The Astonishing really did surprise me. No, really – but maybe not in the way you’re thinking.
Dream Theater’s thirteenth album, as you already know, is a concept album spanning over two hours and 34 tracks. It’s already been said in most reviews of this album, but the biggest fault must be reiterated again – there is a LOT of filler. Most of the many, many, many ballads are too similar to distinguish between and a large number of songs and intervals are unnecessary; songs where the only commendable aspect are the vocals become completely redundant if the narrative is a repetition of what’s already been said.
Speaking of which – the narrative through the entire album is cliché to the point of parody; it’s overblown with triumphant choruses and fanfares, but the concept isn’t original (see: Rush 2112) nor interesting. But the worst part is that the lyrics and story have the depth of a pre-teen written fantasy story – Faythe, Gabriel the protagonist and Lord Nafaryus the antagonist? Unless this was intentionally tongue-in-cheek, this is just laughable. This album is Petrucci aiming for Sondheim and shooting for Lloyd Webber. It’s one thing that the concept is not fantastic, but I can’t see how Dream Theater have managed to make a concept album so far from the mark of what they’ve already managed back with ‘Metropolis Part 2’.
Poor narrative aside, the consistency of LaBrie’s vocals is satisfying and the most solid in recent years – ‘Moment of Betrayal’ and ‘The Path That Divides’ are especially remarkable. Although there are few moments of incredible prowess, the variety in his presentation of the vocals through the different characters is really enjoyable, yet I can’t help wonder if things would’ve turned out even better if Dream Theater took a page from Aryeon’s book and included guest vocals. Lord Nafaryus is probably the most interesting guise LaBrie performs under; the vocals in ‘Lord Nafaryus’ and ‘Three Days’ are weird and quirky; it’s genuinely great to see a deviation that actually puts some dimension into these characters.
Instrumentally, Dream Theater play it safe for the most part; a foil to the grandeur of the album’s concept, perhaps? A lot of this is attributed to the abundance of ballad-esque songs, so it’s a given there aren’t flaring guitar solos in 7/8. But even so, there’s not a whole lot to commend relative to what Dream Theater used to be in technicality; Myung is solid but has been pushed to the back (maybe he was the only sane one to express doubt of the concept and was punished for it?); Mangini is robotic not in the complimentary sense and Petrucci rarely exerts his guitar playing. However the music is still on the whole enjoyable, but just not in a way we’re used to with Dream Theater – hell, I’d love to see an instrumental version of The Astonishing just so the music isn’t dampened by the narrative. But the only real stand out performance for me is Rudess’ unorthodox contributions – sure the symphonic and piano accompaniments parts are great themselves, but its the electronic and jazz influences got me excited. The jazzy scat near the end of ‘Three Days’ and hell, even the Inception-esque ‘Descent of the NOMACS’ got my jaw dropping and going “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!” – although the latter got old fast when it was essentially repeated 4 more times throughout the album.
I expected this album to be the one to make or break their discography, but instead The Astonishing defied all my expectations and resulted in being an album falls between the two extremes. I wouldn’t say unremarkable – since there are a handful of aspects to it that are fantastic and interesting, but they’re spread so thinly over 2+ hours of mediocrity that it’s not worth the time listening to in its entirety. This would’ve stifled engaging with the concept, if there was anything to latch onto to begin with. There are certainly some tracks that I can say are some of DT’s best, but the groan-inducing concept and its length are what chain this album down. If Dream Theater kept it short and sweet, The Astonishing could’ve been their best since ‘Metropolis Part 2’.
So there we have it – the first in-depth Prog Talk review of The Astonishing. Did you love it? Did you hate it? Why? What do you think I should review next? Cerpin Taxt, Dream Theater, The Astonishing – forever.
Post originally published on the Prog Talk FB page on 31/01/2016 by ~Cerpin Taxt.