Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dream Theater - The Astonishing (2016)

During the last couple of years, I have felt that Dream Theater has been more laid back in their approach, sort of leaning on their previous accomplishments like they have nothing to prove anymore. This has of course been apparent in the music, with the releases of two fairly mediocre and uninspiring albums (at least by the band's standard). This takes me back to Portnoy's departure, and why it happened. He wanted the band to take a small break, something the others was not on board with. Thinking of it now, it might have been a decent idea, to step down for a year or two to refresh those batteries.

But like a shot in the dark, the band unveils this, the band's 13th album entitled "The Astonishing", the band's biggest project up to date. A full on concept double album (or quadruple LP (!?!?)) that consists of 34 songs and a total play time of 2 hours and 10 minutes. And if you get scared by the pure size now, then you will probably run like hell when you start to dig in on the concept. The band has created a opus that is so humongous that it is hard to even know where to start. To make it easier for the listener to understand the story, the band has created this website that explains literally everything. You can read about the characters, look at an elaborate map of the places, and even follow the story while you are listening to the album, track by track.

In short, the story is set in the year 2285 and in the north east region of the United States, or as it is called in that time, G.N.E.A (the Great Northern Empire of The Americas). It is a time were creative expressions such as dance, art, and most importantly, music are a thing of the past, controlled by these robots called NOMACS (or Noise Machines) and the emperor Lord Nafaryus. However, far away from the main city, in a small town called Ravenskill, a boy has emerged as The Chosen One. His real name is Gabriel, and he possesses the gift of music, knowing how to control ancient instruments and sing. He is the main weapon of his brother and his rebel group, that aim to take down the empire, and bring back real music to the land once more.

I do not think the story in itself is anything original, it is sort of a modern mix of Romeo And Juliet and Star Wars (obviously without the light sabers and the force). However, it is well thought out and very elaborate, and I am not just saying that because it has tons of text and content. Once you understand the story, it is easy to follow with it in the actual lyrics of the music, you picture the characters and what they are doing and saying.

But here lies the problem, there is so much to take in that you run the risk of losing the music. It feels more like a musical than a prog album, like something Mozart and Shakespeare would cooperate on. This of course makes "The Astonishing" a unique piece of art the likes none has ever seen or heard. It is big, full of elements and layers, and still, the music plays the back up role in this story.

While the band performs splendidly as always, I feel like the only one who is pushing his boundaries are James LaBrie. He does some of his finest vocal work up to date, with an impressive range and emotion to really lift the album. The rest of the band are just tagging along for the ride, rarely taking the center stage. Without giving out too many spoilers, I know of at least 2 places where the band could have gone all in with not only their heavy side (which is mostly absent), but also their competitive spirit. That's right, I miss a classic solo battle in this album that otherwise has close to everything a prog lover could dream of.

Obviously, this is a album that should be experienced in all of its 2 hour and 10 minute length, but there are still some songs that are pretty enjoyable on their own. "The Gift of Music" is not only a great introduction to the concept, but it also works as a good introduction for the band as well, showing almost all of the things that defines Dream Theater. Then we have "A Savior In The Square", a song that has a small part that is really epic, and lifts the song from being good to being great. "Chosen" has one of the more striking solos and structures in the album, and "Moment of Betrayal" contains a really good and memorable chorus (unlike the rest of the 33 songs). Oh, and the two opening instrumentals "Dystopian Overture" and "2285 Entr'acte" are amazing ways of opening up the 2 acts, which I am sure will do even better once the band goes on tour (they are performing the entire album from start to finish) So there are some material for the impatient ones here, but since they all are a part of a bigger picture, I still recommend a full listen through.

"The Astonishing" is a huge accomplishment for Dream Theater, because they have not only managed to create a grand story that is rich on detail, but also baked in more or less their entire career in one double album. Sure, there are several fillers, and that patented Dream Theater 10+ minute epic is missing, but this is a album that should be viewed as a artwork. You should look and enjoy it from a distance, not go in and detail every single brush stroke. I love the fact that the band is not taking the easy route and try to reinvent themselves, something they have not done for the last couple of years. With that said, they may have bitten of a little more than they could chew. It does not feel as complete as "Metropolis Pt. 2...". I like this album, and it is their best in some time, but if the band would have killed some of their darlings, and tighten the whole thing up, then I would have loved it. A for effort and courage, B for the content.

Songs worthy of recognition: Moment of Betrayal, The Gift of Music, A Savior In The Square, The Path That Divides

Rating: 8/10 NOMACs

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