In the interests of good faith and fair dealing (swiping some terms I was just writing about earlier today and re-purposing them), I have amended the title of my reviews from five to ten minutes. If you want to actually give my review an honest read or listen to a track or two, it will likely take more than five minutes. Five minutes was an optimistic title for last year’s reviews, because a five minute commitment is hardly a significant investment to read what I had to say about this album. Speaking of last year’s reviews, before I get to this one, I decided against uploading them to this new wordpress page so you can instead still find them where I left them on the tumbler (I’ll never call that site by its proper name).
Here’s the link to my old page which has just about a review a week about new albums coming out at that time, and wrapped up with the “Best 15 albums of 2015 list”. http://audiorbital.tumblr.com/
Ok, let’s get things rolling. Dream Theater. New album. Got it. How can I describe this album to people unfamiliar this band? First of all, this album is a concept album. In case that term is new to you, I don’t mind explaining. A concept album, simply enough, is an album that a band or artist makes that tells one full story from start to finish throughout the album. You may already know of some others like it, including Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Tommy, or David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. With me? Great.
Second, and I’m starting from scratch with my breakdown here this time because I’m writing to a broader audience, this album is a rock opera. Again, think The Wall or Tommy, in terms of drama, bombast and spectacle. This story written for this album was primarily penned by guitarist John Petrucci, and includes most of the music as well. Unlike previous albums, this album was written mostly by Petrucci with input by keyboardist Jordan Rudess. Petrucci admitted, in an interview, that this storyline came about from his love of series like Star Wars and Game of Thrones, and you can see the parallels even at the outset. This album, very generally speaking, is a sci-fi/fantasy drama about a group of rebels fighting against an evil empire. Sound familiar?
With those two things in mind, even though it may be a little unfair of me to do so, listen to this one track that the band released as their single a few months ago. I say it’s unfair because one single is hardly indicative of the concept album as a whole, and can only tell an isolated four minute section of the two hour and ten minute story. That said, here’s The Gift of Music.
Unlike some of my other previous reviews, I only have two songs to share with you, with The Gift of Music posted above, and Moment of Betrayal, which you can find below. When listening to this stuff, you have to let go of any thoughts you have of “this is really cheesy/nerdy/whatever”. We know what you’re saying, and we’re not ashamed or bothered by it. If you get past those concerns, you can really let yourself be immersed into the music. In fact, that’s exactly how I first described this album to a friend. You just have to let go and allow the waves of music to wash over you.
The music is very complicated, with layer after layer of sound on top of each other, and will obviously take several listens to get down to the heart of this music. I won’t dare break down specific tracks yet because I don’t want to take away from or overemphasize certain parts. It would be silly to say something like “this is the best song” because your best song is yours and mine is my own. Also, with a concept album like this, picking a few tracks out of the crowd would be unfair to the album as a whole. It’s not really designed to be pulled apart and analyzed piece by piece. That isn’t to say that this album has some definite filler in it, but audiences need something to come back down to after being lifted up in the air from tracks like A Better Life and Ravenskill. Instead of filler, think of some easier and lighter tracks like Chosen and The Answer as balance. This album is very balanced, and it allows every member to shine at one point or another. Speaking of balance, here’s the other track posted by the band to get everyone excited, which was posted just a few days ago.
This track, Moment of Betrayal, takes place at the beginning of the second album (I did say this was a double album, right?) after the entr’acte, which was appropriately titled 2285 Entr’acte. Entr’acte is just a fancy way of saying interlude, and is there to bridge the gap between Act 1 and 2. If some readers think I’m patronizing by defining these terms, it’s just because not everyone listens to the same music or has the musical and theater training that some of us may have. Also, I’m doing my best not to go into story or plot points because I don’t want to spoil anyone of the story. It’s a delicate balance between trying to review the album in earnest versus enticing you readers to give it a listen yourselves. I understand that an album lasting over two hours is a serious investment of time, attention and energy, but it is worth your time.
