Album Reviews

Issue 2016-009

Dream Theater - The Astonishing - Round Table Review

Dream Theater - The Astonishing
Country of Origin: USA
Year of Release: 2016
Time: CD 1: 79:58, CD 2: 50:38
Track List:
CD 1: Descent of the Nomacs (1:11), Dystopian Overture (4:51), The Gift of Music (4:00), The Answer (1:53), A Better Life (4:39), Lord Nafaryus (3:28), A Savior in the Square (4:14), When Your Time Has Come (4:19), Act of Faythe (5:01), Three Days (3:44), The Hovering Sojourn (0:28), Brother, Can You Hear Me? (5:11), A Life Left Behind (5:49), Ravenskill (6:02), Chosen (4:32), A Tempting Offer (4:20), Digital Discord (0:48), The X Aspect (4:13), A New Beginning (7:41), The Road to Revolution (3:35)
CD 2: 2285 Entr'acte (2:20), Moment of Betrayal (6:12), Heaven's Cove (4:20), Begin Again (3:54), The Path That Divides (5:10), Machine Chatter (1:03), The Walking Shadow (2:58), My Last Farewell (3:45), Losing Faythe (4:13), Whisper On The Wind (1:37), Hymn of a Thousand Voices (3:39), Our New World (4:12), Power Down (1:25), Astonishing (5:51)
Peter Swanson's Review
Being a Dream Theater (DT) fan from the early days, I've always been curious how every new album would sound. I loved their first albums with Kevin Moore as keyboardist. When Dream And Day Unite, Images And Words and Awake are among my favourites. I also have the albums Octavarium and A Dramatic Turn Of Events in my private collection.

After that last album I suffered a bit from DT-fatigue. I was fed up with all those tracks filled with too many impossible breaks, riffs and soloing by all members of the band. For me it felt almost like a match between the musicians to show how well they can play their individual instruments. It was one big jam session sometimes, with singer James Labrie almost screaming instead of singing to get heard. Was I getting too old for this shit?

But that was yesterday, today it's totally different!

Some famous bands have made albums in the past that will still be remembered in many years to come. We will never forget The Wall by Pink Floyd, Tommy by The Who and 2112 by Rush. If that will be the case with The Astonishing is still something that we have to wait for in future but for me this album cured my fatigue!

There are still tracks in the characteristic DT-style but there are lots of moments that the tempo drops and we have time to breathe. The quality of sound is fantastic, especially all the sound effects, and that's something we probably all expect from a band like them.

It's a very ambitious project, with the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, a classical choir, a gospel choir and even bagpipes on the track The X Aspect. The orchestral and choir arrangements all sound brilliant and Labrie really shows he has a nice voice without really having to stretch his vocal cords too much which sometimes lead to screaming vocals.

The album opens with industrial computer sounds of NOMACS (Noise Machines). These noise machines in the year 2285 are the only form of music that is allowed by the great northern Empire (Great Northern Empire of the Americas). However, a man living in Ravenskill called Gabriel can make music all by himself. This is in short the story of this album.

It's probably the most progressive album the band has made so far and might attract some new fans, although it's still a clearly recognisable DT album. Among DT fans the album has been received with mixed feelings, some are disgusted and others (like me) are excited by this new album.

It is not a collection of songs but a contiguous number of tracks that together form one complete story, and all tracks flow effortlessly into each other connected with short NOMAC sounds and room enough for impressive soloing and eruptions, mainly guitar by John Petrucci and keyboards by Jordan Rudess. The marvellous rhythm section by John Myung (bass) and Mike Mangini (drums) fills in the gaps and all this leads to an album that grabs you from the beginning.

Some minor criticism could be that they haven't chosen a female vocalist for the female characters but have only Labrie taking the role of all characters. Something that might maybe have added even more excitement to the story. I think for instance Tarja Turunen (ex Nightwish) or Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation) wouldn't have been bad choices!

The energy and variety of the album is incredible from bombastic (A New Beginning+), acoustic (A Life Let Behind), symphonic (The Road To Revolution) to heavy (Moment Of Betrayal_). Probably one of the highlights of 2016 and, I presume, the album will appear on many end of year lists depending on what's still to come this year.
Bryan Morey's Review
Dream Theater certainly titled their new album appropriately, since it is quite astonishing. Sadly, it is an astonishing failure. Scenes From a Memory this is not. Dream Theater has always been known for producing excellent heavy progressive metal albums, complete with remarkable musicianship and often stunning vocals. Apparently they decided that they no longer wanted to go in that direction. And thus, The Astonishing was born.

The new album tells a dystopic story about the New England region of the US in a couple of hundred years. In it, the government controls everything and treats everyone poorly. Music has been abandoned in favour of electronic noise making machines, but the main character discovers that he can sing. Blah blah blah. It is really just a boring and lengthy remake of Rush's 2112, but it is nowhere near as good. The story is not compelling or interesting, and at over two hours in length, it is just too long. Before this album came out, I could honestly say that I had never gotten bored in the middle of a Dream Theater album. Unfortunately, I can no longer say that.

