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Dream Theater - Dream Theater CD (album) cover

DREAM THEATER

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.42 | 506 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Aussie-Byrd-Brother
Special Collaborator
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars I think I'm in a pretty interesting position to review this new Dream Theater album! As much as I like the band and own all their albums, they are certainly not one of my favourite prog artists. I consistently purchase their albums knowing I'll get some technical and demanding progressive metal that needs plenty of replays to appreciate, but there's so many other progressive artists I spend a lot more time on. I find it fascinating the response in our circles the band brings - those who think they are almost pinnacle of the genre, and those who think they are embarrassing and overblown. I perfectly understand both reactions! So I kind of slot somewhere in between, able to appreciate what they do so well and the mastery of the progressive metal genre that has earned them such a deserved reputation, yet never so thrilled by them that I want to listen to them all the time.

So another Dream Theater album, and my usual sound-unheard purchase (like I do with most prog albums, now that I think about it), even though I was little bummed to see an uninspired cover and a `self titled' work at that. For a moment I was slightly curious - `Self-titled'? Perhaps the guys are going to go at us all guns blazing with a reinvigorating album that reshapes the prog metal genre that deserves the all defining self-titled tag. OK, I'm pouring it on a little thick, but with make or break time for new drummer Mike Mangini to really prove his worth, and the band rallying against the perceived opinion from some fans that they are finished and useless without founding member Mike Portnoy, I figured they were determined to make a real statement of reassurance and daring. Needless to say, it didn't turn out that way, instead we get a mostly textbook `Dream Theater' album that sees the band playing to all their already established skills and musicality, even if they do that damn well. It's kind of nice to know you're in safe hands, but also disappointing that the band didn't use this opportunity to make a really big statement and surprise everyone.

After the first track, I was almost convinced Dream Theater were playing a bit of a sly joke on us! Upon seeing the track listing on the back CD cover for the three part `False Awakening Suite' that opens the disc, I thought `Beauty, open with a long multi-part epic!' Sure enough, it's a snapping keyboard-orchestrated instrumental call-to-arms, with Jorden Ruddess (like over many of the pieces that follow) clearly having overdosed on the symphonic grandiosity of Emerson, Lake and Palmer during the sessions for the album! But turns out this so called three part `suite' runs a total of two and a half minutes! Then it's on to the first single `The Enemy Inside', kind of a very typical shorter Dream Theater piece, and everything you'd expect to hear when you think of the band. Initially quite unengaging, but repeated plays reveals a compact punchy piece with a lot of momentum, a catchy vocal melody, a number of battering-ram styled drumming variations from Mike and a winning quick band run-through of choppy time changes near the finale. `The Looking Glass' mixes 80's hard rock with joyful AOR/Journey styled melodies, some nice lyrics about the fame game, and just listen for John Myung's snarling bass at the three minute mark! If only he sounded so upfront and full-on all the time (once again, as has become a bit of a DT trademark, his bass is frequently mixed way too low). Sadly the finale is a total bust, after a repeat of the chorus the track finishes five seconds later in truly lazy and uninspired fashion.

`Enigma Machine' is the first sign of greatness on the disc, a tricky, aggressive, and dynamic instrumental of proggy technicality. Heavy and cinematic one second, playful and groovy the next, it's pretty much the sound of a band having a great time! I have to say, though, to my ears the main twisting guitar melody sounds a little too close to the theme tune of `Inspector Gadget'! Surely it's not just me that picks up on this! Then onto another DT regular - the `breathy James Labrie track'. Unfortunately, I usually find these really schmaltzy and a little embarrassing. However, `The Bigger Picture' is a sophisticated arrangement, thoughtful in the opening, gutsy in the heavier middle and joyful AOR for the finale. James, never a favourite vocalist of mine, is admittedly sounding better than ever these days, thankfully having learned a lot more restraint over their last several albums. I still don't feel even the slightest trace of emotion or genuine feeling from him, but on a surface level, he's a lot more pleasant to hear these days, and he's definitely experimenting with his arrangements.

The album then hits a run of tracks that successfully mesh commercial directness and progressive sophistication. The opening and closing sections of `Behind The Veil' features some very intimidating spacey synths ala Riverside, while the chugging repeated riffs are very much in the Metallica vein. Add in some pumped up bass power and a very catchy chorus for good measure in this strong uptempo track. `Surrender To Reason' features stirring synth-orchestral backing, Steven Wilson/P.Tree styled jangling acoustic verses and biting staccato heavy riffs throughout with yet another sing-along chorus. `Along For The Ride' is all classy power ballad territory for the chorus (get those cigarette lighters out for this one live, people!), plenty of nice tricky proggy fills throughout and a very E.L.P/`Lucky Man' inspired Moog solo in the middle!

The five part 19 minute `Illumination Theory' is certainly Dream Theater at their most ambitious. Although they've done numerous long pieces before, the use of a proper live orchestra implemented in quite a surprising way for them is fresh and new. A grand theme to open with, full of groovy heavy foot-tapping rock with scorching thick Hammond runs and maniacal gothic cabaret piano/synths. The verses of the first vocal section that follow are a little try-hard with some forced aggression from James trying his best with some awkwardly messy lyrics (the chorus works better though). The band then tears through a brief heavy, almost whimsical medieval run before fading out into sonic ambience, phasing effects and far away bird calls very much like Yes' `Close To The Edge' and finally giving way to a stirring and pompous orchestral overture. This section is impossibly moving and unlike anything the band has tried before, lasting several minutes in which we don't hear any of the band members - quite a risk, but one that pays off. Then the band re- enters in noisy E.L.P-styled form, whether it's the growling chunky bass, the dazzling unhinged piano or the pummeling drumwork. The wailing vocals from James here sound the closest to his original screeching 80's style (urgh, not my thing at all!), and John Petrucci lets rip with some scorching and exhausting lead guitar soloing. All in all, a very successful epic that shows the band at their strongest while also open to experimentation.

The band then finishes properly on a two minute hidden track, a simple piano and guitar piece that is very refreshing and restrained, and they should seriously consider working in this style more often. I wonder if they think by toning down the technical overkill they'll be robbed of their defining identity, but this far into their career they really shouldn't let such doubts hold them back. It's by far one of the best moments on the album, and certainly the most simple and heartfelt.

As good as this all is, it's definitely time for Dream Theater to try something different. Do a more acoustic based album, or a concept album with a bunch of smaller pieces that weave together. I don't think we need any more albums like this that are just simply `more of the same', even if that same is still good. I'd rather the band try a new direction or type of writing and fail than lazily rehashing the same pieces like they do here, even if I do enjoy it. When an established band gets to enjoy a long discography of numerous releases, it's the more experimental, risky or different albums that will ensure that reputation remains. I would rather look back and say `That was the album where they tried `x' style, etc' instead of `Wow, look at that, five albums in a row of the exact same thing' (I'm exaggerating the case here, but you know what I mean!).

Fact is, whether you personally like them or not (and lets face it, not many prog bands divide opinion so strongly like these guys!), there is no denying the status Dream Theater hold in progressive circles. The band are legends of the genre, and this alone means they shouldn't be so scared to experiment more, shake up the formula and challenge not only their fans but themselves. Seriously, even just one `different' album from them won't scare off the entire fanbase, so I still hope for a real surprise from them in the future...maybe next time.

Four stars all the same.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |

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