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Round Table Review
Tracklist: As I Am (7:47), This Dying Soul (11:28), Endless Sacrifice (11:23), Honor Thy Father (10:14), Vacant (2:58), Stream Of Consciousness (11:16), In The Name Of God (14:16)
These guys never cease to amaze me every time they release a new album. Just as you thought that it could not get any better than their previous album, they do it again. Eleven years ago Images And Words was a revelation for me, then Awake (1994) became my favourite Dream Theater album, until they released the ultimate prog hammer Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence in 2001. But now, these guys did it again, Train Of Thought, which consists of 6 long tracks and 1 “shortie”, is THE best prog metal album of this moment. If you thought that their previous album, with tracks such as The Glass Prison, was heavy, then you are in for a big surprise. As I Am opens with those typical Dream Theater guitar riffs and this song is packed with rhythm changes and a catchy chorus. In the middle of the song John Petrucci shows what he is capable of and treats us to a very fast, furious and mean guitar solo.
The Dying Soul kicks off with thrashing drums and a brutal instrumental intro of two minutes before it evolves into a rather melodic track with “weird” vocals from James. Furthermore this track is diverse and full of variety, that it is almost impossible to describe this in words. The third track begins rather “soft” with an excellent melodic guitar part, which turns into a progressive song with an outstanding heavy chorus. In Endless Sacrifice John and Jordan fight out an instrumental duel and it really is amazing how fast these guys both are ...
Honor Thy Father is without any doubt the heaviest song Dream Theater has ever recorded. First Mike beats up his drum kit and then the bass and guitar come crashing in like never before. It is head banging time and you could almost imagine this song being recorded by Metallica; this one really is heavy! Rather “sweet” is the following song called Vacant, a resting point on this album, although rather short. It is a very nice piano ballad with first-rate vocals by James and a nice cello sound in the background.
In Stream Of Consciousness, a long instrumental, the guys pick up their heavy stuff where they left. John opens this song and then the typical DT beats and rhythms fill the air, followed by incomparable guitar solos and superior keyboard passages. I really love this track and I think it will be a real live bomber. Just as so many bands Dream Theater saves the best for last. In The Name Of God is definitely the highlight of this unequalled prog album. Just listen to the superlative vocal parts by James, the characteristic DT riffs, the extreme catchy chorus and the very melodic instrumental parts which makes my flesh creep and you will agree with me. I never thought that they could top their previous album, but they managed it somehow. Train Of Thought is without any doubt the best progressive album of 2003, and maybe many years to come ...
In the past, Dream Theater have always been a band who’ve divided critics. With Train of Thought however, they’ve created an album which has divided their fans – much like Rush’s Vapor Trails did last year. Like Rush, they’ve gone for a somewhat rawer, more direct sound; unlike Rush, however, they haven’t dropped the keyboards or, more to the point, the solos …
The easiest way to describe this album would be to say that it takes the sound forged on The Glass Prison (from their last album, Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence) and runs with it, over the length of an entire album. Its fair to say that those who found The Glass Prison too heavy for their liking are unlikely to immediately take to Train Of Thought, and clearly haven’t judging by reaction so far. It’s true that this is dark, dense and unquestionably metallic; however, Train Of Thought is not going to give the likes of Slayer any sleepless nights, and I would argue that despite the underlying heaviness there is plenty of melody, variety and ideas on show throughout the seven tracks.
As I Am immediately sets the scene, with some very doomy riffs in the intro which could have come straight off an early Black Sabbath album. Thereafter, it’s something of a mix between Black-album era Metallica (on the verses) and prime-time Alice In Chains in the bridge and chorus. There are, of course, the obligatory solo spots, though these are kept fairly short on this track. It’s not what you’d call trademark Dream Theater, certainly, but this is a powerful opening statement.
This Dying Soul opens with a furious bout of bass-drum kicking, and the song only lets up intermittently from thereon in. With its cutting, down-tuned riffs and spiralling guitars, this song comes across as Awake-era DT meets Machine Head. James LaBrie really goes for the nu-metal vocal stylings on this one, even using that familiar distorted shouted vocal effect beloved of these bands. To be honest, whilst having a strong, more traditional-style chorus, this song doesn’t really work for me – its very disjointed, and the solo sections really do go on too long (most of the second half of the song!) and here are largely uninspired. It is worth noting however that after his almost complete absence from the first song, Jordan Rudess does make some impact here with some quality piano interludes.
