MENU
Progarchives, the progressive rock ultimate discography
Progarchives, the progressive rock ultimate discography
Dream Theater - The Astonishing CD (album) cover

THE ASTONISHING

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.51 | 536 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Aussie-Byrd-Brother
Special Collaborator
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
5 stars New Dream Theater releases always elicit two very conflicting reactions amongst the wide range of prog-rock and heavy metal listeners. To the long-time loyal worshipping faithful, Dream Theater are the most technically skilled, flawless and thrilling leaders of the prog-metal genre that exist beyond criticism, and to the unconverted many they're the most grandiose, cheesy and embarrassing example of progressive musical masturbation imaginable - there's very little medium ground! Well, it's very likely that both the uninterested and proper DT fans had no idea what was in store from the heavy prog group this time around, and modern progressive releases don't come any more lavish, stylish, self-indulgent and excessive than this!

Delivering what is easily the most ambitious studio work of their 31 year, 13 studio album career to date, `The Astonishing' is no less than a full-blown grandiose heavy rock opera, the likes of which Dream Theater or endless lesser progressive rock bands have never even come close to attempting before. A two and a half hour extravaganza based around a futuristic concept about the future of music (although there's much more to it than that), guitarist John Petrucci drew inspiration from his obsession with `Game of Thrones' and similar epic sagas, and sure enough the album is made up of a wordy, complex narrative detailing a rich variety of characters, all given voice by lead vocalist Jamie Labrie (no slumming it with multiple guest vocalists like those Ayreon discs, thank you very much!), which is initially intimidating and confusing, so keep the CD booklet handy!

The continuous suites of music that feature on the double CD set are generously swamped in pompous orchestra and choir, with soaring over-the-top symphonic themes, plentiful regal fanfares, drippy ballads and break-neck heavy metal instrumental runs woven in and around them. Although the combination doesn't always deliver the goods, the undeniable ambition, confidence and sheer ego on display is hugely impressive, and there's not many bands that would have the pull and status in the progressive rock community to be allowed such a challenging undertaking. Much of the credit here must go the keyboard talents of Jordan Ruddess who frequently dominates the direction of the music, essentially (for better or worse) going `Full Wakeman' (and you should NEVER go `Full Wakeman'!) and delivering lavish endless spiralling piano runs and dazzling keyboard workouts full of symphonic flair. This means it's definitely Dream Theater's least obviously metal work (something some die-hard metalheads will likely find impossible to get past), but perseverance is the key, and the harder heavy moments show up with more frequency on the second disc.

Early observations that the album is almost completely devoid of proper songs proves to often be inaccurate, as repeated listens (and that is an absolute must that simply has to be committed to if you ever hope to begin to appreciate the effort on display here) reveals plenty of self-contained grand themes with sweeping harmonies and clever reprises of earlier moments. Instead of bombarding the listener with endless lengthy instrumental runs, they're instead skilfully implemented in constant short bursts around the vocal passages. As the album can prove to be somewhat overwhelming, it might be best for listeners to divide the two discs into chunks of several tracks in a row and stick to playing them over and over, then moving on to another few, as it may be the only way to get your head around the bulk of the album.

Despite that assumption that a two-plus hour Dream Theater album would likely be jammed full of endless lengthy instrumental runs, it's actually vocalist James Labrie that drives the majority of the discs. He remains as ever a hugely divisive singer, but to his credit he has never attempted such a challenging range of styles as he does here. On `The Astonishing' he certainly sounds stronger, more varied and much more convincing than, for instance, the desperate `Dark Master' embarrassments of the earlier `Systematic Chaos' album that attempted a similar `fantasy-lyric' style. Unfortunately the dreaded `breathy oh-so-emotional' drippy ballad moments that Labrie often attempts are out in full-force throughout this set (some have labelled the album `Disney Theater' in a very snarky way!), and there's a definite overreliance on chest-beating call-to-arms moments (although they probably make more sense in the context of the story), but thankfully the melodies are strong that they often lift even the sappiest moments. Labrie comes across as very determined to impress here, and whether you really love his approach or not, it really is a showcase for the singer and he deserves a lot of praise.

