Dream Theater - The Astonishing
Concept album telling the story of the importance of music through music.
Conceptual theater style format set up into 2 acts over 34 tracks, or "scenes."
Astounding production value. Immersive story. James LaBrie vocals are unmatched.
Mix is questionable. Could alienate some Dream Theater fans because of theme.
From Sgt. Pepper’s to 2112 and The Wall, Tommy, and Quadrophenia, the idea of the concept album is well embedded in music history. Some of the most iconic albums to have ever been penned from the greatest minds in music were conceptualized for the idea to share a theme and tell a common story. It’s a format that has driven and encouraged listeners to envision the story being told with their imagination, a stage far bigger than any found on earth or any television on your wall.
Dream Theater is no stranger to this format and, some would argue, some of the best to have ever done so. 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, which is regarded by many as one of the greatest achievements in modern progressive music, follows the story of a man in past-life regression therapy and his visions. Furthermore, 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and 2005’s Octavarium proved that the band was capable of following this format in great strength. Fast forward to 2015. It’s been five years since the departure of founding member, Mike Portnoy and ten years since Dream Theater has taken on an album of such scale as their previous concepts when The Astonishing was announced in November and has been slowly revealing information about characters and story to drive interest to the release as well as announcing the supporting tour for the album where they will perform it in it’s entirety each date.
Arguably their most ambitious album to date, The Astonishing clocks in at an astounding 132 minutes in length over two discs and 34 tracks. Having billed this as a rock opera, the band looks to achieve a very similar idea to the aforementioned Scenes from a Memory. It’s also incredibly hard not to compare it to other albums of this idea such as The Wall or Tommy just based on many of them being considered the definitive standard of the format which sets standards quite high. What Dream Theater has accomplished, in terms on production, is nothing short of mind blowing. The vast amount of thought that went into the arrangement, musical themes, use of orchestra and choir and the band’s performances themselves are all at a level that not many bands could ever accomplish and one that any fan of rock musicals and progressive ideas can appreciate but this writer wonders the effect this will have on the fans that are truly expecting a “traditional” Dream Theater experience because let me be clear; This is not like anything you’ve heard from the band in the last 30 years.
For the sake of this review, I will keep the story mostly removed, short of a few establishing ideas, to ensure the integrity of it being spoiler free.
“The Gift of Music”
The story itself, penned by John Petrucci, is one that will keep you engaged for then entirety of the runtime. We’re taken to a land in the future where a rebellion flights for the importance of music against an oppressive empire that controls all music, or lack thereof, using machines called “NOMACS.” This theme of “the importance of music through music” is a perfect fit for a rock opera setting and because of the length of the album and its complexity in being character driven, this is a perfect segue into, what I feel is the single strongest element of the album itself, the vocal performances by frontman James LaBrie. When you take on an idea of performing theater musicals through only audio, and with only one vocal source, most singers would lack the musical dynamics and diversity to accomplish such a task. This is arguably LaBrie’s strongest and most overall impressive vocal performance in his 30 years with the band. Each character, including narration, is uniquely delivered in a manner that you, if following the story, never have to struggle to question which character he is singing as. The standout being when he performs as the story’s main antagonist, Emperor Nafaryus. There is a genuine feeling of dread and selfishness behind his voice. LaBrie is the MVP here, folks.
As much as I can talk up James for his unforgettable vocal performance, John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess both nearly equal him in performance. Petrucci’s solos are plentiful in number, never out of place, and always complement the underlying theme in melodic ways we’ve come to know from the band. There’s no generic “chugga-chugga-chugga” riffs all over the album either. Petrucci took the time to carefully craft unique riffs to help the story gain its unique feel and become the immersive experience it’s intended to be. Now given the nature of a rock opera, this is naturally a time for Jordan Rudess to explore us with his wizardly abilities and shine on the keys. Jordan played almost the entire album on a Steinway Grand and his Korg Kronos which means there are no cringeworthy MorphWiz solos to be seen. Rudess and Petrucci are, as usual, playing as one in melodic ways we have come to expect from them.
With that said, the rhythm section is just as proficient and on point as the rest of the band, but they do seem like an afterthought when it comes to them as a standout performance. John Myung, for what seems like the third album in a row now, sits incredibly low in the mix and has very few moments to show the talents we know and come to expect from a player of his caliber. I found myself having to EQ the bass itself to hear it a little better in the mix. This is not to say that he isn’t on-point, but more that you might have issues consciously hearing him. He was “Newsteaded,” if you will. Mike Mangini is a very similar example in different ways. His performance is as precise as ever and he never fails to complement the music properly as a good time keeper should but there were simply no points where I had to ever stop and give the drums a second listen because I had no idea what happened. This is the kind of technical proficiency that I know Mangini is capable of but there is a lack of it here. Now this isn’t to say that he hasn’t given himself room to explore this live, which is the clear intention of this album from a performance standpoint, but it’s just not there on the studio recording.
“Moment of Betrayal”
With all my praise, the album does have some faults I feel, and they lie mostly on the technical side of things. This is the third album that the band has enlisted mixing engineer Rich Chycki to handle the recording process. Sonically, the album is a brick wall, meaning that it lacks dynamic range in the master recording. Now my review copy was at 320kbs 24-bit quality, and it’s possible the FLAC version of the release is a little better, but the average consumer will hear what I heard. Now it’s not Death Magnetic loud, but it is concerning that for three albums now, this has been the issue. Furthermore, in addition to the previously mentioned issues with the bass mix, Mike Mangini’s snare is loud, lacking in dynamics, and just overall distracting for me and I can assuredly say that this isn’t due to his playing, it’s either sampled or compressed until there’s nothing but a loud pop.
Moving away from the mix, probably the other issue people will have, which one could argue is a strength, the the idea of the album itself. Again, just to be clear; This is NOT a metal Dream Theater album and fans of the “metal” side of Dream Theater may not like the idea of more than half the album being ballads. The Astonishing was created with a very specific format of that would be found in and sonically similar to a Broadway musical. Because of this, the delivery of musical themes, while outstanding, may alienate some people, but I feel that fans of the band are intelligent and open-minded enough to envision what the band wants to accomplish. It’s truly hard to absorb how immense this album is in a short time and only a few listens. It’s not the normal listening experience that the average music fan is used to. It require, nay, commands the attention of its audience as opposed to picking out a track in the car during the daily drive and casually listening. This could also be considered a fault of the modern music consumers inability to truly focus on the music rather than consume it arbitrarily and mindlessly but I digress. None of the tracks are intended to be standalone, due to the formatting, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t songs that people will gravitate towards and play on repeat.
In the end, despite some of its issues sonically, The Astonishing is something to be highly regarded in the world of progressive rock and its vast history. Delivering a performance similar to a combination of Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, Dream Theater has accomplished something truly epic on a scale that might take years to see the peak of. For 132 minutes, I was invested emotionally with the characters, joyed by the proper use of reoccurring themes, truly terrified at the audible sounds made by the NOMACS, and found myself having goosebumps in moments of grand scale from the performance I was hearing. The Astonishing is slated for release on January 29th and has set the bar high for progressive concept albums to follow it, not only this year, but until the end of time. #rememberbug2016