There’s a danger, when attempting to pass judgement on Dream Theater, of not giving oneself time to absorb the overwrought musicianship involved. As a result, it’s taken me some time to actually write this review – an instant fix just isn’t DT’s style.
It has been satisfying to see DT move into the mainstream consciousness since signing to Roadrunner, a label who give the impression of actually knowing what to do with the band, and the band’s debut album for that label (Systematic Chaos) was an absolute belter. However, where …Chaos drifted towards more conventional rock band fare with songs such as ‘Forsaken’, this album offers lengthier, more progressive workouts and has only two tracks that clock in at less than ten minutes in length.
Kicking off with ‘A Nightmare to remember’ there is a sense that DT are reasserting themselves as progressive rock behemoths as a myriad of riffs and tempos collide, all marshalled together by Mike Portnoy’s propulsive drumming. Heavy as hell from the offset, the tune boasts a beautifully harmonious chorus and genuine narrative depth. Helped by the fact that John Petrucci’s soloing seems ever more integral to the compositions, the song’s sixteen-odd minutes passes by in the blink of an eye and we move on to ‘A Rite of passage’ (the first single from the album) which is relatively svelte at only eight minutes. If you’ve already seen the video, then you’ll know that ‘Rite…’ is DT at their darkest, with a lead-heavy riff coupled to James La Brie’s weirdly reverb-laden voice before introducing a sublime DT chorus into the mix.
‘Wither’ is the album’s token ballad and it’s not bad, but how you feel about it will undoubtedly be influenced by how you felt about previous ballads such as ‘The answer lies within’, it’s very stadium rock, and very well played, but I tend to be somewhat underwhelmed by DT’s ballads and this is no exception. Moving swiftly on, we come to ‘The shattered fortress’ which finally concludes Portnoy’s 12-step suite (which began back on Six Degrees of inner turbulence and documents the drummer’s struggle with alcoholism) and contains the heaviest elements of DTs repertoire. At twelve minutes, it is a typically lengthy entry and contains throwbacks to various songs from the suite, most notably ‘The root of all evil’, the riff from which makes a welcome return. ‘The best of times’ is heavy thematically, if not musically and pays tribute to Portnoy’s father who passed away in 2009. Sadly the lyrics do not do the subject matter justice and Portnoy resorts to love-song clichés rather than the normally intelligent lyrics of which he is capable. Musically the song is less remarkable than one might have hoped and, fine motives aside, it is one of the less inspiring entries into the DT catalogue.
The absurdly lengthy ‘Count of Tuscany’ (twenty minutes) closes the record and reminds the listener why DT is a truly great band. Filled with invention and exceptional musicianship, it takes a full four minutes before the vocals kick in and has more than a nod to band heroes Rush in it’s charging riffs and rapid-fire solos. With lyrics written by Petrucci, it sees the band in story-telling mood rather than the personal catharsis of the previous songs. It is a fine closer to an album that does not quite reach the heights it aspires to. Of the six songs on offer, four are exceptional, while two play perfectly into the hands of DT’s more vehement critics, with flaccid vocals and over-lengthy instrumentation dragging out ideas that are worthy of half the running time allotted to them. It’s as if, stung by the criticisms of ‘selling out’ levelled at songs such as ‘Constant motion’, the band have responded by extending everything past the five minute mark whether it warrants it or not. Overall this is an album that will please DT’s existing fan base, but I find it hard to imagine it encouraging newcomers into the fold.
Special edition supplemental notes
For those of you who are considering shelling out for the special 3 disc edition, you’ll find a disc featuring instrumental versions of the songs and a disc of covers. The instrumental versions are rather a gift to those who live and breathe Dream Theater, and few will be encouraged to listen more than once. The covers disc is of far more interest with solid renditions of tracks by Queen (in which La Brie manages to sound eerily like Mercury), Rainbow, King Crimson and Iron Maiden. Actually a remarkably coherent collection, the covers disc stands in its own right as a record worth listening to, rather than a random collection of B-side fodder that such a set normally represents, and it repays several visits to appreciate how much DT inhabit these songs and make them their own. For once, this is a special edition that offers genuine value for money for fans of the band, and is worth shelling out for if you have more than a casual interest in DT. Good stuff.