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Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos CD (album) cover

SYSTEMATIC CHAOS

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.31 | 1752 ratings

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Finnforest
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars I come at this one from the unique perspective of being somewhat of a DT newbie, without the baggage of past expectations about this band. Sure I've heard them before but I've never been a big DT "fan." So when a friend dropped a copy of Systematic Chaos in my lap I decided it was time to give the band a fair chance and listen to them as if they were a brand new group. And from that perspective, without having to judge this album against their back catalogue..

I like this.

It was certainly helpful to have the bonus DVD to be able to get a real sense of the personalities and the band at work in the studio. After all these years together I see a bunch of guys who still have fun and who admitted that making this album is the most fun they've had in the studio since "Awake." They still play at the top of their game and aren't particularly worried about whether prog purists are going to judge them on the basis of being groundbreaking. Let's face it, most bands break ground relatively early on if they manage to at all, and if they stay together as long as DT many are putting out dreck that isn't anywhere close to the music on this album. Where were the lads in Led Zeppelin this far into their musical careers? Doing stuff like The Firm? Shaken 'n Stirred? Even if Bonzo hadn't died, In Through the Out Door showed they had little magic left. And it isn't just Zep. Based on the history of many progressive and straight rock groups DT aren't doing too badly here. So I'm not judging their ability to break new ground. I was more curious to find out if they were making music that appealed to me as a rock fan.

In the documentary, Rudess delivers a line that would be the perfect title to his future book about the group should he ever write one. As he's working on this keyboard run and having some difficulty with it, he says "we have problems playing slow." It's a funny moment but actually they do just fine playing slow and heartfelt when they want to and it's something I wish they'd do a little more of in the future. I know their fans love the warp speed stuff though and that's fine too, after all, it's their band and their fans are extremely loyal! Portnoy also explained how much better it is for them to write and record together on the spot in the studio as opposed to writing things individually at home and then coming together a year later to record, by which time he says they will have lost the spark and the freshness of the idea. It's much more exciting to work with something they just came up with rather than an idea from a year or two back. Portnoy is hilarious on camera, so brimming with boyish energy that he physically cannot stand still during the interview, he rocks back and forth like someone who has to take a leak really bad.

Getting on with the music of Systematic Chaos, "In the Presence..part 1" begins with a bang and a little bit of flash by all. I really like this opening as it serves notice well of what is coming. Around two minutes Petrucci lays down the first of many heartfelt solos, lots of tasty melody and notes held for the right amount of time, bent just about perfectly and lasting about 2 minutes. Really good so far and then... The vocals kick in around 5 minutes and I'm forced to deal with, kicking and screaming, what had been one of my complaints about DT. Pretty boy Mr. Labrie. But for the most part I think he does a nice job on this album. He still has this somewhat pretentious melodrama about him that bugs me but I can deal with it when I'm enjoying the material, which I do for the most part on this album. This is a very successful opener of heavy prog with even some fusiony moments.

"Forsaken" starts with a heavy groove and some nicely layered guitar alternating with good keyboard. The chorus is awfully sing-songey but even with a moderate cheese factor I still think this is one hell of a well done light-metal (pop-metal ballad?) song that I can enjoy if I check my prog cynicism at the door. It is soaring in its feel and really succeeds with outstanding writing and delivery. It might be the "pop" song on the album but it's not a track I'll be skipping over my any means. Nice.

"Constant Motion" is one that I hated at first but has grown on me some upon many listenings. The only Metallica I can appreciate any more are the Cliff albums and this reminds me of lamer 90s Metallica. It's well played of course but is one of two songs that drag on the overall album, thankfully those two songs are among the shorter ones. Not bad if you dig the Metallica sound but the vocals especially make me cringe.

"The Dark Eternal Night" begins with crushingly heavy bombast and great drumming. This one is also very metal but to me more successful than "Constant Motion." The heavily distorted vocals alternate with clean ones and just foam at the mouth in their fury. About half-way through there are some really funky exchanges between the various players that display their finesse without getting too warp-speed. It's probably pretty easy for long time fans to take songs like this one for granted but for newbies this is some pretty wild stuff! This song reminds me of classic Sabbath. You have the Iomni mega-riff, the playful jamming with tasteful bridges, and the lyrical themes that either Ronnie or Oz would surely love to belt out.

"Repentence" is change of pace for sure. Very brooding, eerie clean guitar and vocals remind me of some Porcupine Tree. A slow pace with acoustic guitars, wonderful keyboards throughout and a beautiful guitar solo ensue. Then they string together a bunch of spoken word sections by famous people on the topic of regret that is a great idea, although they leave a little too much music over the top making the actual words difficult to understand. This is followed by a Floydian like section that is dreamy and nice. It works as a breather before more spoken word returns. This song in itself is a bit of a breather on an otherwise very heavy batch of songs and it's a definite highlight.

"Prophets of War" is the other song that doesn't work so well for me. It seems pretty clichéd to me and the lyrical message seems forced. Definitely one of the weaker moments on the album. Did the Democratic Party write the lyrics for this one or what? I totally support anyone's right to release an anti-war song but at least make it interesting and thought provoking. Thought provoking and clever this is definitely not and I would have dropped it from the album. Maybe they should have consulted with Bright Eyes instead of Kucinich's speechwriter for the lyrics

"The Ministry of Lost Souls" starts with a beautiful melody which very much reminds me of Pain Of Salvation for some reason. Again I like the softer texture the acoustic guitar introduces and the slower pace in places. Labrie is at his best here with some truly gorgeous harmonies behind him and the electric leads are great too when they pop up. The middle section shifts into an extended jam that breaks from the original melodies but is inspired and interesting. The third section is similar to the first but with a bit more majesty and another restrained melodic guitar solo until the fade out. This is a very good track.

"In the Presence..part 2" is the grand finale and it begins appropriately with a very Floyd like opening. Vocals begin about one minute in and the music is very spacey and dreamy with a monster bass part around 2:45. At 3:25 they kick in full throttle and this leads to the "Dark Master" chorus that has apparently set off the cheese detector for many fans, but they actually address some of these lyrical issues in the documentary. If you have a problem with them I suggest listening to their explanation before writing off the whole CD. This track moves like a true epic and rocks very hard while remaining varied and interesting. There is some ensemble playing in the middle/late sections that is as interesting as similar Rush stuff you might compare it to. I love the way it winds down out of this section at 13:15 like a downhill skier after hitting the last jump and then coasting towards the finish line. Then we hear the original melody from part 1 arise from the ashes to wrap the album into a cohesive package. The piece gets more grandiose as it lays down an impressive ending to this fine album.

Recommended for DT fans of course, but also for non-DT fans who are curious. I believe this to be a good introduction to the band as it is accessible, interesting, and offers the video documentary (at least for now it does.) And for the prog metal fans who thrash this album, while I respect your opinion, would you feel the same if you heard this material played well by a new band rather than DT?

Summary: DT may never be my favorite group but any band that can put out a disc like this after roughly 2 decades is doing something right. And doing something Yes, Genesis, and Floyd didn't manage at roughly the same career points with Big Generator, Invisible Touch, and Momentary Lapse. Even with the two missteps noted (Constant Motion and Prophets of War) I can still award this album 4 stars without hesitation. One of the other Prog Reviewers writes of DT new releases: "chances are fans don't even know what they actually hope for." This is a great line and there's plenty of truth to it. DT probably just can't win anymore. Any direction they take will piss off one contingent of fans or another. I guess that's the burden of hanging around for 20 years but I personally believe they can be proud of this album.

Finnforest | 4/5 |

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