The Astonishing Failure – The Album Nobody Asked for from Dream Theater

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Jedi temple? Darth Vader’s floating torture device? Ancient Rome rebuilt? Nope. Just John Petrucci’s delusions.

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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

21 thoughts on “The Astonishing Failure – The Album Nobody Asked for from Dream Theater

  1. Being overcritical??? Haha,HARDLY Bryan!!! I loved reading THIS review,as MUCH as I did,Time-Lord’s Review!!! LOL. I mean,let’s FACE IT………..if someone chooses to “criticize” an album or a band,then it’s an OPINION OF that reviewer,which can be on the “subjective” side!!! NOW,having said THAT………..people can either AGREE or DISAGREE with that reviewer!?!? As always however……….EACH person who writes for this site…………has a RIGHT to SAY WHAT they want,and give REASONS on WHY they’ve reached tha conclusion!!! THAT………is something known as the Freedom of Expression!!! More technically…………the “Freedom-of-Speech” to which gives the right to ANY person of this country,to SAY whatever it is they WANT,without FEAR of censorship of our Govt.!!! But I digress……………

    My POINT BEING…………..is that since I’ve started READING reviews on this site years ago………….ALL I ever read,was POSITIVE-reviews for everything that was posted here!!! RARELY have I read any “negative” reviews for something on here,so I DO THINK it’s rather Refreshing to SEE that our reviewers here,are MORE than just mindless “robots” that WRITE what their EXPECTED to write,instead of what they Truly FEEL!!! I both admire and Respect that Bryan!!! Thank-You. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Morey

      Thanks, Indieun7. It is definitely more fun to write positive reviews, mainly because it is easier to write about something you like. I would likely never trash a younger, unknown band the way I have DT here. I would point out where they are good and where they could use improvement. The difference with DT is they are a well established band that is so much better than this. I would feel really bad trashing a struggling band because I know, as a reviewer, I could likely hurt their career. I don’t feel bad trashing these rich guys in DT when they play us for fools and charge us crap tons of money for garbage music. Don’t get me wrong, I love DT. Their previous self-titled album is what got me interested in the band; I’m just really disappointed with this release.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And SEE??? THAT^^^ is my entire POINT to my comment above^^^!!! I LOVE the “how’s” and “why’s” that You EXPRESSED here,INSTEAD of simply mumbling You didn’t LIKE it cuz it’s TOO LONG…………..or ya didn’t like the lyrics to it!!! THAT is NOT how You write a “review”!!! You need to back it UP with WHY You FEEL the way You do!!! Time-Lord did it in HIS review (rather humorously in my opinion!!!) and YOU did it here too,and VERY “matter-of-factly” I might add!!! 😉 So You’ve earned my Respect for your “Honesty” and look forward to more of your posts on here!!! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Russell Weston

        I don’t think they played us for fools: I think that Petrucci and Co. genuinely thought they made something of value-except that they didn’t. I’ve heard numerous other DT fans stick up for this album, being blinded by love for the band. This album is unlistenable; a victim of Petrucci’s inner 8th grader literary ambition.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Progressive is the keyword, I think we sometimes forget what Prog actually means.

    I’ve been a Dream Theater fan for longer than I care to remember and this album is totally out of sync with everything they have done before.

    It’s almost easy listening!

    Yes it’s cheesy as hell, overuse of ballads? maybe bur DT always do decent ballads, “Through her eyes” to mention but one, so what’s the problem?

    The musicianship is there as always even though bits have been pinched from several of their other albums and recycled, but they work, choirs….bagpipes….marching bands…..

    Prog to me is difference, when I buy a new album I want to be surprised, even astonished, well I was certainly surprised by this one, it’s growing on me, unfortunately “The Road to Revolution” base theme has wormed it’s way into my head and even humming God Save the Queen won’t shift it.

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  3. “The Astonishing Failure – The Album Nobody Asked for from Dream Theater” – Please when writing a review `SPEAK FOR YOURSELF`

    I love the album, is my taste in music bad, pathetic, am I deaf? I hope not.Simple as that. The story line is pathetic, in my own opinion, however these are songs not Frank Herbert`s `Dune` or any of dozens of Sci-Fi masterpieces. The music, I`ve heard better much better, but chill man and keep to your own opinion, for what it`s worth. Dream Theater are no Big Big Train but they ain`t bad.

