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Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos CD (album) cover


Dream Theater


Progressive Metal

3.32 | 1820 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
2 stars On Octavarium's "Never Enough" Mike Portnoy wrote "I can only take so much of your ungrateful ways/everything is never enough." Well, dang! Makes me hesitant to write anything less than a glowing review of "Systematic Chaos." But, alas, to my own self (and personal musical opinions) I must be true. Let me say up front that I most certainly appreciate and admire the time and Herculean effort it takes to record an album of original material. It's very hard, intensive work. Tremendously demanding and life-consuming, too. However, art, by its very nature, is always subject to criticism. That's the price you pay for making your product readily available to the masses and official prog reviewers.

I feel like I've gone to a five-star restaurant and one of my favorite chefs has set out a huge eight-course meal for me. Yet no matter how much I yearn to experience pure ecstasy with every bite, nothing tastes spectacular to my palate. I know the highly skilled chef did his utmost in preparing and presenting his creations but I can't fool myself into liking his new dishes just because he has knocked me out with many delectable cuisines in the past. Unfortunately, that's how I feel about this album.

"In the Presence of Enemies - Part I" has an instrumental prelude that starts things off promisingly with both John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess working in tight tandem before introducing the tune's grandiose melody. But then you get to the "Resurrection" portion of the piece and it quickly turns into a contrived metal song molded around juvenile Faustian lyrics penned by JP where the downcast protagonist is told by some up-to-no-good apparition that he can lead him "down the path and back to life/all I ask is that you worship me/I can help you seek revenge and save yourself/give you life for all eternity." Excuse me, but I think I've heard this one before. Petrucci also contributes the words to "Forsaken," a run-of-the-mill rocker that is a throwback to the 80s. I understand that a significant portion of Dream Theater's fan base prefers the metal side of their "progressive metal" mentality but I'm not one of them. Sorry, but this loud number doesn't take me anywhere I haven't been a thousand times before. I also know that lyrics have never been this band's forte but singer James LaBrie can only do so much with insipid lines like "close your eyes/and hold your breath/to the ends of the earth." Say what?

Next is "Constant Motion." I'll admit that I've never owned a Metallica CD but I'm familiar enough with their music to know that this song sounds like they might as well have recorded it themselves, complete with grunts and death growls galore. JP dominates the track, turning in a blisteringly fast and clean guitar solo but what has happened to Rudess? He's gotten lost somewhere way down in the mix, I guess. "The Dark Eternal Night" follows and it's becoming obvious that Petrucci has become obsessed with the underworld. I'm still wondering where Jordan has gone to as I find myself being bombarded with more non-stop, headbanging heavy metal and some kind of demonic, electronically-altered voice telling me that he's "the ultimate god of a rotting creation/sent to unleash this curse." Charming. Things do get interesting during the complex and challenging instrumental section where Rudess actually makes an audible appearance. These superb musicians haven't lost their chops, that's for sure.

Now is a great time for a change of pace and the Porcupine Tree- flavored "Repentance" arrives in the nick of time. Portnoy's continuing ode to substance abuse recovery is one of the few bright spots on the album for me as both Jordan and JP create some excellent ambience underneath James' emotional vocal on the first segment, "Regret." On the second part, "Restitution," the guest speakers' voices are novel for the first minute or so but then they start to drag the momentum down like they did back on "The Great Debate" in 2001. Same thing with the chorus of "ahhs" and big, fat chords that follow in that they drone on far too long and nothing remarkable happens. I can't believe that neither Rudess nor Petrucci couldn't have provided a stirring ride over all that wide open space. It seems obvious that the song desperately needed a spark of some kind.

"Prophets of War" is pretty much a straightforward, anti-war rock tune but the melody line is mundane and instantly forgettable. Some of the octave guitar parts and drum patterns remind me of "My Hero" by the Foo Fighters which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing but I expected more originality from these guys this far into their illustrious career. Rudess' opening symphonic keyboard sounds and JP's ringing acoustic guitar tones gave me hope that "The Ministry of Lost Souls" was going to be the epic that would save the CD but, despite some terrific dynamics, the tune's pomposity overwhelms its potential. I still have to designate it as the best cut on the album, though, mainly because of Jordan's brief but impressive moments and Petrucci and Mike's intense performances. But JP's ongoing devilish lyric content still seems far beneath their professional standards.

"In the Presence of Enemies - Part II (The Heretic and the Dark Master) takes up the last sixteen or so minutes of the proceedings in four phases. "Heretic" has exciting music but the lame words LaBrie has to sing like "my soul is yours/Dark Master I will fight for you" are downright embarrassing. I mean, is James supposed to be an Orc? "The Slaughter of the Damned" is next and here we get some angry, unison crowd shouts and Rudess has disappeared once more. "The Reckoning" provides a welcome break from the inane Hell and damnation recital with some of the better instrumental segments of the whole album. Jordan triumphantly returns from wherever he was hiding and matches Petrucci stride for stride as they race at lightning speed together over Portnoy's thundering drums and John Myung's skillful, too-often overlooked bass runs. "Salvation" ends things with a return to the original theme from 78 minutes earlier. It's been a long journey through some very dark sewers.

When this group released the risky, multi-dimensional "Octavarium" and then the phenomenal triple live CD set, "Score," I thought I was hearing a band that was ready to take that next huge step into unexplored musical realms where they would continue to blend majestic symphonic colorings with complex metal-tinged rock anthems and vocalizations to create even more magic. I was mistaken. Their love of metallic rock and roll is firmly entrenched in their psyches (to the delight of millions of their most loyal fans) and I don't think it's fair to slight them without mercy for returning to their steely comfort zone just because I wanted something more progressive. Hey, you can't have everything. But my sincere hope is that in the future they will take brave chances once again and reach for the stars.

Chicapah | 2/5 |


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