Review Summary: "Wow" - Owen Wilson
Let's not kid ourselves here, The Astonishing
, as bad as it was, was something of a blessing in disguise. Before its release, Dream Theater's fanbase was divided into two more camps than they already were before the departure of Mike Portnoy: "Dream Theater still rule", and "Bring back Mike Portnoy". Even despite the 2010 entrance of Mike Mangini, one of the most prolific drummers out there, large doubt was cast over the band's future- Portnoy's songwriting was an integral part of the band's presence as a whole. This resulted in two albums that largely felt like pale copies of their parent band, and a rock opera that only perpetuated the band's growing unpopular image as a walking parody. Call me elitist, but if there was one thing about that album that I was grateful for, it's that it helped break the illusions of the "Dream Theater still rule" camp. If there's one thing people hate more than ungrateful fans, it's over-grateful fans, and Petrucci's songwriting, as mixed in effectivity as it is, was finally exposed as not being able to carry the band alone. So it was necessary that, for the next album in line, it was back to the drawing board for all involved.
It's pretty obvious right off the bat that Distance Over Time
was made with that in mind- the first few seconds of "Untethered Angel" alone make it clear that Dream Theater's goal was to just make a kickass prog-metal album. Said song makes one hell of a kickass promise from its downtuned, chunky riffs to its alternating speeds and soaring chorus. The good news is that Dream Theater seems to keep this mindset intact for the duration of the album. Gone are the 20-minute wankfests and and "pieces of music"- if anything, Petrucci had been struggling since 2011 to find the difference between "music" and "songs"- and in there place are some proper bangers with tasty riffs and the signature Dream theater "moments" that DT fans listen to them for. But what's even more impressive is that despite the fact that DT have managed to draw from past influences, they've done so without it sounding recycled in any way, and have created something that manages to stand completely on its own with objectivity. You won't find classics like "A Change of Seasons" or "Finally Free", but you will find lots to love with plenty of ideas running about throughout the record, and more passionate performances from all the band members that make the tracks even more fun to listen to.
Since Train of Thought
, Dream theater have struggled with two major things: managing to draw from their influences without coming off as a pale copy, and managing to find the balance between their more progressive sound and a more mainstream, commercially appealing one. They somehow manage to succeed on both fronts on this record- a lot of this album contains some of Dream Theater's most accessible music yet. Third single "Paralyzed" is the track they've been trying to achieve for a while- 2003's Train of Thought tried, rather unsuccesfully, to incorporate influences from alternative-driven bands like Tool (in songs like "Endless Sacrifice" and "Honor Thy Father") and Breaking Benjamin, and for ages have tried to do the same with tracks like "Wither", "I Walk Beside You" and "Build Me Up, Break Me Down". "Paralyzed" manages to do that with its dark, menacing, yet very hooky main riff that's well-accented with pounding, building up drums from Mangini before exploding into a mid-tempo alt-metal driven tune with haunting vocal melodies and and an excellent chorus. Following suit is "Fall Into The LIght", the Metallica influence-driven track they've also tried to achieve for ages, and have finally managed to succeed with here. The song comes off as something of a realization of what it probably would have sounded like had Metallica followed through with their plan to evolve into a more progressive band, complete with a "The Unforgiven"-esque middle slow section that gives way to a very 1970s keyboard solo that proves that Rudess CAN, in fact, contribute music that doesn't sound like glorified circus music.
It would be rather counter-productive, though, for me to sit here listing all the influences present, becasue what's really impressive about the album is how modern it manages to sound for a "back to the drawing board" effort from a group of musicians in their fifties. The band have made no effort to hide that they are observent in trends present in today's modern music, and "S2N" is probably the best indicator of this. The song is completely off-the-charts in its fast-paced insanity, ironically enough for lyrics that ask where peace and comfort are in today's noisy and chaotic society. And as I've already said here quite a few times, Dream Theater have been struggling for quite a while to incorporate new things in their sound without being just a pale copy. "S2N" is the song that shows they've learned from that mistake- though the same unfortunately cannot be said for the rather questionable decision to incorporate an Owen Wilson meme-mid song. "Pale Blue Dot" also manages to blend their classic sound present in "A Change of Seasons" and other albums with newer elements-the spacey and otherworldly intro gets you ready for a wild 8-minute ride through the cosmos and back, complete with lyrics that detail discovery of Earth, and all the good and bad things to come of it. While lyrics aren't necessarily a strong point of the album, "At Wit's End" definitely has some of the band's most inspired, timely and relevant lyrics in a while, detailing the effects and trauma that sexual abuse can have on people and their ability to maintain relationships- LaBrie has never been the band's strongest lyricist, but he manages to set a very thought-provoking set of words, and his delivery of the final "Don't leave me now" choruses, combined with the beautiful playing from the band is one of the best moments in recent Dream Theater history.
Of course, as good as the album manages to be, all things considered, it does unfortunately sometimes succumb to Dream Theater's recent mistakes- "Out of Reach" is a very ill-advised ballad penned like LaBrie, that wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Astonishing
, with over-dramatic piano- and worse, sounds like it'll build up to something that never quite takes off, complete with juvenile LaBrie-penned lyrics about some girl that sounds like it was written by a teenager. Additionally, "Room 137" is ruined by two very-ill advised vocoder parts, and as great as "At Wit's End" is, the "Fake ending" that fades out then back in never fails to irritate (it was annoying when The Beatles did it, and it's annoying here). And on the topic of performance, James LaBrie, while always being the weak link, uses some vocal effects that manage to ruin some of what could have been excellent tunes like "Barstool Warrior" and "Room 137".
Fortunately though, the album's strengths, surprisingly, for once, manage to overcome its weaknesses. It's nice to hear DT making an album that doesn't sound like "the Dream Theater album", Mike Mangini finally sounding like a part of the band and not a drum machine, and so many of the other facets I've already mentioned. There may not be much left in the current tank for the band, but they have managed to achieve here is rather surprisingly remarkable for a band who have unfortunately become little more than a joke in today's modern day and age.