Ten Minute Review: Dream Theater – The Astonishing

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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.

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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.

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Ten Minute Review: David Bowie – Blackstar

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1/11/16 Foreword: This review has a lot more weight now, given the recent news.  When I wrote the review portion of this article, he was alive and well, so that did not play a factor into my analysis.  I didn’t publish this the other day after all because I still was trying to figure the album out and give it some more listens.  I will add a little to what I previously wrote in light of Mr. Bowie’s passing.  Before I get to the review itself, I have a few things to say.

Coming back to this review was difficult, because this is one of those rare instances where a person I’ve never met and would never meet passes away and it hits me pretty hard.  I have seen many people say “how can you mourn someone you never knew” lately and I understand the premise of what they have to say, but we don’t always need a personal relationship to develop some sort of attachment or interest in them as a person.  In this case, David Bowie played a massive role in my musical education and enlightenment growing up, and I owe some of my love of music to him.

I first discovered David Bowie, interestingly enough, not from his musical career per se, but from Bowie as an actor.  The movie Labyrinth, which was released on the year of my birth, combined my childhood interest of muppets with good music I had been recently discovering like Genesis and The Who.  Bowie’s songs in the film turned me on to his music, and everything grew from there.  Sure, I guarantee I had heard some Bowie songs on the radio but didn’t identify him yet, and when I did, my eyes were opened.  I remember going to the library after school and reading music encyclopedias and learning about the glory of Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke.  Some of it was too adult for me at the time, but as I grew older, I gained a deeper appreciation for him as a performer and a person.  If this sounds terribly sappy, it’s because it is and that’s just something you’ll just have to deal with.

Shortly after high school, a buddy of mine got me a birthday gift of what turned out to be his final tour on DVD.  I don’t even know how many times I watched that DVD, which as a concert film from 2004, captured most of Bowie’s music from the 70s to his current album of Reality on stage.  I am grateful to my buddy for getting me that gift, and I am grateful to David Bowie for making the music that I grew up with, so to speak.  It’s tough, since he had already made some 16 albums before I was alive, so I couldn’t see his presence live until after most of his characters and stage personality had slowed down.  I regret that I never got to see him live, but since he stopped touring in 2004, there wasn’t much I could do.  By the time I had really gotten into his music, there was no way I could have seen it live.

All that being said, I’ll let you read the review now that I wrote up recently but didn’t publish yet, and I appreciate you putting up with my personal spin on the foreword of this review.  David Bowie meant a great deal to me, and he will be missed.  Someone on the internet, someone named Dean Podesta, wrote earlier today that “the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”  I think that about sums it up.

 

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It’s a new year, and on 2016, the first album that deserves to be reviewed is David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar!  Unlike many other reviews from last year, I don’t think I need to introduce the band or tell you about his other work and any of that.  If you don’t know who David Bowie is, there’s nothing I can do to help you.  This is Bowie’s first album since the surprising release of The Next Day back in 2013, which was a total secret and a wonderful surprise for music fans who thought Bowie had retired from making music.  I can give you a good news-bad news double piece of information about this album, and I’ll start with the bad news.  The bad news is we’ll never hear anything from Blackstar (or The Next Day for that matter) live, because Bowie has it made it abundantly clear he’s staying away from tours and just recording albums and making videos.  The good news?  Blackstar is a monster.  I’m shocked at its depth, complexity, and raw emotion, especially for a guy releasing this album on his 69th birthday.  Is this album a birthday present for his fans or himself?  Either way, I’ll take it.  Also, can you believe this is his 25th album?

