Sound — 9
When they started out, Dream Theater were considered the most uncool, cool band in music. They're complex musical arrangements and odd time signatures were an acquired taste, and needless to say, were not extremely popular amongst the metalheads of the late 80's. I mean, thrash was on it's way out, in it's wake ushering in a whole new collection of mainstream rock and metal bands. Prog was hardly what metal fans of the time wanted to hear. Fast forward close to 25 years later. Dream Theater are now one of metals leading bands, not only in terms of nostalgia but also in their own relevance. When they released 'When Dream and Day Unite' in 1988, there's no possible way they could've imagined they'd still be around 22 years later, nevermind as popular as they've become. With Systematic Chaos, Dream Theater seem to have delved further into the simpler approach to music, for lack of a better word. The odd time signatures are still there, but are subtler and thus a little fresher. John Petrucci's relentless riffage is still there, along with his tremendously speedy solos, but are structured differently, better if you will. The high pitched vocals of James LaBrie and vocal harmonies from Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci, the technical basswork of John Myung, the off beat drumming of Mike Portnoy, the godlike keyboarding of Jordan Rudess. All the elements of a Dream Theater record are still there, but they've now obtained the perfect blend of structure and strange arrangements, complexity and simplicity, subtlety and loudness. The progressive influence is there from the get-go, on the first track 'In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 1. It's off beat, it's technical, five minutes before the vocals come in, so and so forth. Exactly what we've come to expect from DT. What follows is almost surprising. 'Forsaken' is a dominantly melancholy piece of music, albeit a brilliant one. there's very minute progressive elements here and there, it's more of a soft rock song, which takes it's influence from bands like Evanescence and Black Album/Load/Reload-era Metallica. It's a certain calm before the storm, as track 3 is undoubtedly the albums most metallic song. it's thrashy, it's groovy, it's riffy. it's got some balls. Look for the Metallica influence in the verse riff. 'The Dark Eternal Night' you will find is where Dream Theater prove they're not falling completely away from the genre they made popular again. The first few minutes of the song explore in utterly incredible groove in one of the most evil riffs ever to grace the earth, littered with distorted vocals and seemingly unending pick and fingerwork, before exploding into a progressive frenzy, switching from standard prog, to funk, back to prog, to metal, to jazz, back to prog, before finally taking us back to the regular song itself all in the space of about three minutes! it's classic DT Mike Portnoy's AA suite started with 'The Glass Prison' from 'Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence', followed respectively by 'This Dying Soul' from 'Train of Thought' and 'The Root of All Evil' from 'Octavarium'. On 'Repentance' he continues this. It's a soft and mellow composition, which soothes as it despairs, using the spoken word confessions and apologies of other musicians in connection with Portnoy of their regrets in life. It constantly interchanges between the major and minor keys, all guitars played in clean aside from Petrucci's solo. It has a very epic feel to it; it's layered with immense vocal harmonies, and extravagant bass. it's what the album needs at this point, a comedown at sorts. Track number 6 is one of the albums highlights, and definitely a potential single. 'Prophets of War' takes an amazing evident influence by bands such as Muse, considering the use of synth keyboards and falsetto vocal styles. Although not including a guitar solo and supposedly dry as far as layers go, it is still one of the records strongest songs, almost as thought it needs to be there. Dream Theater are known for their long (often falling over the 10 minute mark) songs, showcased on such fan favourites as 'Metropolis Pt. 1 The Miracle and The Sleeper', 'Instrumedley' and 'Octavarium'. Dream Theater, as with most of their records, explore this style of writing once again with 'The Ministry of Lost Souls', lasting for just short of 15 minutes. Despite it's seemingly dragging length, it is not a particularly complex piece, and has but three movements, two of which are virtually the same, switching from soft, to metal, and back to soft with the slightest hint of metal sifting into it. it's amazing nonetheless, and it's metal section is progressive, yet still easy to follow it, as if anybody could get into it. The album comes to an end with the 16 minute long 'In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 2', an obvious continuation of the albums opening track. It's a weird peace in itself. It feeds you in, slipping you through the proverbial hands of dementia, dominance and power. It almost seems like it will never end, like the listener is being drawn to connect with character in question with the song, as he feels trapped in his own personal hell. The end signifies his release, fitting as the listener is now released from such an incredible record that will surely sustain it's lasting power
