Amazingly, some 30 years removed from the massive commercial success of their major-label debut, Dream Theater has managed to sustain and maintain their position as one of the premier names in prog-rock/metal. And with each new release, the immensely talented five-piece somehow manages to firmly re-establish what longtime fans have known for years: Dream Theater is still creating amazing music.
Dream Theater possess a surprisingly diverse catalog—one where no two releases sound identical. But regardless of where it might fall on the ‘Rush-meets-Metallica’ spectrum—be it epic, prog-infused workouts (like “Scenes From a Memory”) or driving, metal-tinged onslaughts (“Train of Thought”)—just about every release has given fans a healthy dose of both. The trend continues with Dream Theater’s fifteenth full-length, the aptly titled ‘A View From the Top of the World.’
The album opens with “The Alien,” a sprawling, nearly-ten minute sonic adventure exploring humanity's future amongst the stars. From the intricate arrangement to the heavily-processed vocals, the track makes for the band’s most adventurous lead off single in years. The backbeat-driven “Answering the Call” and the radio-friendly (ish—after all, this is Dream Theater we’re talking about here) finds the band mining more traditional territory while the de facto album centerpiece (and standout track) “Sleeping Giant” feels like it could easily fit on any number of prior releases.
From there, the album momentarily shifts gears, offering fans a vivid glimpse of their roots with “Transcending Time,” an admittedly Rush-esque number that, in some ways, feels like the fraternal twin to “The Looking Glass” (from Dream Theater’s self-titled twelfth album). And for all the talk of guitarist John Petrucci’s planned inclusion of an eight-string-inspired song, “Awaken the Master” (thankfully) is a surprisingly progressive affair, driven less by de-tuned sonic pummeling and more by one of the album’s more pronounced piano lines.
While Dream Theater has penned its fair share of blistering rockers and endearing ballads, few topics inspire more spirited debate amongst the band’s passionate fan base than that of their ‘epics,’ the handful of twenty-minute-plus numbers that (arguably) make for the finest showcase of their collective abilities. While it remains to be seen where the album-closing title track will ultimately land on the lists of listeners, the song is a worthy addition to the conversation. Not unlike the band’s most recent epic, “IlluminationTheory,” “A View…” starts with a bang before careening into a pensive middle section. But this time around, the transitions are far more seamless. The same can be said for the song’s second half, which features one of the more inspired instrumental passages in recent memory and a surprisingly restrained climax that finds the band eschewing the typical ‘soaring solo’ climax in favor of a punishing syncopated finale. Obviously, mileage may vary, but to my ears, this song, in particular, represents one of the band’s finest moments of the past decade.
To that point, five records into the ‘Mangini’ years, the band has finally figured out a way to properly showcase his drumming abilities. For many fans, Dream Theater’s last record (‘Distance Over Time’) marked a dramatic improvement on the production front, and the trend continues on ‘A View…’ From the crystal-clear, balanced mix to the ‘live on the floor’ energy seeping from the individual performances, this album is easily one of the band’s best ‘sounding’ musical statements to date.
As for the individual performances, ‘A View…’ features everything you’ve come to expect from a Dream Theater record. In addition to Mangini’s tremendous drumming, John Petrucci’s guitar prowess is continuously on display, and bassist John Myung capably carves out a pocket for his low-end acrobatics. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess turns out yet another prodigious performance, delivering some of his most inspired solos to date. Vocalist James Labrie is also in fine form throughout, giving each song exactly what it needs, all the while (wisely) keeping the vocal acrobatics to a minimum. Closing in on sixty, what Labrie has lost in range he’s more than made up for with a newfound depth and warmth. If you enjoy the man’s middle register, you will love this record.
If all of the above hasn’t already cemented the point, this is a fantastic release. I won’t try to quantify it by comparing it to the rest of the band’s catalog (far too soon for that), but I will say this: the album is the very definition of a ‘grower.’ While it sounds incredible from the start, there’s a lot going on, and a casual listen may betray the overall quality on display here. Repeated listens, however, reveal some of the finest musical moments of the band’s career and a surprisingly cohesive collection of songs.
To that point, if you’re reading this, you’ve likely already listened to the record and have made your own opinion. But if you’re a casual fan who’s still sitting on the fence, I’d urge you to give this album a listen. And on the off chance you’ve never heard a single note of Dream Theater’s music, ‘A View From the Top of the World’ would make for a perfect introduction.