Musically, this album is widely accused of being a collection of poorly written ballads. Dream Theater is capable of writing excellent ballads, such as The Spirit Carries On or Along For the Ride. The ballads on The Astonishing are nowhere near as interesting or emotionally moving as those, however. They are filled with corny clichés. The one song that could have worked really well is Hymn of a Thousand Voices, but it failed miserably. What should have drawn us to tears made us yawn instead. The choir is almost inaudible behind James Labrie's soaring voice. The only songs that stand out are the two singles: The Gift of Music and Moment of Betrayal. The former has a strong Rush influence, and these songs are actually quite good by themselves.

As boring as the story and most of the music is, I did enjoy a few aspects of the album. For one, Jordan Rudess' piano work is excellent. His use of traditional piano instead of the overused DT keyboard sound was a pleasant surprise. James Labrie's vocals are also quite good. He sings for at least eight different characters in the story, which must have been difficult to do. However, if you happen to not like his voice, then you really won't like this album because he sings almost the entire time. There are very few instrumental sections.

I believe the biggest issue with this album is the absence of creative input from John Myung and Mike Mangini. The bass is almost nonexistent in the mix, and the drums are boring, albeit better produced than the last two albums. The fact that every single Dream Theater interview I have seen and read on this album has only included Labrie, Petrucci, and Rudess implies that Myung and Mangini either chose to limit their participation or they were pushed aside. Their relative absence is a shame since Myung has written some of their best lyrics over the years, and Mangini is a remarkably talented drummer. Mike Portnoy's influence over the band was always clear, and it seems that the band is not giving Mangini the chance to shine.

I wish I could recommend this album, but, by the band's own standards, it just is not very good. There is a lot of filler material, which causes the album to drag on. Musically, there is nothing special here. It is likely the band's worst album, and it must make fans wonder what the future of the band will look like.
Calum Gibson's Review
The album starts off with a typical Dream Theater style instrumental, short and straight to the point that this is a Dream Theater album. What follows however, is what I would describe as, while not being their best album (for me that title will forever be with Metropolis Part 2), a close second.

The album itself is thankfully lacking certain ingredients that more recent ones from the band have suffered from - namely the areas when singer James LaBrie goes very high pitched to the point of being unable to understand what he is saying, and the very impressive, but overdone trade off solos between John Petrucci (guitars) and Jordan Rudess (keyboards).

Instead, a focus more on well crafted (while still being blisteringly fast at many points) solos that invoke some emotion, rather than awe at the speed is prevalent throughout the album. This is a bonus for me, as one issue I found with their previous albums was that they were in general becoming a bit stagnant. Every song had similar structures and almost generic 'prog' sections and solos designed for little more than impressing people. This album is far more focused on great song writing, complex and interesting structure and story telling.

The songwriting itself is what I would describe from my point of view, as a progressive metal album should be. It is not complex because they can, it is complex because it is. The album weaves its way through the story, each song suiting the story it is telling perfectly. The songwriting sounds almost more natural, like a band completely at ease with themselves thinking they do not have to prove anything. While previous albums have often sounded like the band thought 'this must be difficult, that must be fast, no one should ever be able to play this!', this one sounds more like it came naturally to them.

The solos are sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes both. However, both keys and guitar are used to maximum effect to create the mood for the story, the solos are perfectly placed and are written beautifully to increase the emotion suitable for that track in particular.

A lot of different styles are covered within this album, from progressive metal, to some standard metal tracks, to military, ballads, theatrical villainous type songs and almost circus type music. It is designed to be a story, a concept album that to me, sounds like it could easily be transferred into a progressive metal musical.

Lyrically, it can be a bit 'simple' at times, with it taking a more direct story-telling approach, like they were taken straight from a book, rather than going down the metaphorical route some bands choose. However, I do not feel this does the album a disservice. It makes the story easy to follow and understand. It should be also noted that, generally, the band are more known for the music rather than vocally or lyrically. But on this album, it works, pure and simple.

If you are not a fan of Dream Theater because you find them pompous or pretentious, I would say this album may change your mind. For me? This will be on heavy rotation for a very long time.
Andrew Halley's Review
For any modern beat combo to have been around for over 30 years they must have been doing something right, whether it be pure prowess or simply giving the fans what they want.

Well in Dream Theater's case, the skills are obvious, but what of the second part of that reasoning?

High selling Images and Words (1992) set a bar that almost defined the genre that is "progressive metal". The stand out track was Pull Me Under, and it is still shouted out at concerts by aficionados as the default one to hear. Alleged favourite Metropolis Pt2: Scenes from a Memory was a story telling concept and from that there were seven more albums.

