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Dream Theater - The Astonishing CD (album) cover

THE ASTONISHING

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.45 | 595 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
3 stars 'The Astonishing' - Dream Theater (59/100)

My relationship with Dream Theater reminds me a lot of the saddest scenes from the Toy Story movies. I still remember the day, over half a lifetime ago (!!!) that my first copy of Scenes from a Memory came in the mail. The package hadn't come a moment too soon, arriving on the day of my elementary school's graduation ceremony, a triviality I happily skipped in order to free up precious hours I could spend with the album. Even as a child I quickly developed strong opinions towards each of Dream Theater's other albums as I heard them. Images & Words and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence stirred me almost as much as SFAM, while I was left hanging dry by Awake and Train of Thought. Even if I wasn't always sold all the time by Dream Theater, alongside Led Zeppelin and Yngwie Malmsteen they were arguably the biggest musical influences on me before turning 12.

Like Toy Story however, the enthusiasm wasn't permanent. It's never that I bought into the popular opinion that Dream Theater are "wankers", nor did the heavyhanded cheese wear on me. I wouldn't even say I necessarily grew out of them; rather, it was just a case of gradually opening myself to more extreme and fascinating sounds. Like childhood toys, they quietly faded into memory. However, even as bands like Opeth and later Deathspell Omega and Blut aus Nord expanded my vision of what progressive metal could be, I never lost a love for them. Whenever I heard of a new album coming out, I would light up with excitement. I would feel like a kid again. I defended Systematic Chaos and Black Clouds & Silver Linings from less enthusiastic fans, and shared the joy when they returned to roots on A Dramatic Turn of Events.

It wasn't until 2013 when my opinion finally took a sour turn. Their self-titled album was the first time I felt they had released a piece of dogshit. Even if a few songs on it shined, it was finally enough to convince me that Dream Theater was finished as a creative act. Slogs like "Illumination Theory" were enough to sap my anticipation for future records. That's a good part of the reason why I'm reviewing The Astonishing in early October, as opposed to January when it was released. Is it possible to feel reinvigorated and simultaneously let down by a band with a single album? In most cases I'd say the answer is no, but when a consummate "has been" band tries to pull out all the stops, supposedly creating the most ambitious work of their career, strange things are bound to happen.

On the one hand, I'm happy that Dream Theater have reclaimed some of their energy they most certainly lacked in 2013. Some of the best prog instrumentation they've put out in years is here. James LaBrie hasn't sounded this powerful as a vocalist arguably since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Even its mere stance as a concept album implies they're trying to make another Scenes from a Memory. There's some of the liveliest music I've heard from Dream Theater in a long, long time. On the other hand, they've somehow managed to lop off the buzz with a mind-numbing amount of filler and the most clichéd, idiotic and self-absorbed concept I've ever seen set to music. I guess hearing quality Dream Theater material without having to wade in shit would have been too simple, and not "progressive" enough for them, right?

I know The Astonishing is hammy and self-involved from start to finish; I can't help but love certain things about it however. At its very best, it comes across as a spry continuation of the bright prog they revived on A Dramatic Turn of Events, blown up considerably with symphonic orchestration and sprawling structure. Ignore the lyrics to "The Gift of Music" and "A New Beginning" for a second, and focus on what they're doing with the music. The busy interplay and effortless finesse is nothing new for them, but it can certainly feel that way in light of their last album. A lot of Dream Theater's detractors brush them off on the charge of wankery, but that polished technicality is easily the most exciting thing about them here. I don't think it's ever been the amount of notes that Dream Theater plays that have set many listeners against them; it's the way they fall short when they opt for other approaches.

Lamentably, The Astonishing is pretty chock-full of these "other approaches". Even if it's easily the most bombastic album these guys have ever put out, it's also probably the softest album note-for-note. The technical prog-outs are as impressive as ever, but their ballads post-Kevin Moore have always been hit-or-miss. Many of the 34 tracks take the shape of piano interludes and lilting vocals. Don't you get it? Dream Theater aren't trying to be badass here, they're trying to make you feel your feelings! Not that I haven't been struck emotionally by DT in the past, but whenever they did so, it was an authentic by-product of the band capitalizing on their strengths. Here, you can tell they set out specifically to tug on your heartstrings. Given the album's faux-dystopian concept revolves around the spiritual power of music I suppose it makes sense, but the dry kind of hammy superemotion expressed here almost serves to work against that thesis.

The biggest standout talent this time around is easily James LaBrie. Surprisingly, a lot of fans seem to agree. I've always loved his voice (despite understanding why others do not) but he sounds particularly passionate and confident as a vocalist. His stepping up to the plate could not have happened on a more fitting album. The Astonishing is a very vocal-driven album. I don't think there's any salvation for the plot or lyrics, but for what it's worth, the melodies and performance almost make the whole thing work. It's all the more impressive to hear James adopt different voices for each of the personae in this story. This ability to characterize his voice is something any fan who has heard their covers knows full well, and it's refreshing to hear this talent put to use on original material.

Although Dream Theater have given their detractors plenty of extra justification to hate them with this album, I'd honestly say a lot of the music is solid. A near-hour of this stuff could have been cut and the album would be no worse for well, but I get that they weren't trying to make a normal album with The Astonishing, and I can respect it as such. The only unforgivable aspect here are the lyrics and general concept. Falling somewhere between a mindless ape of 2112 and terrible Young Adult dystopian fiction, The Astonishing supposedly tells the story of an evil empire and a band of rebels who resist them using, uh, music? I get the basic idea they're digging up here, but I couldn't help but think of a battle where soldiers are popping up from trenches and shooting at other with riffs. Okay, so music enlivens the spirit, and creates e-m-o-t-i-o-n. Evil empires don't like emotion, apparently. I guess Dream Theater wanted to make a soundtrack to the film Equilibrium, instead where they take out all of the cool martial arts gunplay and replace it with fucking piano ballads. That's nothing to say about the moronic cast of characters. A rebellious girl named Faythe? An evil leader called Nefaryus? Pour a load of venomous earwigs into my hearing holes and end me now.

There are times where it reads like very bad Star Wars fanfiction, and even then that is giving it too much credit. I have a soft spot for self-absorbed rock opera concepts (see: Ayreon, Rhapsody of Fire) but The Astonishing sounds like a corporate-sponsored amalgamation of all the most predictable tropes coming together into a single, amorphous shitpile of irrelevance. Insult is added to injury when you consider how great the conceptual angle has worked out for them in the past. Scenes from a Memory is arguably my favourite album concept ever, where clever lyrics unfolded a mindbending concept that still leaves me in awe. So it took them less than two decades to shed that brilliance completely in favour of a microwaved casserole 2112? Lyrics aren't everything, to be sure, but with the weight the album's marketing placed on the hokey concept, it's almost unbelievable they allowed something like this to mar otherwise solid music.

It's incredibly easy to criticize The Astonishing. Dream Theater haters could have a field day with this one like none other in the past. My job of reviewing this album would be a tad simpler if I could simply dislike it. But when you look past the trite concept, the filler interludes and ballad material, the saccharine bombast and ridiculous length (and it is possible to look past all of that, sort of) there's some of Dream Theater's most exciting material in a long time waiting. Of course, all but the band's biggest fans won't have the patience to get to the good stuff. Maybe in a few years they can release a "Greatest Hits from The Astonishing" EP and call it a day?

Conor Fynes | 3/5 |

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