Dream Theater – The Astonishing
Dream Theater – The Astonishing (2016)
- 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 (6:01)
- 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)
- 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 (3:44)
- Losing Faythe (4:13)
- Whispers On The Wind (1:37)
- Hymn Of A Thousand Voices (3:39)
- Our New World (4:12)
- Power Down (1:25)
- Astonishing (5:51)
A New Beginning
Wow. That should pretty much sum it up. It’s a remarkable feat that Dream Theater have accomplished in “The Astonishing”. For their 13th studio album, they’ve chosen to make a very bold move. They’ve gone all the way. They’ve created a rock opera, complete with characters, places in a dystopian future gone retro-feudal society…
And: It’s a great, melodic album that clocks in at over 2 hours and 10 minutes, and it manages to be interesting all the way through. It’s varied. It’s very focused. It’s organic and breathy. And it tells a good little story. And best of all; It contains so much fresh and interesting stuff. This is the Dream Theater album I didn’t know I was missing, but I sure am glad this is what we got.
In creating the new album they’ve done it by breaking all conventions they’ve established through their 12 previous albums. It’s their second concept album with a story as the centerpiece, the first since Metropolis part 2: Scenes From A Memory. It’s their second double CD album, the first since Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence. But it’s the longest album in their catalog, clocking in at 2 hours and 10 minutes. It has the most tracks of any of their releases, with 34 separate songs. But, the average length of each song is just around 4 minutes, with the longest song on the album being 7 minutes and 41 seconds. The songs are focused, melodic and with a lot of attention given to acoustic instruments and piano. This is a Dream Theater album very clearly like no other.
John Petrucci wrote the story over a period of two years. He and Jordan Rudess composed most of the music behind Rudess’ piano. The result is a very organic and acoustic sound, a particularly restrained album.
The marketing for the album has also been markedly different. Instead of the usual press release containing most information about the album, the process has been covered in a veil of secrecy. The first confirmation about what the album would be came when the announcement of the tour came in mid November. The tour, presenting the full album from start to finish promised us a “momentous event”, which would see Dream Theater play with a full set of visual and stage dressing to match the album. Then, as time passed, slowly more and more information was revealed. We got a webpage which slowly uncovered character portraits and a map of the world. We got to sign up to two different “factions”; The Great Northern Empire of the Americas, and the Ravenskill Rebel Militia. We had e-mails and twitter messages from the leaders of these factions, presenting their side of the story. Then we had the release of the first preview of the album; “The Gift of Music”. And we had a trailer showing off a lot of the artwork. Fans were intrigued. Some were put off by the sci-fi fantasy style. What on earth could this be?
Well, this is my opinion of the new album. I will not go through a full track by track (because doing so would also possibly give away too much of the story – and I won’t be spoiling much of the story here). That being said, this is a review will not be totally spoiler free, so if you want to experience the album without knowing too much, please stop reading here.
The Astonishing is a much more accessible album than Dream Theater has become known for the past decade or so. First of all, it consists of all very short and concise songs. Every song of the 34 songs is its own work, with a beginning and an end – with the notable exception of one track which flows into the next seamlessly. This also means that the music is much more constrained. For the people looking for long epics with extended sections of soloing and back and forth between instrumental dueling instruments, there is very little of that here. In my opinion, this allows the focus be on the story.
After all, this is a story, first and foremost. Everything is focused on the story. It’s very clear that the story existed first, before the music was written. What does this mean? Well, the story being in focus means that the album is very much vocal driven. The vocals are the primary instrument. And what they’ve done here is very interesting. James LaBrie is playing all the different characters. He acts out their emotions and their personality through the voice he chooses to use at that moment. It’s very effective at telling the story. Obviously, voicing many separate characters isn’t going to sound -that- different, but there’s certain afflictions that James uses to distinguish the characters. He’s old and bitter. Young and naive. He’s a father caring for his family. He’s a mother wanting only the best for her children. He’s meek. He’s arrogant. He’s ambitious. And it’s all conveyed through his voice. This is by far the most demanding album for James LaBrie, and he’s no stranger to the rock operas, having performed on Ayreon’s The Human Equation and Leonardo: Absolute Man.
