Review Summary: Systematic Chaos is Dream Theater’s attempt to do what they’re just not very good at.
During the production of Falling Into Infinity
, Elektra Records pressured Dream Theater to make the record more commercial, in an attempt to attract more listeners. The strategy backfired, however, as the album was met with mostly negative reviews and did not sell well. The record label, realizing their mistake, gave the band freedom to do whatever they wished with their next record. The result was Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory
, a concept album that received overwhelming praise and garnered much attention. Following that album’s success was Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
, which featured a forty-two minute song and began the hour-long Twelve-step Suite. It had become clear that Dream Theater’s greatest strength was in concepts and longer tracks, with impressive musicianship serving best as a way to keep the listener’s interest throughout lengthy passages.
Still, this didn’t stop the band from achieving success with Train of Thought
, a heavier album inspired by the work of classic metal groups such as Iron Maiden and Metallica. Taking cues from those influences, Dream Theater managed to create an album with strong individual tracks. Octavarium
, the band’s next effort, was essentially the opposite; while a few songs were somewhat weak, the album worked as a whole because it had this wonderful
concept to it, wrapped up nicely with a twenty-four minute track.
And then, for one reason or another, the quintet suddenly stopped doing what worked so well for them. Systematic Chaos
had no unifying theme or concept; separate tracks were now given priority. But unlike Train of Thought
, which also focused on individual songs, Systematic Chaos
features songwriting that ranges from lackluster to mediocre. One of the worst offenders is Forsaken
, a song with almost no redeeming qualities except for a fairly nice piano intro. Longer songs, unlike those in Dream Theater’s previous albums, are also lacking in entertainment; the only interesting track over ten minutes is Repentance
, and this is only because of its involvement in the Twelve-step Suite. A few passages, such as the verses of Constant Motion
and the intro of The Dark Eternal Night
, do manage to capture some attention. However, there is not one full song on the album that ranks among Dream Theater’s best material.
The speedy and technical instrumental work is present as always, but it doesn't add any value to the album this time around; in fact, one might say that it is out of place. In older albums, blistering guitar solos and swift drum fills were not only welcomed, but arguably also necessary. Without them, many listeners might not have had the patience to sit through any song over ten minutes; therefore, they had an important role in strengthening longer tracks. Ironically, on Systematic Chaos
, shorter songs like The Dark Eternal Night
seem to contain most of the technical passages, while longer ones such as Repentance
have fewer. As a result, many of the album’s instrumental sections can be perceived as unnecessary, and several seem to be thrown in as an afterthought.
Also seeming out of place is the vocal work of James LaBrie. While his voice is often a subject of criticism, the man is not a bad singer; his voice is consistent at a high range and he knows how to carry a melody. The main problem is that he is not really suited for Dream Theater. During the golden days of Images and Words
, LaBrie was an ideal choice for the band, selected only after over two hundred other aspiring vocalists were rejected. Even his food poisoning incident in late 1994 did not set him back too much, as his voice would fully recover in time for the release of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
. However, while the rest of the band was rapidly changing in style on Train of Thought
and then Octavarium
, LaBrie’s vocal style stayed largely the same. The inevitable consequence was that by the time Systematic Chaos
was released, the vocals seemed to be dull and uninspired along with the rest of the album, especially on tracks like In the Presence of Enemies
and Prophets of War
In short, this album is the result of Dream Theater doing what they don’t really know how to do: creating a listener-friendly, individual song-based album. Fortunately, however, most of the problems present in Systematic Chaos
have been fixed in Black Clouds & Silver Linings
, the band’s most recent effort. After yet another drastic change in style, one can only wonder what the band will choose to do next.