Sound — 9
From their top-grade instrumental finesse to the thought-provoking concepts they've crafted for their albums, Dream Theater have done more than enough to establish themselves as one of the most sophisticated metal bands working today. However, the past few years have shown a bit of wavering in the band's course. Perhaps most notably was the departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy in 2010, before Dream Theater began to record their eleventh album, "A Dramatic Turn of Events" - Portnoy would later derisively define that album as "desperate attempts to re-write the past," proving that his departure indeed birthed some malice as an after-effect. Portnoy wasn't the only one to claim that about "A Dramatic Turn of Events," and the critics who also panned it for the safe and expected musical output of the record enforced the idea that Dream Theater were becoming too staid in their career.
Whether or not those extrinsic critiques resonated with Dream Theater, they ended up deciding to push beyond their expectations in the near future. With their twelfth album, "Dream Theater," being composed as a more concise, classic Dream Theater-style album as a point before their planned change, they spent the following years crafting a full-on rock opera, resulting in their thirteenth album, "The Astonishing." Clocking in at over two hours long, split into two CDs, its first impression doesn't hide how much there is to chew, but with most songs being under five minutes long and no song reaching over eight minutes (no 20-minute long epics like in previous albums), each song isn't terribly tough to digest.
In terms of the compositional output, "The Astonishing" invests a lot more on the band's orchestral side, with string sections and piano melodies generally sitting on top of the instrumental hierarchy, fitting the operatic nature of the album, as well as easing back from their tried-and-true prog metal style. Furthermore, there are more songs that abstain from a stark metal heaviness, such as the easygoing "Act of Faythe," the gospel-fused "Brother, Can You Hear Me?," the lighter-waving power ballad "Chosen," the morose "The X Aspect," and the rousing folk rocker "Hymn of a Thousand Voices." It's a bit refreshing that not every song on the album is an onslaught of collective shredding by guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung, and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, but of course, they do include plenty of moments of going buck-wild as well, most notably in "Dystopian Overture," "A New Beginning," "Moment of Betrayal" and "The Walking Shadow."
But with the awe-inspiring moments of instrumental acrobatics being Dream Theater merely meeting their expectations, the real merit of "The Astonishing" is how the songwriting coalesces with the story it tells. Both the instrumentals and James LaBrie's singing styles correlate with the numerous characters throughout the story: the triumphant, strong metal likes of "The Gift of Music" represents the rebel forces leader Arhys; the gentle and harmonious likes of "The Answer" and "When Your Time Has Come" represent the sweet and fragile nature of the bard Gabriel; and the menacing likes of "Lord Nafaryus," "Three Days," "A Tempting Offer" and "The Walking Shadow" represent the antagonists and the conflict they conjure. However, Dream Theater go further than just compartmentalizing songs to one character, and characters interact with each other in a number of songs, which brings forth an interweaving of sonic themes - though some of these turn out simple, like the tender romance of Gabriel and Faythe in the delicate cuts of "Heaven's Cove" and "Begin Again," other pairings show more intrigue, like the clash between Arhys and Daryus in "A Tempting Offer" and "The Path That Divides," the argument between Faythe and her father Lord Nafaryus in "A New Beginning," and Nafaryus' plea to Gabriel in the mournful "Losing Faythe."
And while there are a number of melodic motifs throughout the album, one of the most profound is the melody of Arhys' and Gabriel's promise for revolution, first appearing in "Brother, Can You Hear Me?," then appearing in "The X Aspect," and then ends the album in the final song of "Astonishing." It's not just a matter of callback, though, and the way the motif's meaning both changes in context yet retains its spirit is a remarkable arc. When first established in "Brother, Can You Hear Me?," Arhys and Gabriel not only swear to each other their undying bond as brothers and revolutionaries who will win freedom for their village, but later on in "The X Aspect," where Arhys agrees to betray his brother in order to save his son, the melody comes back in the end, reprised with a grieving bagpipes section; not only does this represent a pre-emptive elegy for Gabriel as Arhys harps on sealing his brother's fate with this decision, but it also presumes that Arhys will fulfill his promise of revolution and peace if he pays this cruel price. His presumptions are wrong, however, and after all is said and done (it's Arhys who dies, while Gabriel brings forth the revolution), the motif returns as the main melody of the final song "Astonishing," where the ghost of Arhys asks Gabriel to take care of his now-orphaned son (where the strong choral backing represents Arhys with the angels), and Gabriel expresses to the village that peace has been achieved; coming full circle that their revolution was indeed won for the price of one brother, but the fact that their wish finally came true is what rings with the strongest triumph.
Lyrics — 7
Petrucci's story crafted for "The Astonishing" is very by-the-book in terms of dramatic theater, and though the setting is vague - though its clear usage of noise machines indicates a sci-fi dystopian future setting, its moments of sword-and-shield combat give things a Medieval feel - Petrucci banks on two of the most reputable playwright wells in history - Greek theater and Shakespearean theater, with the main essence of love and tragedy in the story being molded in a similar fashion to Romeo & Juliet.
