Released: Jan 29, 2016
Genre: Progressive Metal, Symphonic Metal, Rock Opera
Number Of Tracks: 20 (2CD)
With their last couple of albums simply appealing to their well-lauded prog-metal style, Dream Theater craft a full-on rock opera in their thirteenth album, "The Astonishing."
The AstonishingFeatured review by: UG Team, on february 06, 2016 6 of 7 people found this review helpful
Sound: 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. // 9
Lyrics: 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. // 7
Overall Impression: 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. // 8
dead eye, on february 08, 2016 1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Sound: "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. // 8
Lyrics: 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. // 8
Overall Impression: "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. // 8
travislausch, on february 08, 2016 1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Sound: I've been a fan of Dream Theater, through thick and thin, since about when they released "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence." I only just missed out on the glory days surrounding the release of an album that's almost universally hailed as a prog-metal masterpiece, even by people who don't like Dream Theater, 1999's acclaimed "Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory," an album I can't believe was released closer to my birth than the present day, given how fresh it sounds every time I hear it today.
So what does that have to do with their brand new two-hour tour de force, "The Astonishing"? Well, that album was the band's last proper concept record. One with a rich narrative, with instrumentation that anchored a great story along. Since then, the band has released quasi-concept albums that either have central themes, convoluted ties between what most people would not assume are connected songs, and ideas that never seemed all that fleshed out. So when I heard that "The Astonishing" was going to be a concept album, and likely a double-album at that, I was among the many Dream Theater fans who waited anxiously for any taste of what was to come. I made sure to keep checking for information about the album's cast of characters, maps, and the mysterious "NOMACS" that grace the album's cover art. When "The Gift of Music" dropped as the first single, I thought it was so delightfully Rush-like and it instantly brought me back to that time I was first discovering Dream Theater through "Scenes From a Memory."
What I wasn't prepared for, however, was my first listen through "The Astonishing." While "Scenes" certainly had a bombastic feel to it, with overtures and James LaBrie portraying several characters, it also had a certain thing to it that made it perfect. Maybe it was the timing of its release, just as prog-metal from Europe was starting to reach its peak through releases from bands like Pain Of Salvation and Ayreon. Maybe it was something else, I don't know for sure. But "The Astonishing," by comparison, is so much larger of a musical work to digest, clocking in at nearly two and a quarter hours long (longer than many Hollywood blockbusters!), and so much more ostentatious, that trying to review it in a concise way is like trying to review a gold-plated Maybach or the Burj Dubai. It doesn't matter in the end what I rate it, because this is an album intended to turn heads and elicit some kind of extreme reaction, whether it's love or hate. Fans of Dream Theater's past work may find themselves enjoying tracks like "The Gift of Music" or the dramatic "Lord Nafaryus," but there are a lot of lighter pieces throughout the album that use a lot of piano, strings and acoustic guitar, serving merely as a vehicle for vocalist James LaBrie's impassioned, melodramatic performances. In many ways, this is James LaBrie's album, as the instrumental playing is often quite understated. But when there are hardly any tracks out of the 34 on this album that are longer than six minutes, there's not a lot of room for instrumental flights of fancy. Solos are simply peppered throughout the album in between verses rather than made into self-sustaining compositional exercises. Odd meters still find a lot of room on the album (such as on the epic "Three Days," one of the few songs with a good, crushing metal riff), and there are moments that will remind you of particular progressive bands (try telling me the beginning of "A Life Left Behind" doesn't immediately make you think of "Drama"-era Yes). Metal riffs are used a little more sparingly on this album, but you can still get your headbanging rocks off to tracks like "Moment of Betrayal" and the duology of "The Walking Shadow" and "My Last Farewell." There are some odd mood whiplash tracks, like the positively happy-sounding "Hymn of a Thousand Voices" coming just after the very melodramatic climax of the record, and the very, very cheesy electric piano sounds on "Losing Faythe." But these are only small blights on an otherwise rich musical and lyrical journey.