There's several highlights scattered throughout the entire collection. Where it was once a throwaway `single' on its first release, `The Gift of Music' is perfectly placed right after an instrumental teasing overture of themes to come that opens the first disc, delivering as a punchy and catchy melodic rocker to get the blood flowing right from her start. `A Better Life' delivers a winning chorus that soars on repeated plays and a tightly executed guitar solo, `Lord Nafaryus' is almost Queen-like, `A Saviour in the Square' is heavy E.L.P blustery fanfare and `When Your Time Has Come' has a romantic reassuring lyric for it's warm chorus. `Three Days' has moments of cartoonish theatrical pantomime pomp, the opening of `A Life Left Behind' shamelessly and affectionately apes Yes' `Tempus Fugit' off their `Drama' album, `Chosen' is an epic power ballad, and the intricate `A New Beginning' holds the longest instrumental stretches of the first disc where all the players are given lengthy soloing moments to shine, with drummer Mike Mangini especially powering up a storm.

The second disc opens with another overture `2285 Entr'Acte' that hints of the better fusion of heavy metal with orchestra, choir and intricate instrumental elements to come. `Moment of Betrayal' delivers heavy riffing and a terrific chorus lifted by effective group harmonies, plus the instrumental soloing spot in the middle brings to mind traces of Dream Theater's earlier epic `Scenes from a Memory'. Delicate piano, Opeth-like acoustic guitar and a gothic eeriness permeates between heavier bursts in `Heaven's Cove', and in a few moments `Begin Again' swoons with Focus-like flair behind a triumphant symphonic choir and orchestral chorus (but man, the `Frozen/Tangled' Disney qualities really fly on this one!). There's a creeping dramatic tension to `The Path that Divides' with galloping riffing, the heavy riffs take on a battering quality behind loopy synth runs on `The Walking Shadow' (with a touch of King Crimson metallic edge), and `Hymn of a Thousand Voices' is a warm Yes-like ballad with strong vocal harmonies and lovely violin before becoming consumed my pompous choir. `Our New World' is a confident and effortlessly melodic AOR rocker, and `Astonishing' sweeps with orchestral reprises of previous themes and a final run of absurd blustery fanfares to make for a fittingly big finale.

Whether you like it or not, Dream Theater have delivered a big progressive work that may prove, in its own way, to be one of those genre-changing double works such as `Tales from Topographic Oceans', `The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' and `The Wall' (and to a lesser extent `Subterranea' and `Snow' by I.Q and Spock's Beard), forever to be argued about, discussed, misunderstood, equally praised and derided, declared a self-indulgent incoherent mess by some, the crowning achievement of their discography by others. `The Astonishing' literally harkens back to a time when the greatest crime of bands like Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd delivering these hugely challenging double length works was simply being endlessly ambitious, experimental and inventive, full of creativity and inspiration at just the right time, determined to test both their listeners and themselves. The fact that the band are really pushing the whole album format as a proper artistic musical statement that demands to be played over and over here in an era of nonsense pick-and- mix single downloads is also hugely admirable. Love Dream Theater or hate them, this is everything progressive rock should and can be, and as such, whether loathed or worshipped, it deserves immense respect and recognition. Big moments in progressive rock don't happen too often anymore, and fans of the style should be thankful events like this can still happen in the genre.

Five stars.

PS ' Sorry for `The Astonishing'-length review!

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 5/5 |

MEMBERS LOGIN ZONE

As a registered member (register here if not), you can post rating/reviews (& edit later), comments reviews and submit new albums.

You are not logged, please complete authentication before continuing (use forum credentials).

Forum user
Forum password

Share this DREAM THEATER review

Social review comments () BETA







Review related links

Copyright Prog Archives, All rights reserved. | Legal Notice | Privacy Policy | Advertise | RSS + syndications

Other sites in the MAC network: JazzMusicArchives.com — jazz music reviews and archives | MetalMusicArchives.com — metal music reviews and archives