Far better is Endless Sacrifice. Here there are again strong links to Metallica’s Black album – this time in the solo guitar intro, which is eerily similar to Nothing Else Matters. In fact the way the song builds bears resemblance to the Metallica of an earlier era (circa Master Of Puppets) in the way the song travels from balladic beginnings to a powerful, anthemic chorus. During the mid-section the band forge a powerful, mid-tempo thrash metal groove, over which Jordan Rudess showers some fairly subtle keyboard flourishes. The extended solo spots are of course still here, but they are more entertaining and bombastic on this occasion, and the band manage to pull things together and bring the song to a rousing, vocal-led conclusion.
In an album of heavy material, the intro to Honor Thy Father is perhaps the heaviest; with some blistering thrash riffage pummelling the listener into submission. Elsewhere, though the song is consistently heavy, there is plenty of variety on show, and the music ebbs and flows as you’d expect from a band of Dream Theater’s stature. Generally the structure of the song is sound, the choppy riffs of a high quality and some of the instrumental sections are amongst the best on the album – particularly a twisting, winding keyboard solo from Rudess about two-thirds through. It must be said, though, that LaBrie’s attempts at a nu-metal style rap vocal on the bridge sections are rather embarrassing, as are the song’s lyrics (rallying against someone’s (lyricist Mike Portnoy’s?) mistreatment at the hands of their father) which are more akin to something that the likes of Korn or Limp Bizkit might write.
Vacant sees a brief respite from the metal onslaught; a short, sombre ballad with nice utilisation of cello. A good track, if nothing spectacular.
The album ends with a bit of a double whammy – in my opinion the two best tracks on the album. Stream Of Consciousness is an instrumental somewhat in the vein of late-70’s Rush, and of course DT’s own Ytse Jam. Jordan Rudess has a bigger presence here (particularly in his position in the mix – much more to the forefront) and the song has more of a general hard rock feel than the dark, metallic leanings of the preceeding tracks – very much one for the early Dream Theater fans, I would have thought. The track maintains a convincing momentum throughout and despite the expected show of instrumental virtuosity hangs together well.
Closing song In The Name Of God is something of an epic – a mid-paced, stately rocker with several well worked mini-sections, and a majestic sweep and symphonic feel. LaBrie’s vocals are at their very best here - shorn of the effects utilised on earlier tracks, he is given free reign to deliver a more typical, impassioned performance. The chorus is very strong, and the way the song is broken down in the mid-section and consequentially built up again is an object lesson in both structuring an epic such as this and in creating a powerful, hypnotic atmosphere.
Before concluding, I should point out that I consider some of the many criticisms levelled at the disc valid – up to a point. Firstly, the solo’s – yes, there are too many (particularly by John Petrucci), and a few are rather pointless and unexciting. But I’ve had this criticism with all Dream Theater albums, and come to accept them as ‘coming with the territory’ – this is what the band do, and also what a fair proportion of their fan-base would actually seem to want. I would agree, however, that some pruning in the lengths of the songs could have been done – seventy minutes of music in a similar vein is probably a little too much, and two or three minutes off a lot of the songs would possibly have sharpened the album’s impact.
The production has also been labelled poor. Well, it’s certainly dense, but then this suits the material. The instruments are all well mixed, including LaBrie’s vocals, and I don’t think that you can really query the sound quality, which is top-notch as you’d expect.
Finally, people have said that this isn’t ‘progressive metal’. In this, I assume they mean ‘it doesn’t sound like Dream Theater did circa Images and Words’. True, but then the band are surely ‘progressing’ their sound on Train of Thought? In my opinion this is a good thing – the likes of Images And Words and Scenes From A Memory are obviously fantastic records, but they’ve already been made! If Dream Theater continually made albums like this they would start to sound like their own plaguarists – and there are enough bands out there doing pale imitations as it is. Personally, I applaud the band for having the courage to make an album such as Train Of Thought rather than simply take the easy option.
Overall then, a fine release – not without its drawbacks (as I’ve noted earlier) and possibly not for everyone, but I’d urge all fans (of Dream Theater specifically and of the progressive metal genre as a whole) to give this a try – once you’ve got over the initial shock of the change in style, the songs will soon embed themselves in your head. I also think much of this material will work very effectively in the live arena, and has the potential to widen their audience by appealing to all fans of metal, rather than just those of the progressive variety.
