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.”
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.
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.