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Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos CD (album) cover


Dream Theater


Progressive Metal

3.31 | 1752 ratings

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3 stars It pains me to write a somewhat negative review of an album that belongs to my favorite band, but it's something that I have to do. No, Systematic Chaos is not necessarily "bad", but it's definitely not "good", either. I'd put it somewhere in between, and I'm about to explain why!

Basically, "Systematic Chaos" is an album with a few high points and a few low points. Generally speaking, Dream Theater albums feature a few high points and a few REALLY high points. That's not the case here... I've never before considered anything that Dream Theater has done to be pure album filler, but this album breaks that trend for me. It saddens me because there are several standout tracks on this album, but it honestly would have been a much better 45 or 50 minute album than it is as an 80 minute album.

Before I look at each song and discuss the merits and lack thereof, I would like to caution people against some of the sillier comments about this album. When I read people say that Dream Theater is dead, that they've lost it, that this album is generic, etc. I see that as a gross exaggeration. What we have here is a band who is pretty much THE standard when it comes to great progressive metal. Because they've raised the bar so high in the past, anything short of perfection is viewed as a disaster by many overreacting listeners. If another band had released this album, I doubt you'd see anywhere near the number of comments like I mentioned above. No, this isn't a great album, but it's certainly worth listening to.

1. In The Presence of Enemies Pt.1 - 3/5 Do you have "A Dramatic Turn of Events" on standby? Go to "Breaking All Illusions" and listen at the 6:11 mark through the 6:!4 mark. OK, now start this song. Do you hear what I hear? I absolutely hate to point it out, but for all of the misplaced boo-hooing about DT recycling riffs (95% of these complaints are 100% wrong), but the first time I listened to ADTOE, I had to grab this album when I heard that section in "Breaking All Illusions" because I thought it sounded the same. It doesn't sound the same, not quite, but it's really really close.

Anyway, on to the song! This is a song that I think would have been a much better song if it was 2-3 minutes shorter. This opening riff continues for about 45 seconds before it changes into a new more aggressive riff that eventually adds in some harmonizing before Jordan Rudess does some slow, cool-sounding keyboard stuff. At the 1:42 mark Petrucci shreds in the vein of the famous composition, Flight of the Bumblebee, before that opening riff around the 2:05 mark slows down into a relaxed, bass and drum track with Petrucci playing a nice melodic solo on top. John Myung's basswork here is particularly enjoyable. Petrucci eventually plays a melody that you'll hear later on in Pt. 2. The only complaint I have here is that this instrumental section goes on much longer than it should... At the 4:05 mark you think it has ended and the singing is about to start, but then the next section is set up by over another minute of build up. This is nothing new for Dream Theater - they do this all the time - but this time it feels to me like it's too much. DT could have cut a minute out of this intro, still hit all of the important parts, and made the song better.

Anyway, the first verse is pretty cool, with major-key guitars playing as Labrie sings about promises that sound a little too good to be true. There is a ton of harmonizing with the instruments in this verses and in between. The refrains nicely lead into the choruses, which promise you everything you could ever want, as long as you do what you're told and worship the person speaking for the rest of your life. The section beginning with "servants of the fallen..." around 7:30 sounds fairly dramatic and you know that something is wrong here, you just don't know what yet. At around 8:10 we get some more quick, harmonized shredding guitar and keyboard which serves as an outro for Pt. 1 of this song.

Fairly good song, but it's too long. Sometimes less can be more.

2. Forsaken - 3/5 This is not a bad song. It's kind of catchy, but a bit too trendy for my tastes. It begins with an almost goth-rock sort of piano riff before the melodic guitars come crashing in. The verse is really dramatic and soft and the guitars again crash in, leading into the chorus which is backed up by some nice keyboards in the background as well as harmonized vocals.

The main guitar line is melodic and pleasant. The second verse, however, has some issues; the lyrics seem VERY forced...

"I waited painfully for not to fall again Trying to silence the fear within me Out of the night and mist I felt a stinging kiss And saw a crimson sting on her lips"

Yeah. Look at that first line. If that's not forced, I don't know what is. A lot of people rip on DT for "simple lyrics", but I'm actually usually a fan of their lyrics. As an English teacher, I feel like if I can enjoy most of DT's lyrics, a lot of the people whining about them being so simple must be fairly pretentious and full of themselves. Anyway, with that nit-picking aside, all I really wanted to do with that line is show an example of a legitimate lyrical problem.