As with the recent new releases by Metallica, Iron Maiden and Queensryche, the one thing you can guarantee in a new album from Dream Theater, is that it will generate much, heated debate as to its attributes or otherwise. You can guarantee that every listener will have a view as to whether ‘this is their best album since …(insert your own favourite) or whether it’s a total, musical abomination.
No doubt either, that opinions will vary in this roundtable review. So I’ll stake my colours to the mast from the start – Train of Thought will be the last time that I bother with Dream Theater.
On their last tour, the band did some special shows with their own versions of classic Maiden and Metallica songs - two bands they often cite as influences. However few would have guessed that with their latest offering the band would have taken this tribute a big set further.
Put simply, Train Of Thought is a whole album of Metallica – done in that always-identifiable Dream Theater style of course. The band’s traditional songwriting style still shines through - but more than the occasional riff, vocal line and drum roll owes a definite debt to Lars Ulrich’s mob.
Many comments I’ve heard so far, have welcomed the band’s new shift into a harder Tool/Pantera/Metallica direction. It’s a good and clever move, especially as their ‘old’ sound was getting past its sell-by date. Actually, when you listen to the seven tracks on offer, it becomes clear that they’ve actually gone even further than that, with a very heavy nod in the direction of what’s generally described as ‘Nu-Metal’.
Honor Thy Father and This Dying Soul both have notable, distorted rap sequences with a definite NuMetal swagger, while Endless Sacrifice has that annoyingly incessant, off-beat guitar squeak favoured by the likes of Alien Ant Farm. Indeed, the style through much of this album reminds me of Engine - the modern metal monster created by Ray Alder as a side-project from Fates Warning. I smile when I wonder how many people who have spent the past two years slamming bands like Linkin Park, are now loving this album?
And yes, you can not deny that these songs and the more beefed up metal mode in which they are played are fine slices of metal. As I Am is a fat, heavily distorted brutal opener that was the obvious choice for the first single. This Dying Soul reminds me a bit of Home. It begins with probably the most intense riff the band has yet produced, before a more broody mid section swagger and a nod towards the Middle East.
LaBrie’s voice is seen in a totally new dimension on this album. Gone is that sometimes whining, nasal wailing, replaced by a far more aggressive and melodic tone.
Honour Thy Father starts off in traditional Dream Theater mellow mood before building well into a Kid Rock style chorus. As a NuMetal/ProgMetal hybrid this track works surprisingly well. Vacant is the shortest and quietest song, with some nice cello and some sad lyrics.
However despite these plus points, I only need one word to sum up why, after two listens, this album has become unlistenable – ‘masturbation’. OK, every Dream Theater album will have lengthy instrumental sections but … well around half of this album is just a gross exercise in musical wankery.
Take Endless Sacrifice as one example. As I’ve said, this is a cool Nu metal/old metal hybrid with a cool melody and cool riff – until about five minutes in, when first a chugging guitar riff and then the widdly solos begin. They’re still going strong at six minutes, at seven minutes, at eight minutes and at nine minutes! Exactly the same had already been tried on the second track. Exactly the same is tried on the following track and also on the closing track of the album. As if that isn’t enough, Stream Of Consciousness is an instrumental, where a couple of musical ideas are dragged out for a painful 11 minutes.
With only two songs under 10 minutes, I’d be surprised if even those who love this album can’t admit that the tracks are just too long. It’s an exhausting listen that just gets arduous by the end. The guitar solos too are often nonsensical, going too hard for the ‘Look at me. I can play really fast!’ effect. Call me simple, but I prefer a melodic solo with lines you can follow, rather than something which ends up as a jumble.
Full credit for putting out an album that will surprise many, that gives the band a new identity (something Metallica, Maiden and Queensryche will never do) and will no doubt shift an indecent amount of units across the globe. And if you like the heavier end of the band’s discography and if you can overcome the musical masturbation, then this is probably your album of the year. However when I look back at all the albums I’ve listened to this year and pick out my favourites, this won’t even register in my train of thought.
During their 2002 World Tourbulence tour Dream Theater started the nice habit of playing a classic metal album in its entirety during some of their concerts. During the first leg they played a great rendition of Metallica's Master Of Puppets on a few occasions, and during the second leg they did Iron Maiden's Number Of The Beast.
