Dream Theater – The Astonishing

DreamTheater - The AstonishingDream 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.

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7 Responses to Dream Theater – The Astonishing

  1. Tom B says:

    Thanks Tim,
    It sounds like this one might be worth giving a miss.
    I’m struggling to think of any double album which wouldn’t be better as a 50 min single album, The Wall,The Lamb, Tusk, they all suffer from filler, and don’t even get me started on The Clash’s Sandinista! The only double album I can think of which wouldn’t benefit from a drastic pruning is Therion’s Gothic Kabbalah and although there’s no filler as such, even on that there’s tracks I don’t care for.

  2. David R. Lueck says:

    Tim,

    I am with the “no soul/too many notes” crowd, they just have never engendered any passion in me when I’ve listened to their stuff, though admittedly it’s been awhile. Plus James LaBrie’s (THE BANSHEE!) voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. He is a wailing caricature of what people who aren’t into progressive rock think all progressive rock singers sound like. Yuck. Weird, because I actually like Geddy Lee’s voice! There truly is no accounting for taste. See you on Twitter, Tim,

    Dave

  3. Jgrubb says:

    “The album does leave the impression that there might be a worthwhile 50-minute album in there struggling to get out” is what I always said about Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

  4. Tim Hall says:

    Now that’s an album I haven’t listened to for a long time. One of the earliest double-albums of the CD era, if I remember correctly, when instead of the 75-85 minutes of four sides of vinyl, the most self-indulgent of bands found themselves with up to two and a half hours to fill.

  5. Synthetase says:

    I’ve tried to like Dream Theater, but just can’t. I hate the way they chop and change so much. They play a few bars of something and then go straight to playing a few bars of something else. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s so jarring and annoying and it never seems to serve a purpose. Almost like they listened to Wish You Were Here but completely missed the point.

  6. Ian Redfearn says:

    I have now given this a few listens and I don’t even think there is a 50 minute album on there. It is as bland as ALW musical (and I absolutely despise his stuff). They have completely removed everything that is Dream Theatre from the recording. It is a miss on every level.

  7. Tim Hall says:

    I wondered whether I’d been too harsh with this review, and should have given it another couple of plays to give it another chance. But I found I couldn’t face sitting through the whole thing another time, so decided to publish and be damned,

    Then I read some other reviews….

    These two are more in-depth than mine, and come to the same conclusion

    On Progarchy
    https://progarchy.com/2016/02/12/the-astonishing-pile-of-crap-from-dream-theater/

    And Prog Archives
    http://www.progarchives.com/Review.asp?id=1527870