Review Summary: Dream Theater, uncharacteristically.
John Petrucci is playing us. He's at a point where demonstrating mastery with the guitar just doesn't cut it anymore. Time and time again Dream Theater have come under fire for crafting prolonged and overindulgent music, so how do they (John more specifically) retort? Simpler, shorter songs spread throughout a 2-hour double-album. Oh, but it doesn't stop there. Rather than be an intriguing double-album akin to Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
, the band's latest effort, awkwardly titled The Astonishing
, is a concept album that depicts a future where the long-forgotten treasure of music is used to fuel the crusade against a dystopian empire. And as icing on the cake, all the lyrics are written like a stage play.
All jokes aside, how surprised can we be? Dream Theater are nothing if not extravagent, so taking a direction as overzealous as this after the decidedly streamlined Dream Theater
isn't exactly uncharacteristic. What is uncharacteristic, however, is how they've elected to take this direction. From inception to present day, the Boston quintet have thrived off their complex-to-a-fault progressive metal style, be it in a concept album, multi-track suite or their political skepticisms. It's a style that is definitively theirs, regardless of acclaim or disdain. So it's quite bizarre to see them abandon so much of their tried-and-true nature this late into their career. What Petrucci and company have bestowed upon us in The Astonishing
seldom (if ever) challenges the listener in a technical way. Instead, the biggest challenge every listener will face is, as you might've guessed, the length. That The Astonishing
is this long (2+ hours) almost makes the easygoing nature of the music seem logical. Except listeners will find themselves begging for something more complicated than piano-laden tracks with soft guitar notes.
This stylistic retract Dream Theater have taken isn't necessarily devoid of enjoyable moments, because in the span of 34 tracks, something has to work and stand out. "A Better Life" is an early, par for the course taste that features an "Evangeline" reprise of sorts; meanwhile "Ravenskill" and "A Tempting Offer" both hint at the album's greater musical potential. Things do get more interesting on the second disc (the shorter of the two). "Moment of Betrayal," the album's second single, is a welcome slice of drama that leaks into "The Walking Shadow," demonstrating that the band can indeed handle brief songs. It isn't that The Astonishing
is without shining moments, they're just few and far between. One can easily get the gist of the entire album with almost none of the filler in less than 10 tracks. Similar to how the Dream Theater of old were proficient to the point of fault, The Astonishing
is cleanly dull the point of fault. Likewise, the entire band perform in a way that makes you forget you're listening to the forefathers of progressive metal. Mike Mangini and John Myung blend into the background like green screens in the Star Wars prequels; Petrucci similarly resigns himself to a less-is-more approach in his guitar playing. In layman's terms, he's kind of a bore here. James LaBrie and Jordan Rudess are the only members who ever seem to stand out. Rudess comes to mind strictly due to the frequent piano introductions throughout the album. They're casually enjoyable and would make an instrumental version of the entire ordeal all the more preferred
LaBrie comes out as the one member who consistently delivers in a memorable way. His performance isn't remarkable, but it's always smooth and melodic enough to complement the music's corresponding nature. Many of his key moments honestly have to do with the album's theatrics, such as "Lord Nafaryus" and the comically awkward "Three Days." Otherwise, he's tasked with relaying the poorly written lyrics, which may explain why he's particularly noteworthy. A chief complaint with Black Clouds & Silver Linings
was that the lyrics simply weren't up to snuff. They were beneath a band as thoughtful and accomplished as Dream Theater. Now The Astonishing
eagerly creeps up to snag the award for Worst Dream Theater Lyrics. Petrucci envisioned and realized much of the album, but it's clear he didn't take the time to edit or proofread, much less remember the simple lesson of show-don't-tell. Imagery and ambiguity? Nowhere to be found. Simply put, The Astonishing
is as generically written as you can get. This is part of the reason LaBrie earns some brownie points: He rolls with the groans and eye-rolls that have to ensue from reading (and singing) material of this nature.
is an unfortunate tale in bloated ambition, a band with the rough idea of a worthwhile piece. Nevermind the piss-poor lyrics and up-front runtime, Dream Theater's true failure is in managing to captivate their listeners as they've done time and time before. Even when they misfired, there was substance and intrigue to find in a new Dream Theater album. They were like treasures that kept on giving when you broke beneath the surface. The desire to dig further was always present. That desire is all but absent on The Astonishing
If you want my tl;dl (too long; didn't listen) version of The Astonishing
, I recommend:
The Gift of Music
A Better Life
A Tempting Offer
Moment of Betrayal
The Path That Divides
The Walking Shadow