This year has been a bit of a roller coaster for Dream Theater fans, bringing us a new Transatlantic album, Liquid Tension Experiment 3, and now Dream Theater themselves with their fifteenth studio album, A View from the Top of the World. This is the fifth album since their infamous split with founding drummer Mike Portnoy, now over a decade ago.
At the time, I remember thinking that Dream Theater would never be able to get back to the greatness they had with Portnoy, and for a few years it certainly seemed like my fears had been confirmed. While 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events was a solid first outing for the new line-up – a fascinating and compelling revisitation of the album structure found on their classic Images and Words – their 2013 self-titled follow-up disappointed fans with far shorter songs, leaving little room for the instrumental prowess the band is renowned for. Even Illumination Theory, the ‘epic’ album closer, wasn’t memorable enough to redeem it.
Things only got worse in 2016 when the band issued their most controversial album to date, The Astonishing, a double-disc concept album that pushed the lyrics/instrumental ratio even further and felt very little like a Dream Theater album at all. At 131 minutes, it also happened to be a crushing bore and a monumental slog at the same time.
But in 2019, something clicked. Distance Over Time showed the four long-time members of the band at last ‘clicking’ with new drummer Mike Mangini, playing more powerfully than they had in a long time and embracing his pure chops. Bangers like S2N and Pale Blue Dot showed the band rediscovering what made them so great after years of mediocrity.
The third Liquid Tension Experiment album concerned me; despite the excellent album opener Hypersonic and the fun cover of Rhapsody in Blue, the rest of the album was a turkey – forgettable workouts and disjointed ideas interspersed with boring jam sessions.
And then Dream Theater drop their first album single, The Alien, which also acts as the opener for A View from the Top of the World. It seems like more than a coincidence that the previous album ended with the line “Who’s out there to save us from ourselves?” and that the album opener is titled The Alien. The two songs seem thematically linked, with Pale Blue Dot speaking about how we’re alone in the universe while The Alien is based on the sci-fi concept of terraforming a new planet when the Earth no longer becomes inhabitable. It’s an incredible, blistering track that shows the band at the height of their powers, both technically and compositionally. Flashbacks of Hypersonic come racing to my mind; are they just putting their best foot forward?
Their second single, Invisible Monster, gave me even more reason to worry. For the past decade and a half, Dream Theater have often made one song per album that acts as the less complex, shorter, catchier song with usually dismal results: I Walk Beside You, Forsaken, A Rite of Passage, Build Me Up, Break Me Down, The Enemy Inside, Untethered Angel and now Invisible Monster. I wasn’t impressed and was worried that this was a sign of worse things to come.
I shouldn’t have worried. A View from the Top of the World sees this 36-year-old band eclipsing their last two decades of work and making what could genuinely be called a ‘classic’ Dream Theater album. This is an uncompromising tour de force that shows that the band never lost it. After years of unsatisfying ‘experiments’, they have finally given their audience what they’ve been craving, a straightforward Dream Theater album with all the trimmings.
The songs all follow the Dream Theater formula to a T, with tight, complex instrumental arrangements providing the firm foundation for anthemic, chantable verses and choruses. It could be considered a complaint that the band isn’t trying to make something new or different, but it’s not a complaint I have. We really just needed a good solid album from them, and we finally have it.
Some Dream Theater albums are more one-note than others; fans know Train of Thought as ‘the heavy one’, for example. However, A View from the Top of the World is just as colourful and varied as its album cover suggests, ranging from the complex The Alien to the simplistic Invisible Monster, from the heavy chugging opening riffs of Awaken the Master to the bright and sunny Rush-tinged Transcending Time.
