Review Summary: They may change, but they sure won't progress.
It should be obvious that Dream Theater is no longer the band they used to be. In the first 15 years they made music, it was still original, modest, and each of the member's technical virtuosity was still acceptable. Their songwriting abilities and individual makeup of each of their albums were also well balanced, and as a result you would have brilliant albums, such as Images and Words, Awake, and Scenes From a Memory, their magnum opus.
But the years since Scenes have changed for Dream Theater. As they went further into their careers, their works began lose something. The group was growing less original and more indulgent, which is a very bad combination. More recent albums, such as Train of Thought, Octavarium, and Systematic Chaos began to sound more generic, over the top, and showed extreme Petrucci-Portnoy dominance in the songwriting. The result was degrading material. And it has been happening for over a decade.
So, what is to be expected of their newest self titled album? If you are looking for something as good as Scenes From a Memory or Images and Words, you probably won't find it in this album. However, Dream Theater is doing a few things differently. One: there are two instrumentals in this album. Not since the last studio album, Train of Thought has there ever been a single instrumental since. Perhaps that may be good news. Two: this is the first DT album under 70 minutes of material in over 10 years. This fact gave me a hopeful sign of Dream Theater finally taking back control of balance between virtuosity and modesty.
Upon hearing the first few songs, I was now given some hope, but also more doubt that Dream Theater would sound bad. The mixing and production of this album is already the first issue at hand. It immediately dulls the quality of single The Enemy Inside, and the impressive drumming of Mike Mangini, who now plays a more important role in this album. However, reassurance returns when shorter songs such as Along for the Ride, The Looking Glass, and Surrender to Reason give off themes, sounds, and vibes that return to the old days of Change of Seasons, Awake, and most importantly, Images and Words. One of a few high points saving them this time so far.
Dream Theater's self-titled album has been both troubling and still giving off signs of hope and progress in comparison to A Dramatic Turn of Events. However, here's the tip off point. Petrucci may be saying that the whole writing process is fully integrated now. True, yet so false. Upon looking at the who wrote the lyrics for the self titled album, it appears that every song except for the instrumentals and Surrender to Reason are written all by John Petrucci. So, about the words integrated. Does that explain why most of the lyrics are uninteresting or rehashes of older DT songs? The only song with actual interesting lines in general is Surrender to Reason, whose lyrics are coincidently written by John Myung. Seems that DT's bassist always has it right when others don't. That isn't the only aspect of this album Dream Theater got right.
The impressive drumming performance by Mike Mangini is also a bright spot in the album. This is because Petrucci hadn't written the drum lines this time around. So, Mangini, no matter what, created something far more interesting in the self titled album compared to A Dramatic Turn of Events. Plus, John Myung's role as a bassist has always been exiting and that is just about good enough for not just any DT fan, but also just any prog metal fan. However, there is still issues with this album.
It would be ridiculous to let yourself drift away to the newest album without having paid attention to the ambivalent selection of a keyboard sounds by Jordan Rudess. There are some applications that are pretty impressive, but most of them are either average or just drag the overall quality of the album itself. While average may not describe Petrucci's guitar performance, slightly repetitive does. Yes, the usual extravagant virtuoso passages of exhilaration are once again back for the hundredth time, and while nothing changes...nothing bad happens to Petrucci's role as a guitarist either. In other words, the overall musicianship really doesn't advance in any groundbreaking manner.
Once again, it's been over a decade since Dream Theater has created a studio instrumental and 3 years since they've created a song over 20 minutes. Once again, for the first time in a long time, three songs: two of them being instrumentals and the other a 22 minute epic by the name of The Illumination Theory, are provided, and each of them sound very good. The keyboard selection in these three songs is particularly better compared to the rest of the album and the creativity that was lost in A Dramatic Turn of Events has been compensated in this epic. In fact, The Illumination Theory along with Enigma Machine saved the entire album from being average or worse. Why? Because the Enigma Machine is a power-surged piece that is executed in a very similar way to that of instrumental sections in parts of Scenes of a Memory. And The Illumination Theory is a comeback that DT desperately needed to bring back a reputation and the concept that actually sounds pretty solid. All the reason the self-titled album doesn't end up being a disaster.
All in all, Dream Theater was basically split into two areas: one area that was well played and spent, the other, in quite a bit of a mess. The group once again nailed the instrumentals and created a well done epic. Mangini's drumming performance was very much improved. DT made some changes. However, the self titled album is also torn down by a Petrucci's tyranny in the songwriting and production, which as a result makes the album also sound disturbingly bad. There was once again a lack of good integration, originality, or modesty for that matter. If it weren't for a few standout songs, this album could've easily been a dud. To conclude, Dream Theater may change, but they sure won't progress.