Sound — 8
There is not much to say about this album in terms of sound. If you know Modern Dream Theater you know it's going to have a mixture of technical wizardry on all instruments, heavy riffing and juxtaposition between Progressive Instrumental sections and hugely melodic chorus's. It's the sound that the band has become famous for in the 2000's. It is a sound that is so ingrained that the arrival of new drummer Mike Mangini hasn't made much of a difference. It sounds like I am hating on the sound but I am not. If I did have a nit pick, and since I am reviewing the album critically, I do, I would have to say that it has become such a staple sound you do wonder if they have any space to create anything out of this comfort zone, like they did when they made "Metropolis Pt 2" as a response to their previous works up to that point. And this begs the question; with the familiar sound and the loss of one of the founding members does this album deserve it's place in the Dream Theater back catalouge? One thing I am happy to see coming back is a larger emphasis on John Myung's bass. In the last two albums I always felt while it was no less technical or fitting within the music that it had been rather lost in the mix with the metamorphosis of the Metal elements in the bands sounds.
Lyrics — 7
Lyrics on the whole have never been Dream Theater's strong point. This is the first album in a very long time which does not have any tracks that tie in with any other tracks on the record ("6DOIT") or the bands previous albums ("12 Steps"). It is the first truly stand alone album the band has released since "Falling Into Infinity" and while none of the lyrics are terrible they don't have the same sense of craft about them that the previous album's (even the previous effort "Black Clouds And Silver Linings") had. James LaBrie, much like the Dream Theater sound as a whole, returns with his familiar vocals performance: A mix of well woven melodic passages, some very powerful high notes, excellent range and (as far as I am concerned) a still improving style that matches some of the heavier aspects of the music. However, much like the sound of the band as a whole, I can't help but think that he is now working in a comfort zone which, while not at all bad in my eyes, makes me wish that he could try something different, just to see if he could push himself in writing/recording new music.
Overall Impression — 8
01. "On The Back's Of Angels" - This is a mainly E minor song and it's purpose is to re-familiarise new and old fans with the bands still and song writing styles. It is also meant to ease the new fans into Mike Mangini's style of drumming which I can detect is only midly different to Portnoy's if not a little more simplistic in certain parts. This is a good song though with the use of the progressive style they have become synonymous with as well as wonderful melodies. 02. "Build Me Up And Break Me Down" - The lead single and the first glimpse that fans got to the album. I have a love/hate relationship with it. Sometimes I love the electronics on the vocals but sometimes it does rub me up the wrong way. One thing I can say very definitely love about the song is guitar. The rhythm parts, from the heavy riffing to the intricate solo sections towards the end of the song give this song the ability to be both very progressive and catchy at the same time. 03. "Lost Not Forgotten" - Since I am sucker for Piano music I was very happy at the beginning of the song and how it was kept important when the rest of the band came in. This goes into being a heavy D Minor based track and the first ten minute plus song with some exceptional work going on between John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess. Unfortunately it is rather forgettable in some instances until it gets towards the end. Not a bad song but sadly, as you'll see a lot with this record, not brilliant either. 04. "This Is The Life" - There is a little bit of Iron Maiden in how the song begins with the clean guitar followed by the melodic and not overly fast lead guitar work before it drops down to piano and vocals. It's a ballad at it's core and I have to say it is one of the bands better done ones. With an excellent Guitar solo and some nicely crafted modulations it is a song that will not get boring in a hurry. Yet still I feel the need to compare to tracks like "The Spirit Carries On" and "Goodnight Kiss" especially because I do think the lyrics in the song are not that fantastic. 05. "Bridges In The Sky" - The second ten minute plus song on the album is absolutely much more like it. Using the 7 string guitar to it's fullest it has wonderful "Train Of Thought"-esque riffs and the first sign that Mike Mangini is stamping his authority on the band with drums that do not over complicate matters when not needed but also manages to show his ability as a musician. The Chorus of this song is where it really shines. The superb chord pattern and amazingly complimentary singing from LaBrie and actually quite triumphant lyrics give this a feel of a band using all the tools and their disposal to the best of their ability. 06. "Outcry" - This is another song which uses the 7 string guitar and it shows in the heavier sections that it actually does increase the power behind a song like this. Unfortunately it is actually a tricky listen. Not because it's a bad song, because it is actually really good with some excellent uses of the bass in the middle instrumental section and lots of timing/key changes to keep listeners on their toes because it's come just after a 10 minute track and is another 10 minute track it makes the middle part of this album actually very tiring mentally to listen to. 07. "Far From Heaven" - This piano ballad is wonderfully crafted, well sung and has some wonderful little musical interludes. Considering it is not really what the band is known for it is an absolutely beautiful track is a very nice change of pace from the previous two tracks which, although both wonderful could be seen as rather heavy going. A very soothing song which somehow manages not to feel at all out of place. 08. "Breaking All Illusions" - This was the first song I properly got into on the record. It also happens to be the longest track on the entire record. The opening instrumental sets up the second half of the song nicely but the change in tact from the G Minor Key change to a wonderful chorus esque section. This song is progressive Metal at it's purest. Key and timing changes gallore and mixture of really heavy and lighter sections and a wonderful grandious outro make this song one of the more memorable songs on this record. 09. "Beneath The Surface" - This is actually quite a disappointing album closer. It's a rather forgettable track which actually has rather dull music and lyrics. It is another case of the band being in it's comfort zone and it almost sounds a little bit effortless but not in a good way. The previous track I think would have served as an excellent album closer and this would have possibly made more sense earlier in the album. Overall I would have to say this is not Dream Theater's best work by any stretch of the imagination. While it does not fall into the trap that "Systematic Chaos" fell into with focusing too much on one style I think that it tries to fit in too many of Dream Theater's styles and clichs into it's songs and it could come across as a bit of a caricature of the band. However that is not really how I see the record. I think it is a band trying to find it's feet again after the loss of one of the founding members and they are trying to make sure they can still music that the fans will enjoy and that they will enjoy. Me being somewhat close to the level of fanboy I definitely enjoyed quite a lot of the album, mostly the second half of the record with the stand out tracks being "Bridges In The Sky", "Far From Heaven" and "Breaking All Illusions". And to go back to the question that I posed in the first section: This definitely does deserve to be in with the rest of the back catalouge. Not only does the album have the technical skill which set Dream Theater apart from a lot of other Metal bands but also in songs like "Breaking All Illusions" and "Bridges In The Sky" show that there is, in fact, a bright future for the band and I for one will be fascinated by where they go next?