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Dream Theater

Dream Theater - The Astonishing album art

The Astonishing

29th January 2016 – Roadrunner Records

01. Descent of the NOMACS
02. Dystopian Overture
03. The Gift of Music
04. The Answer
05. A Better Life
06. Lord Nafaryus
07. A Savior in the Square
08. When Your Time Has Come
09. Act of Faythe
10. Three Days
11. The Hovering Sojourn
12. Brother, Can You Hear Me?
13. A Life Left Behind
14. Ravenskill
15. Chosen
16. A Tempting Offer
17. Digital Discord
18. The X Aspect
19. A New Beginning
20. The Road to Revolution
01. 2285 Entr’acte
02. Moment of Betrayal
03. Heaven’s Cove
04. Begin Again
05. The Path That Divides
06. Machine Chatter
07. The Walking Shadow
08. My Last Farewell
09. Losing Faythe
10. Whispers on the Wind
11. Hymn of a Thousand Voices
12. Our New World
13. Power Down
14. Astonishing

Dream Theater’s legacy is impossible to deny. As divisive as the band are, they’ve had the absolute biggest impact on bringing progressive metal to a wider audience. For thirty years they’ve been making albums that combine a truly amazing level of technical brilliance with a beautiful understanding of songwriting and vocal melodies. It is fair to say that they are no longer the front-runners for prog metal at this point, having handed the torch to younger bands, but they are still making great music. Their 2013 self-titled effort garnered mixed reviews and was divisive among fans, though really the latter statement could be made about every album they’ve ever done. 2016 sets the stage for perhaps their most ambitious yet, the epic length double concept album The Astonishing.

This is the first Dream Theater double since 2002’s masterpiece Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, and so it seems a bit fitting that the music that is found on The Astonishing is reminiscent of that earlier album in many spots. Other songs feel like they’re drawn from Awake, but all the material is filtered through the lens of the “new” post-2010 DT.

The good news is that there are some amazing songs here. Advance singles “The Gift of Music” and “Moment of Betrayal” both showcase the best of the album, as does “Lord Nafaryus” “A Savior in the Square” “Three Days” the Yes-like “A Life Left Behind” and the heavy, proggy “The Path That Divides”. Dream Theater have always been far ahead of their peers in terms of straight up musical composition and sheer technical brilliance, and The Astonishing is no exception; John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess throw out just as many amazing lines as they ever have. Mike Mangini plays well though there will inevitably be those who complain about missing Mike Portnoy. Mangini has demonstrated for three albums now that he is more than capable of handling the complexity of Dream Theater’s music and here more than ever he feels at home in the band. A Dramatic Turn of Events, while a wonderfully fantastic album, had drums written by Petrucci, and thus the parts did not feel quite as authentic as they could have. Meanwhile, the self-titled album was something that seemed less than what Dream Theater is normally capable of, and Mangini’s drumming was equally off. On The Astonishing, however, he seems quite able to contribute his abilities to the overall music of the band.

Another contentious point of any Dream Theater album is vocalist James Labrie. Many ardent fans of the band will maintain that Labrie was fantastic back in the early 90s before a severe food poisoning incident ruined his voice, taking a long time to fully recover. Even the most hardcore fans generally feel that Labrie’s voice has declined with age, and while that is certainly true, it is not as bad as it could be; in fact, Petrucci went on record as saying this album was Labrie’s best performance based on the amount of characters he had to portray, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. While his glory days of hitting high notes with incredible power and control are gone, he can still deliver a melody very convincingly.

The biggest disappointment of his work on The Astonishing is on “My Last Farewell” where the story calls for the main character Gabriel to let out an anguished scream so powerful that it blows out his voice and literally destroys the eardrums of an evil character, and Labrie instead delivers a pathetic and uninterested “aaargh”. This is the man that gave us an incredible scream in 2005’s Octavarium, and some pretty great ones even in 2011’s “Build Me Up, Break Me Down”. Give us some emotion, man!

The Astonishing is a concept album, but anyone expecting something more like 1999’s Scenes From a Memory, considered one of the best albums of all time, might be disappointed; The Astonishing is far more rock opera-esque and feels much more like a score for a stage production than a progressive metal album, especially on songs like “Lord Nafaryus”. There are several places where tracks flow from one to another, occasionally feeling like they’ve been cut a bit short, which is a bit weird for an album of this length, though perhaps to be expected from a band that has come to love the longer form tracks running at ten or more minutes.

So it’s time to talk about the story itself. There’s a lot here, expanded as it is to more than two hours of music. The band helpfully included a song-by-song breakdown of the story and it is a doozy. The basic plot is quite interesting if a bit cheesy – almost similar to Rush’s Clockwork Angels album, but there are a lot of little details that get full songs that could easily have been reduced to condense the run-time of the album. “Act of Faythe” is one such tune as are “Begin Again” “Brother, Can You Hear Me” and the entire last four songs of the album, which reasonably should have been one song combining those themes into one. The lyrics are quite literal at times, making the story easy enough to follow, and there are more than a few samples that help bring it along. The story is a bit more complex than necessary, and it’s blatantly silly, but it is fun, especially to read along to. Guitarist John Petrucci has stated that he wants to adapt it for other media, which should be an interesting experiment. Again, there are moments that get full songs that could have been condensed into parts of other songs for the sake of the flow of the story. There’s a bit about a betrayal that gets a whole song building it up, but is resolved about two songs later. Something like that could easily have been cut down while remaining just as effective.

The Astonishing is a complex, ambitious album. Is it a bit long? Perhaps, especially for many listeners. Angry Metal Guy is certainly already penning his scathing condemnation of the album. Dream Theater have always been good at writing longer songs, and it is a bit weird for them to have nothing of notable length here, even though this is a double album with thirty four tracks. The story is touching if quite cheesy, and maybe takes longer than it really needs to be told. The Astonishing‘s length is very intimidating, but it’s a fun album if one gives the time to it. That being said, Dream Theater could really have edited their writing a bit and shaved fifteen minutes off each half and made this a much better album, so as it stands, it’s only decent. It won’t convert a non-fan, and even casual fans might avoid it. This is for hardcore fans only.

Kevin writer banner Jan 2014