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    1. Bryan Morey

      Richie, thanks for the comment. I am speaking for myself. I’m just sharing what I think of the album to encourage readers to listen to the album for themselves and come up with their own opinions. That’s the point of a review. Personally, I cannot recommend this album to anyone. I wouldn’t want someone that doesn’t know DT to think that this is what their music is always like.

      Compared to any of DT’s other songs, this album is simply not up to par. It is an album of ballads and filler, and every single ballad here is inferior to other ballads the band has written. And that is an objective statement.

      I’m glad you enjoy the album! I really wish I could say the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Les Myer

    Agree with reviewer completely. Have been a DT fan since early 90’s. My wife is one of their few female fans. This one is not horrible – just a big disappointment. After 3 years I expected traditional DT music. This is simply too mellow for us and we find it boring. What worries me is that a lot of people do like it, and this will promote more of the same. A total of 6 years and two albums I don’t like and I will be done with them. In the meantime I have sold my tickets to see them that I bought on presale before the album came out.

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  5. Dan

    I’m curious to hear the “depressing story” of how New England is now. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the most well educated and progressive regions in the country.

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  6. Dan

    Ugh, and at least get your terminology right. Do you really think they would keep “off key” vocal passages from LaBrie on the album? His voice is annoying as hell, but he’s not “off key”. I’m not defending the album, it sucks, but you’re being overly critical of things that don’t deserve the criticism, which makes the rest of your review lose integrity and come off as questionable.

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    1. Bryan Morey

      I was referring to his vocals live, which are often off-key. You’re right, he isn’t “off-key” in the album, although there are parts where he just doesn’t sound right.

      They leave the off-key vocals on their live albums. Listen to Live at Budokan. Its very easy to fix even the live vocals in the studio before releasing a live album, so its no surprise that they allowed Labrie to sing certain sections of The Astonishing in a way that just doesn’t fit the music.

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  7. “I have gotten to know DT’s music really well this past year and I maintain certain expectations of them.”

    Was this line meant to imply that you have only truly been listening to Dream Theater for a year? Because if that is the case then I congratulate you on adding them to your musical library, but a year is truly nothing in the world of DT, and in no way earns you the right to suggest what kind of album DT fans have or have not been asking for.

    I have been listening to DT for almost five years now, which is also nothing compared to the the fans that have been around since their first few albums and have been able to follow the band’s musical journey in real-time. But in those five years I have listened to each album in excess of 20 times (and in the cases of some albums such as Images and Words, well over 100 times). I have also spent a great deal of time talking with other DT fans, as well as reading through countless DT forums and comment threads on various different websites and fan pages.

    First off, many fans were asking for this album. Whether or not they liked the final result is a matter of opinion to each listener, but your claim that nobody was asking for this album is wrong. DT fans have been asking for another concept album for many years, which was only fueled after Portnoy’s departure and his claim that the band’s next release would have been a concept album if he had never left.

    In addition to that, as well-loved as Scenes from a Memory is, a lot of DT fans feel as if the concept of the album is quite lacking compared to the music and execution. Many fans felt as if a sci-fi or fantasy story would have been far more epic than what was ultimately a tale of a love-triangle in SFAM. I have no problem with either concept, but many fans were hoping for something grander were they to attempt another concept album.

    So, in other words, many DT fans WERE asking for another concept album, and many of those same fans were hoping for something sci-fi or fantasy themed. You could argue that Petrucci wrote an album that many fans were asking for with The Astonishing.

    Once again, if they didn’t like the result, that is a different story.

    “I place the blame on Petrucci and Labrie, who are clearly running the show at this point.”

    Now this line is just plain inaccurate, and anyone who has listened to an interview with the band over the last few years, read a Wikipedia page, or checked any of the recent album’s liner notes would know that this is not the case.