Now number 13 has returned to that very format. The Astonishing is a double CD of cinematic rock opera that takes over two hours to perform.

So will it tick the boxes of the extremely devoted followers? I've played it four times and seen the live show at London's swanky Palladium and it's a lot to take in at first and certainly asks the listener to pay attention.

Ambitious, audacious, complicated, and (more tellingly) very little to do with metal.

Lyrics by guitarist John Petrucci, the dots and quavers quilled by him and keyboardist Jordan Rudness, and David Campbell arranging orchestral and choir - this is symphonic prog to the fore, albeit with heavy drumming and rock god vocals. And this is where to start this frankly magnificent recording...

James LaBrie shines as he "plays" eight different characters in this production set in a dystopian USA where the only "melody" is supplied by the NOMACS (noise machines) until the Ravenskill Rebel Militia win through using the power of music. It's very Star Wars or Game of Thrones but this is what this album is all about. There are a total of 34 tracks, five of them are the electronic meanderings of the aforementioned antagonists and are clearly Jordan Rudness having terrific fun with the various apps and technology at his disposal. These nasty flying things (as seen on Jie Ma's fantastic cover art) start the album with Decent of the Nomacs then Dystopian Overture sets the mood for the entire album.

Everything is thrown in to firmly establish the whole feel, a slow epic of brass, strings, choirs, arpeggio guitar, and then more more choir...

The theme heard here is will be reprised throughout and is the backbone of the entire piece.

The Gift of Music introduces us to the singer and the remarkable clarity of the recording, sonically it is the best yet and the engineer Richard Chyck is to be commended along with Petrucci's widescreen vision.

There are story-telling ballads throughout that verge on mainstream AOR or indeed Broadway theatrical posturing, but the libretto is very long and needs to be presented in this way. When Your Time Has Come even throws in a polite audience applause to gild that same lily.

There are battle scenes, Brother Can You Hear Me is as patriotic as it gets with marching effects and fist on chest sentimentally... It's comparable to The Wall at it's very best...

There are far too many tracks to pick out, but every one seems to surprise and delight. A Life Left Behind starts with a swing jazz swagger but quickly turns into another heartfelt LaBrie ballad with lovely string backing. The main keyboard sound is the grand piano andThe X Aspect intro is a beautiful example.

There are, of course, standout tracks and A New Beginning is classic DT with a great guitar solo and synth duel but then the last three minutes are a revelation as the tempo changes into a pure funk groove held down by John Myung's lower register six string bass and Mike Mangini playing (with unfamiliar restraint) provide a backing to Petrucci's pleading notes of joy. By The Road to Revelation, which concludes CD1, I have this overwhelming desire to listen to it all again, but this is a choice decided by its complexity and it's "homework" that I'm looking forward to...

2285 Entr'acte begins CD2 and is another huge instrumental reprise of the main theme but now with added optimism and force.

There are a couple of stolen chords from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence's second half, which is probably this record's closest cousin.

Another "heavy treat" awaits in Moment of Betrayal, there's no holding back on that massive drum kit now and its coda contains the longing that only the French horn can provide. This leads seamlessly into the lovely keyboard lilts of Heaven's Cove.

The essential lyrical content of Begin Again balladry with its beautiful lead guitar intro leads us into the battle scene that is The Path That Divides, which triggers another "conversation" from the enemy with Machine Chatter.

Hymn of a Thousand Voices ends with just that but not before we get four minutes of Blarney Stone Irish tinged fiddle driven foot stompage!

Our New World is a Queen-like paean to joy that clearly states that good is winning over evil, minor keys are replaced with major and the clouds are parting.

The album ends with the track The Astonishing, a mirror of the opening but with vocal conclusions: "People can you hear us, peace has been restored. The silence has been broken, music resigns forever more".

The guitarist, though, has the last word by playing the very last note after the orchestra's subito forzando finale...

This isn't just fantasy, it's an allegory for what our own world is becoming and what it could become if we all stand together. As C.S. Lewis once said, "You are never too old to set another goal".

This album is not what Dream Theater fans were expecting but with proper thought it's the obvious evolution for them. Since Mike Portnoy's departure the outstanding A Dramatic Turn Of Events showed what the next stage had become but when I heard the orchestral section of Illumination Theory from their eponymous follow up, I personally thought another direction was in the wind. And this is it.

The next step on a staircase that can only ascend. It is up to us to invest and support all the endeavours of this band's creativity, The Astonishing requires repeat listening to fully appreciate everything that is contained within, but the rewards will be ten fold, or maybe nine out of ten fold. Thank you guys.
Peter Swanson: 9.5 out of 10
Bryan Morey: 4 out of 10
Calum Gibson: 9 out of 10
Andrew Halley: 9 out of 10
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