Author: Bloodshot Grub
Artist: Dream Theater
Album: The Astonishing
Label: Roadrunner Records
It would be hard to overstate the influence that Dream Theater has had on my life. They were one of the first metal bands I discovered, one of my favorite bands through much of my teenage years, and inspired me to become a musician. Despite that, even early on I found them to be a somewhat hit-or-miss affair, and since 2002’s highlight Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence they seemed to be running entirely on autopilot. Their four album run from Train of Thought up through Black Clouds & Silver Linings was never entirely bad, and there’s at least one full album of really excellent prog metal songs between them, but they were nevertheless predictable and formulaic offerings. The infamous drummer shake up seemed to revive them, but only briefly.
The criticism that’s often been directed towards them, that their music is nothing but soulless technicality, has been, in my opinion, misplaced. At their best, I’ve always found them both emotionally stirring and entirely competent as songwriters, with very cohesive structures woven together across their albums and a non-trivial ratio of their music that was simply content to rock out with simple riffs in 4/4 whenever that approach best served. When their music hasn’t worked, there have been other issues to blame. Still, I find it amusing that, rather than shying away from the criticisms of self-indulgence and masturbation that are often associated with progressive music, they’re doubling down with a 34-track double album rock opera. Had they pulled it off, it would have been an admirably audacious move that I would have celebrated as proof of their fundamental competence as songwriters, however often they’ve gotten off track over the years. I would have been all too happy to continue as the long-suffering Dream Theater apologist. But seeing as they didn’t, the entire premise seems stupid to the point of being entirely bizarre, and what might have been another passable album becomes an unbearable slog.
The first actual song (which is the third track, because there’s an overture, and also an intro) is typical Dream Theater, and not bad but neither their best work nor especially memorable. Then we get the first of several ballads, something that Dream Theater seems bent on doing as much as possible even though they’re terrible at it. Trite and saccharine, “The Answer” quickly erases what little momentum they’ve had up to this point. It has the virtue of being short, which can’t be said for “Act of Faythe,” or for “When Your Time Has Come,” or “Losing Faythe,” and so on. And that’s the whole album: 130 minutes alternating between their unbearable ballads and more standard prog metal tracks that are, at their absolute best, bland, safe, and inoffensive. “A Life Left Behind” starts off great, with a serpentine melodic riffs, angular melodies, and huge drumming that flows seamlessly along with the rhythmic shifts. It’s something that could have come off of Images and Words. It lasts for about 1:30 and then it’s back into ballad territory. There are a few other moments like that scattered here and there, often good enough to make their context in such a bad album all the more frustrating, but they’re never strung together long enough to make even one track that’s enjoyable from beginning to end. Not a single one, out of thirty-four. It’s entirely cohesive, which is not a point in its favor. A trainwreck would indicate that they’d simply overreached, which I could at least respect, but this all seems entirely deliberate.
Even as a display of technical prowess, it falls flat. Everything presented stays safely within the confines of the musicians’ abilities, and rarely even hints at prior accomplishments. Normally, Myung’s bass lines, always a highlight of Dream Theater‘s music, would have added something of redeeming interest, but Jordan Rudess and the Prague Symphony Orchestra are doing all the heavy lifting on this one, both in terms of mix and songwriting. Petrucci is in a supporting role and Labrie’s vocals, never the band’s strong point, are as trite and cliched as the lyrics. Mike Mangini, the storied replacement for the legendary Mike Portnoy, is, for the most part, simply playing along.
The Astonishing is a rock opera, and that means there’s a story. (Cue movie trailer voice)… In a dystopian future where music is banned, one man uses the power of music to change the world. There are jokes I could make, but I’ll just cut to the chase: It’s 2112. The fact that Dream Theater is (to use a polite term) borrowing the concept of what may be progressive rock’s most successful and iconic concept album is mildly insulting, but they could have pulled it off. As with the whole concept of Dream Theater doing a double-album rock opera, it could have been fun, kitschy, and humorously self-effacing. But because the music doesn’t work, it’s not any of those things. A story like that spread over a 34-track rock opera seems more like a parody of a Dream Theater album than the real thing. There’s a character in the story named Lord Nafaryus (not to mention Faythe, who comes complete with songs named “Act of Faythe” and “Losing Faythe”) and yet Dream Theater seems very much to want you to take all of this at face value.
The album title is just begging for lazy quips like “Astonishingly bad, maybe, hueh hueh hueh” that I’m sure I’ll read in the reviews I come across after I finish writing this. It’s hard to resist using them myself, because I was very literally astonished when I first listened to this album. I was hoping that they’d use such an audacious and challenging project to push them to give it their all. I wouldn’t have been surprised by another predictable and middle-of-the-road affair with a fair mix of good tracks that, given liberal use of the skip button, is worth listening to on occasion. But this? During my tenure at Fetid Dead, I’ve tried to avoid cruel and scathing reviews. I have no interest in being mean. If I don’t like something, my first thought is to take it as a referendum on my personal sense of aesthetics rather than on the band. But I do have an obligation to be honest, and so I’ll be as honest and direct as I can about The Astonishing without being unnecessarily harsh: This is Bad Music. In contrast with other music to which I might give a low score, this isn’t the result of inexperience, or a good idea that didn’t work, or just something I couldn’t connect with. The Astonishing is indefensible.
- Bloodshot Grub