Sound — 10
Dream Theater have gone through some fairly major changes over the period of their last few albums. There appears to be a common opinion that 'Images And Words' was Dream Theater's magnum opus, and that 'Scenes From A Memory' in 1999 was the only album over the next 10 years that competed closely. It seems that we can be very trusting of Mike Portnoy, he has only told DT fans twice that the band has made major changes to the sound and songs for their upcoming albums, for Scenes From A Memory and Systematic Chaos. Scenes From A Memory was seen a huge return to form after the 'mainstream-appealing' Falling Into Infinity, while Systematic Chaos is simply a huge step forward from both their previous album Octavarium and much of their 20+ year career. Highly refined, technical and dynamic throughout, Systematic Chaos is one of the best progressive metal albums of the era, and possibly the best of the year. Although long-standing fans will be upset, as with previous Dream Theater albums, about the lack of songs with any real lyrical substance or reference to real-life events, and the several mainstream-worthy songs that appear to take fairly generously from the bands' influences like on Octavarium, it cannot be denied that Systematic Chaos showcases everything that Dream Theater both was, and has become over an amazing and diverse musical career. The particapance of the individual members themselves continues in a similar trend to the last few Dream Theater albums, with John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy taking centre stage in the instrumental sections, Jordan Rudess quietly building foundation to the songs and then suddenly exploding with crazy solos, and thankfully with a considerable degree of defined, memorable and 'audible' melody at points, rather than constant, exclusively technical 'chaos' (a hint to the album name). John Myung continues to supply basslines that keep up with Petrucci's insane riffs and lead parts, unlike most bassists who tend to play a considerably less amount of notes in every nanosecond. Finally, James LaBrie is on a huge return to form. He almost hits the kind of notes that we havn't heard from him since the amazing best-selling Awake, and is consistent and engaging throughout, something that is difficult to do in such albums where songs exceed 8 minutes at least half of the time, and also exceed 15 minutes as if it's completely normal.
Lyrics — 9
The lyrics on this album surprised me alot. Just from listening rather than fully understanding and researching the meaning of the lyrics, it is clear to see that there is a certain degree of fantastical lyrics (not quite Dragonforce, thank goodness), involving topics such monsters, vampires and the such, which is very unlike Dream Theater, Images And Words back in 1992, seemed to deal almost exclusively with very real events, Pull Me Under being about the unfrotunate tendancy for death to strike tragically and unexpectedly, Another Day being about John Petrucci's father and his struggle with cancer, and even the titles (Learning To Live, Take The Time) suggest deeper themes about life which are much less common on Systematic Chaos. However, I must mention Constant Motion, Repentance and Prophets Of War, which are about Mike Portnoy's OCD, Mike Portnoy's battle with drink and drugs and successful experience with the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and the subject of war respectively, all very real events also. So thankfully, Dream Theater havn't completely lost that meaningful and powerful element to their songs. But unusually, the real epics on the album, The Ministry Of Lost Souls and In The Presence Of Enemies especially, are the most epic despite of their fantastical themes, unlike say, Octavarium, with the epic Sacrificed Sons and Octavarium very much 'closer to the heart', to use the title of a Rush song:) Compliance with the lyrics to the music is however perfect, with the quiet and reflective Repentance matching perfectly with the lyrics referenced from This Dying Soul (Hello mirror/So glad to see you again my friend/It's been a while), and the lyrics and theme of Constant Motion matching with the crazy riffs and chaotic true progressive instrumental section complete with a ten out of ten keyboard solo from Rudess. Finally, I must mention James LaBrie who returns to form and delivers all these lyrics perfectly and captures melody possibly like never before in Forsaken, Prophets Of War and The Ministry Of Lost Souls.