If there’s one thing it doesn’t have, it’s a break! For almost all of its 71-minute running time, the band are doing just that – running. With so many complex riffs, fills and solos taking up the songs’ running times, there’s no room to slow down and breathe on the shorter six tracks, and only a short segment in the centre of the title track that fits this description, a little too late into the album. It feels as if the band are worried that if they slow down at all, that something terrible will happen; imagine the action film Speed as a prog-metal album. Despite being known for their pyrotechnic playing, songs such as Hollow Years and The Spirit Carries On are huge fan favourites, and, surprisingly, Dream Theater haven’t included that sort of song on this album. Even if it couldn’t have been a whole song, a mid-song breakdown like that heard in Lines in the Sand or Trial of Tears would have been great to show the contrast between fast and slow, something there isn’t nearly enough of on this album.
Of all the band members, I’m most impressed with John Petrucci this time around. Doubling as the producer for the album (a hat he has worn by himself since the departure of Portnoy), Petrucci shows an even more comprehensive range than he usually does. A personal highlight is the complex opening riff of Awaken the Master played on his exciting new 8-string guitar. The alternating time signature in this part of the song is highly reminiscent of that heard at the beginning of Cygnus X-1, yet another nod towards Rush.
With LTE3, Petrucci’s guitar solos, while consistently technically mind-blowing, never seemed to betray any effort on his part; they seemed almost perfunctory – “that’s just what Petrucci does”. I was getting bored of his playing, but he injects some passion and verve once again on this album, especially on the ear-melting solo heard midway through Answering the Call.
Let’s talk about the title track, though – because of the length of that title, myself and most other fans will be referring to it as ‘the title track’ when discussing the album. I was one of the many fans shocked to see Dream Theater announcing a 20-minute song at this stage when their last two albums focused on shorter tracks. When their back catalogue contains brilliant epics such as A Change of Seasons and Octavarium, it’s fair to say that the expectations are pretty high. Illumination Theory was Dream Theater’s last ‘epic’, but it didn’t quite resonate with fans the way previous lengthy tracks had, perhaps because of the song’s bizarre structure. I remember hearing a fan-edited version of Illumination Theory where parts of the song had been moved around, and it sounded much better. I thought, “If the band can’t even put their suite in the best possible order, then what does that say about their composition?”. Fans were hoping that the new epic suite would wash away the sour aftertaste of Illumination Theory.
The title track is not, unfortunately, the next Octavarium. If you go into this track with that level of expectation, you will likely be disappointed. That’s not to say the suite is subpar, though; on the contrary, it is a fun rollercoaster showcase of Dream Theater’s abilities with a broad lyrical theme of adventure tying the whole thing together. As soon as you realise and accept that it’s a loose jumble of musical ideas stitched together to take up 20-minutes and not a well-crafted ‘epic’, you can simply relax and enjoy just how good those musical ideas are. If you just like listening to Dream Theater do what they do best and have 20-minutes spare, A View from the Top of the World is probably the best way you could spend your time.
A View from the Top of the World is an album with no weak tracks; even Invisible Monster, which failed to capture my attention on the first listen, has a contrasting Haken-style second verse that shakes up the song and makes it that much more enjoyable. It’s so astonishingly good for a band so far along in their career that it’s difficult not to believe they might have peaked and that we’ll inevitably have to look forward to a worse album next time around. But let’s not be pessimistic. Now that they’ve proven they can still do the ‘classic Dream Theater thing’ as hard as they always could, they’ll find ways to incorporate different songwriting styles with their classic sound and maybe not go so complex and technical all the time. It seems like A View from the Top of the World is the perfect springboard for the band to do just that.
01. The Alien (9:32)
02. Answering the Call (7:35)
03. Invisible Monster (6:31)
04. Sleeping Giant (10:05)
05. Transcending Time (6:25)
06. Awaken the Master (9:47)
07. A View from the Top of the World (20:24)
Total Time – 70:14
James LaBrie – Vocals
John Petrucci – Guitar
Jordan Rudess – Keyboards
John Myung – Bass
Mike Mangini – Drums
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Cover Artwork: Hugh Syme
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 22nd October 2021