Review Summary: Twenty-one years in, and Dream Theater still know how to be creative, exciting, and powerful, while still blasting you away with their sheer talent.13 of 13 thought this review was well writtenDream Theater
have been riding an odd wave for the last fifteen years. Since the 1992 release of Images and Words, the band has become the undisputed poster boys for progressive metal. Their unmatchable playing ability, coupled with their powerful melodies and balls-to-the-wall energy have made them the idol of metal heads throughout the world.
And yet, the band’s ride to the top has been fraught with turmoil. Pretty much every single album since Images and Words has been viewed as controversial. Falling Into Infinity was too soft, Train of Thought was too heavy, Scenes From A Memory was too technical, Octavarium wasn’t technical enough… The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, most tend to judge Dream Theater on a completely different scale as most bands, leading to under-appreciation from fans. When you take a step back, you can truly see how incredible this band is.
And so, we reach Systematic Chaos
. For once, we have an album that mixes all the best parts of Dream Theater’s sound. Equal parts heavy and soft, equally restrained and unleashed, both technical and emotional, Systematic Chaos will shatter any pre-conceived notions of Dream Theater you may have brought to the table.
Of course, this is still a Dream Theater CD. You still get the rapidly shifting time signatures, the virtuostic solos, the massive riffs, and the powerful melodies that have made the band famous. However, what makes this CD special is how well everything is integrated into the music. In Train of Thought, the soloing was spectacular, but because of their awkward placement and sheer abundance, the record sounded overclogged. Now, every solo is placed so perfectly that they integrate seamlessly with the music.
The five minute instrumental opening to In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 1
demonstrates the band’s new found understanding of their own music. The opening is riddled with guitar and keyboard solos, but you might not even notice, because everything feels like it’s a natural extension of the song. Another plus is that there are never too many solos. Systematic Chaos really is an album built off of great riffs, and to drown them out would be near criminal.
One of the most noticeable changes on this album is how much darker it is compared to the rest of the band’s discography. It’s not a “heavy” darkness, like on TOT, yet there are plenty of heavy moments throughout. Lead single Constant Motion
screams Metallica, and vocalist James LaBrie’s Hetfield-influenced vocal stylings are definitely noticeable. But it’s so freaking bad-ass and powerful, you won’t care. The song does later regain some progressive elements by the second half, but it’s still primarily a metal song. The same is true (only more-so) for The Dark Eternal Night
, which comes packed full of crunchy riffs and aggressive vocals. Unfortunately, the first three minutes or so are a bit too cheesily faux-aggressive, but the rest of the song works very well.
We do have plenty to go around in the way of softer tracks. Dream Theater finally break their streak of cheesy, sub-par ballads, and put out two of the best slow jams in their career. For starters, we have Repentance
, a near 11 minute minimalist ballad, proving something that has for long been in doubt: Dream Theater can write simple songs. The main riff is based off the quiet section of “This Dying Soul”, but becomes its own piece soon enough. The song is very emotional, and it breaks away from its somewhat slow start to provide plenty of interesting little parts to keep you interested. The CD’s “prime attraction” ballad, however, is clearly The Ministry Of Lost Souls
. It starts off with a giant sweeping orchestral section playing the piece’s main theme, before retiring into a quiet acoustic guitar playing. This piece is definitely surprisingly catchy, with the beautiful chorus of “Remember me, I gave you life, but you would not take it…”. Of course, the piece doesn’t remain a ballad for too long, and by seven minutes in, the thumping drums enter, and the piece turns on its head. Surprisingly, it’ll keep you interested for its entire fifteen minute duration.
Of course, what’s a Dream Theater album without controversy? The main candidates this time around are Forsaken
and Prophets of War
, the former of which is the album’s pop-metal song, and most obvious single. Some might accuse it of being too commercially friendly, but it’s a beautiful piece, and Dream Theater master it. From the quick change from piano to crazy riffage, to Petrucci’s perfectly placed solo, the song accomplishes what it aims for. Prophets of War
follows the new Dream Theater trend of social commentary (first started with The Great Debate on 6DOIT , and continued with In The Name Of God from TOT and Sacrificed Sons from Octavarium), this time tackling the war in Iraq. It sounds a bit cliché, but Dream Theater do it better than anyone else to this point. Sure, at points it’s cheesy, but what makes the song great is that is loves its own cheesiness, and doesn’t ever try to be too overly serious. The high-pitched vocals that enter a minute and a half in (If you’ve heard the song, you know what I mean) are just so wonderfully unexpected, and add to an already great song.
As I have already mentioned, Systematic Chaos is a very dark album. In The Presence of Enemies Pt. 2
, the album’s epic closer, immediately gets the hairs on your arms raised, starting with the sounds of wind, and a very quiet keyboard part from Jordan Rudess complimented by Labrie’s vocals. At 2:21, we finally hear the main theme of Pt. 2 on the piano, and it’s a simple part so dark and dirty, it screams ominous. The piece is, of course, epic, jumping through every sound Dream Theater has become known for, and somehow combining them into one brilliant piece of music. There are so many great riffs throughout, and the lyrics perfectly compliment the dark mood being set. Needless to say, the piece must be heard to understand, because it’s just so brilliant that there are few words to describe it.
Need I even mention the playing ability of these guys? Probably not. But I will say that they’re no slackers on this CD, matching their expected levels of shred, solos, grooves, etc; no one is weak, and everything sounds fantastic. Perhaps even more impressive is how good the CD actually sounds. The production is crystal clear, and you can really hear every instrument throughout (even Myung!) But what really strikes you about Systematic Chaos
is that, after twenty-one years together, Dream Theater
can still re-invent themselves, and release music that is both creative, fulfilling, and deeply emotional. If this is what the band sounds like twenty-one years into their career, I can’t wait to hear what they’ll sound like ten years from now.