MUSIC REVIEW: Dream Theater, "The Astonishing"

Just a cursory look at Dream Theater’s The Astonishing reveals several key points of interest: first, it’s a concept album (about music saving the world from dystopian rule, natch), which the band has not done since the band’s magnificent Metropolis, Part 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999). Second, it’s also a double album, which, again, looks back to Dream Theater’s past, back to 2002’s uneven Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Thirdly—and, most shockingly—there are no songs longer than eight minutes on this album (this from a band with several songs over twenty minutes). The other two points notwithstanding, I say this quasi-facetiously, as someone who has been listening to them for over five years—can this really be Dream Theater?

I approached this album with serious trepidation; after all, Dream Theater’s last excellent album was 2003’s Train of Thought; their last good album was 2005’s Octavarium; and they really hit the creative rock bottom with 2007’s Systematic Chaos and 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings (listen to the song “The Count of Tuscany” for a master class in how to write ridiculously random and bad lyrics). Of course, with the departure of founding member/band leader/drummer Mike Portnoy around 2010, I am of course not alone in feeling like something was missing with their most recent albums, 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events and 2013’s phoned-in self-titled effort. Portnoy’s replacement, Mike Mangini, is certainly talented, but even with his efforts the drums just aren’t as integral or innovative as they once were. So for me, the last bunch of albums felt like a decline, with Portnoy’s departure hastening the drop from exciting into eye-rolling.

Fortunately, on the music and production-related side, this album is miles above Dream Theater’s nadir of Systematic Chaos and Black Clouds and Silver Linings. With one exception, no song is above seven minutes long, which, with an album with this many tracks, was an absolute necessity to begin with--having multiple long songs would have made the album impossible to digest.  The melodies and themes established in “Dystopian Overture” are charming and catchy, and the band seems to be completely refreshed and renewed since 2013’s disappointing Dream Theater.  The absolute best part of The Astonishing, without a doubt, is the vocal performance of James Labrie, who finally seems to have completely recovered from his 1990s vocal injury, which left him with limited range and control.  Yet here he is able to play many different characters within the dystopian world of The Astonishing, modulating his voice and pitch to play both male and female roles. At times he even manages to sound like Dream Theater hired a different singer, which is exactly right with a narrative concept album.  

The album starts off strong with Jordan Rudess’ sharp and downright jazzy keys and piano contributions, rather than plodding on endlessly, tinkering with his fancy instruments and tools. Of course, the restrained use of Rudess, except when necessary and when appropriate, may be due to the fact that Dream Theater recorded The Astonishing with a symphony orchestra, so Rudess doesn’t need to use keyboard synths to approximate the sounds of stringed instruments.  There are also no ten-minute Jordan Rudess-John Petrucci keyboard-guitar battles which I so dislike.  Essentially, The Astonishing shows restraint and discipline on the compositional side, which, at 34 songs, should have been a given already. I was distinctly excited when I heard the “Dystopian Overture,” which almost sounded like a callback to 1999’s epic jam “The Dance of Eternity”—I had thought that Dream Theater had finally gotten it back.

Yet so much of The Astonishing is if not disappointing, then just not even memorable. After listening through the entire album twice, I can recall the choruses or melodies of maybe five of the 34 songs, because it’s just too much for one album. Additionally, because I don’t have the time to sit for 2 hours and eleven minutes to listen to this album in full, as one really should with a narrative concept album, the songs make for strange, disjointed listening. I went through the album trying to listen to groups of songs at a time, and ended up struggling to remember the earlier parts of the story that transpired in the previous songs.  Additionally, I can’t give them too much grief for the generic nature of their story, which is both predictable yet so needlessly complicated that I will just link the readers of this piece to the Wikipedia page. I understand that dystopian fiction is really, really popular right now, but that doesn’t mean that Dream Theater has to jump into the fray with a totally unmemorable story. At least 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory’s story, with its tales of past lives, reincarnations, and 1920’s flair, is weird and original enough to work with a key, haunting twist at the end that blew me out of the water. Yet The Astonishing is such a slippery album—indeed, it exits your mind as quickly as it enters it, managing to be good, but just not that impactful.

Dream Theater’s greatest weakness has been their lyrics ever since the departure of Kevin Moore as keyboardist and co-lyricist in the mid-1990s. When it comes to telling the insanely complicated story of revolt and revolution and love and betrayal that The Astonishing seeks to tell, the words fall far, far, short. Every rhyme is completely and utterly predictable; any chances at subtlety or mystery are blown out of the water by the too-simplistic quality of the writing, which is a shame. Scenes From a Memory also had this problem to a degree, but then again, they had Mike Portnoy helping out, with occasional contributions by bassist John Myung.  Now the burden falls pretty much squarely on John Petrucci’s broad shoulders, and it’s just not sophisticated enough, given the potential for something really, really interesting.  

On an additional note, Dream Theater is really trying to make The Astonishing more than an album—it’s meant to be an interactive experience, with online and in-concert interactive elements meant to get you to engage with the story.  Yet Dream Theater should know that no one comes to them looking for the story or the lyrics—in fact, Dream Theater could create an entire album of instrumentals and it would probably be pretty decent. As Nightwish did with the tie-in movie for their album Imaginaerum and Within Temptation did with their movies and comic strips for their album The Unforgiving, so Dream Theater wants to do, and I cannot understand why anyone would consider it a good idea to waste energy on tie-in media to this extent.

In short, while The Astonishing is a step up from the last couple of Dream Theater albums, it doesn’t come close to touching their work from the 1990s and early 2000s. Fans like me need to accept, I guess, that we won’t get that same band back again.  At this point, Dream Theater’s rockers aren’t the scrappy, energetic youngsters fresh out of Berklee College of Music—they are practically the progressive rock band nowadays, with reviews and features in publications like Rolling Stone, and thus don’t have the same need to prove themselves. They’ve amassed enough goodwill and repute to never need to try again, and while The Astonishing isn’t exactly a symptom of coasting, I won’t know until I hear the next couple of albums if this one is a blip on the radar or the beginning of a cresting wave.

The Astonishing Tracklist:

1. Descent of the NOMACS
2. Dystopian Overture
3. The Gift of Music
4. The Answer
5. A Better Life
6. Lord Nafaryus
7. A Savior in the Square
8. When Your Time Has Come
9. 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

1. 2285 Entr'acte
2. Moment of Betrayal
3. Heaven's Cove
4. Begin Again
5. The Path That Divides
6. Machine Chatter
7. The Walking Shadow
8. My Last Farewell
9. Losing Faythe
10. Whispers on the Wind
11. Hymn of a Thousand Voices
12. Our New World
13. Power Down
14. Astonishing