Sound — 8
"The Astonishing" marks Dream Theater's most ambitious release to date. A whopping 34 tracks with 131 minutes run time, splitted into two acts - far from being just an album, but a rock-opera. Fifteen years have past since the highly acclaimed last concept album "Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory" was released. Petrucci said that the time felt right for a new one. The Astonishing is the product of a 2,5 year long creative period.
As soon as the "Dystopian Overture" unleashes it's first notes onto the listener's ears, you'll know it's Dream Theater. As the record proceeds you'll realize, this still is Dream Theater, but it's also different. The songs on this record don't work as independent, completed entities - instead they act as a medium to tell the opera's story. This results in less complex song structures and a lesser amount of virtuous solo-parts. In fact many instrumental parts are laid over, with sounds fitting the situation, thus developing the story without text. This doesn't mean that the songs are overall less demanding. Inner complexity of sections is still existent, moreover following the story becomes an important task to the listener. The songs themselves feature many calmer parts, beautiful melodies and tempo changes. But after all it's a rock-opera rather than a metal-opera.
For the production process Dream Theater were joined by David Campbell who did the arrangements for orchestra and different choirs. This alone clarifies the scales of the project. However, in the final mix, guitars (also acoustics!) and keys are dominant. Mangini's drums sound a bit muddy and Myung's bass plays only a minor role. All in all, the production is inherently consistent, but regarding the size of the project, more would have been possible.
Lyrics — 8
The story is entirely written by Petrucci and set in a dystopian future. Under the tyranny of Emperor Nafaryus, ruler of "The Great Northern Empire of the Americas," real music is replaced by the noises that the NOMAC's (noise machines - how creative...) make. Gabriel, the chosen one, who bears the gift of music, and his brother Arhys, leader of the "Ravenskill Rebel Militia," set out to overthrow Nafaryus and end his tyranny. All in all, the story features 8 characters, all voiced by James LaBrie. Giving each of those characters an own voice and personality is an enormous task laid onto a single singer. In a stage-play you would have 8 different people for that. Bearing this in mind, LaBrie does a great job (listen to the song Lord Nafaryus), though it would've probably worked better if you really had those 8 singers.
The first act mostly depicts those characters, their feelings and the conflict itself. The second act is loaded with momentous events and action. As previously mentioned, the music acts as support for the lyrics, and it succeeds in doing so. Desperation, grief, hope, anger, love and more themes that make the opera transport greatly to the listener. Petrucci mentioned, that the story might be re-worked in a different form - possibly as a film, play or video game, so I'm quite curious of what might come.
Overall Impression — 8
"The Astonishing" might be a record you don't necessary like after hearing it once. It is important to approach it in a different manner than a usual Dream Theater album, for it is not a mere album, but a rock-opera. It's no wonder Dream Theater now tour in Opera Houses and not in the usual venues. Perceiving this the way it was meant to be and following the storyline will reward you with a unique experience. You can expect great instrumental work (as usual) as well as fitting arrangements. On some occasions the first act seems to stagnate a bit in the development of the story, leaving me with the impression that it is a tad too long. But this is highly specific criticism. It also should be mentioned that the names of some songs can spoil parts of the story, so I'd advise not to read them prior to hearing them. Overall, Dream Theater have released a great record with some minor flaws. It might take some time to get into it, but it's greatly worthwhile.