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Dream Theater - The Astonishing CD (album) cover

THE ASTONISHING

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.37 | 710 ratings

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iluvmarillion
4 stars The prog folk at Sea of Tranquility did a ranking of the 14 studio albums of Dream Theater, from their worst to best and named this one the worst. It's easy to understand why. Even by Dream Theater standards this is a very long album of over 2 hours of music. And like Metropolis Part 2, Scenes from a Memory, it's a concept album, but moreover it's also a rock musical which marks it differently from the rest of their discography. Based on a fantasy/science fiction story of a dystopian futuristic North American empire where music is banned, replaced by noise machines, as an oppressive means of thought control, a rebel militia from the village of Ravenskill challenges the authority of the empire through the power of music. This is similar in concept to Rush's 2112 album, but whereas the Rush album piece runs for only 20 minutes, this Dream Theater is a marathon journey where the musical themes criss cross and a lush melodic orchestration of strings and choirs from David Campbell combine with the guitars, largely Jordan Rudess's piano and Mangini's drums. To stay the journey you need to be able to visualize the plot, having no reference of a staged production or cinematic film, or at very least have the lyrics in front of you as you listen to the music. If you don't want to do that there's enough to like by concentrating on the guitar tracks like Gift of Music, Savior in the Sphere, Chosen and New Beginning and skipping the largely orchestral tracks. As song writers Dream Theater, in this case John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess, who wrote it together, are more skilled at arranging and building a music score than composing catchy tunes like Andrew Lloyd Weber.

The cover art of The Astonishing sets the scene with the flying spheres of the noise machines suspended over a futuristic city. The lyrics are attached in the lift out inside making it easy to read. The opening instrumental track, Dystopian Overture, introduces the main musical ideas with orchestra, choirs, guitars, drums and piano, then we go into the first vocal track, "the gift of music" with James LaBrie displaying his extraordinary vocal range. "The Answer" is another good acoustic track. "A Savior in the Sphere" is the first time we get to enjoy Petrucci's Gilmour like guitar playing before he's cut short by the orchestra and choir. We need to keep reminding ourselves here that this is a rock musical unlike any other Dream Theater. The songs are very poppy, like in Octavarium. At times they get a little too bland and sappy, as in "When your Time has Come". At times there is too much orchestra, stretching the songs out, as in "Act of Faythe" (that and the next three songs I advise you to avoid). Then at other times you are thinking, do we really need the ubiquitous choirs? The two stand out performers on the album are James LaBrie and Mike Mangini. LaBrie does a magnificent job but maybe the album would have benefited from having other singers playing different characters. Mangini's drums are turned up full on in the mix, unlike on, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, where you can hardly hear him. The title of a Deep Purple song best describes Mike Mangini, "Speed King". He's a better progressive metal drummer than Mike Portnoy who has a more, jazzy style of drumming.

Most of the prog action occurs in the last third of the first CD. The intro of "A Life left Behind" begins with acoustic guitar then goes into a fast piano pattern which is joined on electric guitar before James LaBrie sings the first verse of the best melody on the album, then into a full on chorus where the drums carry the beat and the guitars bring it home. A soulful ballad piece in "Ravenskill" follows and then we come to another great song in "Chosen" which begins slowly on piano, enters another great vocal passage from James LaBrie, before John Petrucci plays one of his best guitar solos. Having come alive on "Chosen" Petrucci unleashes more electric guitar on "A Tempting Offer" before the orchestra finishes off the song. Next, we get a nice little mainly instrumental track in "The X Aspect", where I think Rudess piano playing is inspired by Rick Wakeman, before LaBrie sings the vocals. Then we come to the longest and best track on the first CD, "A New Beginning". Plenty of time changes to keep everybody happy, orchestra, choirs and the rock instrumentation come together in a fast, funky cacophony wall of sound where Dream Theater are in their element. One of the band's best, ever songs.

The second CD is thankfully a bit shorter than the first and has a bit harder edge to the music. If you're not exhausted from the first CD there's a few treasures on the second. "Moment of Betrayal" has a neat piano introduction and being the most metal track on the album. "Heaven's Cove" has a beautiful classical acoustic introduction, something Steve Hackett might have done, then goes into a really heavy groove. A nice little ballad in "Begin Again" follows which is basically a piano piece with acoustic and electric guitar (and orchestra) playing above the piano. After a change in pace with "The Path that Divides" there's a great short heavy piece called "The Walking Shadow" which reprises the main musical theme in the middle. "My Last farewell" has a slow build, then breaks out into fast hammer thrusts of guitar and drums before LaBrie brings it home in hymn like fashion. Ignore the sappiness of "Losing Faythe" and "Whispers in the Wind" there's a nice folksy violin piece in "Hymn of a Thousand Voices" which should have ended the album.

Dream Theater deserve credit for an ambitious project in The Astonishing, unfortunately unlikely ever to achieve a deserved cinematic filmed production of the music which would truly showcase the nature of the work. It maybe fails by being too ambitious, drags in several places by the over orchestration and unnecessary choirs, bit too melodious and sappy in parts, but draws you back in whenever John Petrucci picks up his electric guitar and plays it. Andrew Lloyd Weber, it's not, but when you think about it, Andrew Lloyd Weber constructed his most beautiful musical score in Sunset Boulevard and that was a musical flop, so why should Dream Theater be like Andrew Lloyd Weber.

iluvmarillion | 4/5 |

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