While here at Heavy Blog we usually err on the “for its own merit” side of the album/career debate, choosing to focus on an album’s singular traits rather than its place within a band’s discography, this would be a mistake here. While The Astonishing, one of the most anticipated albums of the year, is certainly a departure from everything Dream Theater has been giving us in the past few years, it’s also a return to several key sounds from the beginning and middle period of their career.
Even that departure requires an understanding of the bigger picture of their trajectory; to depart from something, you need to understand something. And so, the first thing that is immediately apparent when the first real track (that is, not the intro) of The Astonishing begins to play is: this is a rock opera. When the second track begins to play, something else becomes immediately apparent: the main touchstone for this album within the extensive Dream Theater discography is Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. That spring in the step, that hopeful and cheery outlook, screams of that intricate album, the closest the band have come to a rock opera in the past.
Yes, OK, but is it a good album? That’s what we’re all here to find out. In two words: yes and no. In more than that, The Astonishing contains some amazing tracks, possibly the best the band have produced since the lukewarm Octavarium trickled into our ears. When the tracks are playing, it’s impossible to resist how downright energetic this album is. At these moments, the cheesiness is perfectly balanced with that old-school Rush feel that Dream Theater have always been famous for and things work.
They work really well in several points: on “Lord Nafaryus” for example, LaBrie delivers the intricate villain role with brilliant precision, doing things with his voice that he never has, as far as register and delivery goes. The artificial strings blend perfectly with the over the top piano, accentuated by signature guitar bridges from Petrucci. This cohesion is perhaps one of the best marks of a good Dream Theater album: when they work together, instead of playing against each other, they sound best. The slightest, cheesy touch from Petrucci near the end really closes the deal, making this one of the best tracks on both albums.
This track is followed by two more excellent iterations of this new-fangled sound: “A Saviour in the Square” is epic to the exact degree needed, with a splash of horns to spice things up. LaBrie returns to more conventional grounds and reminds us that, regardless of personal taste, he is one of the most consistently excellent singers in the industry. Personal note time: when “When Your Times Has Come” kicks in, the next track down the line, I get teary eyed. This song is cheese to the maximum degree, but Rudess has chosen old school synth effects, with a wink to Kevin Moore perhaps, and LaBrie executes beautifully. This is “Hollow Years” territory: you know it’s cheesy rock but it just touches something within you and it works.
Which brings us to the major defect with the album. Honestly, what band can expect to release 33 tracks and get that perfect balance between emotional propensity and technical achievement? Even Dream Theater, one of the most veteran and influential bands operating today, can’t pull it off. The Astonishing is replete with filler tracks, songs that really have no right existing other than an obscure parts they play in this (rather underwhelming) story that the album attempts to tell. And that’s not enough: cliche guitar parts mix with over-sweetness in LaBrie’s voice and bounce off the most cliche lines that Rudess can make from his keyboards.
And they’re repetitive as well. There’s no reason for “Act of Faythe”, one of the cheesiest songs ever made by Dream Theater, to exist when a track like “The Answer” exists as well. There’s supposedly a common theme being iterated upon here but it’s not interesting enough to carry the tracks forward. Nor are the ways in which the band iterate upon it interesting in anyway: they include shifting the mood just a bit to give it a lighter or darker spin and nothing else.
All of these flaws extend to the second “CD” as well, and then some. “A Life Left Behind” for example is a track which could have come right out of Awake but it’s successor, “Ravenskill” is completely pointless, taking too much time with its intro and failing to deliver when the main theme is introduced. Since the flow between the tracks, a famous trope of progressive records, has been completely abandoned here in favor of the “track by track” structure of rock operas, the second CD is hard to pin down and connect to the first.
By the time you’ve reached it, so many filler tracks have gone by without a clear approach to thematization that the thread is almost impossible to grasp. The narrative has been completely lost and every track, even the good ones, start to sound the same. That’s no accident: even the good tricks utilized on this album are the same old tricks that we know from this album itself and from past entries in the Dream Theater discography. While the overall style of the album is new, in that it taps into tropes that were only lightly present in their careers so far, the track progression is the same tried and true method.
OK, we’ve saved the best (worst) for last. Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that we haven’t mentioned two current members of the band. The first, John Myung, might not surprise anybody; his absence, both in sound and words, from the band is a thing of legend by now. On The Astonishing, or at least on the copy that we of the press received, he is almost 100% missing. Whether in the mixing or in the recording, the bass was completely swallowed by the other instruments and is completely absent from the final product.
However, now we come, here at the end, to the most egregious and unexplainable flaw in this record: Mike Mangini. Throughout the album, Magini displays an almost impressive amount of disinterest in what’s going on around him. The drums line are not only performed in a lackluster way, they also sound as if zero effort was put into their writing. We know Mangini is a talented drummer but that talent is nowhere to be found here: obvious fill after obvious fill churn out under paper thin cymbals and pointless kick drums, ultimately amounting to nothing much. There’s literally no moments on the albums that are worth mentioning for their drums and this infuriatingly frustrating, given what we know of his obvious ability.
At the end of the day, when you put all of the above together, you get a disappointing album. If this had just been a bad album, we could have chalked it down to age, momentum and being out of touch. That’s impossible though, since when the album is good, it’s really quite good. If only it had been cut to about ten tracks and purged of the incessant repetitions, it might have been the best Dream Theater album in years. Instead, it’s a puerile attempt at a grand gesture that ultimately falls on its face, caught too close to the sun with wax spilling over, giving all its features the same, bland, indecipherable structure.