The song is enjoyable, but it's not very proggy. It's almost pop-rock in a way... A lot of people have compared it to Evanescence, a comparison that I disagree with, but I can certainly see comparing it to some of these extremely generic "Melodic Metal" bands out there.

The guitar solo is pretty good, but nothing out of the ordinary for Petrucci.

3. Constant Motion - 3/5 Have you ever wanted Metallica to add a keyboardist and play in odd time signatures? That is what Dream Theater must have been going for with this song because that's exactly what it sounds like. This is thrash metal done prog style! The verse is straight thrash before giving way to a refrain that sounds more Dream Theateresque, but it quickly shoots back to the thrash before moving into the chorus, which is again fairly typical Dream Theater other than the "Forever more!..." shouting at the end.

The second verse is actually kind of cool to me. The trash chugging is replaced by the start - stop - start - stop riffage underneath some yelled vocal tradeoffs by Labrie and Portnoy. It's sort of lame at times, but overall it can be fun if you ignore a few grunts or yells.

After the second chorus things get quiet and John Myung plays a bassline by himself (Figures) before Petrucci sneaks in with a palm-muted lead line. Then Portnoy jumps in and Petrucci begins to solo. At first he plays slow, but he begins picking up speed and intensity, eventually culminating into one of the fastest set of notes Petrucci has ever recorded to date. He almost plays TOO fast here... It seems like the mic struggled to keep up with all of the notes flying at it. From there, Petrucci plays a thrash riff from earlier while Rudess does a keyboard solo. Now, Rudess is immensely talented, but a keyboard solo really just doesn't fit with this kind of music. I think he should have opted not to do one here at all. The song wraps up with a final chorus.

This song is fairly straight forward... I absolutely love the solo and I enjoy this song from time to time, but sometimes it's too much.

4. The Dark Eternal Night - 5/5 Speaking of too much, holy shit!! Sorry, I really don't curse often, but it's necessary here. This song begins with such a crunching, demolishing riff, so deep, dark, and angry. No, FURIOUS! The drums' kick is turned up so if you listen to this in your car it will constantly kick you in the face. After 1:15 of GRRRRRR riffage, Labrie and Portnoy begin to growl in unison with their voices distorted. Labrie then sings cleanly over some distressed guitar work on the background before leading into the chorus, which is a metal anthem ending with the phrase, "Drawn to the beckoning light of the Dark Eternal Night". Now we're going to ignore the logical problem that arises by one being drawn to a dark eternal night via the beckoning light. I'm not sure how it's dark or night if it ensnares people with its light, but whatever. Damn, it's such a bad ass moment that everything is OK anyway.

This song is already unparalleled in Dream Theater history. It really is. And now that we're 3:30 into it, we can actually get to the good part.

This instrumental section starts with the guitars playing some very creepy, heavy, dark shit. The drums feel like they're slightly off-time but they're like that on purpose and it creates a disconnect between the guitars and drums that will blow your mind. Then, out of nowhere Jordan Rudess plays some old timey saloon piano before IT'S METAL TIME AGAIN!! Then, the next thing you know we have a little jazz-fusion interlude of - NO, IT'S METAL TIME! This instrumental section is so great that I can't really do it justice with words, but I would like to recommend that if you haven't done so before, go to Youtube and look up "Dark Nintendo Night". It'll be really funny and bad ass at the same time.

Anyway, at around 5:50 things speed up as Petrucci plays a blazing guitar riff and the drums are bumbling along with it. And then... F*CK THE WORLD! Petrucci shreds with such fury that probably at least several million small mammals had to have died. Small mammals, of course, are good for the hands. Another Youtube allusion for you, there.

So you think that after this, nothing more mind-blowing could happen, but after one final chorus, Petrucci rips open your soul with the hatred of a slow, rage-inducing headbanging heavy metal jam. This riff is amazing. And there's the end of the song.

Sorry for all of the cursing... That song gets me pumped. It literally makes me angry, but somehow I like it.