We start off with the title track on this album, the just-under 10 minute dramatic journey of Blackstar.  The music video is a sight to behold, and when I first saw it a couple months ago, I didn’t know what to say.  It was eerie, complicated, and had a lot of imagery that I wasn’t sure if I should read into.  It’s haunting stuff, and echoes back to the earlier days in his career of Station to Station and the experimental and unstable sound that has always made him one of those musicians that people always say “is ahead of his time.”  He’s done some strange music before, but this may be the most expansive reach that he’s made so far.  It’s very different from track to track, and each song goes in a different direction from the last.  Blackstar starts wild, Tis a Pity goes a little more dark poppy, and then the floor drops out with the next track on the album, Lazarus.

What do you make of a song that starts off with “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and then sings about being “free, just like that bluebird”?  You’ll really need to watch the music video to get a context of what he’s talking about, and I’m still trying to decipher the meaning of the blind man with the buttoned eyes.  If you have any ideas, feel free to share them with me.  Let’s take a look (or listen) next at the final track on the album, I Can’t Give Everything Away.

1/11/16 addition: This song is frighteningly prophetic, and I’m convinced that he was fully aware of what was going on and wrote this song as a goodbye to everyone.  Between Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away, there’s no doubt in my mind that this was to be, as some have said already, his final gift of music to the world.  It’s powerful stuff.  The last words in Lazarus are “Oh I’ll be free, just like that bluebird, oh I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me?”  Heavy.  It is very Bowie-esque to do something like this, and what a way to go out.  Imagine the pain he must have been going through every day while writing, recording and making the videos.  The opening section of the Lazarus video of Bowie in the bed could be interpreted as him on his deathbed, and we know full well that his music has always been deep and mysterious.  Back to the review!

For a man with a 40+ year career, it’s amazing how mysterious he can still be with his music.  It’s sad, moving, and beautiful.  Why don’t more bands end their albums like this?  I know Bowie is an exception and not the rule, but still.  There isn’t much I have to criticize about this album, because it’s quite unique and what would I compare it to?  Would I line up other albums of his against this one?  That’s not fair.  Would I compare it to his more recent releases?  Maybe, but the only other album within 10 years was The Next Day.  I think this is the kind of album that stands alone and apart from the rest.  My only slight problem with the album, and it’s wholly subjective, is his treatment of Girl Loves Me with his quasi-rapping.  It didn’t resonate with me like the rest of the album did, but if six of the seven tracks wow me, there’s not much more to go from there.

Bowie has always been a visionary.  He does things with music that no one else seems to think of, and that’s served him well for over 40 years.  I can’t express enough how glad I am that he released this album, and even though it’s been in the works for a long time, it was worth the wait.  This is the kind of album, as I have observed, that takes multiple listens to really digest.  I’ve been talking about it with other people and trying to figure it out, and I think some of the intrigue lasts with the fact that I may never figure it out.  I’m ok with that.

I love that we can start off the new year with an album like this, where I have nothing but positive things to say about it.  My ratings system, in case you’re new to these reviews, is from 1-15, although I tend to stay above 10 with few exceptions.  I pick these albums every week because they interest me in some special way or another, and this one hit me right in the face.  I can’t stop listening to it.  I happily and proudly give Blackstar 15 Ratings Units out of 15.  This is a one of a kind album, and I don’t know what year this album would be at home in, but I’m glad it’s out now in 2016.  If it had come out years ago, I might not have been able to appreciate it within the context of his career as well as my personal enjoyment of his music for so long.  I can’t wait for his next album, and I hope it comes out sooner than later.  I’m sure he wrote several other tracks that didn’t make it on to this album, so I look forward to hearing those as well.  I’m glad to be back in 2016, and I’m extra glad that Blackstar started off 2016 with a bang.

1/11/2016 final comment: Wow.  I’m still in shock about what happened, and I don’t want to believe it’s real.  I have a small hope that he will rise again in a few days, just like the literary Lazarus invoked by his song.  If it’s truly the end, then goodbye, Ziggy Stardust.  Farewell, Major Tom.  So long, Aladdin Sane.  Until next time, Thin White Duke.  Good night, Goblin King.  Sleep well, David Bowie.  You will be missed more than we even know.

Thanks for reading.