DPRP Reviews the New Dream Theater

The Dutch Progressive Rock Page posted their latest batch of reviews, featuring a Round Table Review of Dream Theater’s The Astonishing. Yours truly contributed one of the four reviews. A bit surprised myself, mine was the only negative review. I’m glad some people are able to enjoy the album.

Check it out: http://www.dprp.net/reviews/2016-009.php

Also, Sunday, March 13 is the last day to fill out the DPRP 2015 poll of your favorite albums, artists, etc. There are 10 prog prize packs available for lucky winners – all that’s required is that you fill out the poll: http://www.dprp.net/dprpoll/2015/

50-50: THE ASTONISHING Considered

Four progarchists have now weighed in on the matter of Dream Theater’s new release, THE ASTONISHING.  For your convenience, here are links to each four.  Enjoy.

The opposition

Chris: https://progarchy.com/2016/02/12/the-astonishing-pile-of-crap-from-dream-theater/

Bryan: https://progarchy.com/2016/02/12/the-astonishing-failure-the-album-nobody-asked-for-from-dream-theater/

 

The defense

Kevin: https://progarchy.com/2016/02/11/they-cant-stop-thinking-big-dream-theaters-the-astonishing/

Brad: https://progarchy.com/2016/02/10/astonished-dream-theaters-complex-audacity/

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

place2
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.

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.

dt

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!

Astonished: Dream Theater’s Complex Audacity

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

DVemmGk
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.

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

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.

Kudos to Dream Theater (not a review)

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 4.43.26 PM.png
The characters of THE ASTONISHING.

A quick note about the new Dream Theater and the reviews I’ve read this far.  Well, two notes.

First, THE ASTONISHING is one of the most ambitious undertakings for an album I have ever seen.  Not just the music, but the story and everything that accompanies the story.  For attempt alone, DT deserves the highest marks possible.

Second, I’ve seen a lot of reviews mock the story as “Young Adult” and ridiculous.  Yes, names such as Faythe and Gabriel and Emperor Nayfarius are pretty obvious.  But, more so than Darth Vader (Dark Invader) ?

Come on, folks, this form of naming is a fairy-tale convention, and it has been for centuries.  It gives us an immediate knowledge of who is good and who is bad, who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat.  If you want to make fun of the band for this, you’re welcome to, of course, but you’re making fun of one of the longest-lived literary conventions in western civilization.

I’ll have a full review of this album after I’ve had more time to listen to it, but thus far I’m just amazed at the scope of it all.  What a treat.