Dream Theater are a band who strongly divide opinions. For some they’re the epitome of progressive metal, with levels of instrumental virtuosity that render them without peers. For others, they’re all emotionless technical showboating, too many notes and not enough soul. The truth is probably somewhere between the two, but there’s no denying they’re one of the genre-defining bands of their generation.
They’ve been coasting a little in recent years, releasing albums that have their moments but don’t quite reach the heights of the 1990s work that made their reputation. Their last great record was 2002′s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, and their thirteenth studio effort, like that one, is also a double album.
The Astonishing is a sprawling ambitious concept album with a science-fantasy storyline that includes The Map and a vast cast of character with names like Emperor Nafarys and Faythe. The concept and music owe as much to musical theatre as to progressive rock. Unfortunately what could have been their 2112 turns out a lot more like their version of Kiss’ “The Elder”. Except The Elder didn’t go on for two and a quarter hours.
It starts strongly with the instrumental Dystopian Overture, but it soon becomes clear that they’ve spread themselves far too thin, and there just isn’t enough worthwhile music here to fill a double album. There is very little that stands out strongly, and there’s too much mediocre filler, often with melodies Graham Kendrick would have rejected as too banal.
The problem with this record isn’t too much unrestrained instrumental virtuosity. If anything, the opposite is true; a few tasteless irruptions of widdly-woo might have livened up some of the dull bits. The biggest problem with this album, aside from the sheer amount of filler, is that there’s far too much of James LaBrie, and he’s never been one of the world’s most expressive singers. Not only that, the sheer portentousness of the whole thing gets wearing after a while, eventually leaving you with the feeling that only metal bands with enough of a sense of humour to include undead unicorms should be making science-fantasy concept albums.
It does have its moments, such as “A New Beginning” towards the end of disk one with its inventive spiralling solo from John Petrucci. The album does leave the impression that there might be a worthwhile 50-minute album in there struggling to get out. But the listener has to wade through a lot of forgettable dross to find enough diamonds in the rough.
Dream Theater remain a hugely important band in the history of progressive rock, but sadly this record adds little to their legacy. Anyone new to the band would do better to give this album a miss and instead go for one of the classic earlier ones instead.