Album review: Dream Theater The Astonishing

The band keels over on Broadway.

Dream-Theater-The-Astonishing

  • Genre: Progressive metal
  • Country: USA
  • Release Date: January 29, 2016
  • Label: Roadrunner Records
  • Format: Streamed
  • Catalog number: 1686-174932

Personnel:

  • James LaBrie – vocals
  • John Petrucci – guitars
  • John Myung – bass
  • Jordan Rudess – keyboards and programming
  • Mike Mangini – drums

Track listing:

1.

Descent of the NOMACs bomb-icon

1:10

2.

Dystopian Overture

4:50

3.

The Gift of Music

4:00

4.

The Answer

1:52

5.

A Better Life

4:39

6.

“Lord Nafaryus

3:28

7.

A Savior in the Square

4:13

8.

When Your Time Has Come

4:19

9.

Act of Faythe bomb-icon

5:00

10.

Three Days

3:44

11.

The Hovering Sojourn bomb-icon

0:27

12.

Brother, Can You Hear Me? bomb-icon

5:11

13.

A Life Left Behind

5:49

14.

Ravenskill

6:01

15.

Chosen

4:32

16.

A Tempting Offer

4:19

17.

Digital Discord bomb-icon

0:47

18.

The X Aspect

4:13

19.

A New Beginning

7:40

20.

The Road to Revolution

3:35

21.

2285 Entr’acte

2:20

22.

Moment of Betrayal

6:11

23.

Heaven’s Cove

4:19

24.

Begin Again

3:54

25.

The Path That Divides

5:09

26.

Machine Chatter bomb-icon

1:03

27.

The Walking Shadow

2:58

28.

My Last Farewell bomb-icon

3:44

29.

Losing Faythe bomb-icon

4:13

30.

Whispers on the Wind

1:37

31.

Hymn of a Thousand Voices

3:38

32.

Our New World

4:12

33.

Power Down bomb-icon

1:25

34.

Astonishing

5:51

Total Length:

2:10:23

Anyone who knows me for long will know of my enduring and absolute adoration for Dream Theater’s first three albums and their grandiose, brilliant, massively overblown yet infectiously catchy blend of classic ‘80s power metal and classic ‘70s prog rock. Those three will probably be desert island albums for me as long as I live. James LaBrie’s fiery power metal belting and Kevin Moore’s shimmering synth work will be burned into my brain for eternity. However, this is not one of those albums. Today, I have come not to praise Dream Theater, but to bury them.

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Dream Theater: brought to you by Just for Men hair dye.

The Astonishing is neither progressive rock nor power metal, nor even the tedious Wacken festival metal that replaced the USPM in their sound in later years. This is sappy, treacly, sticky AOR like you might find in a waiting room (but the bands on your local waiting room’s soft-rock station do it much better than this), with the majority of the running time devoted to piano ballads. And boy, do these ballads suck. Jordan Rudess is a Juilliard-trained pianist, but it doesn’t show here—his piano lines are sub-Elton-John schmaltz, plonking in the left hand, tinkling in the right, playing memorable melodies with neither. Piano dentistry (to repurpose a phrase from critic George Starostin) is what this is—mechanical, repetitive tedium occasionally interrupted with moments of nearly unbearable agony. His garish “orchestrations” are no better, all soppy film soundtrack strings and fruity neo-Baroque hornpipe fanfares. I pity Mike Mangini, it must suck replacing notorious martinet Mike Portnoy and not only getting nowhere near the respect and authority Portnoy commanded, but being left out of songwriting sessions and not even allowed to play on half the album because of the relentless onslaught of balladry. When he does play, it’s nothing special. He projects no personality or individual style whatsoever, obediently keeping time.

I mean, it’s not like it’s impossible to write decent AOR-based prog rock either. Dream Theater themselves did it on the first side of Images and Words, serving up two heartfelt ballads in “Another Day” and “Surrounded”. Those were passionate and energetic, and Kevin Moore’s piano work served as an endless stream of powerful melodies and rich textures. Eloy’s 1994 comeback The Tides Return Forever is nearly all prog-AOR, and is a perfectly serviceable album with great hooks, and that one did it despite a singer who has less talent than James LaBrie has in his left nut. The Astonishing, for all its Broadway melodrama and “emotional” songwriting, is soulless. For an album that pretends to be a parable of the centrality of human beings to art, the actual music sounds like a product of one of the “NOMAC” robots depicted in the story—a computer calculating the optimal way to tug the heartstrings of credulous hew-mons.

