Review Summary: With a new sense of focus and a slight change in sound, Dream Theater manages to be a highly enjoyable album from a band still writing great progressive metal music thirty years into their career.
Dream Theater has slowly been gaining more and more mainstream recognition throughout their amazingly long career. In 2010, the departure of founding member Mike Portnoy caused huge media attention, and called into question if the band was finally over. After a rigorous search, they found Berklee College of Music graduate Mike Mangini, and released A Dramatic Turn of Events a year later. While selling well, it was a sporadic, uneven listen; full of horribly painful ballads, and a few great progressive metal songs they’ve become known for. The drumming wasn’t as creative as Portnoy’s, but Mangini held his own nonetheless.
Their latest release, self-titled Dream Theater, is a surprisingly enjoyable and well-made album. The progressive wankery shoved into all their previous records has been restrained in favor of improved and more consistent songwriting. The average song length is six minutes, a first for this band, with the only track exceeding eight minutes being the epic twenty-two minute Illumination Theory, bringing 2005’s Octavarium to mind. But while Octavarium had some amazing moments (mainly in the last song, Octavarium), it was overall safe and full of inconsistent songwriting, as with all their albums since.
Dream Theater seems comfortable with writing a couple ballads per album, one or two heavy songs (Panic Attack on Octavarium, The Dark Eternal Night on 2007’s Systematic Chaos), a few mainstream “rocky” songs, and the progressive epics (A Change of Seasons, Octavarium). Each album would awkwardly alternate between these, and the ballads and attempts at mainstream heavy rock songs were usually cheesy and full of “influences” from other bands. With Dream Theater, they finally do away with this jarring and amateurish approach to their albums and instead focus on a consistent Dream Theater record, while still encompassing their musical influences.
The instrumentation is top notch as always, as these are former Berklee students having been universally regarded as virtuoso musicians ever since the release of Images & Words over twenty years ago. However, the musical masturbation of previous albums has been toned down in favor of more tightly focused songwriting, like with the decision to have most songs be around six or seven minutes in length. New drummer Mike Mangini drums more creatively than on the previous album, now “fully integrated in the writing process” (Guitarist John Petrucci). He doesn’t reach the musical heights of Mike Portnoy, but it fits in well with the music. John Petrucci surprisingly attempts to replicate his playing technique from their breakthrough hit Images & Words (1992) with moderate success by using far more suspended chords and heavy low E-string guitar riffing seen on their albums in twenty years. The bass guitar thankfully gets slightly more recognition than on past albums, deservedly so, as John Myung has proven time and time again his ridiculous skill on the bass. Jordan Rudess shines as he always does, tearing through keyboard licks with each song, and providing synth atmospheres when needed. James LaBrie sounds the same as he always does, his voice soaring through the songs, and just like every other DT album, never quite fitting in with the music.
False Awakening Suite kicks things off as a decent three minute instrumental, briefly going over the sounds of the album to come. The album’s lead single, The Enemy Inside, is a straightforward metal song, and another album highlight. The Looking Glass is an inspirational sounding rocker, and another enjoyable listen. Enigma Machine, the highly anticipated instrumental of the album doesn’t disappoint. Full of soloing and heavy riffing, harkening back to Stream of Consciousness from 2003’s Train of Thought, this is one of the best songs on the CD.
The most interesting songs on Dream Theater are tracks five, six, and seven, The Bigger Picture, Behind The Veil, and Surrender To Reason, simply because of how they begin. They all trick the listener into thinking “Oh no, another painful Dream Theater ballad,” within the first few minutes. However, unlike any Dream Theater ballad before, heavy guitars and rocking drums kick in, and they all build to a roaring crescendo of sound, making them the most refreshing sounding Dream Theater songs in a long time. The second single on the album, Along for the Ride, is the only straight-forward ballad on the record.
The last song, Illumination Theory, contains five movements, in typical pretentious Dream Theater fashion. While enjoyable to listen to, it certainly doesn’t reach the genius, musically life-changing levels of previous epics Octavarium or A Change of Seasons. It sounds more like album closer The Count of Tuscany from 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings. They both have fast, heavy beginnings, an obnoxiously long soundscape in the middle, and a heavy, inspirational sounding outro. The problem with both of these songs (and most of their songs in general) is that the lyrics are so unclever and blatantly obvious that they completely ruin the epic sounding music, especially at the end. Even after 30+ years writing and playing music, this band still can’t seem to write lyrics that don’t make most people want to smash their heads on a wall. They’re so obnoxiously cheesy and obvious, and it isn’t more prevalent than on these recent epics, that while being good songs, get pulled down by the real meaning of the song itself in the lyrics.
This band has released twelve albums in their long and interesting career, so we don’t really expect them to reinvent progressive metal every couple years the way they did in the 1990’s. None of the songs on this record quite reach the amazing musical heights or have any real slam dunk moments that almost all previous albums had, but it’s more accessible and enjoyable, and manages to pull off a few surprises nonetheless. Dream Theater doesn’t break any new ground, but it doesn’t need to. It’s the most enjoyable and well put together record this band has released in a decade.