In this dystopian future (ruled by the overbearing North Empire and its cruel emperor, the ham-handedly named Lord Nafaryus), the downtrodden city of Ravenskill has been building a resistance army to fight against the North Empire. The head of this resistance is Arhys, though his brother, Gabriel, is identified as "The Chosen One" due to his magical singing voice, which is fabled to be the element that will restore harmony to this music-deprived society - hence the aforementioned noise machines, which, in contrast to the theme of "true, wholesome" music, may likely represent a sly jab to the dissonant qualities of electronic music (even more indicative when taking into account the dubstep-esque qualities of the mechanical interlude tracks "The Hovering Sojourn," "Digital Discord," "Machine Chatter" and "Powering Down").
Lord Nafaryus hears the rumors of Ravenskill's resistance and their fabled Chosen One (in "Lord Nafaryus"), and he and his royal family travel to Ravenskill to see Gabriel perform (in "A Savior in the Square"), and though he's impressed with Gabriel's skill, he threatens to decimate Ravenskill if they don't surrender Gabriel to the North Empire (in "Three Days"). At the same time, Gabriel falls in love at first sight with Nafaryus's daughter, Faythe (again with the blunt puns for names...), and not only does she return those feelings, but she's beyond roused by Gabriel's power of song (in "Act of Faythe"), feeling that her destiny is to be with him. This prompts her to sneak out at night in order to find Gabriel and profess her love to him, believing that she can convince her father to not go to war with Ravenskill if she's ensconced with Gabriel. Though Nafaryus originally meets her appeal with scorn and disapproval (in "A New Life"), she ultimately convinces him to have a summit meeting with Arhys and Gabriel in order to work out a treaty.
Of course, nothing ever works out simply. Faythe's brother, Daryus, follows her without her knowing, and when Arhys's son, Xander, shows Faythe the way to finding Gabriel, Daryus ends up kidnapping Xander in order to leverage Arhys to give Gabriel up to the empire (in "A Tempting Offer"). Weighing the utilitarian scenario of saving his son and keeping Ravenskill at peace, Arhys decides to accept the harrowing task of betraying his younger brother. He stalks Gabriel in "Heaven's Cove," where the peace summit has been scheduled, but when he secretly meets up with Daryus right before doing his task, he refuses at the last moment, unable to betray his own brother. Daryus ends up killing Gabriel, and then sees a figure move towards them. Assuming its Gabriel, Daryus is quick to lethally strike, but afterwards, he finds out that the second person was in fact his sister Faythe - being an unwitting just desserts for his scheming ways. Gabriel and Nafaryus soon discover the scene, and both are wrought in misery at the sight of their dead family (in "My Last Farewell" and "Losing Faythe").
Nafaryus then implores Gabriel to use his magic singing to save Faythe from death, but Gabriel claims he can't in the wake of this tragedy (comparing his impotence in this situation to "Whispers on the Wind"). At that point, the entire village gathers at the sight of the tragedy and begin to sing in order to inspire Gabriel (in "Hymn of a Thousand Voices") to perform this miracle, which he indeed does, reviving Faythe from the dead. Beyond grateful for this, Nafaryus ends usage of the noise machines and gives Ravenskill peace, while Gabriel and Faythe marry, and take Xander in under their care (in "Our New World" and "Astonishing"), wrapping the entire story up in a nice, arguably saccharine bow.
Though it's properly full-bodied like any musical, Petrucci's themes and symbolisms in the story aren't exactly revelatory. The trope of an impoverished city treaded on by a tyrannical empire is fairly cookie-cutter, and the idea of the scrappy town successfully rebelling against the empire is just as much so. And while the theme of music prevailing in the face of a regime that uses machines to void the land of music not only promotes an easy "music will always prevail" message, but also carries a luddite undertone of how technology soils the harmony of life (a message that Petrucci has spoken about in interviews), it's another theme that's pretty beaten-path. Petrucci has stated his hopes of adapting "The Astonishing" - whether a TV series, a movie, or even a proper musical - so with that goal in mind, the familiar trope usage will certainly help in achieving such.
Overall Impression — 8
In the face of growing remarks of how Dream Theater's high quality prog metal has plateaued, the goal of "The Astonishing" was to get the band to flex themselves from outside of their acre of expectations. And while they clearly still have a foot set in their dependable prog metal sound, Dream Theater invoke a number of ways to differentiate from songwriting that merely sits on the intensity of their instruments - from focusing on non-metal instruments and different genres, to wielding melodic motifs and sonic characteristics affixed with the album's story. Both being a display of employing everything they've learned as composers and not simply relying on what they know how to do best, "The Astonishing" juggles a lot of things, and though some may argue it's just too damn big, for all the elements that are involved, it holds up well.