Sound — 8
I've been listening to the new Dream Theater album almost non-stop for the past week and I'm going to sum up my impressions of it in one big statement: this is in my opinion the best album they've recorded since 2002's "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence." It's got everything a DT fan should expect: complex drumming and riffs, big compositions and keyboard arrangements and trademark instrumental mastery. The album opens with "False Awakening Suite," a short instrumental track that sounds like a mashup of trailer music for fantasy and action movies, and then moves on to The Enemy Inside, which is fast, heavy and straight to the point. This song is representative of the album as a whole: it doesn't focus entirely on complexity and progressive craziness; these elements are present on the album, but this is no Awake or Metropolis 2 in that aspect. This album is complex and progressive, but at the same time it's catchy and accessible. After "The Enemy Inside" we hear "The Looking Glass"' opening riff, which surely will remind some people of a certain prog rock band from Canada. Hell, the whole song and its instrumental section feel like a tribute to Rush. It's a short song that relies on a big chorus and a catchy riff that drives the entire piece. Not remarkable in any aspect, but it works and I'm sure it will be great for live performances. The tribute to Rush ends and then begins one of the best, strongest pieces in the album. "Enigma Machine" is an instrumental track that's all about the heavy, the crazy and the dark side of Dream Theater. It opens with a haunting melody that transforms into a balls-to-the wall guitar intro which is then followed by a riff that sounds dark and nasty, like the whole song. Around the 1:40 mark begins one of my favorite parts in the entire album, where Rudess and Petrucci decide things need to get insane. The song contains some trademark keyboard and guitar soloing and there's also one crazy drum fill. Mike Mangini had to shine on this one too, after all. "The Bigger Picture" feels like a song that was specifically designed to be played live. It's like a long power ballad, with its piano intro and its big chorus perfect for singing along and what not. A good song, but a bit weak in the context of the album. "Behind the Veil" starts with some quiet ambient sounds and music but after a while it blasts off with some of the best riffing in the album. It's fast and heavy combined with slow and melodic. The instrumental part is in my opinion one of the best in the album, with a fantastic short solo by Jordan Rudess. This whole song sounds like something out of Images and Words. "Surrender to Reason" contains a variety of different feels and atmospheres and features a nice instrumental section in which Petrucci goes noisey yet melodic over a fantastic bass groove. It's one of the few occasions where John Myung gets to shine, and while not especially technical, fast or complex, his playing works perfectly in this part of the song. The whole thing sounds like Liquid Tension Experiment. "Along for the Ride" is the ballad that apparently every Dream Theater album requires. It's a nice little song where everything is soft and emotional and melancholic. Of course it wouldn't be a Dream Theater album without some doses of cheese, and this song, especially the keyboard solo, is that dose. The song itself is ok, but it's one of the weakest tracks in the album. And then there's "Illumination Theory." A 22 minute monster that is like a mix of everything this album has to offer: huge keyboard arrangements, fast and heavy riffing, complex drumming and indstrumental gymnastics. It's got anything from heavy and almost thrashy to neoclassical to quiet and sad to groovy and psychedelic. It starts like a standard song with verse-chorus structure, then goes into an instrumental section followed by a spacey bit that then gives way to a string interlude. An interlude performed with actual strings, not just a keyboard. And then it's turn for James LaBrie to really shine. His presence in this song is minimal, but he really delivers his best performance in the second part of the song. What follow are three minutes of instrumental wizardry, an outro that reminds me of that in Octavarium, and then the song ends, as beautifully as it started. As a song that's composed of various parts it kinda feels like it lacks a clear structure and a theme (the string interlude feels somewhat out of place, especially), but it's amazingly well done and performed. By far the best track in the album. I think there's some aspects which deserve a special mention. First of all, the bass. Man, that bass. You can hear it, and it sounds gorgeous. John Myung doesn't get many chances to really shine, but he doesn't need to shine with bass solos or anything like that when his tone is so great and you can hear his playing at almost all times. It's always nice to hear the bass among all that guitar and keyboard, especially when the guitar is played by John Petrucci. I found the keyboards to be amazing at times, to disappointing in some other parts. There's nothing particularly wrong with Rudess in this album, it's just that I think he can do better. Some of his arrangements and solos in this album sound like they've been done before, and I think the best Rudess is that which tries to push the boundaries and do the craziest stuff. Now don't get me wrong, there are some parts in the album where the keyboard really kicks ass and the overall impression is not at all bad, but I would have loved to hear the adventurous and fun Jordan Rudess I heard in "Scenes From a Memory." And then there's the drumming. Mike Mangini already played on Dream Theater's last album, but he played the parts that Petrucci wrote for him. In this album he had the chance to be creative and prove DT made the right decision when they chose him to replace Mike Portnoy, and boy, does it make a difference. The drumming is much, MUCH more interesting than in "ADTOE." From the groove in "The Enemy Inside" to the overall craziness of "Enigma Machine" to the instrumental sections of "Illumination Theory," Mike Mangini is always doing something to spice things up, in the entire album. Whether it's some fast and complex fill or variations of the main theme or the expected odd time signatures, he keeps things dynamic and interesting. Portnoy fanboys will hate, but the drumming in this album is great.
Lyrics — 7
I'm not going to comment much on the lyrics. Dream Theater were never known or admired for their lyrical prowess, anyway. These lyrics just work, but that's it. Some nice bits here and there, but nothing really special. The singing, on the other hand, is great. James LaBrie's voice is not everyone's cup of tea and I'm aware that some people just can't stand him, but the man can sing, there's no denying that. He's of course not in his best shape, but he still delivers. His voice sounds rougher than usual in some parts, and he does some impressive high notes in the second half of "Illumination Theory" (here's hoping he can pull that off in a live performance). In general, the singing is pretty decent for Dream Theater standards. Not bad and not super good, just more than good enough overall.
Overall Impression — 8
I said at the beginning of the review that this is the best album they've recorded since 2002. "Scenes From a Memory" and "Six Degrees..." are my two favorite DT albums, and this one is quickly earning the bronze medal. I think this album tries to combine the heavy and metallic sound of the latest records (from "Train of Thought" to "Black Clouds") with the more progressive aspects of classic Dream Theater. The final result may not be a total progfest like previous albums, but it's still a great blend of metal and prog and a damn good album in terms of instrumental and songwriting capabilities. A solid 8 that could be a 9 if it weren't for a couple underwhelming songs. If this is the way the new Dream Theater is going to sound from now on, then I believe I'm along for the ride.