Review Summary: Perhaps they should be looking less to their contemporaries and more to their own back catalogue for inspiration.
Remember the days when progressive music was actually progressive? When bands such as Genesis, Camel and Pink Floyd were genuinely breaking down barriers and setting new limits for the standard three and a half minute sing-along that reverberated from every five and dime record store? It was all about music as an art form, challenging the idea of the pop song and creating an atmosphere that was befitting of the concept.
While some bands entered the new millennium with this notion still in mind, others simply began watering down the genre with unnecessarily long compositions that relied solely on technical prowess. There are not many better examples of this than Dream Theater’s 2007 release Systematic Chaos
. For a band that once released progressive metal classics such as Images and Words
and Scenes from a Memory
, this is really a poor effort. On the surface there may not appear to be a huge difference between this and the aforementioned classics but digging deeper reveals flaws that really detract from the listening experience.
For starters (and let’s just get this one out of the way) there’s the mind-numbing guitar noodling that constitutes a large portion of the album. Whereas on past Dream Theater albums this was at least somewhat impressive, here it is just tastelessly used. For a good example, just look to the pointless heavy section in the 15 minute “The Ministry of Lost Souls.” A symphonic ballad that, although rather corny, features some of the best moments on the album until it suddenly turns into a barrage of guitar solos. This continues into the second part of “In the Presence of Enemies,” where a good five minutes are taken up by a needless instrumental section. It is moments like these that ruin any momentum the album had going for it, especially in terms of any kind of emotion or atmosphere.
To be honest, though, it’s in the vocal-led sections that Systematic Chaos
really struggles. James LaBrie’s vocals have been criticised at the best of times (no pun intended) but here they are really below-par. He sings without conviction and the many dark themes the album deals with are not at all suited to his vocal-style. Mike Portnoy’s laughable attempt at harsh vocals on “The Dark Eternal Night” is just the cherry on top. Dream Theater are at their best when they play to their strengths, which is in the lighter, more rock influenced side of progressive metal. Here, they go for a sound strongly influenced by Between the Buried and Me in an attempt to mix heavier, harsh-vocal-led sections with outlandish, off the wall progressive elements. Sadly, this doesn’t work at all and comes off sounding like the band trying to be something they’re not. The same can be said of “Prophets of War” which, despite the admittedly clever title, is nothing more than a bad Muse rip-off. This is probably the album’s lowest point and a low-point in the group’s discography in general.
If this all wasn’t bad enough, the lyrics are what really cap it off. Dream Theater have never been terrific lyricists but they’ve always sought to keep things interesting, such as the concept behind Scenes from a Memory
or the religious theme of a song like “Lines in the Sand.” On Systematic Chaos
, however, the lyrics are simply inane. Again, this can be attributed to the band’s change in style – they seem to have been inspired by the gothic, occult themes found on Opeth’s Ghost Reveries
. But where that album succeeded by conveying its story through the haunting music accompanying it, Dream Theater fail through their self-indulgence and an awkward delivery of the lyrics from James LaBrie. No thought seems to have gone into how the music and lyrics interconnect and instead of complimenting each other they sound completely out-of-place. It’s hard not to laugh at a line like “Eager to explore / His most shocking mysteries” when it sounds as clumsy as it does.
In spite of everything, there is good in this record. Even though songs like “Constant Motion” and “The Dark Eternal Night” sound cheesy as hell most of the time, they contain some undeniably awesome riffs that are just too fun not to rock out to. Other songs such as “Forsaken” and the first half of “The Ministry of Lost Souls” are catchy and actually quite enjoyable in parts. But in every track there comes a point where the appeal is lost completely, halting momentum and ultimately ruining the song.
encompasses everything that is wrong with Dream Theater and modern progressive music. Unnecessary technical displays, emotionless vocals, and incompetent lyrics ensure that this will be regarded as a low point for a band capable of so much more. In their search for improvement, they should perhaps be looking less to their contemporaries and more to their own back catalogue for inspiration.