Oh yeah, the concept. This pulsating, cancerous mass of bad ideas has displaced the actual music as the core of this album, being heavily featured in the awful, awful, no good, very bad promotional material that preceded the album’s release, with maps and character bios and other ancillary bullshit you’d expect from a Japanese anime-themed RPG. At least the lyrics on their early albums, while being completely meaningless, at least sounded vaguely cool, projecting weird fantasy imagery with deliberately obscure language and letting the listener’s imagination fill in the details. If Dream Theater wrote “The Killing Hand” from their first album today, there would be a 30-page short story about the history of the titular Killing Hand and the country that he rules, some Killing Hand merch, Killing Hand desktop wallpapers, and maybe an animated narrative music video produced by a Malaysian sweatshop, and no one, no one, with an ounce of self-respect would ever consume any of it.

And as well as being soulless, dishonest, treacly, goopy, and infested with terrible ballads, this album is long. There are around thirty tracks (not including the occasional burst of Skrillex-like ambient noise/dubstep that comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly), all of mostly similar lengths and generally homogenous composition. The total running time comes out to over two hours and ten minutes, and believe me, it will be the longest 130 minutes of your life. Structureless balladic non-songs come and go, spewing trite chord progressions and the occasional plodding, chugging downtuned guitar riff that relates to nothing and resolves to nothing. Overture-like things cycle through numerous unrelated themes with no logical transitions or any sense that these abominations were even composed rather than being hastily stitched together from rejected opening themes from previous songs and albums. It is mostly futile to try to distinguish many of them; especially on a particularly dire stretch in the middle of the first disc, the ballads run into each other and you start to feel like you’re drowning in an endless sea of melted sugar.

On the occasions where the band does wake up and start actually playing together, the “heavy” riffs are almost impossibly enervated, wallowing like a teenaged boy refusing to get up and go to school. Solos are rare, perfunctory, and largely unimpressive both technically and musically. People like to complain about intrusive “wankery” in Dream Theater’s music, but a long, winding noodly prog hoedown in this album would serve as a sorely needed relief from the melodramatic vocal and piano horseshit.  Here John Petrucci grinds out some basic Guitar Center arpeggios like he’s passing a rock-hard, fist-sized morphine shit and Jordan Rudess listlessly responds with a squealy fourth-year-student synth lead platitude (how does he manage to stay awake?) and then the band collapses in defeat. And normally at some point in a Dream Theater album John Myung plays some tricky bass thing to remind the audience that he exists, but not here. He might as well have not shown up to the studio sessions—no one would ever know the difference.

So with the band essentially comatose, a massive burden falls on James LaBrie and his singing voice to do something, anything, to move the album along. But it’s not 1993 again and his worn old pipes aren’t getting any younger, and it would be a Sisyphean task to save this dross anyway, so mostly he follows the path of least resistance and falls back on soft-rock clichés—the breathiness, always his biggest vice as a singer, is absolutely out of control here and his tone sometimes threatens to dissolve altogether into a hoarse whisper. Occasionally he attempts to affect a different tone to portray some of the story’s different characters, particularly the ludicrous, cackling antagonist “Lord Nafaryus” (I’m not kidding), where he goes for a Harry Conklin-like sneer but mostly sounds like a cat coughing up a hairball.

Few of the tracks on this album rise to the level of being worthy of the title “song”, but the few that do wouldn’t have made it past the demo stage on the Octavarium or Systematic Chaos sessions (to say nothing of the glory days of the early ‘90s, where none of this garbage would have even been conceived at all). First up is the lead single “The Gift of Music”, a tired Rush derivation that sounds like “The Trees” on Valium combined with the lyrical banality of “The Temple of Syrinx” and a shitty Flower Kings piano diarrhea splatter for a pre-chorus to add an additional shot of empty sentimentality. One thing it doesn’t sound like is Dream Theater, but neither does much else on this album. John Petrucci’s solo here is well above average for the album, which means it’s about 10% as good as what is normally expected of him.