    Labrie did not contribute to either the songwriting or lyric-writing for a single track on this record. It is possible that some melodies or harmonies were his idea, but ultimately this album had two songwriters: Petrucci and Rudess, with Petrucci writing all of the lyrics. So your comment really just comes across like typical Labrie-bashing, which gets quite tiresome after a while. The guy has been with the band for 12 albums now, he’s here to stay. You don’t have to like him, but at least respect his place as a member of the band.

    While you are correct that Mangini is involved in the songwriting far less than Portnoy ever was (is it really a surprise that someone who has been around for a couple years wouldn’t have the same input as an original band member?), it is common knowledge that Myung has been more involved post-Portnoy’s departure than he was in the few years before that. Putting The Astonishing aside, as it is very much Petrucci’s pet-project and so didn’t involved Myung much at all, his contributions to A Dramatic Turn of Events and the self-titled album far exceeded those on Systematic Chaos or Black Clouds & Silver Linings. His bass tone was clearer and higher in the mix, he followed the rhythm guitar less often, he had more bass solos or interludes, and he actually contributed lyrics to a song on each album, which he hadn’t done since SFAM.

    Once again, this may have not been reflected in this album, but we can both agree that this album is atypical. It doesn’t change the fact that Myung has had a larger voice in the band since he isn’t being drowned out by two alpha-males in Petrucci AND Portnoy. I love Portnoy, he was an integral part of the band and probably my favourite drummer of all time, but the whole “band has gone to shit since Portnoy left” line of thinking is getting quite stale. I believe the three albums they have released since his release have been better than the three they released prior to his release. This was absolutely no fault of his own, just simply to do with changing up the team chemistry a little.

    ” … this music is most certainly not metal.”

    Why does it have to be metal? Because their Wikipedia page says that they are a prog metal band? They can make whatever music they like, it doesn’t have to subscribe to whatever genres they have done previously. Does every fan have to like the change? No. But change in and of itself is not a bad thing, all that matters is the execution. Some people (myself included) enjoyed this change, others obviously didn’t.

    This line also ignores the fact that their sound had changed many times over their career, and up until Portnoy’s departure had increasingly become more and more metal. A change back in the other direction was actually something that many people wanted. Possibly this went too far for some people’s tastes, but once again I think it’s obvious that this album is intended to be very atypical, and won’t in any way represent future releases.

    “Dream Theater albums have certain things in common: endless shredding, overboard technicality, long instrumental passages”

    You literally just mentioned the three things that a large number of DT fans dislike more than Labrie’s vocals. Everyone has always known how technically adept DT has always been, and this has always informed their sound. But a large, large majority of DT fans will agree that the ” endless shredding, overboard technicality, long instrumental passages” had gotten way out of hand since Rudess joined the band. DT are one of my favourite bands of all time, but I believe that many will agree with me when I say that there are more than a dozen songs from their post SFAM years that could have several minutes of unnecessary shredding and keyboard noodling taken out and would end up as better songs as a result.

    The band appear to have realised this as well, as since Portnoy’s departure they have decreased their average song length with each album. Once again, this was likely never Portnoy’s fault, but such an integral band member leaving obviously caused the band to reevaluate what they were doing. Rudess even acknowledge in an interview discussing the self-titled album that the band were trying to focus on songs that served the song itself more, and keep the shredding and noodling in moderation. It definitely shows on that album. You may feel it was taken too far on The Astonishing, but I’m not really sure how those elements of their sound would have integrated with the concept at all. It would have simply turned an already overlong album into an even more overlong album.

    Now that I’ve gotten all that aside, here’s what I think of the album …

    I quite like it. One of my favourite things was Rudess’s work, which is probably the best he has ever done with the band. I much prefer his traditional piano sound to a large number of his synth-work. I also don’t miss his noodling, which unlike Petrucci’s shredding (which often gets excessive but still generally sounds cool), often veered into the borderline unlistenable. This album truly shows Rudess’s ability to make beautiful music.

    I also really like the way that Petrucci plays off Rudess all throughout the album. He seems to focus a lot more of sonic intensity and creating an atmosphere than on virtuosity here. His solos are sparse, but when they pop up they are as well constructed as ever. He probably could have used a couple more memorable riffs here and there, but overall he worked well with the tone of the concept.

