Review Summary: It has been a long time since the days of Images and Words, but Dream Theater prove they still have something left to say in the world of progressive metal.
Coming off the heels of releasing The Astonishing, arguably their most divisive record since their 1997 release Falling Into Infinity, Dream Theater return with a concise and powerful set of songs that assures both fans of old and new that this old dog still has some new tricks left up its sleeves. Unlike The Astonishing - an album largely ballad driven and overstuffed with over two hours plus of music - Distance Over Time comes in at a trim 57 minutes, which makes it their shortest album since the release of When Dream and Day Unite. It seems the band has learned with this album that their records do not all need to push eighty minutes and necessitate an epic. This is where Distance Over Time succeeds the most - it all feels necessary: no filler, no unnecessary instrumental sections, no self- indulgence there to prove how technical Dream Theater is - just good old fashioned progressive rock that knocks your socks off. It is not that Dream Theater have reinvented the wheel here, but they have displayed how modern progressive rock can still be very compelling.
It is worth noting that Distance Over Time was written and produced secretly by the band in a cabin at an undisclosed location. The band enjoyed bonding and writing the album so much at this cabin, they decided to transform it into a studio record there as well. Think Daryl's house, but instead Daryl is playing a lot of prog rock. This method of recording very much lends itself to the feel of the record, where each member feels integral and involved in the overall sound.
Distance Over Time begins with the song “Untethered Angel,” which was the lead single off the record. It starts the album off quietly with some nice acoustic guitar work before slamming into a hard hitting riff that lets the listener know immediately this is not The Astonishing Pt. 2. Singer James LaBrie comes in with a mostly restrained verse, but then soars into a chorus that is layered with some nice backing vocals. Some have criticized the extra use of studio effects on Labrie’s voice on this album, but I believe they are an excellent compliment to the vocal work. At this stage in Labrie’s career, he cannot impress with the high notes of old, but he can still very much give an excellent performance, and the use of studio effects is a method to bring variation to the album’s vocals in a unique way. “Untethered Angel’s” instrumental section is excellent with a very nice unison by guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess.
The album then segues into the third single, but second song on the album “Paralyzed.” It has a similar feel to works by Tool and Breaking Benjamin. This is a song I think Dream Theater has struggled to write for a few years. They always seemed to want to try adding shorter and more accessible songs to their discography, but they always end up just a little out of reach of the average listener by having either an excessively long instrumental section or too much complexity for a single release. “Paralyzed” does not fall victim to that trend. Instead “Paralyzed” comes in strong and quick with an excellent Petrucci riff(oddly enough written by drummer Mike Mangini) and then a flurrying solo that ends with a slightly varied chorus to give the ending some added emotional weight. This is a single by Dream Theater done right.
Nexts up is “Fall Into the Light” - a song that starts with a very heavy riff that pulls the listener in immediately. Around the three minute mark the song fades out, but then comes back with a guitar section inspired by Metallica’s “The Unforgiven.” The keyboard solo here by Rudess is excellent. This song might be just a bit weaker for myself because I feel like the middle section, while excellent musically, does not connect very well to the intro and ending of the song. Separately each part is great, but I think a vocal section in the middle might have remedied this by connecting the sections better. Overall a good song with very nice lyrics by John Myung.
The nexts song up is called “Barstool Warrior” - which I was fully prepared to proclaim ridiculous and the worst song on the album based simply on the name. Instead, it is not only the best song on the album, but one of the best song’s Dream Theater has written in years. A song about an alcoholic who spends his days at a bar contemplating his life choices, the lyrics actually end up at times being quite poignant. As a bartender in real life, I see many people like this and it always saddens me. My father was an alcoholic, and many people can relate to the damage alcohol and other drugs do to a person and their family. Musically, “Barstool Warrior” has some amazing guitar work that just has to be heard to be understood. It really is that good.
Completely changing the album flow is the song up next titled “Room 137.” Unlike the more traditional progressive song that precedes it, "Room 137" is an avalanche of metal that hits you immediately after the end of "Barstool Warrior." The lyrics are the first penned by drummer Mike Mangini, and they are really…something. I do say that in a good way though. They are about a person who fears he is about to die because he is haunted by the number 137. Petrucci’s guitar combined with Myung’s bass make for some crushing riffs that are heavily driven by Mangini’s relentless drumming. Being able to hear Myung's bass much better in the mix adds to the heavy feeling of this song.