5. Repentance - 2/5. I don't really like this song... It starts with a really slow, mellow riff that you can tell comes straight from other AA Suite songs. After 1:15 or so of this, Labrie begins singing by making an allusion to a previous DT song, "The Mirror". The bass, for the most part, drives the music here, and the focus is on Labrie's vocals. This sounds like something that Opeth would write rather than something out of DT's catalogue. The changes from verse to refrain to chorus are noticeable, but everything has the same exact feel and vibe until around 2:55 when Jordan Rudess comes in with some keyboard synths in the background, but that's quickly quelled as the next verse begins.

Finally, around 4:40 we get some action! Petrucci starts with a Pink Floydesque solo that really hits the mark. The only detraction here is that Petrucci plays several solos that use similar phrasing to this one on both Systematic Chaos and Black Clouds and Silver Linings. Other than that, it's a great solo.

Then, at 5:45 we go back to the opening riff, only now many famous musicians that are friends with Mike Portnoy begin to say things... Pieces of advice, apologies, quotes, all kinds of stuff. This continues for around a minute and a half before a minute of singing "Aaaaahhhhhh aaaaahhhh" over one of the main chord progressions. Oh, did I say a minute? I meant about four minutes. And at some point (9:20) the famous musician sayings pop back in as well.

While I think it's cool that Portnoy brought in so many people to talk about alcoholism or apologize for things it has done to their friends or families or whatever, they're pretty much all unintellgible because they seem to mutter everything that they say. Maybe it's because I have the bass turned up pretty far on my computer's surround sound audio system and in my car? Either way, I feel like at least four minutes could have been cut out of this song, and because it has more or less the same feel throughout the entire song, it winds up dragging on and on. I pretty much always skip this song when I listen to this album.

6. Prophets of War - 2/5 Back to back 2/5's! It's not often that you'll see this in a Dream Theater CD. This song is supposed to be an anthem to rise up against oppression and unnecessary war. It's a noble goal, but it's so much successfully done with "Outcry" on ADTOE. The verses of this song are... I honestly don't know how to put this any better, so I'll just say this...: They have a Systematic Chaos sound. That's the only way I know how to explain it. If you're familiar with this album, you'll probably understand what I mean. There's just something about the mixing, the harmonies, the phrasing, and everything that just sounds... Systematic Chaosy. Bits and pieces of this are throughout the album, but they're usually saved by other elements. In this song, they're just... Not.

The chorus, "TIME! FOR! CHANGE!" is kind of catchy, and it's really awesome that DT let actual fans line up outside a studio in New York to come in and shout this themselves. When I heard about that, I considered immediately flying to New York from Georgia, but I wound up not doing so...

This song is just missing something. There's nothing really wrong with it, it just doesn't work for me. Maybe for you it'll be different!

7. Ministry of Lost Souls - 4/5 This song starts with power chords and a keyboard melody that seems to say, "This is going to be an epic song. Please enjoy". DT manages not to let this drag out too long like they've done with several other sections on this album already. This gives way to a really creepy, eerie clean guitar part. It manages to be creepy but beautiful at the same time. At 1:30 James Labrie starts to lament about lost souls trapped inside a lake. This entire song is basically about someone who died saving a drowning girl's life as he watches the girl get all depressed and guilty over him dying just to save her.

The content of this song is actually fairly profound, when you think about it. Earlier I dissed a DT lyric line as forced, so it's only fair now to point out lyrics that I think are actually very good. It's a fairly common piece of human nature to feel guilty when someone suffers at your expense. Even if they're doing it out of love for you, you still feel like you're wrong for accepting it. It's like when your grandmother who is on a very tight, fixed income gives you $20 for your birthday. You're grateful that she loves you enough to do it, but you really don't want to accept it because you know it's hurting her to do it.

Anyway, this guy keeps cautioning the girl not to "turn (her) back on paradise" as she seemingly prepares to commit suicide to "rid her of her pain".

