Round Table Review
Dream Theater — A View From The Top Of The World
Dream Theater were one of my "gateway" bands when I was first discovering progressive music in the late 90s, and remain one of my favourite bands to this day. A View From The Top Of The World, is the band's 15th studio album and confidently continues their legacy as the leading force in progressive metal today.
In my opinion, Dream Theater have never released a bad, or even a less-that-great record. I even found 2016's The Astonishing to be a pretty decent album, despite many long-time fans finding it disappointing, to say the least. But I am very happy to report that A View From The Top Of The World is not only a great Dream Theater album, it might be their best in very long time.
The music on offer within this album's 70-minute running time, is typically what you would expect from Dream Theater. That is to say that there are initially few surprises, and the band certainly don't tread much, if any, new ground throughout the majority of the record. But that's not really a bad thing when you let the quality of the music here wash over you and sink in.
You see, what Dream Theater have done here, is crafted a record of incredibly strong, and highly consistent songs. Some of these songs contain throwbacks to records like Scenes From A Memory, not in the way they are written as such, but in the way the music feels. Some tracks are some of the strongest of the band's modern era, while paying homage to some older sounds that we haven't heard from them in many years. These musicians have proved time and time again that they deserve their place at the top of the world's progressive metal roster. This record further enhances that fact.
The initial opening of the record, at first, left me just slightly underwhelmed. The Alien does start powerfully with some incredibly heavy guitars and drums, then falls into a typical Petrucci solo. Yet I found the overall song a little average on my first couple of listens. As it turns out, this was simply because the rest of the album is just so good, and this opening number does pale slightly in comparison to it.
It did take a few listens to really start hearing all that is going on in some of these songs. The album feels like it passes by quite quickly for such a long record, and I find myself still discovering new intricacies even while it plays in the background as I write this review.
Invisible Monster is the first track that really opens the album up, this song contains some absolutely stunning guitar sections, and a really catchy (if somewhat cheesy) chorus. The guitar solos in particular are the first indication that John Petrucci has regained whatever inspiration he lost on the last couple of records; something here just sounds fresh again.
But it's Sleeping Giant where this record really begins to pull you under, and down into its rabbit hole. This song is just a wonderful example of how Dream Theater work together. The interplay between Rudess and Petrucci throughout this song is magical, Mike Mangini pulls some insane drumming ideas out of his hat, and James LaBrie sounds just about the best he's ever sounded, although I'll put that down to the incredible mixing job by Andy Sneap.
It was during this song that my first memories of the Metropolis Pt 2 album started to resurface. That was a life changing album for me, and Sleeping Giant contains some parts in its second act that could have easily been taken straight from that classic album. It's fascinating stuff, offering some of Dream Theater's best dual guitar and keyboard solo's to date.
After feeling rather overwhelmed by this point in the album, I was blind-sided by Transcending Time. If you were to ask me to describe the perfect Dream Theater radio friendly song, while also making a more than obvious tribute to one of their biggest influences (I'll let you guess who it is), this would be that song. The guitar work and melodies here are some of the most beautiful the band have ever written. LaBrie's vocals soar perfectly over the guitar harmonies. Mangini provides just enough madness from behind his monstrous drum kit, while still keeping the song accessible.
You could have ended the record there and I'd have been happy, but we still have over 30 minutes of music to go, continuing with another epic, Awaken The Master. This track begins much more aggressively than anything before. The keyboards dance playfully around the down-tuned guitars, before Rudess comes in with some stunning piano chords, again harking back to the older days of Dream Theater. The melodies during this song seem darker than what has come before, but there is still a sense of beauty here, especially with the vocal harmonies. Mike Mangini shines once again with some incredibly inventive drumming.
And finally we have the epic 20-minute title track. I don't want to give too much away about this one, just know that it ebbs and flows beautifully. There are some truly epic moments, and possibly a section where Dream Theater do tread at least a bit of new ground. All the hallmarks of a great song are present here, and as you'd expect, it builds to a wonderful climax, showcasing some of the album's most memorable and melodic moments.
Dream Theater fans will forever fiercely debate which is their strongest album. For me this is easily my favourite album since Black Clouds And Silver Linings, and it may grow to be my favourite since Six Degrees. The level of song-writing and musicianship on show here is nothing short of world-class; everything we've come to expect. Yet this record is much more than that, it is one of the most consistent albums Dream Theater have ever released. It's also their best sounding album to date from a production aspect, and is also accessible enough to attract a huge number of new, younger fans.
This is easily one of the best albums of the year, and another outstanding release from one of the genre's all-time greatest bands.
In the progressive arena Dream Theater require no introduction. As the leading light of the prog-metal genre, any description of the five-piece band will attract many superlatives.
Formed in 1985 as Majesty, they changed their name to Dream Theater in 1988. They have combined a musical and technical ability, with a propensity for ever-changing time signatures, adding plenty of guitar solos from John Petrucci while duelling with Jordan Rudess on keyboards and vice-versa. As of 2018 they have sold 12 million albums worldwide, and along with Queensrÿche and Fates Warning they have been referred to as the leading triumvirate of progressive metal.
Having just released their 15th album, A View From The Top Of The World, I think I have finally fallen out of love with Dream Theater. Our break-up has been coming for some time, stuttering to a close with the new release.
Like most relationships, it's fair to say we have had our ups and downs, good times and bad. The ups for me include Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory, Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence and Systematic Chaos. The downs, which have been happening with greater frequency, include the The Astonishing and Dream Theater. It has at times been great; too often it has been disappointing. The final straw has been the release of A View From The Top Of The World.