It is, when push comes to shove, a rock opera. It adheres fully to the rules of the rock opera. It take a lot of inspiration from the musical theater as well. This could very well have been set on stage. It’s focused on delivering the story through voice and emotion, and the performance is very theatrical and bombastic at times.
Since it’s so story driven, and so based on emotions, the music is also very emotional. There’s a lot of organic and natural instrumentation – orchestra, piano, organs and acoustic guitar. It’s a very organic, very natural soundscape. And because of this, the songs are also with a much greater dynamic range. It’s not busy – quite the opposite. There’s much more focus on real instruments and voices than ever before. I’m surprised at how much of the album is of the melodic rock or even ballad type of music style, especially when we’re at the Rebel side. And the piano is beautiful, restrained melodies. The hammond organ plays long chords with great effects from the leslie. Petrucci often resorts to being a rhythm or a melodic picker, letting the focus always be on melody, story and emotion. It’s a bit strange, but very refreshing to see such restraint from all members. A friend of mine joked that we will see the word “mature” in a lot of reviews. And I agree. That’s exactly it. This is a very mature album.
The album does bear witness that it was constructed around the piano. The piano IS the centerpiece, in combination with the vocals. It is what keeps the whole album grounded. It is what makes the album work as well as it does!
The rhythm section, and even the guitars, are there to support rather than to lead. Very different! Mangini and Myung are magnificent at what they do, the theatrics are impressive but never overtaking the focus. It’s very effective, because by doing it this way it makes us focus on the emotion.
Think of it like as though you’re watching a movie. The music is there to support the story, to assist and enhance the emotional impact of the story as it happens. A song is “a scene”, and you’ll have a short establishing “shot” in a short but effective intro. Then the characters have long monologues, or dialogues. You’ll have like the hopefulness of one character juxtaposed to the anger of another, so the song switches between happy and angry. Very effective.
There are so many melodies, and so many catchy choruses. Dream Theater has always said “the hardest thing to do is to write short songs” – and they tried to shorten songs on Dream Theater (a bit unsuccessfully, I might add). Here, it’s concise and concrete. It’s different from track to track. When they repeat themes, it always makes sense because it’s always because of a callback or a reference to a certain emotion or plot point. This is the most varied Dream Theater album released to date. Where else can you find an album that goes from ballad to theatrical prog metal tango, to melodic rock, with bag pipe sections, violin sections, 20s swing sections that go straight into blast beats, to soaring guitar solos, beautiful piano pieces and an orchestra that just embellishes the music to a level above all else.
That is not to say that there aren’t any of the more typical modern Dream Theater sound, riffy and heavy, with insane instrumental sections. There are plenty. But it’s so much more focused and efficient, that they get to the point, and just “leave it”. In fact, thats a thing I feel about a lot of the album. There’s so many cool ideas where they just touch upon it for a slight section of a track, never to be used again. There will be a song with a great chorus, but its just 2 minutes long, so you only hear the chorus once. And the variance within the tracks themselves are also impressive. A single 4 minute piece can go from beautiful orchestra and piano to flat out heavy riffs, to soaring guitars and end on a pop rock section, and yet it feels cohesive. It feels like it’s meant to do that. It’s not slapdash of different sections all over. It never feels like they just had a leftover cool riff that they just had to include.
I’ll lead you through (very broadly) the journey of “The Astonishing”. Not track by track, but “emotion by emotion”, if you will.
The overture is very pompous and epic, reminiscent of the overture from Six Degrees (only with real orchestra this time around). The first several tracks after “The Gift Of Music” are slow and melodic, and with a lot of emotion. Slow and soaring melodies, piano, orchestra and choir is the focus.
