Review Summary: Pulling in influences from their one worthy source has proven to be one of the best moves, creatively speaking, that Dream Theater could have ever accomplished. And guess whose name I won’t have to use once.
Dream Theater, while always being that kind of “go to” progressive rock act, have had somewhat of a scattered track record throughout their career. Images and Words
seemed to put them on the map with its progressive rock anthems, Awake
showed their moodier/heavier side, and Scenes from a Memory
introduced their technical gallantry put into the context of an emotional storyline. Then came Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
, which I would consider the center point of their reign, and what many would see as the last great release from this formidable five piece. At this point we see the consensus saying Train of Thought
was too metal, Octavarium
brought nothing of significance to the table, Systematic Chaos
was an identity crisis of sorts, and Black Clouds and Silver Linings
was nearly the redemption this band needed, but ultimately fell short of expectations. From my standpoint the future looked grim, like an uphill battle waiting to turn bloodier than it had already proved to be.
The battle's silver lining didn't seem to become any more visible with the departure of a key member, what many saw as the end of this band as we knew it. For some, hope was lost. For others, myself included, it was seen as a chance for evolutionary progress, but this seemed to be the mindset of the minority. Sitting at the heels of change we could do nothing but wait. And then the wait was finally over, and we could all sit comfortably in our spaces, headphones blocking out the world around us, avoiding rumors and hearsay of the downfall of our beloved Dream Theater, and formulate our own thoughts around this controversial release.
From nervous click of the play button “On the Backs of Angels” seeps into existence. With the subtle guitar line moving into the galloping rhythm I'm reminded of an almost new age “Pull Me Under”. The opening track is as focused as can be, never getting ahead of itself, always keeping restraint on the vision at hand. “Lost Not Forgotten” seems to toy with Dream Theater's legacy of wanking about with their instrumental sections, still keeping the focus in sight, never getting out of hand. “This is the Life” chimes in subtly, sounding like it could be a reincarnation from the Images and Words
era with its positive vibe. Then enters “Bridges in the Sky” with its throaty shaman-like intro, releasing a delightfully familiar beast with the likes of wild instrumentation and dizzying solos. “Outcry” shows us that the experimental prog-metal side is anything but dead, while “Far from Heaven” gives us the friendly, timid ballad we've come to expect over the years. After the closing track “Beneath the Surface” fades out of existence we are left with the satisfaction of knowing that all of the trials and tribulations that took place before this record was released were for the greater good.
I was personally blown away by this album. Not only was it falling in at the tail end of a pretty unimpressive succession of releases, but it had so much pressure behind it that the tension had evolved into a drowning wave of anticipation. What impressed me the most about this record boiled down to three things: performance, production, and songwriting.
Whether or not a particular Dream Theater album was ever loved or despised, the level of the performances could never be denied. LaBrie delivers on the vocal end. While he has had more mixed reviews over the years than the band itself he has always provided the vocals that perfectly compliment this band’s brand of music, and this album is no exception. Mangini expertly carries the momentum of the songs on his shoulders, his years of experience are noticeable, to say the least. Some have bickered that his technique is not as interesting as the drumming done on past Dream Theater albums, and I can't say I totally disagree. While he can scramble through time signatures and tempo shifts like it's his job (which it is) he does use restraint with a lot of his playing, never really going over the top like we are used to hearing. I do notice, however, that this man has the ability to make odd time signatures flow accordingly in a way that I have rarely heard from this band, making the modulations between passages very fluid and comfortable. Rudess carries many of the songs in a way like never before, adding that gorgeous wall of ambiance behind the action that the other members are presenting. He also shows off for us in many of the instrumental passages, adding the familiar sound effects as well as wild leads whizzing in and out between the chaos of the other musicians. Petrucci gives us what we've come to expect with his furious solos, intense rhythms, and even some of his most soulful work, such as the solo near the end of “Lost Not Forgotten” which doesn't require the backing of a rhythm guitar track to make its presence powerful, which I appreciate. Myung gives some of his best work in years on this record whether it be plodding along with the bass drum, adding rhythmic licks just before the onset of another verse, or showing us that his finger work on the fretboard is no less impressive than the guitarist he plays along side. He knows exactly when to stick with the general flow of the music and when to break out and let the limelight shine on him, if only for a moment. Also a noteworthy mention in respect toward Myung is how audible he is on this record, which is more than I have heard in years, which leads me to my next point.
The production set forth on this record is probably some of the most well rounded since the Images and Words
era. Bass is heard every step of the way, keyboards add that extra level of depth that is expected of them, and the guitar tone shows diversity through its clear note-to-note progression as well as its thick chords and chugging rhythms. While the drum production on this album is well done, it does leave a bit to be desired. Despite being the backbone to the music itself it sometimes feels like it's a bit buried in the mix, for lack of a better term. While that, in and of itself, was a minor nitpick I do feel that the overall production presented here is some of the best I've heard in years, as far as Dream Theater goes.
The level of effort put toward the songwriting is where this album really hit home for me. What I find most interesting about this release is that the members seem to utilize themselves as their biggest influence, and it works in a handful of ways. “Build Me Up, Break Me Down” honestly sounds like it could have been one of the few admirable tracks on Systematic Chaos
with its synthesizer driven introduction and backdrop. “Breaking All Illusions” sounds as if it could be refurbished “Learning to Live” with its upbeat nature being the driving force behind it. The almost solemn intro to “Outcry” counteracts the robotic riffs that follow shortly after, like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
and Train of Thought
had some sort of a praise-worthy love child. It’s abundantly clear throughout every twist and turn of this journey of an album that Dream Theater’s biggest influence here isn’t metal riffs, electronic rhythms, or anthem driven rock, but an accumulation of all of those things and the personalized stamp that the band has already laid upon them.
What you’re left with here is simply Dream Theater’s most admirable work since the nineties. It takes the blueprint from every preceding album they’ve recorded, weeds out the bad, utilizes the good, and perfects the questionable. With this release we truly are left with a dramatic turn of events. The band overcame the plague of their recent, questionable track record of album releases, triumphed over the drama shaking them as a whole, and managed to make the comeback we’ve all been waiting for. In the past they’ve earned their name as progressive rock masterminds, and they finally have the album to redeem the title.