s self-titled album after I’d finished scribbling about it for DPRP.net until doing some background listening for this review. A fan video which rearranged the sections of the lengthy track Illumination Theory into a more logical, interesting order proved just how much of a slapdash affair this was. Even though I had every studio album and almost all of their live releases, I felt that this was a step too far in the wrong direction, and vowed that I was not going to automatically purchase their next album.
But then the reports started flooding in: the latest Dream Theater album was actually a big deal indeed, receiving acclaim from fans and critics alike. It was also a very different kind of album too: a two-disc concept behemoth clocking in at over 130 minutes. Where Dream Theater think fans are going to find the time to stomach all that new music is beyond me. Naturally, my curiosity was all too much and I decided to give the thing a whirl.
I’ll quickly talk about my first listen, which incidentally was all in one go on a very bumpy flight from Gatwick to Marrakesh. Without really being able to follow the lyrics it was impossible for me to follow the story, although I could tell there was one there as they were oddly specific in certain places. The music started off great; I remember thinking “this could be some of the best Dream Theater yet”. However my heart sank when James LaBrie’s singing failed to let up for the majority of the album. It appeared that Dream Theater’s normal 60:40 instrumentals/singing ratio had gone right out of the window. I also noticed that there was a heavy reliance on ballads throughout The Astonishing, when normally Dream Theater prefer to keep only one or two token ‘soft tracks’ per album. I also felt like it dragged on; when I glanced at my phone and we weren’t even on disc two, I groaned inwardly. However, I wasn’t at all upset when it came to the last track: this had certainly been interesting and was worth more investigation.
Almost all of those opinions I first had have been influenced by understanding the album more fully. Although this is certainly not an album you should appreciate at face value, it’s certainly worth comparing my initial impressions with the thoughts I have now.
Let’s set out some facts. This is the longest Dream Theater album to date and certainly the most immersive. Paradoxically, it also has the shortest “longest track” of any Dream Theater album, with A New Beginning not even making it past eight minutes. This also makes it the second Dream Theater album (after their debut) to not contain any tracks over ten minutes. With over thirty tracks the average track length falls just short of four minutes, which is definitely unusual for a Dream Theater album. This is also the first Dream Theater album in over a decade not to use Hugh Syme’s (the long-time Rush artist) artwork. Instead, Jie Ma has used CG skills to bring the sets and the characters to life with thrilling expansive artwork spanning all of Dream Theater’s merchandise. All these factors point to one thing; it’s a very very different sort of Dream Theater we are listening to indeed.
In fact, the sheer length of the album meant that I was only able to get two full listens in before the band decided to come to London to play live. And boy what a show that was! [You can read Rob Fisher’s review of the show HERE] Playing the entire album live, this was definitely the best Dream Theater show I’d ever seen, with synchronised videos and lights all the way through bringing the story to life. However, I have to say it was a bit cheeky that they decided to play the last track of the album as an encore, when I’d wager a good half of the audience were hoping for Metropolis, Pt.1.
Even then, I hadn’t been able to follow the story, which now seemed crucial if I was ever really going to penetrate this album. Fortunately, Dream Theater have provided a full synopsis of The Astonishing on their website, and reading through this whilst listening to the lyrics suddenly brought the album into focus for me. While I giggled at some of the language used (e.g. “hearing-less” instead of “deaf”) it was nonetheless a fascinating read, and each chapter had me wanting to know what happened next. All at once, a lot of things made sense; why the album relied so heavily on ballad-type numbers, how the band used leitmotifs to follow certain characters and also just how well the lyrics fitted the story.
Let’s start with that then, the story, authored by John Petrucci himself. The premise is: in the future, music has been outlawed and a rebel who discovers music fights to bring it back. Sounds original right? Sure, until you consider that both Rush and Frank Zappa covered the same ground in 2112 and Joe’s Garage respectively. But let’s leave that aside, after all, Dream Theater taking after Rush is nothing new.