    I also really like Labrie’s work in what must have been one of the biggest vocal challenges of his career. In general I believe that his vocals have been far superior since Portnoy’s departure than in the few albums preceding, and he isn’t being forced into doing a “metal” voice that really doesn’t play to his strengths. Yes he still sounds thin in the upper register (as he mostly has ever since busting his vocal cords on the Awake tour), but it’s actually far less of a problem here than it has been in a long time, and he mostly sounds quite comfortable. I find his range quite impressive on this album. Many people may not like his “breathy” voice when he sings softly, but I think it definitely plays well into the melodramatic elements of some of the characters in the concept.

    As for the album as a whole, it is far different from regular DT releases, but considering it is their 13th album I was quite welcome of this. We all know they can write 15 minute songs with 6 minute super-technical instrumental interludes in the middle, but could they write two-hour rock opera? The tried to explore a new area of their creativity, and that is always welcome with me.

    That being said, the album is far from perfect, but that is to be expected in something so overly ambitious. First off, it is overlong. I believe about four or five tracks could have either been cut out or integrated into one-another, as well as all of the NOMACs instrumentals which didn’t really add anything. I think the result would have been an album that flowed better and would have helped the concept to get moving much earlier, as it does bog down a little.

    I can agree that the lyrics range from cheesy to uninspired, but in saying that DT’s lyrics haven’t been all that great for some time now. With a few notable exceptions (eg. Breaking All Illusions, courtesy of Myung), the lyrics on their past three or four albums haven’t been all that well received. They are never terrible, just simply do not live up to much of their earlier work. You may feel that the were particular bad on The Astonishing, but I feel as if concept albums and rock operas typically result in cheesier lyrics – for better or worse. It’s just part of the game.

    The concept itself was cool, though the execution wasn’t perfect. Things did end a little too easily, and like I said earlier the length of the album does bog down the story quite early on which can make it hard to follow thereafter.

    I actually felt the production was inferior to their self-titled album, which was one of my favourite albums production-wise from them in some time. Train of Thought, Systematic Chaos and Black Clouds & Silver-Linings were far too loud and too heavily dominated by rhythm guitars and drums, leaving keyboards and bass out. Octavarium had a nice production too it; A Dramatic Turn of Events was pretty good, though it lacked a bit of punch to the sound. The self-titled album gave that punch, and I actually quite liked the aggression of the drums and it had Myung’s best bass tone in years. I do think The Astonishing was a step back in that regard, whether it was because the length of the album resulted in more compression or simply because Mangini and Myung were less involved in the composition.

    All in all, I’d say the album is better than the last three albums released before Portnoy’s departure (Octavarium has better moments but is extraordinarily uneven); I don’t believe it’s as good as ADTOE; it definitely takes a lot more chances than the self-titled album, which I’ve always found to be quite a safe record. I’m not sure if that makes it better or not – I guess you could argue the two albums exist on opposite ends of the spectrum: the self-titled album maybe didn’t take enough risks, and this one possibly took too many.

    I consider it an interesting and overall welcome addition to my DT library.

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  8. Bryan,
    Few years ago, my disappointments/thoughts would have been the same. Especially w.r.t LaBrie’s off-pitch vocals, record not being heavy, Mangini being caged into Portnoy’s style etc.

    But over the years, my tolerance levels have gone up and expectations have gone down.

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  9. I agree with the general sentiment of this review. However, one of the things that bugs me about The Astonishing is how there’s NOT a remarkable variety to LaBrie’s much hyped “voices” for the different characters. They all sound pretty similar, and you can tell they’re LaBrie. Some examples of songs where rock singers ARE able to twist their voice into sounding like someone completely different would be The Rolling Stones cover of “Prodigal Son,” and The Talking Heads’ “Swamp,” where Mick Jagger and David Byrne sound like old black blues singers.

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  10. Julian Tamps

    I never wanted to listen to any metal or rock styles of music. I never like Dream Theater. But “The Astonishing” made me started to listen to metal and rock.

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