And when we meet the Empire, it’s with a very pompous rock track, extremely theatrical and “royal”. The very contrast from the sad people hungry for a revolution to the royals looking down at their people is neatly expressed in music. “He may have them eating out of his hand, but he’ll never be ruler of this land”, he says, and the music goes into a full on tango. Yes, tango! But even the royals aren’t presented as ruthless. When the emperor tells the listener about his family, it is with great love, and the music reflects this.
Then the full on anger strikes. “You only have three days”. A proper metal track, with angry vocals and screaming choirs. This just makes me laugh out with glee, especially when they do the insane crossover bits where they bring on old school music reminiscent of westerns and gangster music.
Let’s not forget the NOMAC tracks. These are tracks spread throughout which are hugely mechanical, rhythmical but dissonant tracks. Sounds a bit like an avant garde electronic music piece. They’re pretty cool in and of themselves, I could absolutely listen to more like that.
And from there we go to war, with a “march to war” type anthem. It’s epic and pompous. Choirs are singing along with James. Brass are screaming out the melody. It’s just so over the top but yet so amazing. This is music you’ve never heard from Dream Theater before. It all sounds so fresh and inspired. The music is engaging and interesting, and the cool part is that they’re all self-contained tracks, short and concise, that never outstay their welcome. More often than not, they’ll leave you wanting more! There’s plenty of crunchy guitars, but the focus is always on the melody and the story. There’s no misplaced solo section “just because we need a solo”. There are tracks on here I could play for hardcore fans that they would never guess in a million years were Dream Theater. I think that speaks volumes about the length that Dream Theater has gone to to make an exciting album for both old and new fans.
Towards the end of the first disc there’s a great shift in the style of the music. We go from the melodic rock ballad focus towards a more urgent focus where things seem to take a turn for the better? “A New Beginning”. This is an awesome track. It’s such a massive track, exchanging dialogue between several of the characters with their own distinct styles of music attached. It’s the longest track on the album, but yet I’m amazed at how varied and how interesting they make the track. It’s angry, and yet optimistic, and happy, and loving. It’s a great storytelling device. And the latter half is an amazing solo section with John Petrucci really driving it home. Organ bedding with a driving bass beat under it, and a magnificent guitar solo just going on forever (even to the point of them choosing to fade out instead of ending the track properly). I’m a sucker for these kinds of solos.
So Act 1 is a very melodic act. It’s got a lot of exposition and setup to do at the beginning, and the conflict is raised. We slowly over the course of the act increase the drama, and with the increase in drama the intensity of the music also increases, with a temporary release towards the end, which seem to resolve a great deal of the story. But there’s a choice to be made…
Act 2 starts out with a short track “summing up” act 1 – the main themes from act 1 is replayed with an instrumental. This is typically done in operas, and it’s very interesting that Dream Theater has chosen to make it like this. And act 2 starts out in a much more faster paced manner. We’re thrown right into the action, and there’s a lot of fast paced songs here. But amidst the faster paced metal tracks we still find the melodic ballads. But as the plot “thickens”, as it were, the music also becomes way more frantic. It’s very interesting. It’s like listening to the score of a movie. The music very much represents whats going on in the story, and helps us understand and emote with the actions of the characters. It’s very effective. It also helps that the music is so interesting. It’s fresh, but yet well known. It’s melodic and heavy. It’s riffy and angry.
And when the conflict is resolved, and the story gets a happy ending, the songs become hopeful and anthemic. And yet, completely fresh sounding. Melodic rock and pop done absolutely to perfection. “Our New World” has the most catchy chorus from Dream Theater in a long time – I absolutely love it. And then there’s the credit sequence. Or that’s what it feels like at least. The title track feels a bit out of place, following the strong “Our New World”, because it already felt like we had our victory celebration, and this track comes along with yet another anthem.
The sound is great. The variation in the instruments used, and the high amount of clean sounds, orchestra and choir requires the dynamics to be there. And they are. The tracks breathe, giving a lot of room for the important melodies. Whereas I had some complaints of listening fatigue while listening to “Dream Theater”, it is completely absent from “The Astonishing”. This is a good sounding record. It has to be, to allow room for the acoustic instruments used. Bag pipes, cellos, soprano singers… Everything breathes and is given plenty of room.
