Review Summary: Superlative musicians remember thay still need to write songs in order to display quite how good they are, but the album never quite becomes a classic, remaining an excellent album throughout.
Musicianship can be a double edged sword. Whilst it can give you the capability of playing and writing songs beyond the abilities of mere mortals, it can blind you to the basics, the foundations upon which everything is based. Without these basics, the songs you form, no matter what your superhuman abilities, will crumble and be forgotten.
Thankfully, for the most part Dream Theatre have realised this. Though they are all incredible musicians, it is only every now and again that they let this get in the way of the music. Then again, when you're writing an album whose average song length is just under 10 minutes (bought bown by one 3 minute song), you've got plenty of time to do whatever you wish.
All the tracks are really very heavy indeed. Since all i'd heard of this band before was Images and Words, it was a bit of a shock to come into As I Am and hear its brutal riff. The atmospherics are brilliant, and this is where Dream Theatre's knowledge of musical theory comes into play. The excellent tonality created by their scale choices set a great mood for the album. Be it middle eastern tinged (This Dying Soul, The Name of God) or more western orientated (This Dying Soul again, Endless Sacrifice), the tonality of the album creates an excellent and varied feel throughout.
It's a pity that this variation doesn't show through with Petrucci's lead work. Whenever he takes a solo, he seems content to just do exactly what he does all the time: shred non stop. Now, whilst this may be very impressive, when done on every song except the one with no guitars, it tends to get a bit boring. It even becomes self indulgent, with the solo of The Name of God almost wrecking a great song by just being the same as what has come before but longer. Just because you can play fast doesn't mean you should do so all the time forsaking melody and appropriateness.
At times this permeates the whole band, the most fatuous moment springing to mind is the piano/keyboard tradeoff in the middle of endless sacrifice. Needless and not actually that good, it gives the impression of a band trying to be too clever. Another example of this is Stream of Conciousness. It is a very brave move to attempt an 11 minute instrumental, but they don't quite seem to be able to pull it off. As Petrucci's lead style doesn't change this means the solos are quite boring, whilst the song itself is very repetetive. Whilst James LaBrie's vocals may be the weakest part of the band (they're still good mind you), they are necessary to complete the songs. Still, attempting something of this scale is a lot better than if they were content to remain on auto pilot.
His rhythm playing is brilliant though, and is backed excellently by Mike Portnoy's always inventive drums. (Whilst many metal drummers are content to rely on their double bass pedals, Portnoy seems to have realised that though he can use this technique, it is better to use everything in his arsenal. Maybe if he could communicate this to Petrucci it would have an effect on his playing.) As a result we have some brilliantly heavy and inventive riffs, such as the verse riff in The Name of God and the middle riff in Endless Sacrifice, which uses some dissonant chords and tricky rythyms to great effect.
But this is mainly based around the band members. What of the songs themselves" Well, to be honest whilst they are almost all far superior to many bands output, no one song really stands out above the others. As I Am is has a hevay and catchy riff along with a brilliant chorus, bt so does just about every song on the album. It would be great if this meant they were all classics, but instead it means they are all very very good. This is not to say that all the songs sound the same, each has a pretty distinct feel to it, but they are the same quality throughout.
All in all, Dream Theatre have avoided being sucked up by their musical skills and remembered they still need to write good songs to display these, but while everything on here is of an excellent standard and reeks of ambition, it remains just an excellent album, not a classic.