“S2N” is the next song on the record and is another lyric penned by Myung. The bass work in this song is phenomenal, and it is really nice to hear Myung play an integral role in Dream Theater’s songwriting again. It felt like for the last ten years or so he was mostly relegated to doubling the guitar and other background parts - or just simply lost in the mix. The vocals in this song are very impressive, ranging from distorted effects and fast paced verses, to a soaring chorus by LaBrie. The ending to the song has a heavy riff by Petrucci that ends with Rudess playing a solo built for the spontaneity of a live show - also Owen Wilson seemingly makes a cameo in the instrumental section. A minor gripe I do have is the name “S2N” - I would have just called it “Signal to Noise”. Overall, this is a very impressive song and probably the third best on the album.
“At Wit’s End” comes in very quick and with some impressive instrumental work. The second best song on the album, the magic really starts around the four and a half minute mark where it enters this quiet piano break. The song builds to a Petrucci solo which, combined with some soaring vocals by LaBrie, brings the song to an epic and emotional conclusion. With lyrics penned by LaBrie, the song holds some real emotional weight that has been missing from previous Dream Theater albums. The song is about a woman who was a victim of rape, and how it changes her and her husband - ending with how they try to move on together from this darkness. After the ending solo fades out, the music actually fades back in with a jam of the theme of the song to peacefully fade out once again and into the next song “Out of Reach.”
“Out of Reach” is a short ballad also penned by LaBrie. The feel of the song is very much like the ending jam of “At Wit’s End,” so placing these tracks back to back flows very well. The song feels a bit like some of the ballad work off of previous Labrie solo records. The song contains more stellar guitar work by Petrucci, as well as some subtle, but impactful piano work by Rudess.
The final song is named “Pale Blue Dot” and penned by Petrucci. Most songs ending a Dream Theater record are epic and often the highlight of the record. In this case though, “Pale Blue Dot” is a bit different..It is not the highlight of the record by any means, but it is not the weakest track. It has a bit of influence from Symphony X “The Odyssey.” It is probably the heaviest track on the record, being driven mostly by the drums and complimented with a litany of guitar riffs by Petrucci. It feels different in the sense that Petrucci’s guitar riffs usually dominate a Dream Theater song, but they instead feel like they are adding a background effect to the track. The vocals by LaBrie are fine, but I feel like there could have been more variation in the ending vocal segment that leads into the guitar solo which fades out the song. I think this track feels a bit unfinished - as if there is something that the song should have built to but never quite does. Again, it’s not bad - in fact, its mostly great - but it feels like it really could have been something special if maybe they worked on it a little more. There was a lot of hype given to this track by early reviewers, so it caught me off guard that I did not share the same opinion of it being the best song on the album.
For the most part that is the end of the record, unless you received the bonus track version. The bonus track is a song called “Viper King” which is about a car - and thats pretty much it. It is a very jammy feeling song that has a mixture of Deep Purple and Van Halen. I actually really loved this track. Rudess is excellent on the organ and Petrucci’s guitar work lend itself to being a short piece that is a lot of fun, and definitely something very different for Dream Theater. I would love to see more tracks like this from Dream Theater in future releases.
Overall, I think that Dream Theater accomplished a lot with this record.They proved to their fans that they are still interested in making awesome progressive metal, and that they are still passionate enough about the music to dedicate months to recording in a private studio for the sake of the music. It also must be said that the production on this album is excellent. For the last few albums - both live and studio - Dream Theater have been employing the work of producer Richard Chycki. Despite the production being lackluster on the last few albums, Dream Theater kept with Chycki, possibly with the hopes he would improve and learn their sound. Many albums by Chycki had studio errors or simply lackluster mixing that are completely unacceptable given the statue of a band like Dream Theater. This time around they let Ben Grosse work on Distance Over Time. Chycki still had a limited role with working on the vocals, but overall it was the Ben Grosse show - and the job he did was outstanding. Every instrument sounds nice and clear with a balance that has not been seen since the production of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence or Falling Into Infinity. While great production does not instantly make an album great, bad production can really hold good albums back, as evidenced with the production of Dream Theater’s self titled record.
The lyrics are really good on this album. They cover a wide range of topics, and had a lot of thought put into them. I also like that the entirety of the lyrics were not written by Petrucci, and were instead divided up with Myung writing two songs, LaBrie writing three, Mangini writing one, and Petrucci writing four. After the lyrics of The Astonishing, these lyrics are really a breath of fresh air. Finally, it must be said that this is probably one of Petrucci’s best guitar records - both in tone and in musical composition. The solos and riffs that Petrucci brings to this album are breathtaking. “Barstool Warrior” is some of the best guitar work of his entire career, which is impressive after fifteen studio albums and thirty-five years of writing music. If you have been put off by some of Dream Theater’s recent works, or have tuned out since Mike Portnoy left the band, I urge you to give this record the time of day - preferably with a nice set of headphones. Distance Over Time is Dream Theater’s best album in years, and maybe one of their best ever.
Final Album Rating 9/10
Signal to Noise (S2N)
At Wit’s End