Overall Impression — 9
01. In The Presence Of Enemies Pt.1 - unusually quick and upbeat start to an album, very comparable to The Door from Neal Morse's new album Sola Scriptura, with a typical show of instrumental diversity in the first 5 minutes of instrumental mayhem. The last 4 minutes displays James' return to form brilliantly; his vocals are top notch. The song finishes with a very nice unison from Petrucci and Rudess, finishing abruptly to be followed quickly by. 02. Forsaken - begins with some 5/4 piano by Rudess and then quickly breaks into a very typical riff which is somewhere between DT's Train Of Thought album, a riff from Metallica's black album and an simple Evanescence riff. This will be the second single from the album and it is very 'sinlge-worthy' although unfortunately not overly progressive, but very beautiful and in all honesty, a very good song. The chorus however, powers over any other part of the song but is enough to make it worth a listen every time around. 03. Constant Motion - begins with the most sick riff by Petrucci then joined by the rest of the band after 8 riducuously complicated bars of 8/8, 13/16, 15/16, 6/8, and a whole range of other riduculous time signatures. Fortunately the rest of the song is in 4/4 and a little less confusing and more engaging on first listen. The theme riffs to the verses and chorus are so catchy and brilliant, and the song moves between something that is a little more Metallica than completely DT but with a crazy progressive instrumental which Metallica would never come close to. Petrucci's solo lacks a little substance here although it will grow on you to a very respectable level, Rudess' solo is possibly his best, ever, with a change in riff to the theme riff (which is so brillant rhythmic and catchy) and lightning-speed movements from one side of the keyboard to the other, every note blends into the other, almost if he was using his continuum! 04. The Dark Eternal Night - another fantastical song lyrical, this is where Petrucci and Portnoy really shine. The crazy beginning of the song switches between about 5 different riffs, rather like any song from TOT, but this is SO much more engaging and so brilliantly rhtyhmic thanks to some top-class drumming from Mike Portnoy. The song is very clever throughout, and the verses are very sing-along, but ruled mainly by Mike Portnoy in a growl which is the closest thing DT have ever come to death metal. The instrumental section is comparable to The Dance Of Eternity or Endless Sacrifice, insanely dynamic and ridiculously technical, with one of the fastest riffs I have ever heard towards the end. This is layered over the top with a Petrucci Solo which is simply inhuman. 05. Repentance - the first song designed to be a fairly quiet and an ultimately reflective dynamic throughout. The song is split very distinctly into two parts, the 8th and 9th steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous suite. The first half is mainly lyrical and is a very toned-down This Dying Soul, also featuring the spoken 'mirror' section from This Dying Soul. The opening guitar is identical to the clean guitar preceding the verse of This Dying Soul. The second half is a beautiful guitar solo, followed by a series of quotes all intertwined rather like in Honor Thy Father. The quotes are from a series of famous musicians such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Mikael Akerfeldt, Steven Wilson and other friends of DT. Cleverly, the final quote 'Will you forgive me', leads into a melodic but slightly monotomous section, which finishes with quotes from the AA program, and with Mike Portnoy, 'The truth is the truth, so all you can do is live with it'. 06. Prophets Of War - this song IS very 'Musey', but that is not a bad thing! DT and Muse do work very well together. The song is a little cheest though it is of course a very serious and real topic. I think this may be the first song by DT where LaBrie comes in at the very beginning alongside a synth riff comparable to Muse's 'Take A Bow'. The chorus sounds like something off of Muse's 'Origin Of Symmetry' but is defninetly DT, and couldn't quite be a Muse song striaght off, so don't panic yourself if you weren't a fan of Never Enough. For me, this song did tend to die fof quickly though, but it's still listenable, just not at times quite as exciting/emotional/enjoyable as the other songs on this brilliant album. 07. The Ministry Of Lost Souls - my favourite Dream Theater song ever. I had a feeling about this song from the moment I heard the 10 second clip from the Systematic Chaos Promo. It's full of diversity, beautiful guitar and lyrical/voice work aswell as just being a simply superb song. LaBrie and Portnoy have really found the meaning of melody and harmony with an amazing bit of vocal work in the beautiful build-up to the chorus, 'Living in a world without you, Is living in no world at all'. The melody really does the wonderful lyrics justice. I have not heard any Dream Theater fan but this song down yet, as an individual track, it's just perfect in every way. It will make you cry if you've just broken up with a partner or lost a family member. I thought it might be fair to warn you. The song is simply beautiful and one of my thre favourite songs ever, and the best song to be written this year! 08. In The Presence Of Enemies Pt.2 - this song is not quite as epic as the last tracks from the last 2 albums (In The Name Of God and Octavarium), but Octavarium would have been difficult top because it is epic beyond epic, it's something else completely! The song is broken into three parts as you will realize, although the song plays as a complete piece and also features a brilliant tempo change towrds the end to create a reprise of the 'theme' from the beginning of In The Presence Of Enemies Pt.2. This song also has the merits of brilliant diversity and use of dynamics. It includes everything encompassed by the first 7 songs and really puts those elements to work! Upon the first few listens, the song will leave you slightly disheartened possibly as it finishes the album and isn't hugely epic, but it will grow you when you actually know 'what you're listening out for'. Although unfortunately, Dream Theater are yet to create another hugely groundbreaking album like Images And Words, or show the mainstream scene the meaning of progressive metal and show up Trivium and all the other useless bands, this album, as I have said, is a progressive masterpiece and belongs right up there with the most innovative and brilliant albums this year, alongside the equally superb 'Paradise Lost' by Symphony X and 'The Blackening' by Machine Head. Enjoy!