When I try to trace back where the relationship began to fall apart, it is clear to me that the critical juncture was when Mike Portnoy parted company with DT in a highly publicised and unsavoury event. Apart from being a founding member of DT, he added something substantial to the band that has been sadly lacking since Mike Mancini took over on drums, and more crucially, the altering dynamic of the band took place.
When I say the dynamic of the band, I am referring to the change that Mancini replacing Portnoy has brought to DT. A technically excellent drummer, he is a former associate Professor of Music in Berklee College of Music and was the world record holder for number of beats per minute. Though technically brilliant, I would consider him one dimensional. Since he joined DT, he has written lyrics for one song. In contrast, Portnoy's role as the soul of the band encapsulated all aspects of the group. Who is the better drummer? I would say Mancini. Who is best for DT, Portnoy.
Portnoy's influence over DT was immense. He co-produced six DT albums, was a leading song-writer and contributed backing vocals. On his own admission, he is OCD, and it appears that everything regarding the band had to be agreed with him. Difficult to work with, he has been referred to as a kind of “managing editor” of DT, a title Jordan Rudess agrees with. In one of Portnoy's many bands, Neal Morse of Transatlantic suggests that “he has a million things going on and a million ideas in his head”.
In 2000 he embraced sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has written five songs about the 12 step AA programme that are spread out over five albums beginning with The Glass Prison from Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, and ending with That Shattered Fortress on Black Clouds And Silver Linings.
Looking at DT's performance post-Portnoy, his departure tells a story. Commencing with A Dramatic Turn Of Events, Mancini took over the drum kit and performed the drum parts that had been established before his recruitment. Following Dream Theater, The Astonishing and Distance Over Time working up to A View From The Top Of The World, the band appears to be lost for new ideas. To me, they are conforming to a template which contains a lot of similarities with previous work. By and large the pattern is intro, instrumental passage, melodic solo, riff and vocals.
That said, it is no fluke that Dream Theatre have become one of the leading bands in the progressive rock arena. Of their 15 studio albums, none of them should be dismissed, in fact a majority could be described as critically acclaimed, all attracting a substantial following.
Turning our attention the new album, recorded in their new studio DTHQ, the production, as expected, is excellent. Overall though, I find A View from the Top of the World quite dull and frankly disappointing.
The Alien is a powerful opener, possibly the best track on the album, unmistakably a DT song conforming to the usual DT pattern. Clocking in at 9.31, there is plenty of guitar chugging exchanged for lead guitar, vocal, keyboard, back to chugging.
Following The Alien, is Answering The Call. Again it conforms to the pattern set on track one, with a guitar riff that would remind you of Breaking All Illusions from A Dramatic Turn Of Events. While it has no great melody, the themes of darkness and demons in Invisible Monster make it one of the more cerebral tracks on the album.
Sleeping Giant has a nice melody running through it, as does the Rush-influenced Transcending Time, but unfortunately both are nothing to write home about. John Myung wrote the lyric for Awaken The Master, John Petrucci introduced his new 8-string guitar. Saving the day is the title track, the epic A View From The Top Of The World. It has three parts with a resemblance casting back to Illumination Theory, In The Presence Of Enemies Pt 2 or Octovarium.
Overall I am disappointed. I know it's been 10 years, but I think it has gradually become obvious that DT started to lose their way with the departure of Mike Portnoy. Overall I find their new album predictable, it lacks originality and hides behind self-indulgent soloing. Lyrically it is mediocre, musically there is little progression. Being fair to DT, they do have high standards, and their playing and production are as always excellent. Unfortunately they are lacking in direction and are depending on previous successful formulas.
Talk has been going on about this album since April 2020, and again in August the same year with Petrucci talking about his new 8-string guitar and hopes of using it on a new album. Having been a huge fan of this band since first hearing Metropolis Part 2 and having loved Distance Over Time (the previous effort), I have been excited to hear this new album.
Opening with the lead single, The Alien, the album kicks off with an immediate heavy vibe. Riffs, reminiscent of the Systematic Chaos era, mix in with solos and keys more akin to their later years. My first thought is that LaBrie is sounding good. The band sounds as tight as ever, and their song-writing seems to be improving exponentially since the dark time of The Astonishing (and let us never speak of it again).
The album is a fairly typical one. It has the riffs, the blistering solos and the soaring choruses. You know what to expect by now after 15 albums, but this release definitely feels more on the “mature” side for them. The song-writing is geared more towards the actual songs, rather than showing off. The vocals tend to be more focused on melody and catchiness, and everything just feels like it flows slightly better. It feels a bit more like a prog-metal album. Still undeniably a DT album, with all the trademarks of one, but it feels fresher than previous work they have done.
Elements from throughout their career are spread across the album, but they feel like they have been revisited within a new frame of mind. Transcending Time for example opens with what sounds like a beginning of The Count of Tuscany's sequel. It is an oddly-happy song, good and catchy but the major key sound makes it feel almost a bit out of place next to the darker sounds of the rest of the album, such as Awake the Master. This track has a riff that sounds like The Dark Eternal Night, but a riff that has been at the gym as much as Petrucci clearly has been.
The album is a perfect example of the band at their proggiest, but without the flamboyant showing off they have become known for. While it doesn't break much new ground, nor does it do anything different than before, it does sound more mature and well put together. It is more melodic, proggier, heavier, better written and the production and mixing are absolutely perfect. I am thoroughly happy with this album.