DREAM THEATER – The Astonishing

Dream Theater - The Astonishing 2016I have had a long relationship with Dream Theater. Just like in every relationship, there are ups and there are downs, but for the most our relationship has been a loving and caring one. This band has had its changes and difficulties for sure, but very seldom have they done anything to disappoint me. I remember very well the first time I ever heard the band. It was back in 1989 and my musical life was mostly about big choruses, big hair, colorful clothes, keyboards and everything else that was hip at the time. I still listened to metal like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Accept and Helloween, but my life was dominated by Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Europe and the whole American melodic rock scene. A friend of mine had bought the LP (yes, LP, friends) When Dream And Day Unite and when he put on the album, I was completely floored. Dream Theater didn’t fit into the mold of rock that I was listening to at the time, they stood out like sore thumb, but I loved them instantly. Their mix of symphonic bands such as Marillion and Saga with progressive bands such as Rush and heavy metal like Metallica and Iron Maiden knocked me off my rocker totally and since that day I have been a big fan. When the follow-up Images And Words came out in 1992, I thought the band had split up because there was silence from the D.T. camp for a very long time. That was the best news I got that year and the masterpiece that is that album didn’t exactly make me less of a fan. I don’t think that Dream Theater have ever made a bad album, even though Falling Into Infinity (1997) won’t go down in history as their most remarkable piece of work. Also, I find albums such as Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence (2002), Train Of Thought (2003) and Octavarium (2005) somewhat uneven. But Systematic Chaos (2007) and Black Clouds And Silver Linings (2009) brought the band back on the map again and to me, those two albums are up there with Images And Words and Awake (1994) as the band’s finest work ever. Which brings us to one of the most dramatic things ever to happen to the band – drummer, song writer, lyricist and co-producer Mike Portnoy decided to leave the band / got fired. To me, Dream Theater without Portnoy was unthinkable. But the guys managed to rescue their situation when they brought in former Extreme, Steve Vai and Annihilator drummer Mike Mangini. Mangini is a great drummer, I knew that, but Portnoy had some huge boots to fill and even though both Portnoy-less albums – A Dramatic Turn Of Events (2011) and Dream Theater (2013) – were high quality products, it was pretty clear what Mangini’s orders were: Play like Portnoy, dammit! I know, it’s not an ideal situation, but I really think the band have made the best out of it – and those two albums are really good. Now it’s time for Dream Theater to release their third Portnoy-less album and this time, they have gone all in, over the top and recorded a whole rock opera – on two CDs. I mean, Dream Theater are hardly an easy listening band normally – you know, 23-minute songs and 40 million breaks in each chorus – but this time we get 34 songs on two CDs, instead of eight on one – totally over 120 minutes of music. Wow! Even for a big fan like me, this might just be a bit overmuch, a bit too hard to swallow. But I have given it my best shot and I think that I have gotten a fair view of how good this record(s) actually is (are). But first, let’s get into the story here and see what they have come up with.

John Petrucci, the band’s guitarist, song writer and producer of this record, says the story is retro-futuristic. The story takes place 300 years from now – the future bit of the story, but it is a time when the governments have all the power and the little guy, the common man is completely under their control and that represents the retro part. In those times, all music is made by machines (hey, that one has already started, we don’t have to fast forward 300 years for that), man has turned completely uncreative and technology rules with an iron hand. This is represented on the album with all those mechanical bits and pieces of “music” – intermissions – and all that comes from Noisy Machines, called “NOMACS”. But in a small, remote village somewhere on Earth, one person starts to write and compose music again and all his / her  creativity is the catalyst for a revolution to be. The storyline might just sound a bit thin reading it here, but the fact is, even though it’s science fiction, this is something that very well could happen to us if we’re not careful. Hell, I bet that it probably will and is on its way… Anyway, you can read about the story and all the characters right here: http://www.dreamtheater.net/theastonishing

