Review Summary: Streamlined and better focused, but at a cost.
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, filled with too many ballads, and a few progressive metal epics as usual. The drumming wasn’t as creative as Portnoy’s, but Mangini held his own nonetheless. It was a refreshing listen and a welcome change in musical direction, which this latest release solidifies by continuing in the same vein.
Dream Theater is perhaps the group's most surprisingly cohesive release. 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 around the six minute mark, 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. While these epic finales have remained motifs for a decade now, it is the most familiar element of DT that remains. The point is that they finally did away with this jarring and amateurish songwriting approach to instead focus on just making a consistent prog record, while still encompassing their musical influences and overall identity.
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, which means more conventional song structures. This serves as a blessing and a curse. Yes, these function to sound like real songs as opposed to over-the-top wankery, but something is lost in the process. It makes the band sound like they're out of ideas, and makes for a streamlined, yet bland result. Along for the Ride acts as one of their safest and most uneventful ballads yet, and opener instrumental False Awakening Suite seems slightly unnecessary and really goes nowhere. 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.
Mike Mangini drums more creatively than on the previous album, now “fully integrated in the writing process” (Guitarist John Petrucci). While he ends up being a band highlight on Dream Theater, he can't save the bland sound when the lead instruments just sound like they're going through the motions. Various elements sound familiar, and almost come across as being recycled from previous releases. The Looking Glass serves as an obvious tribute to Limelight by Rush, and ends up taking the influenced sound a bit too far. The album’s lead single, The Enemy Inside, is a straightforward metal song with some of the band's worst lyrics yet, shown in this gem, "The pain is real like a cut that bleeds." The band has struggled to write half-way decent lyrics for a while now, but Dream Theater really sees them scraping the bottom of the barrel.
The middle tracks are the album highlights, high on the cheese factor but also on enjoyment. Elements of Dream Theater's ballads and progressive rock throwbacks are meshed together, and for the most part are successful. While not among the best DT has put out in recent years, they act as the most refreshing sounding Dream Theater songs in a long time. I like to think they represent the direction of where the band will go on from here. DT has released twelve albums in their impressive career, so we don’t really expect them to reinvent progressive metal every couple years the way they did in the 1990’s. Nonetheless, Dream Theater will stand as a flawed but enjoyable entry into DT's more modern, accessible phase of their career.