At around 7:10 the guitar leads start to heat up and the drums drive way into a faster guitar riff. The builds momentum gradually and efficiently before Jordan Rudess gives us a quick crazy crash of keyboard shredding. The riff then changes over into a new riff as we get a section of stereotypical Dream Theater instrumental filler. Rudess then does one of his patented keyboard shredding solos, followed by Petrucci, who plays an at times bluesy piece of shredding. Eventually we get some niced harmonized shredding with Petrucci and Rudess before heading back into the main chorus line, this time the melody supplied by John Petrucci's guitar rather than the vocals. This has a really nice feel to it.

Then, everything drops out except for acoustic piano as Labrie sings softly. He sings about how this time when the guy reached out his hand to the girl, it wound up reaching all the way to Heaven... Essentially alerting the listener that the girl is apparently now dead. At least that's what I'd guess.

As a completely useless anecdote, I took the "Goodbyyyyyeeeee" part of this song, clipped it, and made it the file my computer plays when I empty my recycling bin. I felt like files I don't need should at least get a pleasant goodbye when I destroy them for good! Why did you need to know that? You really didn't. Hmm...

The song ends with a nice Petrucci solo. It's a fairly generic solo based around some of the phrasing that you've heard throughout the album so far, so nothing that really stands out.

8. In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 2 - 5/5 The intro to this song is is very quiet with one droning note being played while Jordan Rudess plays a few delicate, echoing notes on piano. Labrie then begins to sing, the same music in the background. He's welcoming a "Dark pilgrim" into "the circle". The lyrical content here makes me think of a coven or cult of some sort welcoming in either someone new to the cult or perhaps a prophet that they've worshiped. I'm aware that there's a movie called "In the Presence of Mine Enemies", but since I haven't seen it, I can't really comment on whether or not the lyrics follow the plot or whether or not they even have anything to do with it.

Anyway, just short of 4:00 in the first chorus forces its way into your mind as Labrie growls, "Dark master within, I will fight for you!" It sounds like we've got some brainwashing going on up in here, nawmean? Some of the lines like, "Angels fall, all for you. Heretic." makes me wonder if this could be a song following the Biblical story of Satan, who took 1/3 of the Angels from Heaven as he thought that he could fight against God and defeat him. It's certainly possible!

Anyway, this song, obviously, has a very dark atmosphere. It's exceptionally well-done. It'd be easy to drop the ball with a song like this, especially with how long it is, but it never seems to drag, at least not to me. It's crazy because at 16:00 long, this song seems shorter than "Repentance".

The section of the song entitled "Slaughter of the Damned" is pretty intense. There is some growling from Labrie, some shouts in the background, and some very aggressive guitar work in the background. The lines "Sin, caught in a moment of weakness/ Committed the greatest of all/ Sold Half of my soul/ And now it's too late for you" reinforces the possibility of Biblical allusion and it's during this part of the song that the "Dark Master" who was promised servitude near the beginning of the song is finally starting to lose his hold.

The 8:50 point marks what feels like a really epic point of the song. Labrie sings of the "servants of the fallen fight to pave their way for their savior's calling on this wicked day". If you allow it, the imagery can be really powerful. I imagine some sort of huge, bloody battle, a group of servants fighting viciously against the odds, possibly misguided, possibly not.

Around 10 minutes in, a great instrumental section begins, full of odd but fun play between Petrucci and Rudess with plenty of time signature and tempo changes. This, of course, leads into John Petrucci shredding for a bit, which, OF COURSE, is followed by Jordan Rudess doing the same.

Everything here is wrapped up with the intense harmonized shredding found in the opening section of ITPOE Part 1 before going into a grandiose set of power chords behind a strong continuum lead by Jordan Rudess. John Myung then starts playing a pretty cool bassline as the keyboards come back in.

TO end the song, the main character declares that his soul is now his own and that he doesn't fight for the Dark Master anymore, but at the same time he talks about how someone is watching over him. Is that someone benevolent or malevolent? Who knows...

The song ends musically with a unique twist.

This album creates mixed feelings for me... There are some really good songs, but there are some pretty boring and uninteresting songs, too. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, if Dream Theater had cut out around 25 or 30 minutes from this album, it would have been a much better album from start to finish, at least for me. Still, don't miss out on the high points just because you don't want to deal with the low points. There are a few songs on this album that you simply don't need to ignore anymore, any longer.

TheMasterMofo | 3/5 |


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