Dream Theater decided it would be a good idea to make an album telling the story of a possible New England a couple hundred years into the future – a dystopic New England. If they really wanted to tell a dystopic story about that area of the country, they would have been better off telling the depressing story of that region as it is now. Instead, they wrote a story about an overlord refusing to let the people listen to music. Very original. Because no band named Rush ever wrote a song called 2112 about that very thing.
I am simply shocked by the positive reviews of this album, including from people I very much respect and look up to, even here at Progarchy. I really don’t know what they see in this story. If this were just a random album from some random rock band making their first album, I would say it is mediocre and I would move on. But no. This was made by the biggest name in progressive metal, a band that has been around since 1985. Dream Theater is a band with a very strong catalogue of music, including, arguably, one of the best albums ever made in Scenes from a Memory. This is a band that has continually sought to break and re-break the artistic molds and standards that it has created. This band has some of the greatest and most talented musicians in the world in it. Yet, The Astonishing is the best they can come up with? Wow.
So what exactly sucks so much about this album? That question would take way too long to answer, so let’s just run through some of the highlights (or bloopers).
- The story blows.
- If you want truly great concept albums about dystopic worlds, go listen to Rush’s 2112 or Clockwork Angels. If you want a more recent album, check out Muse’s Drones, which is a much more compelling, interesting, and shorter story/commentary on where we might be headed as a society. The Astonishing is neither compelling, interesting, nor short. It is over 2 hours long, and it is a long 2 hours. I’ve never gotten bored in the middle of a DT album, but congrats, boys, you did it! You bored the hell out of me.
- The story also sucks because it all works out so perfectly. The main character, who should sacrifice his life for what he believes instead lives happily ever after. Look at any good story, from 2112, to the Lord of the Rings, to the Bible – somebody important and beloved has to die at some point. This is a given in Western stories, and you just don’t mess with that. Real life doesn’t end like a Disney story. Belle doesn’t always get to marry a beast that turns out to be handsome. Sure, someone does die in The Astonishing, but he is never central to the plot.
- This isn’t metal.
- A few songs, such as “Moment of Betrayal,” have their heavier moments, but this music is most certainly not metal. You could argue that it is prog, but that would depend on your definition of prog. There is more symphony and quiet piano pieces than there is shredding. If I want quiet music, I’ll find someone that is good at that. If I want prog metal, I listen to DT. It is really quite simple.
- This isn’t “Dream Theater.”
- Dream Theater albums have certain things in common: endless shredding, overboard technicality, long instrumental passages (where the live listener is given a much needed break from Labrie’s off-key live vocals), and, generally, decent enough lyrics. This album has none of that. I love the displays of technical prowess that some people consider arrogant and unnecessary. That is part of who DT is, so why change it? In The Astonishing, we get boring song after boring song, with no breaks from Labrie’s singing. If you don’t like his voice, you will hate this album. The lyrics, as Time Lord aptly pointed out, are cheesy, corny, and clichéd. Songs that should illicit spouts of emotion (like “The Spirit Carries On” does) fall utterly short. “Hymn of a Thousand Voices” should have drawn us to tears, with a majestic choral ensemble belting their way to heaven. Instead, we barely hear the choir behind Labrie’s voice. Fail.
Now for what I liked about the album. I really enjoyed Jordan Rudess’ piano work. I’ve always thought he should include more traditional piano playing with his DT work. Too bad it had to be on such a crappy album. The problem is, there is almost too much piano. It takes away whatever metal edge they might have had.
James Labrie does display a remarkable variety with his voice here, I will begrudgingly grant him. He plays at least 8 specific characters, which isn’t easy to do. The problem is, he sings too much, which gets old. I don’t know how he will do it live.
The artwork and the “Brother, Can You Hear Me?” theme are pretty good, so there is that. Although, the artwork looks like it was copied from George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. Lawsuit anyone?
The sound quality is slightly better than the last few albums. The drums no longer sound like they were recorded in an outhouse, so that’s a plus. However, there is still no bass in the mix. Fail.
I’m sure that The Astonishing will reignite the Portnoy vs. Mangini debate over who is the better drummer. They are both excellent. I would hate to live on the difference of who is better. DT’s mistake with Mangini is not letting him contribute enough creatively. Portnoy’s hand was always clear in DT’s work. Mangini seems to add nothing creatively, and I place the blame on Petrucci and Labrie, who are clearly running the show at this point. For me, I would much rather have the happy Mike Portnoy that we have right now, because he is making a lot of great music that he wouldn’t have time for otherwise.
Maybe I’m being overly critical, but I have gotten to know DT’s music really well this past year and I maintain certain expectations of them. They did not meet those expectations with The Astonishing. In the end, nobody wanted to hear this story, and I really wish someone in the band would have had the guts to tell Petrucci that this was just a bad idea. If Portnoy were still there, the most this idea ever would have been was a long song, in the vein of “Count of Tuscany.” Instead, we got two hours of garbage. I feel sorry for all the people that paid a lot of money to see this live.
If you want to hear a good rock opera that doesn’t drag on for hours, listen to Ayreon, not this crap. Even The Astonishing could have been good if they had shown some restraint, instead of jamming in over an hour of filler. The few songs that are bearable are simply drowned out by junk. Maybe it is time that DT take that hiatus that Mr. Portnoy wanted 5 years ago.