In this story, there are not three or four but eight characters, most of whom are fairly well fleshed out with their own histories, motives and character flaws. What’s more, each of these characters is connected to each other in rather complicated ways. While this is no Game of Thrones (though some fans might have you believe otherwise) the plot is actually very sophisticated for a concept album, and is worth understanding fully.
However, this is where some of the problems with The Astonishing seem to stem from. In working to fit such a complex tale into an album format, the music seems to have come second, built to fit around the story rather than flow like an album should. The heavier, more complex, more “Dream Theater” moments are reserved for the dramatic or evil parts of the story, while the more accessible ballad-style songs go with the introspective or emotional chapters. It seems logical, so why is this a problem? This becomes painfully obvious when you compare to the band’s last concept album, Scenes from a Memory. On that album, the story presented more turmoil for its central character, and as such, most of the tracks were heavier and more in line with Dream Theater’s signature style making it a very fulfilling album for fans. Also, on Scenes from a Memory, when the band decided to play a ballad, they bloody well play it right; The Spirit Carries On is arguably one of the most memorable and emotional Dream Theater tracks of all time and nothing on The Astonishing comes anywhere close to capturing that.
The other problem is that because this is such a long and complex story with an over-abundance of lyrics and many scene changes in order to make the tale complete, Dream Theater all but give up their instrumental side whilst LaBrie takes centre stage. If there’s one thing that Dream Theater fans purchase their albums for, it ain’t to hear LaBrie’s vocals. Worse still, there’s no breathing space for the compositions; Dream Theater have spent over a quarter of a century proving their ability in writing in the long format, so to hear them go short seems like a massive compromise for the sake of telling a complicated story.
The music, however, is far from deplorable. In fact, it’s the best music the band have produced this side of their split with founding drummer Mike Portnoy, although granted that isn’t saying much. The opening to the album is very strong indeed, with arguably the best of the limited instrumental work the album has to offer in Dystopian Overture and towards the end of the band’s surprisingly good lead single The Gift of Music. The pacing also feels right towards the start, with only a short but meaningful passage lent to the central character Gabriel by track four. However, pretty soon afterwards the album falls into a cycle of soft-track/hard-track/soft-track that ends up becoming quite monotonous, although understanding the story does help you understand why some of the seemingly filler tracks are there.
Nonetheless, joy is to be had elsewhere on the album, particularly where the dastardly Lord Nafaryus (no, I did not make that up, but it seems like Petrucci should write for Disney, right?) is involved. There’s a particular track called Three Days where he’s threatening the villagers of the town of Ravenskill, and it just so happens to be my favourite song on the album. Beginning with a quiet duet between the strings and Jordan Rudess’s piano, the song suddenly switches gear into a heavy section studded with alternating time signatures. Later in the track, after a mind-blowing instrumental, the band slow the tempo right down to great effect, before erupting into a highly unexpected Dixieland-style instrumental bringing things to a close. Such innovative genre-bending music really surprised and heartened me, as I’ve been saying for years that Dream Theater could learn a thing or two from contemporary prog-metallers Haken, who do this sort of thing much more frequently.
Other spotlight moments include Petrucci’s lengthy guitar solo on A New Beginning as well as the ‘fight’ section of The Path that Divides which features many unpredictable twists and turns. I also appreciated the occasional sections of the album which alluded to the prog of the past, such as the Drama-era-Yes intro to A Life Left Behind and the retro keyboard sounds on The X Aspect. The ‘NOMACs instrumentals’ (the fictional ‘noise machines’ of the story that create tuneless music) also work very well, scattered throughout the album as they are. The first of these is easily the best, engulfing the listener in two alien sonic blasts just before the band erupt onto the scene.
For me, the unexpected surprise is James LaBrie who does a surprisingly good job of changing his intonation and tone for each of the characters. In each song he perfectly captures the emotion of the piece, mixed with the feel of the character. Even on my first listen, I could tell when Nafaryus was speaking and when Faythe was. The characters are also enhanced by musical themes that run throughout the album.
