Dream Theater, The Astonishing (Roadrunner, 2016). Double CD, too many tracks to list!
Has there been a progressive rock or metal release more divisive over the last several years than Dream Theater’s most recent, THE ASTONISHING?
If so, I can’t think of it.
As I look over the internet, I see lots and lots of ripping of the new DT album. The most common complaint is that DT has no business trying to write such a story, presumably—at least as I’m reading the arguments—because it’s akin to a young adult dystopian novel so prominently displayed in your local Barnes and Noble.
Well, I have no such problem with the album.
In fact, I think that for attempt and audacity alone, Petrucci and Rudess deserve immense accolades. The scope of the album is simply astounding. And, well . . . astonishing. This is the first concept album DT has attempted since 1999’s METROPOLIS: SCENES FROM A MEMORY. In form, however, it has far more in common with the recent work of Arjen Anthony Lucassen (Aryeon) than it it does with anyone else in the music world right now.
This isn’t just prog, this is theater.
I will rather openly admit that the first listening to the album made me dizzy. I don’t mean this in any metaphorical or symbolic way. I was actually—physically—dizzy and disoriented after listening to disk one. I had to put THE UNDERFALL YARD on to calm me down and get my bearings. No exaggeration.
In a private note to the editors of progarchy, progarchist editor Chris Morrissey admitted to having had the exact same reaction to THE ASTONISHING, though he had no way of knowing of my reaction. He, too, put on some Big Big Train to calm himself down.
How weird is this!?!?! I guess Chris and I really are brothers, though we’ve never actually met in person.
Without putting words into the mouths of the guys in Dream Theater, let me just state: this is NOT a young adult dystopian story as much as it is a (mostly-Christian) fairy tale. The names of the characters—Nefaryous, Gabriel, and Faythe—following fairy tale convention, allow the participant and listener to know immediately who is good and who is evil. Unlike in most fairy tales, however, Petrucci and Rudess’s story takes place in the not-too-distant future in the northeastern part of what is now the United States. One of the characters is Evangeline, and the illustration of her reveals a wholesome young woman holding—rather explicitly—a Christian cross. Regardless, the future of this part of America involves both medieval cultural conventions and extremely advanced technology.
I won’t retell the whole story, as it’s a crucial part of the enjoyment of THE ASTONISHING. I know Petrucci and Rudess have asked listeners to take in the whole album in one listening, but, frankly, as much as I enjoy the album, I find this impossible to do. There is simply too much going on in THE ASTONISHING for me to take it all in in one sitting.
It will be fascinating to see what the band does on tour and what the future holds in store for this story of THE ASTONISHING. Much like 2112 and CLOCKWORK ANGELS, THE ASTONISHING’s potential for novels, comics, movies, a tv-series, and video games coming out is unlimited.
And, since progarchy.com is a website devoted to the beauty of music, let me just state, every member of Dream Theater plays his heart out on this album. The musicianship is, as always, simply impeccable and breathtaking. No one, however, impresses me as much on this album (in terms of performance, not writing) as James LaBrie. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed his vocals, but on THE ASTONISHING he reveals exactly why he’s one of the best voices in rock.
How many times will I go back to THE ASTONISHING? It depends. A lot rests on what the band does with the album as mentioned above, especially in terms of spreading into other media. When I’m in a DT mood, I probably will still pop on OCTAVARIUM before I put on THE ASTONISHING. Not because I think one is better than the other, but because it’s more digestible. At least for now.
Regardless, I do know this–Dream Theater has, after a quarter of a century, finally and truly lived up to its name.