In a lot of ways, this album is structured similarly to classics like "The Wall" or "Jesus Christ Superstar," which isn't something I could say about "Scenes From a Memory," where you could still take the songs individually without much effort. I actually have a hard time picturing Dream Theater playing much of this material live on its own (hence, the band will be performing the album as a whole for several upcoming tour dates). Production-wise, John Petrucci's production and Rich Chycki's engineering and mixing have given the album a very modern sound that sounds a lot like the last couple of Dream Theater albums, though the addition of orchestral elements and choirs have led to some of the instrumental performances becoming a little bit more buried in the mix. The individual performances on this album are a bit of a mixed bag. John Petrucci uses a lot of acoustic guitars and thick rhythm parts, Jordan Rudess plays a lot more piano and a lot less "Snarling Pig" than usual, while Myung and Mangini seem to be playing a lot more of a supporting role than usual, never really playing anything too flashy. Mike Mangini's drum sound seems to have suffered a bit in production and mixing, giving it a very synthetic sound that immediately reminds me of the very annoying triggered snares from their 1992 album "Images and Words," and that saddens me as Mangini is an exceptional drummer. But those are only minor complaints in the grand scheme of things. // 8
Lyrics: For the first time in Dream Theater history, only one person was responsible for all of the lyrics on the album. Guitarist John Petrucci was the sole lyrical contributor on the album, and since the lyrics are truly the anchor of this record, that really makes this Petrucci's baby.
There are simply too many lyrics to go through, but the story is very steeped in prog-rock tradition, coming off as a mix of the "music as the catalyst of freedom" idea of Rush's "2112" and the medieval/feudal sort of atmosphere of television shows like "Game of Thrones" (admittedly, I've never watched "GoT," so I'm not sure how this connects, though it has been stated that the show was an influence on the album).
In short, the album is a story about a future where individual expression is lost to technology, humanity has descended back into a sort of feudal system, and how one man, Gabriel, who was born with the unique gift of music uses his power to attempt to bring peace to the Great Northern Empire of the Americas. There are elements of love and betrayal throughout the story, and I'd highly recommend checking out the story in the track-by-track descriptions on Dream Theater's own website, since they provide a lot more insight than I could possibly give in a concise space.
James LaBrie's vocal delivery does a great job of carrying the album forward. While he's always been a great vocalist, it's seemed in the past that the music behind him has not been the perfect vehicle for his voice. Take tracks like "The Dark Eternal Night" from "Systematic Chaos," for instance. But this time, with the vocals being the central focus, the music seems much more suited to James' voice. He really lets his rich, soothing voice bask in the music, rather than try to force out too much harshness like in the aforementioned heavier cut from a few albums ago. While his voice may still not be for everyone, and the dramatic songwriting coupled with his flair for overacting really up the cheese factor of the record, this is by far James LaBrie's best vocal performance in years. // 8
Overall Impression: "The Astonishing," simply put, does not compare to any other album in Dream Theater's discography. It's so much more vast and theatrical than "Scenes From a Memory," the closest album in their discography. And while there is a lot of material that some people would classify "filler," it's much like experiencing a movie or reading a good book. You can't just skip a chapter. And that's this album's greatest strength: you want to know what happens next in the story. It pulls you in and strings you along. It is a bit of a demanding listen at over two hours in length, but it is rewarding. And while I would have liked the album more if the production values were a little higher, it still sounds huge.
This is certainly Dream Theater's most "larger-than-life" album, and even though I'm going to give it a rating, as I mentioned earlier, it really doesn't matter what my rating is going to be. For an album this huge, it's definitely more about provoking a reaction than anything else. It's quite likely that many fans are not going to like this album. It lacks a lot of the metal elements fans are used to, there are a lot of ballads, and people who already don't like James LaBrie's vocals might not be convinced by this album. Already, in the comments sections on articles about the album on this website, I can see how divided fans are about the record. So while personally, I like how over-the-top and cheesy and bombastic this record is, your mileage may vary. The most I can recommend is that you give the album a listen yourself and draw your own conclusions.
I'm giving the record an overall 8/10. It's not perfect. It can get a little tiring to listen to at times. I wish there were more metal and shred elements. James' vocals are great but his voice doesn't change enough to really differentiate the characters based on that alone. But if you're looking to be blown away by a huge, theatrical piece of music, or are willing to listen to something new and different that will take you on a journey, this album will... well... it'll astonish you! // 8