Monday, 29 February 2016

Dream Theater's 'The Astonishing' - Album Review

When it comes to progressive metal, there are no bigger bands than Dream Theater. They are probably the only band in the genre that can fill arenas around the world, and have always been hard workers. They generally release a new album every couple of years or so, and they always tour heavily to promote their new releases. Dream Theater's last album, the extremely melodic self-titled album (which I reviewed here), was released in 2013. It was more instantly accessible than usual, and saw the band writing much conciser songs (the 20 minute plus Illumination Theory aside!). Three years later (breaking their recent two year album cycles), Dream Theater have pushed that concise songwriting style even further on their thirteenth studio album The Astonishing. There is a catch however, The Astonishing consists of 34 tracks!!! I am sure by now that you all know the basics behind Dream Theater's latest mammoth album, but for those that do not I shall go over them briefly. The Astonishing is a two disc concept album (or, more accurately, a rock opera) that tells the story of a dystopian fictional future for America where conventional music is no longer created by humans. Gabriel, an ordinary man with a beautiful singing voice, is seen by the people as a saviour, but Emperor Nafaryus sees him as a threat to his rule. Yes the story is as generic and cliché as it sounds, but it develops convincingly over the album's two hour plus length, and actually draws you in quite deeply as it moves forward. Tales of love, betrayal, and murder pour from the 'pages' as the story moves on, and guitarist John Petrucci's lyrics (while sometimes slightly embarrassing) tell it clearly. While songwriting is usually a fairly collaborative effort in Dream Theater, The Astonishing has been written entirely by Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess. This has probably added to the concise, musical vibe of the album as the songs flow into one another seamlessly. This is probably the band's least progressive release for some time. That seem strange to say about a double album that is over two hours long, but the music has more in common with a heavier version of something from the West End rather than 1999's Metropolis - Part 2: Scenes from a Memory, the band's other celebrated concept album. There is very little musical showboating here too. Petrucci and Rudess and uncharacteristically restrained, with frontman James LaBrie stealing the show with his dynamic and commanding vocal display. He has created a slightly different singing style for each character from the album, which makes the story easier to follow. Bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Mangini are pretty restrained too, playing for the song and never really getting a chance to really cut loose and play something challenging. This review will be slightly different than usual, as a track-by-track breakdown of a 34 track album is almost impossible. I shall instead to a paragraph on each 'Act' of the story, and talk about the highlights of each. As a warning, there will be story spoilers included in this review!

After a metallica, industrial intro, the instrumental Dystopian Overture introduces us to many of the musical themes found throughout the album. In many ways, this is the most classic-sounding Dream Theater song on the album, with plenty of Petrucci's emotive playing, and some excellent classically-inspired piano runs. Petrucci and Rudess play off each other in classic Dream Theater style before The Gift of Music, the album's first 'proper' narrative song, gets underway. It is a simple rock song, that recalls the recent Dream Theater shift away from their technical metal sound of the noughties towards a more melodic one. A staccato, pacey guitar riff drives the song as LaBrie uses his smooth voice to introduce the story. Gabriel's brother Arhys has the breathy, but strong side of LaBrie's voice; and there are some nice high notes hit here. Petrucci's guitar solo is short by his standards, but still employs many of the techniques he is known for, before a keyboard-driven griding riff takes over. A Better Life is an early highlight, with a delicate string and piano introduction. This soon gives way to a heavier, mid-paced riff; but Rudess' piano still creates flowing melodies underneath. Mangini's drumming actually drives the song however, with some prominent bass drum work, that forces Petrucci to play a heavy riff over the top of it. The song has an excellent anthemic feel however, especially towards the end when a really catchy section comes in. The circus-style Lord Nafaryus, which has some excellent keyboard playing, leads into the soaring A Savior in the Square and When Your Time Has Come combination. The first part is heavier, with some really big riffs. LaBrie's vocals sit well with Rudess' pomp keyboards, and the song has a real metal edge to it. The second number is very keyboard-driven, and has some Rudess' best playing on the album. It is a piano-led rocker, and LaBrie nails it with a voice that sounds like something he would have used on much older Dream Theater albums. Act of Faythe is another beautiful song, with some of LaBrie's most fragile-sounding vocals ever. The story takes a menacing turn here as Nafaryus was Gabriel to surrender to him in the spiky rocker Three Days. The next highlight, A Life Left Behind, has some more of the old progressive feel Dream Theater are known for. An excellent bassline from Myung, pulsing organ from Rudess, and a dancing guitar riff form the song's intro, although the main song is much gentler. This fits within the album's overall style though, and LaBrie's vocals are once again excellent. Ravenskill, a varied song that mixes heavier moments with gentle piano sections, has real a rock swagger to it; something that much of the rest of the album lacks. It packs a real punch, and is quite a pivotal moment in the album's story. The last few numbers of Act 1 all seem to blend into one another a little, and it does seem to lack the spark and variety of the early part of the story. It is not without merit however. Chosen has a wonderful Petrucci guitar solo, and A Tempting Offer has some great heavier riffs and drumming. The lengthy A New Beginning does standard out toward the end however. The orchestral arrangements are excellent, and LaBrie's varied vocals portraying a conversation between Nafaryus, his wife Arabelle, and his daughter Faythe is something to behold. There are some excellent technical riffs throughout the song, and an excellent guitar solo is the icing on the cake. Act 1 ends with The Road to Revolution which is a moody semi-anthemic piece that rounds out the album's first half perfectly, with a certain West End charm.

