Released: 2016, Roadrunner Records
Being the progressive metal titans that they are, Dream Theater have never been shy about challenging listeners with complex, demanding music. THE ASTONISHING, the band’s 13th studio album, is perhaps the band’s boldest album yet; a fully orchestrated, two-disc, 2+ hour rock opera & concept album, that’s inspired by the likes of Game Of Thrones and sci-fi classics like Star Wars. Needless to say, it’s A LOT to take in and doesn’t exactly welcome the uninitiated.
Where to start? How about the story! Written by guitarist John Petrucci, the action takes place in a very thought-out fictional & futuristic (dystopian) world that, I believe, is an alternate timeline of Earth. The Great Northern Empire of the Americas has suppressed music and personal freedoms in favour of electronic noise machines (NOMACS). The rest of the story almost writes itself as it includes evil emperors, betrayals, a music-bringing saviour, and revolution. All told, it reminded me a lot of not only the aforementioned sagas, but also a lot of the immortal Les Miserables. As for the story itself, your enjoyment of it will vary depending on your tolerance for concept albums, but no matter what, it’s clear that Petrucci put a lot of though into it.
As you’d expect, the narrative shapes the music that Petrucci, keyboardist Jordan Rudess created, along with the orchestrations by David Campbell. What does this mean for Dream Theater fans? Well, despite the huge amount of music to digest, you’ll be right at home with the songs presented. The 34 tracks (29 actual songs) cover the gamut of the band’s music, from progressive jams, to quiet ballads, to pure heavy metal. On the whole though, and perhaps because of the necessity to tell a story, I found that the music is the “lightest” that the band has released since OCTAVARIUM, a full decade ago. As someone who really enjoys the band’s heavier moments, it was definitely disappointing at first.
Of course, an album this huge demands multiple listens to fully sink in and the more I’ve heard it, the more I’ve really enjoyed it. Whether it’s a classic-sounding DT ballad (“The Chosen”), a instrumental workout (“Dystopian Overture”), or a driving metal song (“Moment of Betrayal”), the concept has not detracted from the band’s writing skills. In fact, fans that get annoyed at the thought of long progressive passages and instrumental “wanking” may look favorably on this album as the amount of story that needs to be told actually reduces both the song lengths (the longest is 7:41) and the amount of soloing, despite this being the band’s longest album.
I also have to touch on the band’s performances, which are of course flawless. Petrucci, Mangini, and Rudess all have moments to shine and propel the songs forward, but I found I really had to strain to hear John Myung’s bass contributions. He’s there if you really listen, and as great as always, but he’s a bit buried in the mix. As for James LaBrie, I’ve always been a big fan of his and this may be his most nuanced, impressive performance ever recorded. He’s required to embody at least six major characters and sing a ton of lyrics and he pulls it off flawlessly.
So is this a masterpiece? That’s debatable. I still prefer some of the band’s older albums myself. Still, this album proves that after 30 years, Dream Theater is still at the top of their game. Judging by published chart sales positions, the band’s fans around the world agree with me. And who knows? The overall shorter songs might actually allow this to be a “gateway” album to fans that aren’t quite on board. Regardless, Dream Theater have much to be proud of with THE ASTONISHING.