(Before reading this review I would like to remind everyone here that I am a big fanboy of this band and urge readers to take my superlatives with a small grain of salt)
Dream Theater... talk about wankery. Like almost every band that calls themselves progressive these days, these guys indulge in insane time signatures, extraneous solos, illogical vocal lines, cryptic lyrics, and over-the-top complex song structures. Dream Theater got stamped as progressive for a reason. And guess what: they're actually good at what they do, and although in my mind every album these guys release has been excellent so far, this one is another masterpiece of outstanding class.
No, I'm not reviewing Scenes.
But I still think that this is an excellent disc. It got scolded a lot for being heavier than the usual Dream Theater sound, and for the length of the songs (of which five breach the 10 minute mark) making for unenjoyable songs and too much wankery. And guess what: you forgot the essence of what this band is all about, if you gave that as a criticism. You may still not like the album, but Dream Theater are, and always will be, a league ahead of any other progressive band in my opinion, because here again, they do not stand still for one moment.
The sound is indeed heavier. It's indeed more like Metallica gone prog than Rush gone metal. But there always was a definite metal edge to this band. Whereas on previous albums, this sound was featured more sparingly, on ToT the band goes all-out on bone-crushing riffs, shredded solos, and other extraterrestrial forms of musical heaviness. Portnoy's double bass drum patterns are masterful and well executed, and despite that he never bores because he never recycles his fills: every part of the kit he hits, is different from the next. It never gets old or the same.
But Portnoy, despite giving another drum masterclass to all the aspiring power/thrash metal double bass whackers out there, is inferior to what Petrucci manages to display on this album. Every song that is not Vacant has a big stamp with JP's signature written all over it. His riffs are everywhere, ramming stuff that Metallica wishes they could write down your throat. His solos are the epitome of speed and technicality. Yeah, sure, they are sometimes a little too much here(hence the 4.5 rating), and even I get the feeling that they go into the territory of soloing for the sake of it. Nevertheless, he still justifies that he is one of the people that deserves to be called one of the best guitarists out there.
Jordan Rudess is less prominent on this record, while being no less influential, but he supports here rather than he takes the spotlight (except on that gorgeous solo on In The Name of God.) He still manages to show off some high-class stuff, this just isn't his record to shine: this is more Dream Theater playing balls to the wall heavy metal. Oh well, that's what you get when you cover Metallica and Iron Maiden on tour.
James LaBrie, who does have a tendency to sound rather iffy on some songs, is flawless here. Not one note is offkey or in an erratic pitch. Sure, he goes into rap territory on This Dying Soul (make of that what you will), but it's an excellent display. The guy can sing, he sometimes fails to deliver is the problem. But when this band decides to unite all their talents and create a real song, it's when the band truly realises its potential as a band that can be more than the sum of their parts.
And on five out of seven songs, the band does just that. Stream Of Consciousness is an insane ten minute instrumental track breaching every boundary of human technicality ever set. Going from soft parts to frantic soloing to riffs that make you cower and hug the wall, it's all there on this track. Honor Thy Father is a barrage of drums and riffs with some angry vocals thrown into the mix. A direct attack by Portnoy on his stepfather, the whole song is a display of technicality and aggression, with some crooked voice-overs thrown into the mix to just top it all off.
Endless Sacrifice is the typical "soft beginning, wall of noise end" song, beginning with a quiet guitar intro, but ending with some frantic riffs and screeched vocals. The complex song structure also provides it with an extra boost, because first they don't do the chorus, then they do half of it, and only at the end do they ram it down your throat. I guess 20 rhythm changes per track have to be your thing, but Dream Theater pull it off on every record...and would twiddle their thumbs doing it. Again, technical excellence is combined with good songwriting showing why Dream Theater want to be called the best progressive metal band on earth, end story. They're ambitious. And the last track proves that again, because a fourteen-minute epic criticising organised religion plus technical soloing plus some kickass riffing is not your everyday song, and again, there's few other than this band who could pull it off everytime. And the sick thing is: you'd bet they'd not be able to do it live. But they can, and they do. I will never understand how Rudess and Petrucci manage to solo like that at the same time, and never get out of synch or hit a wrong note.
Of course, every Dream Theater album, as always, has tracks that are subpar, cheesy, or in any other way a statement of wankery in epic proportions. As I Am is an overly cheesy display of "Look at us, we are metalheads and you better let us be just that". The solo at the end nearly kills the song. The worst song on the album, no doubt about it: and then I still like it a lot.
Vacant is the typical ballad. Although the subject matter is quite inspiring, and the piano/cello combination is pulled off with aplomb, it kind of fails to grip, at its very imposing (not) length of under three minutes. I guess it was just thrown in there as a track that would serve as a breather from all the progressive heavy metal noise coming out of your speakers for the other six tracks. I guess it's decent. At the very least, it hasn't got the insane cheese factor of The Answer Lies Within.
Overall, where does this rank among the DT albums? Well, it's not as good as Images And Words, or Scenes from a Memory, because those two records in my opinion are the ultimate displays of prog metal class. But it can hold its own against any other disc in the DT catalogue, and especially for people coming from the heavy metal side of music, this is your gateway into Dream Theater. Prog purists might dislike it for its all-out heavy metal approach. I appreciate the band however, for remaining Dream Theater and again doing something different, taking their standard sound and doing something new and refreshing with it. In a world full of boring clones, Dream Theater is just one of those bands for me that never fail to cease to amaze me. A highly recommended album and a highly recommended band to check out.