Act 2 opens with 2285 Entr'acte, which acts as another mini-overture, before another beautiful piano line heralds the arrival of Moment of Betrayal, which is a faster, heavier song that has a real classic Dream Theater vibe. This is one of the crazier songs, with some spectacular Mangini drum fills and some excellent guitar and keyboard interplay that would be right at home on the band's earlier work. The song really gets Act 2 off to a bang, and contains some of the best virtuosic playing on the album; with both Petrucci and Rudess nailing their parts as only they can. The mostly-instrumental Heaven's Cove is largely an atmospheric keyboard number, but really ramps but with the arrival of the vocals. For this second part of the album, the story takes many dramatic twists and turns. Gabriel is betrayed by his brother (to save his son), and Crown Prince Daryus goes out to ambush him. Begin Again is a beautiful ballad however that is Faythe speaking about how her hopes and dreams have changed since meeting Gabriel, unknowing that her brother plans to kill him. The West End cheese comes out on songs like this, but it has a certain charm that does not make it sound twee. The moody The Path that Divides is another key moment in the story. Arhys regrets his decision to sell Gabriel out to Daryus and goes off to confront him, the two fight and Arhys is killed. This tale is told over a dramatic metal backing, with an excellent use of gothic choirs and retro-sounding organ sounds. LaBrie lays down another really heartfelt performance on this song, and cements my view that this album is his crowning achievement as a singer. The Walking Shadow continues the heavy dramatic feel of the previous song, and has some really pounding riffing that is backed up by some church organ sounds for extra drama. This song also contains Daryus' accidental stabbing of his sister, which is probably the key moment in the story - one that leads to the eventual happy ending and redemption. The next three songs are quite downbeat, as Gabriel realises what has happened, and is joined by Nafaryus who all try to save Faythe. Once again, the piano work here is excellent, as the crazy keyboard solo that bursts out in the middle of My Last Farewell. The acoustic Losing Faythe is an emotional number, with some really lovely acoustic guitar playing from Petrucci, which shows his diversity as a guitarist. If anything, Dream Theater do this lighter sound more convincingly than the really heavy stuff they have done in the past. Whispers on the Wind and Hymn of a Thousand Voices also display this more stripped-back sound, which help to build up to the ending double salvo of One New World and Astonishing. Both of these songs are strong mid-paced rockers, driven by LaBrie's excellent singing and simple musical motifs. Astonishing reprises melodies from previous songs from the album, and brings everything to an understated but still powerful climax. Overall, The Astonishing is, in my opinion, a triumph. Reviews of this album have been extremely divisive, even from hardcore Dream Theater fans, but this is such a melodic feast of an album that I cannot help but love it. The band have done better, but this ambitious concept album will no doubt become a huge part of their legacy going forward.

The album was released on 29th January 2016 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Gift of Music.

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