Dream Theater: The Astonishing (Roadrunner)
One of the most revered progressive rock bands of our time, Dream Theater have never shied away from following their own musical path. In the 30 or so years they’ve been cranking out albums, they have produced some stunning works. They’ve also produced some self-indulgent twaddle. Collectively, the band are probably stronger than they’ve ever been and the departure of Mike Portnoy really allowed them to progress their sound and style. Musically very few bands can get near them for their technical brilliance and their fan base is ferociously loyal. I’m pretty sure that most people either love them for their progressive nerdish leanings or dismiss them as overhyped, bloated dinosaurs peddling music which belongs in the 1970s alongside the likes of Yes. I have to admit that I sit somewhere in the middle, which is probably quite unusual.
The Astonishing is Dream Theater’s first concept album since 1999’s (somewhat legendary - Ed) Scenes From A Memory.
Ah yes, the rock concept album. A thing of beauty or egotism of the highest order? Throughout rock history, the concept album has divided opinion like few other things. Back in the 1970s it was common place for bands to craft out double or even triple albums following a story or theme. Indeed, my all-time faves Rush are as guilty as anyone, having based 2112 on The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and littered Hemispheres and A Farewell To Kings with the story of Cygnus X1. Of course, it hasn’t been restricted to the 1970s, with their last release, Clockwork Angels being the soundtrack to the book of the same name. Judas Priest found with Nostradamus that it isn’t always that easy to deliver exactly what you may have intended. Iron Maiden have regularly used themes for albums, with The Book Of Souls very much in the same ball park. However, what sets some of these releases apart from many others is that they contain tracks which can stand alone.
So where do we start with The Astonishing? Well, it is set in 2285 in a time where society has collapsed and has been replaced by a feudal system, with empires ruled by powerful leaders and the vast majority of ordinary people toiling for survival. Music has been replaced by artificially intelligent machines, the NOMACs who produce all the music with no need for human input. Sound familiar yet? There are a number of central characters who are pivotal to the story, including the evil Lord Nafaryus, the hero Gabriel, his brother Arhys, and the offspring of Nafaryus, his daughter Faythe and son Daryus. Gabriel becomes anointed as The Chosen One and leads the rebellion to overthrow the evil empire. Got that? Good. John Petrucci, the virtuoso guitarist of the band and driving force behind the whole concept has stated that his inspirations for the concept sit very much in the fantasy and sci-fi areas; think Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings for starters.
I’m not going to go into any more detail about the concept, or the packaging, or the plans that the band have for the numerous spin-offs. Suffice to say this is a massive project which will really appeal to the diehard DT fan. So whilst the build-up has been substantial, what’s the actual music like? Well, unfortunately, to put it bluntly, its dire. Two hours of material, which in the main sounds exactly the same. Comprising 34, yes 34 fucking tracks, this is about as overblown as it gets. Sure, the musicianship is top notch, but as James LaBrie sings every character, the variation is negligible, the score repetitive and about 75% of the tracks are completely saccharine coated.
CD 1 clocks in at over 70 minutes and to be brutally honest, it just blows. The Gift Of Music, the first release from the album is about as good as it gets, and is one of the few tracks that can actually stand on its own. At least this has something resembling Dream Theater. Pace, drive and LaBrie actually letting rip without constraint. Even early on though, the choral backing and orchestral overtures are evident. It does contain a smashing solo from Petrucci as well as the typical number of expected time changes, keyboard solos and challenging bass and drum sections.
From there on in it just increasingly resembles a West End musical … and not a good one. Of particular stomach churning note; The Answer, A Better Life and the cringe worthy Brother, Can You Hear Me. These tracks, representative of the majority of the release, contain the horrible type of composition which we’d hopefully last heard on the godawful Music From The Elder, Kiss’s ill-fated concept release in 1981. A Saviour In The Square contains trumpeted fanfare, and Act Of Faythe has an orchestral opening that segues into a solo piano and LaBrie playing yet another character which prompts you to head for the sick bucket. And so it continues; Ravenskill is just abysmal and we haven’t even got to CD 2 yet.
It’s clear by now that this album is going to be loved and hated in equal measure. What I’ve struggled with (and I’ve lost several hours of my life giving this repeated plays) is the repetition and length of the album. I appreciate that the band intend to tour it as a full performance, complete with cinematic experience and maybe I’m missing something fundamental here.
CD 2 at last gets a bit more exciting with Moment Of Betrayal which follows the opening orchestral instrumental 2285 Entr’acte. Moment Of Betrayal at least has some substance, crazy keyboard action, rampant riffs and fine drumming from Mike Mangini. Unfortunately, as the story continues, the tracks blend into one again, with LaBrie vocalising every character, and the limp musical theatrical score grates. Heavy on the orchestral and choral elements, tracks such as My Last Farewell and Losing Faythe are just toe curling in their awfulness. Eventually we get to the final track, The Astonishing. After two hours, the final six minutes provides a climatic conclusion, all soaring voices, strings and piano, ridden with emotion … and yet more repetition. It is dreadful.
I’ve nailed my colours firmly to the mast on this album. Dream Theater are at a stage in their career where they won’t give a shit what anyone thinks, and they have fully earned that right with their back catalogue. Good for them. However, The Astonishing is anything but that in my opinion. In fact, it is a stinker of the highest order. If you wanted me to confess to something, put me in a seat at the London Palladium in mid-February when they play this in full. I’d cough within about 30 minutes. Sorry. 3/10