Review Summary: Dream Theater has created a good album with many great parts. Train of Thought is engaging, but more interesting is the question of what these skilled musicians could accomplish if they trimmed some of the fat.
Some might call Dream Theater a prog-rock band, or prog-metal, or just plain progressive. I wouldn’t. These musicians are extremely talented at their instruments and they play very technically impressive music, but I dislike the use of the term “progressive” to describe bands like that because despite their skill, they aren’t really making any progress. Tool is progressive. Led Zeppelin was progressive. Black Sabbath, the Beatles, Nirvana… you could even argue that Korn, Faith No More and Blink 182 were progressive due to the large impact they have on the sound of many bands today. But Dream Theater? A good band, sometimes great- not progressive.
Now that their genre is cleared up, I’d like to discuss what most consider to be their heaviest release and some consider to be their best- Train of Thought. I don’t have any of their other albums, so I can’t compare, but in terms of heaviness, this is a pretty heavy record. You won’t see any brutality in the vein of Sepultura, but the bass is a bludgeoning force and you won’t see much melody in the riffs. This isn’t so much head-banging material as it is plain heavy, sort of like Alice in Chains’ grimmer musical moments but with a bit more emphasis on force than on atmosphere.
But a hazard of heaviness is repetition, and Dream Theater succumbs to that quite frequently. We get powerful riffs stacked to the ceiling, but they don’t do a bit of good since they are hard to differentiate without repeated listens. They’re usually pretty good, but there are a large number of quite unmemorable riffs. “Endless Sacrifice” in particular only has two cool riffs, and when you consider that the song is over 11 minutes long, that’s unacceptable. Dream Theater’s heaviness on this album added a menace to their majesty, but at the expense of the progressive side that, as was previously mentioned, the band never really had.
One notable side effect of the heaviness, though, is the bassist’s prominence this time around. Never is he given an opportunity to do anything as audacious as solo, which is unfortunate as we receive two-minute shred-fests from guitarist Petrucci on every song (sometimes even longer). However, he provides a solid rhythmic foundation, and the riffs occasionally acquire dexterity, so he’s not easy to write off. Despite that, he never shines- he is merely good. It’s more than many bassists can claim, but with the increased presence of bass in most prog-rock (Tool, Primus), it’s disappointing that he can’t excel.
We already know what to expect from Petrucci and Portnoy, the guitarist and drummer for the band. Portnoy is an exceptional drummer whose more flamboyant contributions are tastefully applied. He is the only member of the band whose performance on this album I have no complaints about. His lack of fills is made up for by his consistently skillful presence. Petrucci, on the other hand, has gotten a reputation for shredding mindlessly during his solos. This is not substantially incorrect. Hell, it’s absolutely correct. The occasional melodic touches to his solos are not as valuable when you realize that they do not correspond with the backing riff, any previous melody in the song, or fit in any thematic way. That is to say, the solos seem to have been written separately from the rest of the songs. Petrucci is extremely talented, and his solos are never hard to listen to, but his contributions devalue the artistic value of a solo. During these moments, he blatantly directs as much attention to himself as he can, rather than integrating his solos well into the rest of the song. That being said, he is never irritating and he does perform exceptionally on “This Dying Soul.”
The keyboardist’s presence is diminished here, but his contributions are far more tasteful than Petrucci’s occasionally overbearing style. Jazzy touches during “Endless Sacrifice” serve to illustrate his skill far better than any extended soloing might do, although his moment in the limelight during “Stream of Consciousness” is fantastic. However, the times in which he adds an accent to the music rather than taking center stage is always an asset to the band’s advantage. His true moment to shine occurs on “Vacant.” Though LaBrie’s vocals are the focus, the haunting piano line cements the keyboardist’s position as a truly talented musician.
James LaBrie, the vocalist. is by far the weakest member of the band. His vocals are best suited for operatic flourishes like on “In the Name Of God.” However, it is usually inappropriate the rest of the time. His attempts at subtlety or gentleness are mixed too high, ruining his hushed tones. There are several irritating instances of rapping on the album, and a certain part of “This Dying Soul” shows him channeling Les Claypool in an unintentionally humorous way. The main problem is that his voice is too high to pull off what the band requires him to do, and when he attempts a Bruce Dickinson-like gravitas, his voice is too thin to handle it. His lyrics are quite unsophisticated as well. At times, the simplicity works (“Vacant”), sometimes it’s OK, (“In the Name Of God”) and quite frequently it is poor (“As I Am,” “Honor Thy Father”).
However, the problems with the musicians’ prowess are hardly the first flaws that come to mind. The most significant fault lies with the entire creative process that leads to this music. With the exception of LaBrie, these guys would be a fantastic cover band, but when it comes to covering their own arrangements, they’re terrible. Why? They lack restraints. Riffs are repeated more times than are necessary. The solos are ludicrously over-extended, and during some of them, the bass is mixed higher than the actual shredding. To their credit, these guys know how to arrange a song, but the songs go on and on as if simply to boast a long running time. The band has never used a producer on any of its albums (other than the typical Produced by Dream Theater credit), and this is a terrible mistake. They need somebody to give them a bit more focus. Powerful songs like “This Dying Soul” are devastated by the mixed pretentiousness and sloppiness that went into their completion.
Unsurprisingly, the focused moments are the album’s glory. “Vacant” is a beautiful, minimalist portrait of frustration and love. “Stream Of Consciousness” is almost uniformly excellent, boasting consistency (if not quality) in the vein of Metallica’s “Orion.” “Honor Thy Father” has an extremely overdramatic, yet still wonderful, section using sampled dialogue from the film Magnolia. “As I Am” gets the album off to a great and comparatively concise part. Were the standout moments (of which there are many) on these epic compositions condensed into the length of “As I Am” while retaining their complex structures, this album would be great. The band’s capacity for innovative songwriting is low, but they make up for it with technicality, power and conviction. This would be a great 50-minute album, but at nearly 70 it’s occasionally tedious.
Don’t get me wrong. Train of Thought is an enjoyable album and I like listening to specific songs. But I can’t help but feeling that Dream Theater is so far wasting their potential. If they keep their egos in check, work on LaBrie’s vocal performance, and judiciously edit their compositions, they could be a great technical metal band. As it stands, they are only good, and that’s what disappoints me about this album. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but they need to work for it.