My chagrin on the other hand has been listening to drummer Mike Mangini play for Dream Theater. If A Dramatic Turn of Events and Dream Theater had me sceptical, then The Astonishing is the definitive sign that Portnoy was definitely better. Trust me, I’m all for change, I’m not being nostalgic and I can accept that different drummers have different styles. The difference is that, while technically very impressive, Mangini’s drumming is entirely lacking in the sort of creative discipline and outside-the-box technique that has made listening to Portnoy so riveting for all these years. Just take the outro to A New Beginning for example: for nearly three minutes Mangini humbly sits and plays the most boring beat imaginable, certainly a crime in Portnoy’s – or indeed any of the great prog drummers’ – book. In the complex sections, while it’s great that Mangini is able to string together a series of drum patterns to cover it and make it musically viable, it’s never interesting enough to actually motivate me to learn how to play it. Mangini’s main advantage is speed; I’ve seen him do things with one hand that most drummers couldn’t do with all four limbs. However, speed alone isn’t enough to make his patterns interesting. Portnoy on the other hand comes from the Neil Peart school of thought, that drums are an integral part of the music, and that all your drum patterns should be considered seriously before committing to record. While I don’t agree with Portnoy’s obsessive personality – on account of his being over-sensitive, neurotic and offensive on his Facebook page – or with his tactics to try and get back in the band, I know that Dream Theater’s music has suffered with their understandable refusal to let him back in.
Some people have told me that they’ve enjoyed this album when they haven’t thought of it as a Dream Theater album, and while that seems an idealistic approach, it’s not the one I want to take when assessing it. It seems as if the story was written with disregard for how the album might sound on its eventual release. While Dream Theater have certainly done a sterling job of fitting the music to the words and thus producing a cohesive and immersive concept album, it is done at the loss of it being a great “Dream Theater” album. Many of the band’s best tropes – long songs, complex instrumentals, etc. – are avoided for the greater part on this album, and we see a rather perplexed band struggling with their new identity. While it’s definitely the band’s most solid and consistent work for a long time, one wonders if this album is indicative of future Dream Theater endeavours, or if they will return to the longer format again for the next album. We’ll see, it’s only a matter of time…
[TPA has also published a live review of Dream Theater performing The Astonishing at The Palladium in London which you can read HERE]
01. Descent of the NOMACs (1:10)
02. Dystopian Overture (4:50)
03. The Gift of Music (4:00)
04. The Answer (1:52)
05. A Better Life (4:39)
06. Lord Nafaryus (3:28)
07. A Savior in the Square (4:13)
08. When Your Time Has Come (4:19)
09. Act of Faythe (5:00)
10. Three Days (3:44)
11. The Hovering Sojourn (0:27)
12. Brother, Can You Hear Me? (5:11)
13. A Life Left Behind (5:49)
14. Ravenskill (6:01)
15. Chosen (4:32)
16. A Tempting Offer (4:19)
17. Digital Discord (0:47)
18. The X Aspect (4:13)
19. A New Beginning (7:40)
20. The Road to Revolution (3:35)
01. 2285 Entr’acte (2:20)
02. Moment of Betrayal (6:11)
03. Heaven’s Cove (4:19)
04. Begin Again (3:54)
05. The Path That Divides (5:09)
06. Machine Chatter (1:03)
07. The Walking Shadow (2:58)
08. My Last Farewell (3:44)
09. Losing Faythe (4:13)
10. Whispers on the Wind (1:37)
11. Hymn of a Thousand Voices (3:38)
12. Our New World (4:12)
13. Power Down (1:25)
14. Astonishing (5:51)
Total Time – 130:24
James LaBrie – Vocals
John Petrucci – Guitar
Jordan Rudess – Keyboards
John Myung – Bass
Mike Mangini – Drums
Record Label – Roadrunner Records
Cover Artwork – Jie Ma
Release Date – 29th January 2016