As these covers seemed to get an even greater response than their own compositions, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that their latest album is heavily influenced by aforementioned bands.
On Train Of Thought the pioneers of prog-metal seem to abandon their 'prog' tag in favour of plain 'metal'. Though their previous album Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence already contained a few songs that were more metal than prog, there was also a fair bit of melodic stuff to be found (mainly in its title track). On their new album the band displays none more than 70 minutes of heavy metal, with only the occasional glimpse of brilliance that graced their previous work.
That doesn't mean it's a bad album, far from it. However, for a band like Dream Theater this is the kind of music they can record on a lazy Sunday afternoon with their feet on the table and a beer in their hands.
Let's have a closer look at the songs.
Opener As I Am is chosen as the first single off the album. Musically it harks back to the opener of the previous album: The Glass Prison. The description can be similar: high on octane, low on melody. James LaBrie sings his lyrics as if he's reciting a poem, occasionally screaming his lungs out. Overall the song (especially the ending) has a distinct Metallica feel over it.
The next track, Dying Soul, kicks in as a genuine Dream Theater style powerfest with fast heavy drums and a firing guitarsolo. The vocals alternate between clear and distorted, drawing comparisons with bands like Tool or even Porcupine Tree. Midway all of a sudden it changes into another rendition of The Glass Prison and there's even a lyric which seems literally copied from that track. It would have been a great track had they finished it after the first 5 minutes, the second half is rather useless.
Endless Sacrifice opens as your standard Dream Theater rock-ballad with echoing guitars, a keyboardsolo and slow vocals. This is the same fare as Peruvian Skies, Blind Faith quite a few others. Though for the chorus, well, we're back to the standard metal fare. It strikes me that this is the first song on the album for which Jordan Rudess seems to have been invited as well, as it contains a few keyboard solos and some nice orchestrations.
Honor Thy Father is once again pretty standard metal fare. LaBrie's monotonous singing doesn't add much to this either and the mid-section seems to play directly at satisfying the fans with weird time-signatures, tempo changes, firing fast guitar licks and samples from movies, creating such a déjà vu feeling that you can almost predict where the next change in time-signature comes.
The shortest track of the album, Vacant is a resting point amidst the power fest of the rest of the album. A beautiful piano piece with LaBrie's frail vocals, only accompanied by a beautiful cello and some guitar. It is a nice -though standard- little ballad, which in my opinion would have been a fantastic intro to a longer ballad-style track. On its own it is a bit bare, though it segues nicely into Stream of Consciousness - an 11-minute instrumental which is basically (yet another) showcase of the technical abilities of the four musicians. In respect to earlier Dream Theater works this is just a rehash of familiar themes. Once again we have powerful ascending and descending chords, firing guitarsolos, impossible drum-fills and a little jazz-bar piano ditty. Yes, I do love the instrumentals that have graced every Dream Theater album since 1994's Awake, and I equally love the two Liquid Tension Experiments, but there is no need to rehash these ideas yet another time and blend them into yet another instrumental.
In The Name Of God serves as the obligatory finale, and this is actually the only track on the album that has some genuine melodies in it. It sounds like a tribute to Iron Maiden, especially where the vocals are concerned, and LaBrie does a good Dickinson impersonation. It is the best track on the album and undoubtedly this will be a great song to hear live. The only thing I can't get around is the opening chords of It's Raining Men, which Rudess plays during the choruses.
Now all this may sound very negative, and it is, really, though again I must state that this is not saying it is a bad album, and I'm sure many people will love it, but it is just we've heard it all before. From a band like Dream Theater, after the terrific double whammy of Scenes From A Memory and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, I had expected more. It disappoints!
Half the time the music on Train Of Thought sounds like plain metal, and when it doesn't it is actually an old Dream Theater theme that has been recycled. The band plays uninspired, there's a complete lack of melody and the few good ideas are stretched way too far.
Many people I know who don't like Dream Theater find that they are focusing too much on the technical side of their playing and forget all about the music. This is the first time I agree with them. All through the album I can't stop thinking "Quit showing off and start playing some music!"
Everybody knows this band consists of five of the best musicians in the world. Perhaps it is now time to focus a bit more on those songwriting abilities.