dream theater the astonishing

Album Review: Dream Theater – The Astonishing

To limit this review was a daunting task, almost as daunting as listening to it in its entirety. But nonetheless, it felt necessary to give my two cents on the most anticipated and fan-dividing album of the year: progressive metal giants Dream Theater’s concept double album “The Astonishing.” It seems everyone has something to say about this one, at polar opposite ends of appreciation. I’ve read both harsh contempt and deifying praise for “The Astonishing,” which has only confused my expectations. But after two listens to this album lasting over two hours, I have finally formed an opinion. And where do I stand, you ask? Somewhere in the middle.

“The Astonishing” is truly remarkable considering its size and scope. I like to think of all of the what I call “mega-concepts” ever made, being concept albums lasting over a span of multiple albums. Older albums like Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” and The Who’s “Quadrophenia” come to mind quickly, cinematic and operatic in nature. This album falls right in line with the others, being less of a metal album and more of a soundtrack instead. Something about these mega-concepts bring out a lighter, dramatic side of the bands performing them, which Dream Theater succumbs to here. There is a noticeable lack of shredding, instrumental duels between different members, or keyboard-driven wankery of the Wizard, but they’re not altogether absent. Instead, this album relies heavily on two members: singer James LaBrie and pianist (not keyboardist) Jordan Rudess.

Singer LaBrie gives the performance of his career in “The Astonishing,” probably one of his better showings in their long discography. Being coached by lyricist/guitarist (and creator of the concept) John Petrucci, LaBrie provides different vocal deliveries for each character in the concept, approaching each set of lyrics as the character would. I admit sometimes it’s hard to tell which character is talking, but in some cases the deliveries are quite noticeable. The ponderings of Lord Nafaryus in “Nafaryus” and the conversation between its two main characters in the following song “A Savior In The Square” are spot-on, with the antagonist’s snarl and protagonist’s hopeful voice. There are other instances throughout “The Astonishing” that LaBrie’s vocals shines, particular in notable piano arrangements by Rudess. Something I particularly enjoyed about this album is the increased piano presence compared to the over-the-top keyboard effects. The piano is something that isn’t particularly focused on in prior work, so it becomes a breath of fresh air after listening to older albums like “Train of Thought” and “Black Clouds and Silver Linings.”

dream theater james labrie
Photo by TeamRock

As for the remaining instruments, they are basically left in the background. There are moments when guitar chords and soloing are brought to light, but not nearly as focused as in other albums. In fact, I was surprised by the lack of bass guitar and drums on “The Astonishing.” John Myung’s bass rhythms are always complementing Petrucci’s ridiculously fast guitar solos, but are not given the opportunity in the more piano-centric album. In addition, drummer Mike Mangini feels left out on every album he’s played on, instead used as a pendulum for the others. I would never think in my years of listening to Dream Theater that one of its members would be used in a way that didn’t accurately portray their talents, but Mangini’s contributions to “The Astonishing” (and to a lesser extent their previous self-titled album) leave much to be desired. If only Mangini was used to strengthen dramatic moments in the album’s concept, it would provide another needed dimension.

As for the album’s concept, it’s a longwinded tale about a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, kingdoms and rebels, saviors and the importance of music. Cheesy indeed, following the current trend of young adult, sci-fi movies. Honestly, I haven’t been able to tackle this beast in my two listens through, so I will have to leave this for you all to figure out. Ten bonus points to those that can comment below and summarize the album’s concept. What I have noticed is that much of the album’s lyrics are quite predictable, following similes and metaphors written by infinite others bands (like a phoenix rising from ashes, David versus Goliath, etc.). In this case, though, it serves as a positive in tackling the album’s concept, making it much more approachable and relatable.

An album with 34 songs, it was hard to pick which songs rise above the others. Since a majority of them follow the same flavor of orchestral, cinematic vocals and piano arrangements, I had a hard time deciphering which song was which. Much of the album uses repetitious arrangements to string the songs together, which doesn’t help matters. With that said, I can think of two that stand out: the single “The Gift of Music” and “The Path That Divides.” I feel these two stand out to me the most because they remind me so much of the culmination of their sound. Reading so many arguments about what influenced the album’s sound, I can definitely hear moments of albums like “Awake” and “Falling Into Infinity,” while at the same time hearing newer albums like “A Dramatic Turn of Events” and “Dream Theater.”

