Artist: Dream Theater
Album: The Astonishing
Release date: Jan. 29, 2016
If you're looking for a traditional Dream Theater album, it's not The Astonishing. No, this album is much, much more than that. In fact, I'd suggest that people not even view this album as an "album," per se. It's a musical. And fans who approach the two-disc conceptual rock opera expecting the band's usual formula of long songs and blistering instrumentals will likely be disappointed. Luckily, I'm not one of those fans. I truly adore everything about this unique dystopian masterpiece.
Now, before we go any further, I should disclose that I'm one of the band's biggest fanboys. For example, I've got a Dream Theater decal on my car and I attended the band's induction into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2010, to give you an idea of how hardcore I am. Despite my "fanboyness," I was still skeptical when I saw details about the album start to emerge in late 2015. Everything seemed lavish and over the top about The Astonishing – from the elaborate map of a fictional kingdom to the flying noise machines that resembled something out of the 2013 science-fiction movie, "Oblivion." But I trust in the judgment of guitarist John Petrucci. The band has released a dozen studio albums since the late '80s, with Petrucci steadily guiding the band lyrically and musically. He always comes through. And in the case of The Astonishing, he's come through once again – and with flying colors.
If you've seen any of the band's recent promotional interviews for The Astonishing, Petrucci has made it clear that he didn't set out to write typical Dream Theater songs for the album. Rather, he and keyboardist Jordan Rudess were writing music to accompany the futuristic story Petrucci had written – a story about an oppressive world void of human music that is rescued by a "chosen one" named Gabriel, who has the "gift of music." There's some love mixed in too, I should note. For a band known for its instrumental prowess, this was a big risk and departure from their standard recipe. But let's be realistic. The band has given us three decades of great music and if they want to experiment for an album cycle I'm all for it. It's one of the reasons I respect this band so much. They're willing to challenge themselves.
I'll admit, my first reaction was that the album might be too Rudess-heavy and slow in spots. But then, I followed along with the booklet's character dialogue as well as the track-by-track descriptions of the plot and scene posted on the band's website and I found myself enjoying and appreciating it a whole lot more. The tunes are tailored to the tale's tone and chatter to the point where it created a "theater" in my mind. Fitting for a group named Dream Theater, I'd say. The illustrations posted in the booklet and on the website helped the visualizations as well. Overall, the song flow and music choices were more understandable in the story's context and it was a fun experience. I even felt my heart racing at the climactic moments.
Musically, there's a little bit of everything on The Astonishing. There are some conventional-sounding Dream Theater songs like "The Gift of Music" and "Moment of Betrayal," there are beautiful ballads like "When Your Time Has Come" and "Chosen," and there are others that jump all over the map like "A Tempting Offer" and "My Last Farewell." There are also some sound effects to bring the story to life as well as a full orchestra and choir. Oh, and vocalist James LaBrie plays the role of eight characters. In total, there are over two hours of music. And I must say that every time I listen to the album I find a new part that mesmerizes me.
My only criticism is Roadrunner Record's poor handling of the album's pre-order distribution. I didn't receive my copy in the mail by release day, so I had to spend my Friday night trying to find a store that still had it in stock. I totally refuse to listen to a new album on YouTube. I wanted the complete package in my hands to experience the album the way it was meant to be experienced. Oddly enough, I ended up enjoying it so much that I kept both copies – one for home, and one for my car. It's safe to say I'll be listening to lots of The Astonishing.
All in all, The Astonishing is an incredibly ballsy album that shows us the progressive metal giant's creative spirit and innovative side continue to expand, evolve and explore new places – even a whopping 30 years into their career. And I can't wait to see where they take us next.
- Michael R. Ebert (progzombie.blogspot.com)