To answer some of your lingering questions, yes, you do hear a choir, as well as an orchestra. Dream Theater’s always been a band that goes big or goes home, and have used an orchestra many times in the past, including their powerhouse 20th anniversary live album SCORE where they were joined by an orchestra for over 90 minutes of the show. It remains one of my favorite live albums to date, along with Metallica’s S&M and Kiss Alive IV. Both of those album also used orchestras, so I think we can see a theme emerging for me. My favorite song last year happened to be Earthside’s Mob Mentality, which featured an orchestra as well. What can I say other than that an orchestra can bring the sound of a band to a higher level. Progressive rock and metal, which is the genre of music Dream Theater firmly and proudly exists, is largely influenced by classical music. It makes sense to pair a classical orchestra with a band like Dream Theater, and improves the quality of the music tenfold.
In many ways, this is a very different Dream Theater than we’ve heard in a long time. We haven’t had a concept album from them since 02’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, and we’ve never had something quite like this. This album was released along with a map, character biography, and more. This album was destined for a stage performance, video or board game, or some other higher purpose. Here’s the map, by the way, for you to take a look at. This wasn’t just “get the guys together to write a few songs and slap them on an album to shut the fans up for the next couple years” like we’re accustomed to some rock acts of late. They created an entire world, and I doubt we’ve seen the end of it with The Astonishing.
I see my review’s gotten long thanks to ramblings and explanations, and I will try to keep subsequent reviews under 1000 words whenever possible. It’s not often that I can tear into a Dream Theater album, though, and it’s their first release since 2013. It’s a big one, and since I feel like some of you will be frustrated at this review’s length, I’ll sum things up here. Marquee tracks on this album include and are not limited to Dystopian Overture, A Better Life, Three Days, Ravenskill, A Tempting Offer, A New Beginning, Moment of Betrayal, The Path that Divides, Our New World, and Astonishing. That’s ten of the 34, and that’s not even all of the big ones. This is an incredibly ambitious and massive album, and one that we’ll be talking about for quite some time.
There are a few places this album falls short, though, despite the balance I mentioned earlier. Sadly, we have no song written by the bassist John Myung this time, who is notorious for sometimes writing one big song. Also, while Mike Mangini, the drummer, feels finally at home on this album, he didn’t blow the doors off in any particular track. I’m sure the live experience will differ significantly, but at times his drum tracks felt mechanical and not up to the typical explosive level he’s capable of. One of his best and boldest drum performances was in Moment of Betrayal, which you can hear above, but I didn’t reach a moment in the album where I had to stop and shake my head because of some impossible skillful techniques. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t miss a beat and is quite flawless in his performance. Anyone who still says they miss former drummer Mike Portnoy and prefer him over Mangini is just saying so to be a contrarian. Mangini’s been an amazing member of the band since he joined up in 2010, and fit perfectly into their universe.
Another possible criticism I can see people making is that the plot developments didn’t seem as important as telling the story of the characters and how they fit into the story at various points. I actually see this as more of a selling point, because vocalist James Labrie is able to successfully tell the stories of eight different and quite unique characters by himself.
With all these point/counterpoints I’m making, I’m just trying to say that this album was terrific. It was incredibly well put together, the length may be off-putting to some but never feels too long or drags, and the guys are on point. This is easily their best album in at least ten years, and maybe even since 1999’s Metropolis Pt 2. They’re able to channel some of their old sound from Images and Words, their best album, and tell a wonderful and dramatic story that I look forward to seeing live in its entirety on their next tour. They even blended and adapted sounds from other bands they love like Rush (come on, you don’t see a lot of their 2112 album in this?) and Symphony X (listen to The Path That Divides and tell me otherwise). This is a masterful album, and to wrap things up before this review turns into a book, I proudly give this album 14 ratings units out of 15. I can’t wait to listen to this album again soon. Thanks for reading and sticking with me on this one. It was a big one.