If anything negative can be said about the sound, it’s that I don’t always love the drum sounds. Where all the instruments sounds so natural and organic, the precise hits from Mangini in a few places can feel a bit out of place. For the most part, it doesn’t bother me, but there are a few times where the mechanical hits just becomes too much. “The Gift of Music”, ironically enough, is the one where I notice it the most. But on the other hand, the drumming is extremely good, and while I said I don’t love the way the drums sound, I still like the overall mix and sound. Due to the held back style of the entire record, the drums are also not as crazy as they could be on the surface, but they’re tastefully done. But dig deeper, and you’ll unravel a mountain of complex patterns. Masterfully done by Mangini.
Guitars are very very nice sounding. A lot of clean sound used on the album, a lot of acoustic guitar sound. And of course plenty of punch when the heavy parts kick in. And the tone on the guitar solos are very very good, capturing all of the emotion from the playing. But what surprises me is how often guitar, bass and drums takes the role of the support. In fact, it’s Jordan and James that carries a lot of the album. But this does help the album, because it allows the story to have so much more emotion, when there is so much breath and dynamic in the songs. It makes the usage of strong guitar riffs and rhythm section that much more effective. When the band goes into full on attack mode, we know that shit’s about to go down in the story.
This is the most fresh and interesting Dream Theater album in many many years. It’s got so many new elements. It’s got a bunch of short tracks. Concisely constructed, with a great focus on storytelling and melody. And not to mention emotion. This album will appeal to the fans that are more into the melodic rock structure of Dream Theater the most. It feels much more like the type of music that Dream Theater played around 2000 – it’s got the whole song/melodic rock/ballad focus that Falling Into Infinity, Scenes From A Memory and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence had. It’s, in my opinion, the best they’ve done in over a decade,
What will you miss? If you’re the type of fan that love the metal side of Dream Theater, this album will leave you wanting. If you’re the type of fan that love the crazy long instrumental sections with the insane solo parts going on for minutes at a time, this is not the album you’re looking for. The album is for sure an epic undertaking in itself, but it’s not focused on the technical abilities of the band members. I’m glad they showed the restraint they did, because the album is actually stronger for it. There’s just enough balance of great melody and awesome riffs and solos where it actually feels interesting to listen to in its entirety even after several listens. I always very much liked the more emotional tracks from Dream Theater.
But at the same time; if you’re a fan, you’ll be able to find something that fits your tastes. There’s so much diversity on the album that all the ingredients that made you love Dream Theater in the first place is still there, it’s just that there’s so much new and interesting stuff to dive through that it will take some time to digest in order to discover all of the gems on this album. If you have been missing the melodic focus of Scenes from a Memory and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence – rest assured, this you’ll find again in this album plentifold!
Some truly notable tracks:
Three Days – The theatrics are insane. The chorus is magnificent. It’s catchy and evil and pompous. And the instrumental wackyness towards the end…
A Life Left Behind – VERY STRONG rock song. Starts out extremely different from anything from Dream Theater before it, an acoustic guitar/piano riff that repeats over and over, with some multi-layered vocals over it just singing notes (the vocals are probably a synth btw) – then going to a very strong power ballad/rock song.
A New Beginning – Very fun rocker, uplifting and hopeful, bombastic. Lots of changes in POV leading to incredible vocal choices by James. and the last half of the song… Just drums, bass, and organs for minutes, with an incredible emotional guitar solo over it.
Our New World – Probably the most catchy chorus ever from these guys.
I’ll be careful of saying anything regarding the albums staying power. But my initial reaction was that of great excitement. It was a case of instantaneous love – whereas with the previous couple of albums I may have “brainwashed” myself into liking them more than they were maybe worth (and the staying power for them have not been that great, I must admit). It’s not without it flaws (at 2 hours and 10 minutes, there’s bound to be some missteps on the way), but it’s darn near perfect. People were afraid that it would be cheesy. Not to worry: it’s just the right amount of cheese, just like proper sci-fi/fantasy should be.