They Can’t Stop Thinking Big: Dream Theater’s “The Astonishing”

In a time when attention spans are such that some artists are abandoning album-length efforts in favor of EPs – or even releasing one or two songs at a time – Dream Theater decided to double down with a 34-track, two-hour play set to their brand of heavy, progressive rock with “The Astonishing.”

Such an effort almost demands that a willing listener block out all distractions, don a pair of headphones, and, with the lyric sheet in hand, attempt to make sense of this massive body of music that Dream Theater created on this, their 13th studio album, in one shot.

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They surely deserve our attention. Since forming in the mid-1980’s and finding commercial success with “Images And Words” in the early 90’s, the group’s formidable talent pool – no matter who has left or subsequently joined – at times almost seems unfair to other bands in the genre.

Think you have a singer?  James LaBrie’s voice and operatic training makes him better prepared to execute the demands of a progressive rock/metal group than most others. Think your prog band boasts the best keyboardist, bass player, guitar player, or drummer around?  Sorry, but your band is outmatched at every position by Jordan Rudess, John Myung, John Petrucci, and Mike Mangini – four of the most talented people to ever play their respective instruments.  That’s not to say that there aren’t other prog groups making wonderful music on par with Dream Theater – we all know that’s untrue – but there aren’t too many bands out there with the collective ability to play nearly anything they can conceptualize, which makes Dream Theater impossible to ignore.

I began this column shortly after the release of “The Astonishing,” but it was clear that after a thousand or so words (with tons more to type before even wrapping up Act I), the review was far more a commentary on each track and how it moved the story along than a review of the album….such is the effort to write about such a huge amount of music! Additionally, the sheer amount of distractions that come with family and work matters was such that I just couldn’t give “The Astonishing” full and repeated listens, so I’ve had to break up the album into “acts within acts” to get through it.

The album begins in predictable epic form with an overture containing melodies and themes we’ll no doubt hear throughout this play, but once we hear from LaBrie for the first time on “The Gift of Music,” the album steers towards the realm of theater. All of the band members deserve props for dialing back the shredding – or at least strategically picking their spots – in favor of keeping focus squarely on the story.

That story, which is well covered in reviews elsewhere and on the band’s website, represents quite a challenge for LaBrie as he not only sings over much of this album but inhabits the characters as he goes.

And make no mistake: “The Astonishing” is James LaBrie’s tour de force.  By virtue of this being a play set to music, LaBrie simply owns this album from start to finish, displaying his full, dynamic range of vocal ability.  I don’t envy the task of him trying to pull this all off in a live setting, but we have his brilliant performance committed to a recording that will endure well after the tour ends.

As for the individual pieces, “The Gift Of Music” is a classic DT rock track in the vein of the more song-oriented material heard on their previous release.  “When Your Time Has Come” has to be one of DT’s most accessible tracks ever written, certainly on par with a track like “Another Day” from “Images And Words.”  This album boasts more piano-oriented ballads than anything the band has done prior,  but Rudess’ piano playing is divine on this album.  In and around some tracks are musical interludes that take the music from merely supporting the story to animating the story.

“A Life Left Behind” is a track unlike anything we’ve heard from Dream Theater before, the intro reminding me of something Kevin Gilbert might have written.  The album’s penultimate track, “Our New World,” is a triumphant piece as the “The Astonishing” winds down.  Because there is so much music to absorb, repeated listens will undoubtedly bring other favorite tracks to the fore.

The mix on “The Astonishing” is much the same as on their previous two albums, which is that “rich piece of chocolate cake” that Petrucci talked about when referring to his guitar tone on the last album.  It’s a huge slab of ear candy to this listener, but I can understand those who criticize the overall tone as being too polished – it’s a slick-sounding album, no doubt about it – but I bet fans will feel different when this album is performed live.

“The Astonishing” is, quite simply, an intense, overwhelming effort, and Petrucci is to be commended for hatching an idea of this scope and getting the other band members on board with it.  For the listener, the adjectives noted above are pretty much the same, which makes the album a bit daunting when it comes to casual listening.  Since “The Astonishing” was released, I’ve paused to ask myself during morning and evening commutes if I really want to dive into the experience of this album or would I rather listen to something that can be consumed from start to finish in a shorter span.

Because of this, and drawing upon past experiences, I’ve decided not to try to rank “The Astonishing” alongside the rest of the Dream Theater discography, simply because it’s sheer scope sets it apart from everything else. I have the same feeling about Spock’s Beard’s “Snow” or Saga’s “Generation 13” – whether or not I like those albums, I feel like it’s unfair to judge those albums alongside the rest of the bands’ respective output – albums of this scale simply stand alone.

Whether or not one fully embraces the story may determine the emotional attachment one will have to “The Astonishing.” While the music is spine-tingling wonderful in many places, for me it doesn’t quite touch the emotional nerve of, say, the title track to
Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” – the first time a piece of Dream Theater music reduced me to tears – but there is still plenty to enjoy about “The Astonishing,” and there’s no doubt that additional listens will reveal additional layers to this ambitious effort…

…and isn’t that what great, progressive rock is about?

Bravo, boys!

4 thoughts on “They Can’t Stop Thinking Big: Dream Theater’s “The Astonishing”

  1. Wonderful write-up, Kevin. I keep hearing amazing things about this new record. It’s not even fair to simply call it a “record” or album, it sounds like it’s sooooo much more than that. I also read that the group has finally lived up to its name. Damn it I guess I’d better go out there and pick up a physical copy now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kevin Williams

      Thanks for your comment! I’m with you on buying the physical copy; I think this album sort of demands that.

      Now that I think of it, I haven’t bought a new CD since DT’s “A Dramatic Turn Of Events.” 🙂 Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

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