“Act of Faythe” earns attention for sheer comedy value—like the sort of thing that might have played on The Simpsons when Homer undergoes some dreadful circumstance that imparts an Important Life Lesson that is milked for all the faux pathos it’s worth. It rides on the back of a pitiful maudlin minor-key string nothing and empty piano tinkling, eventually joined by vacuous backing guitar chords and a stock backbeat. James LaBrie gives the hands-down worst singing performance of his entire career, squeaking into the mic in a frightening teenage girl impression, outrushing breath overwhelming his feeble vocalizations. When I heard this I crumpled in my chair from laughing, it is so transparent, so cack-handed, so utterly incompetent at evoking an emotional reaction from the audience.

The album’s only lengthy song, “A New Beginning” is the only composition on this album that sounds like a Dream Theater song. It too is saddled with gross Baroque vulgarities, risible character impressions from LaBrie, and occasional interjections of piano dentistry, but it has a modicum of energy, actual bona fide metal riffs, and a few Yes-like prog rock melodies that manage to be mildly catchy. The bridge gets up off its ass and hauls, with frantic Hammond organ dueling with raging shred guitar leading up to a cathartic unison and an atmospheric bass-led groove section (so John Myung is alive after all!) that manages to have a real sense of swing (and is the one moment where Mangini proves to be better at something than Mike Portnoy—Portnoy would have ejaculated fills and clever little drumming devices all over this section and ruined the flow, whereas Mangini just keeps the groove rolling). If the entire album were composed like this, I’d give it a 60% rating and say it’s a bland retread of past Dream Theater glories—but it’s still an actual signature Dream Theater song, and in this company it’s a drink of clear, pure, cold water in the middle of a desert. It also saves this album—barely–from a zero rating.

Our final genuine song of the album is “Losing Faythe”, which returns to comedy territory (the character and unintentional bathos seem to go hand in hand). So our hero’s girlfriend got unceremoniously killed off in the previous track (the unspeakably obscene “My Last Farewell”–I think the title alone should be sufficient to dissuade non-masochists from exploring further). This song is a horrific rehash of the lighter-waving religious anthem “The Spirit Carries On” off 1999’s Scenes from a Memory, a song which already danced on the razor’s edge between touching balladry and self-parody, but this version falls clear over the edge into the darkest pits of humiliating silliness. It begins with some blatantly fake weeping (think the end of Anthrax’s viciously satirical “N.F.B. (Dallabnikufesin)”, but this takes itself entirely seriously!), and sounds like something some sensitive-guy ‘90s Christian rock band would play in a coffee shop: “inspirational” garbage lyrics about the villain’s miraculous redemption with fucking atrocious puns (puns!) on the deceased Faythe’s name, delivered in a counterfeit Chris Cornell howl, oozing with slimy sentimentality, backed by the regimented plonk of Rudess’ dentistry and mindless atonal bloops from Petrucci’s guitar. The solo is dogshit, a cheap, slow-moving melody any beginner could come up with that lasts for all of ten seconds or so before its merciful euthanasia.

I suppose that’s supposed to serve as the climax of this shit sandwich of an album, much like it’s vastly superior forebear served as the high water mark for Scenes from a Memory, but “Losing Faythe” is such a consummate failure that it fails to provide any sort of resolution, either story-wise (apparently Nafaryus–*stifled giggles*–is instantly forgiven after he accepts Our Lord Jesus and his heart grows three sizes and never has to accept responsibility for anything?) or musically—the closing few tracks are a confused mess of jumbled themes regurgitated from earlier in the album that go nowhere and accomplish nothing. The album grinds to a halt and dies, its shambling hulk smashing itself to bits as it clatters to the floor.

The same, one hopes, will happen to Dream Theater’s career, to spare the boys from Long Island the indignity of having to continue on with this smoking, gaping hole blasted in their legacy. Not that I’m holding my breath—this self-indulgent, tragicomic farce seems to be doing quite well with critics despite its musical and artistic worthlessness and total lack of any connection to what made this band a vital and creative force many years ago. This hurts me. It hurts to listen to this album it hurts to write about this album, it hurts to finally be forced to accept that a once-unstoppable prog metal juggernaut, a band I once called my favorite, is finally, irrevocably dead as a creative force. This album gets 2% for “A New Beginning”, otherwise it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If you like Dream Theater, if you like progressive music, if you like music in general that has heart and integrity and human feelings put into it, stay the hell away. Dream Theater is dead.

Rating: 2%

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