Now when I know the storyline, opening “song” “Descent Of The NoMacs” – and a few other intermissions like it – make more sense. it’s not a song per se, but more than a short intro of weird mechanical noises that goes right into the first real song, “Dystopian Overture”, an instrumental that takes both pop and musical influences with it. Soundwise, it’s very Dream Theater sounding, but the song is very memorable and without many of the breaks that their instrumentals usually have. The first single (or maybe “pre-view” is the more correct these days) is “The Gift Of Music”, an up-tempo and very poppy but almost ballad-like tune with a very strong chorus and beautiful melodies all the way. Still there are some metal riffing and progressive elements there, but for some reason I’m thinking of Mike Portnoy’s project Flying Colors when I hear it. A really strong taster for this CD. “The Answer” is brilliant, but way too short. It’s a ballad with lots of keyboards and strings that stands on a base of acoustic guitars. I would have wanted it longer, though,  and the melodies are superb. “A Better Life” is a progressive pop-rocker on the more symphonic side, the melody is huge and very catchy. It also sounds like a musical to me – awesome stuff! “Lord Nafaryus” (one of the story’s characters) is even more pompous and musical sounding, there’s even a tango beat in it, but still some recognizable Dream Theater arrangements. “A Savior In The Square” starts off Dream Theater heavy, but with some symphonic undertones, but pretty unpredictably, it ends as a ballad – awesome! “When Your Time Has Come” is another ballad and this one sounds like it could have been written for Metropolis II: Scenes Of A Memory (1999) and since that album is among Dream Theater’s best, that’s a good thing. “Act Of Faythe” also takes a stroll down ballad street and this one is a meeting between a power ballad and a musical. Very grandiose and beautiful, but also memorable and catchy. “Three Days” sounds like a real rock musical with the Dream Theater sound on top. I also think of Savatage and Swedish progressive musical rockers Jono here. No wonder I love the song. “The Hovering Sojourn” is another short, noisy instrumental / intermission and apparently, this is how music in the dystopian future to come sounds. “Brother, Can You Hear Me” is actually one of my favorite songs here. It’s big, pompous, grandiose and it’s almost Les Miserables. I can’t help thinking about the masterpiece The Black Parade (2006) by My Chemical Romance when I hear the song.  “A Life Left Behind” starts out as some kind of symphonic progressive rock – there really are a whole lot of Yes in there – but this one too goes into ballad territory at the end. It’s a killer song, though. “Ravenskill” (a small town where some of the story takes place) is a musical right on through, the way that Trans-Siberian Orchestra usually do things. It’s a bit darker in sound but very epic. I almost get the feeling that I’m sitting in theatre watching this. And then there’s “Chosen” and whadda you know? We get a ballad on our hands – again! Luckily enough, it happens to be very good ballad, albeit it just feels like I have heard this one before on some other album. Stealing stuff from ourselves, are we? “A Tempting Offer” again goes back to Scenes Of A Memory style wise. It’s big and heavy but with some great melodies and arrangements. “Digital Discord” – another noisy intermission made by the NOMACS. We get yet another softie in “The X Aspect”, but it has a big sound and the addition of bag pipes makes it stand out a bit. “A New Beginning” is a grand and progressive pop rocker that indulges with some medieval influence that makes me think of Blackmore’s Night whereas some arrangements have stuff that Arjen Lucassen sure could use for an Ayeron album, but at the same time, the song sound very much Dream Theater. Act 1 ends with “The Road To Revolution”, a big, pompous, operatic and cinematic track that sounds a lot like Ayreon did on their latest album The Theory Of Everything (2013) mixed with Dream Theater’s peculiar sound and LaBrie’s voice. A fantastic way to make the listener want to jump into act 2 right away.