Lyrics — 8
The lyrics on this record have taken a much more fictional stance than previous albums, identified on the tracks 'In the Presence of Enemies Pts. 1 and 2', 'Forsaken', 'The Dark Eternal Night' and 'The Ministry of Lost Souls'. Regardless of their dodgy movie/comic-esque subjects of the song, that on paper may look very silly to some people, they're still very clever. The 'In the Presence' series is a story of a man who has sold half of his soul before his death to a character labelled 'The Dark Master', the strongest theory amongst many other lyrical interpretations (although John Petrucci has stated in interviews that they lyrics are simply metaphors for a character struggling with his darker side). 'Forsaken', also written by John Petrucci, tells the story of a man who is visited in the night by a vampiress. She takes him to places of supposed wonder, yet all the while, as quoted by Petrucci himself, he's getting his blood sucked. 'The Dark Eternal Night' is yet another Petrucci penned lyric, which speaks of about a monster from long, long ago. Who's a pharaoh that comes and haunts a town, perhaps the most humorous of the fictional end of the lyrics. 'The Minstry of Lost Souls', however, speaks not of fictional creatures or monsters nor do it's characters have monikers much like in 'In the Presence of Enemies'. Instead, it speaks about 2 regular, for lack of a better word, characters, and is a story of a man who saves a woman from drowning, but in the process, he himself dies. The lyrics are spoken from both the perspective of the characters, and as a narrator, the central story of the song being of the woman wanting to meet the man who saved her, not able to go on with life following the incident. 'Constant Motion' is one of a remaining three songs that don't have a fictional story to them. Instead, interpretations reveal that the song is speaking of many psychological and psychiatric disorders, such as OCD, tourettes and bipolar disorder (thank you Wikipedia). 'Repentance' is written by Mike Portnoy, and as I mentioned before, continues the Alcoholic Anonymous suite which started with 'The Glass Prison' from 'Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence'. The lyrics are told from a more reflective point, like Portnoy is thinking over his regrets in life, realising that he must take them in stride if he is to overcome his disease. it's first lyric Hello mirror. So glad to see you my friend, it's been a while, is also the first lyric from 'This Dying Soul' from 'Train of Thought' the second song of AA suite. It also features spoken word contributions from other musicians, friends of Portnoy, speaking from the same view: regret, realisation, apology, etc. It also has a muffled and slightly distorted reading from the Alcoholics Anonymous book called 'The Twelve Promises'. Finally, 'Prophets of War' is practically speak-for-itself. It is a political song, a song of questioning, questioning on the reasons and causes of war, yet it doesn't attack any certain war, in history or ongoing, instead talks of war in general
Overall Impression — 10
To sum 'Systematic Chaos' up, it is probably the best album to offer someone who has just discovered Dream Theater. It is not too progressive or hard to follow as records such as 'Awake', not too heavy as evidenced on 'Train of Thought' and not too mellow much like records as 'Falling to Infinity'. Infact, it is a perfect and consistent blend of all three. As far as my opinion goes, this far surpasses the much overrated 'Images and Words'. John Petrucci shines as per usual, just check the main guitar solo for 'The Ministry of Lost Souls', Portnoy is at his possibly most technical point, yet doesn't overdo it, like on 'In the Presence of Enemies'. For the average Dream Theater plan, this record will please, but a lot of it may be a little unexpected. As I say, this record is best for a Dream Theater virgin, it puts all aspects of their music on offer: the heavy, the soft, the progressive and the downright weird. 22 years after their inception, I feel DT have finally come into their stride, even after people thought they would never surpass 'Images and Words'. One question remains though. If people they would never surpass 'Images' and, well at least in this reviewers eyes, they did with 'Systematic Chaos', will they ever find it in themselves to do it again? Heres to a new album in the coming future, and great hope they can wow us once more.