Despite the positives and negatives, praise and scorn, there is one pressing matter about “The Astonishing,” the elephant in the room: Who has time to listen to a two hour, eleven minute album nowadays? Since its release on Thursday evening/Friday morning, I’ve listened to “The Astonishing” a total of two times over several interrupted listens. With a wife, a child, a job, and a time-consuming hobby, I have little left in my day to devote to anything, let alone listening to an album longer than most movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love long albums, especially long concept albums. “Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise” by The Dear Hunter is a notable 74 minute album, while “Good Apollo Volume I” by Coheed and Cambria is a breathtaking 71 minutes of your day. But devoting 130 minutes to anything is absolutely insane. The worst part is despite the cries of filler material in this album, nothing could be taken away without sacrificing its quality. As much as I’d love for this album to elapse over one album instead of two, every song is essential. This format might work perfectly in a live setting, but I simply don’t have enough time to listen to “The Astonishing” in its entirety. This album will be one of those that one act will be listened to more than another.

dream theater
Photo by Rockhard

To summarize my thoughts of this album, I’ll answer these three important questions:

Is it better than their last self-titled album? Absolutely, since I considered it one of their worst they’ve ever released.

Is it their best album? Absolutely not. Nothing can (and will ever) touch “Metropolis Part II.”

Is it worth listening to? If you have the time and patience, of course!

So do give the ol’ college try on “The Astonishing.” I won’t be cliché and say it’s astonishing, but I will say that Dream Theater left everything on the table with this album. With its positives and negatives, they weren’t afraid to pour their soul and push the boundaries of progressive metal. Please support Dream Theater’s “The Astonishing” by purchasing it through their website, and by following them on Facebook and Twitter for band updates. They are currently preparing for a tour across North America in support, which I hope to see in Los Angeles soon.

 

3 thoughts on “Album Review: Dream Theater – The Astonishing

  1. I am like you in that I just don’t have the time to sit and listen to the full album as i’ve done with all other Dream Theater releases but I have had it playing in the background and have gotten through it all at least once. What I can say about it is it seems to be much more story driven than music driven. I have definitely heard a couple hooks and melodies I want to revisit and I’ve paid very little attention to lyrics at this point which is not to sai haven’t paid attention, I just haven’t really tried to follow the story. I liked how SFAM seemed to have a cohesive musical arrangement with lyrics written around the music to deliver the message and move the story, as though they had a theme or a plot and needed to write lyrics to fit in. This to me feels more like a screenplay that they had to write music for and as much was said by JP who described character development and story arc as writing on planes and busses between shows. I am not being critical of this method or the end result, only pointing out it’s a different approach than DT typically takes and it’s evident in the finished product, especially with some of the lyrical phrasing. I do like the album and like you I’m anxious to see the live product because I think I remember hearing they have a fairly elaborate visual to go along with the performance.

  2. I commend Dream Theater for getting outside their comfort zone and trying something truly new. I felt that had been retreading well trod ground since Scenes From A Memory and things had grown very stale. I’d prefer they try something new like this, and perhaps fail, than just get regrugitating stuff they’ve already done.

    And major, major props to James LaBrie. He does indeed give the performance of a lifetime; his vocal is easily the highlight of the entire work. Unfortunatley, the materail he’s given to work with is lacking in many way. What ways? Well, let’s count them:

    1. Lyrics: simply they are embarrassing. Petrucci has no sense of subtlety, with wholly literal lyrics that renders the storey-telling dull. I find myself cringing at the junior-level lyrics frequently throughout the album.
    2. Structure: concept albums are problematical because the artist’s are telling a story and that often means standard song structures don’t apply. Instead you often get bits and pieces of music that, on their own, don’t really stand up very well. Great concept albums, however, make this a strength by stitching the bits and pieces together in creative, pleasing ways. DT’s own Scenes album does this; The Wall and Operation Mindcrime are other good examples. Both use spoken-word or media snippets to not only transition from one piece to the next effectively but also supplement the story-telling. All of that is completely absent in The Astonishing. Instead we get dozens of musical snippets that often randomly organized; transitions are clunky or startling. The whole of a great concept album is better than the sum of its pieces whereas here the sum is less.
    3. No songs. Another key to most concept albums is while there are musical bits here and there there’s also some great stand-alone songs. Comfortably Numb and Eyes of a Stranger for example. I’m not sure ANY of the songs here are anything better than meh on their own. Which means you need to listen to a 2 hour plus piece to hear it in its most pleasant setting…and who can do that?
    4. Where’s the climax? I’ve listened six times….and whle disc one makes sense to me I have no idea what’s going on in Act Two. There is no climactic song or moment. EVERY great concept album has this. Suite Sister Mary, Comfortably Numb, the “perimeter walk” section of Blind Curve from Misplaced Childhood…I could go on and on. It’s just not here in the Astonishing.
    5. Finally,. as this review mentions…this is largely a 2.5 person album. I feel like it’s a Petrucci / Rudess album and LaBrie is featured. Myung and Mangini, as great as they are, have nothing more than a hired hand role and that is sad considering DT’s roots.

    All in all….again, I give credit for trying. But in the end a failure. I can’t imagine after digesting this a few more times really ever listening to the Astonishing or even individual songs from it.

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