Act 2 too opens with an instrumental – “2285 Entr’acte” – a very cinematic and grandiloquent tune with a brilliant melody.  “Moment Of Betrayal” is amazing – very progressive and heavy and very much Dream Theater sounding, the way we’re used to hear them. Still, both keyboards and strings is crowding over the heavy foundation. I really don’t know where the hell “Heaven’s Cove” went because every time I listen to the album, the damn song passes by way too quick. Its 4,5 minutes feels like 30 seconds and that makes the whole song sound a bit unfinished to me. I can hear that it is a good song, though. “Begin Again” is a slow acoustic guitar based ballad with strings on top of it, very beautiful and very colorful. However, the tempo speeds up towards the end of the song. “The Path That Divides” is the first tracks that has at least some traces of how Dream Theater does things. It is progressive, big sounding with some brilliant melodies and with some complicated breaks and different musical turns – and a choir! “Machine Chatter”, another short intermission of industrial sounds. “The Walking Shadow” is – just like “The Answer” from act 1 – too short. I would have preferred it at least its double length, but somehow they manage to push in lots of all the D.T. ingredients that are needed. With “My Last Farewell” they manage to be both heavy and hard plus soft. Also, the melody is also striking and very, very good. “Losing Faythe”, another ballad, of course, is a killer. Very smooth, atmospheric and a bit sad. “Whispers On the Wind” is the first song that actually passes by unnoticed here and the only one I really can’t get a grip on. It’s a soft ballad, but this one just don’t have IT. But “Hymns Of A Thousand Voices” gets the record back on track. A laid back, folk sounding piece that features violins that gives the song a bit of a country feel. It’s on the ballad side of things, quite soft, but still with a good groove. “Our New World” is pure pop, although done in the Dream Theater way and with the orchestration it’s more dynamic than the average radio pop song. The melodies are catchy as hell and sticks fast – very good, boys. “Power Down” – the last intermission from the NOMACS! They finish the album with the title track – a song that sums up the whole album – in just 5 minutes and fifty-one seconds. This symphonic and cinematic piece holds all the big and eponymous ingredients that Dream Theater are known for – progressive metal with great melodies and of course the whole musical style that permeates this record.

What strikes me first is the absence of 15 minute songs with two million breaks and twists everywhere. The longest song on this record is 7.41 followed by a 6:12 one – a length that is quite normal on an average Dream Theater album and all the big musical turns and breaks are more or less gone. What is left is straight forward hard rock / metal songs, many of them ballads, but all of them goes in the style of what I’d expect when I go see a musical – all the orchestration is signed David Campbell and that might give you an idea of how it sounds. Also, many of the songs have a lot of pop influences even though it’s easy to hear Dream Theater’s style in all of them. Still, this is a massive album and the whole concept is overblown, in a good way. I mean, Dream Theater has always been overblown (again, that is meant in a good way), but this one takes that up one notch. At first listen, this record felt almost too hard to digest, but the more I listen, the more I get the songs. That said, I’m really not sure if I have listened enough to it before reviewing it, I’m really curious of how I will look at this record in a year or so. Also, I have heard criticism towards the story, voices have been raised saying the story is weak and that it feels rushed. That might just be the case, but I have a soft spot for these futuristic sci-fi stuff and as far as I know, I have never heard of such a story where music and musicians are the centre of the story, so I have to say that I really like it – I’d love to see if this would work as a movie. I have read that this album could either be their best album or their worst. Well, it’s definitely not their worst, but I can’t say it’s their best either. What I can say is that I find this album pretty damn great –  easily their best one since Mike Portnoy showed himself the door out of the theatre. If this album is a concept album / rock opera / musical among the great ones, only time will tell – and I’m sure it will divide Dream Theater fans in two camps. But yours truly sure enjoys the hell out of it. I think I have to get it both on CD and vinyl.


Other Dream Theater reviews:
Dream Theater


Act 1:
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

Act 2:
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 In The Wind
11. Hymn Of A Thousand Voices
12. Our New World
13. Power Down
14. Astonishing