Astonished: Dream Theater’s Complex Audacity

Dream Theater, The Astonishing (Roadrunner, 2016).  Double CD, too many tracks to list!

Dream Theater, THE ASTONISHING.  More theater than prog.

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.

A Manichaen choice.  Empire or Rebellion?  Well, this libertarian definitely chooses rebellion.

And, since 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.

Storm Corrosion – Review

Review – Storm Corrosion (Roadrunner Records, 2012)

Mikael Akerfeldt is right, with a few qualifications.  On the website for the new Storm Corrosion album, a collaboration between Opeth frontman Akerfeldt and psych/prog stalwart Steven Wilson, Akerfeldt says, “It’s a demanding record. If you’re doing other shit as you listen to it, it’s going to pass by like elevator muzak. You really have to sit down and pay attention! If you allow it to sink in, it could be a life companion.”  Any fan of Opeth or Wilson (No-Man, Porcupine Tree) will be looking for reasons to like this album, but also hoping that it achieves a distinctiveness apart from previous projects.  And this is problematic, because Akerfeldt and Wilson have been collaborating since 2001, when Wilson produced Opeth’s fifth album, the landmark Blackwater Park, a layered, dense, progressive version of death metal (or death metal version of progressive rock).  Take a moment (okay, 9+ minutes — nothing about any of this music is succinct, nor, really, should it be) and check out Bleak from Blackwater Park:

Wilson and Opeth, which around this time Akerfeldt began to make his own (at least from a fan’s perspective), really hit their stride with the dual albums Damnation and Deliverance.  Where Deliverance followed up on the electric, distorted heaviness of Blackwater Park, and utilized to great effect Akerfeldt’s signature take on the growled vocal delivery common in death and black metal, Damnation was the mindblower, indebted I think fairly heavily to the work Wilson was doing with No-Man.  It was a heavy album where the acoustic and electric guitars (Akerfeldt and fellow Opeth guitarist Peter Lindgren used Paul Reed Smith electrics, an important aesthetic and tonal detail that set them apart in their genre) are stripped of their distorted treatments, Akerfeldt’s beautiful straight-ahead vocal delivery is featured across the album, and the songs are minor-key, droney, melancholic, but melodic and dynamically arranged.  It’s heaviness comes from its complete approach, rather than its sonics alone, and for this it’s an incredible achievement.  To get the full effect of this record (and its companion Deliverance), you really need to check out the marvelous Lamentations DVD, which captures Opeth at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2003 (and, bonus, shows them working in the studio with Wilson). Here’s an amped version of Closure, originally on the Damnation album, from Lamentations:

It is Damnation, and perhaps No-Man’s Returning Jesus (with its Talk Talk influences, something Storm Corrosion’s creators have also explicitly mentioned), that Storm Corrosion most closely resembles in character, it’s low-key, meditational approach standing outside the typical Opeth or Porcupine Tree record, but demonstrating the restlessness that underlies both Akerfeldt’s and Wilson’s work.  The record begins with “Drag Ropes,” which sets the tone:  fingerpicked guitars, minor-key arpeggios, strings and woodwinds, and cinematic snippets of lyric in service to the tune.

(The video for “Drag Ropes” is a darkly gothic theme — not unexpected, given the death metal connections I suppose — leavened and made creepier by animator Jess Cope, whose take on the song’s stripped-down lyrics is a story in itself, and is nothing like what my mind conjures as I hear the song.  See her take on it here:  I like this because these songs are of a type best finished by the listener.)

I am reminded of Deep Purple’s lofty Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which I always rather liked (and I think Akerfeldt must have too, as the cover art of that record was duped for Opeth’s In Live Concert at the Royal Albert Hall).  The orchestra/group approach has come full flower here, but with far greater and personal effect, and the album’s title track is also redolent of that particular period of British rock’s embrace of the orchestra, this time a fair and beautiful reminder of Ray Thomas’s flute work for prime era Moody Blues.  The flute is replaced in the second half of the song by a vocal line that speaks to the vox-ness of this record.  Both Wilson and Akerfeldt are capable of affecting, fragile vocalizations, sometimes bordering on too delicate, an irony given Akerfeldt’s former Opethian growlings.  “Hag,” the third track, demonstrates the necessity of the softer vocal timbres in this record, while also reminding me most of Damnation, with its dramatic drum breaks and dynamic shifts.  These drums gave me a breathless pause.  They are low-fi, almost seemingly intentionally so.  Nothing these cats do is low-fi, and I searched my brain for a WHY until it lit upon a purchase:  it transported me to the drumming on Popol Vuh’s Letzte Tage Letzte Nachte.  Mikael Akerfeldt has claimed Popol Vuh as a major influence before, and explicitly in an interview regarding Storm Corrosion.  Not to stretch the point, but a good bit of this record has a Popol Vuh/krautrock thing happening, particularly the closing song, “Ljudet Innan,” a grand, drifting piece that opens with a jazz-ish vocal from Akerfeldt before some major drift that would be right at home on PV’s Affenstunde or Aguirre.  Getting there, we’re also treated to an instrumental piece, “Lock Howl,” that energizes us before the finale and reminds me why pacing is so important to an album, an LP relic often forgotten in the MP3 era.

I like this record and wish more like it were made today.  If Wilson and Akerfeldt were jazz musicians (which, from a musicianly point-of-view, they are), they would have just made this record 15 years ago, no big thing, then guested as leaders on each of their respective groups’ albums and collaborated every other year until they were 80.  That they’re associated with rock means they have to carry the weight of “supergroup” to any sort of collaboration like Storm Corrosion, which is something of a pity.  I don’t feel like this record is loaded with trying to live up to expectations, or an ego trip or anything else associated with supergroupness.  Beyond the whys and influences and connections this album has, if it were released anonymously, and I had no context to hang my thoughts on, I think I’d have the same reaction to it.  Yes, there is aural history here, a moogish mellotronish flutes’n’strings thing, but these are not derivative of 70s prog: they are necessary to the songs.  Storm Corrosion is a worthy achievement from two artists who have a significant history creating groundbreaking music, together and apart.  While the record has many touchstones, it is not the sum or product of a record collection, but an original and expressive statement of two consummate musician-composers who are rewarded by their ongoing collaboration.

Craig Breaden, November 2012