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Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos CD (album) cover


Dream Theater


Progressive Metal

3.31 | 1752 ratings

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4 stars Dream Theater, love them or hate them, there's no escaping from them. As the self-proclaimed standard bearers of progressive music (they're probably the most commercially successful prog group of the last 15 years, so maybe they're right on that), whenever Dream Theater release a new album, everyone knows about it. But, 18 years on from their debut, When Dream And Day Unite, what do they have left to show us, and after the dreadful Octavarium, can they still provide good music?

Octavarium was a disaster, easily their weakest album, and amongst its several flaws there were three major issues that needed to be sorted here on Systematic Chaos. The first was that John Myungs bass was completely lost in the mix, except fro a few select parts were he took centre stage, which was a massive shame as he's one of the best bass players around and the most consistent performer in Dream Theater. Second was that the band took influences from a very wide range of groups, not just the usual stock of Yes, Pink Floyd and Metallica, but the likes of Muse, U2 and Coldplay, and rather than incorporating these influences into the sound, it ended up more as a cut-and-paste job from all the bands that influence them, the sound of Dream Theater was near none-existent. Lastly, in an attempt to have Jordan Rudess's keyboard work more fully integrated and integral to the music than he had been since Scenes From A Memory, John Petrucci held back heavily on his guitar work to the point were it felt constrained and lackluster. But things have been turned around here, right from the opening bars of In The Presence Of Enemies Pt1 to the closing of Pt2 John Myung's bass comes through clear as day, the U2 and Coldplay influence is gone and the Metallica, Yes, Floyd and (for one song) Muse influence is integrated more fully into the sound and style of Dream Theater successfully, and finally Petrucci's guitar playing has some real bite and feel to it again.

Once again we have a very full CD here, 78 minutes of music, but of the eight songs on here I can honestly say that none of them are actually bad, probably for the first time since Scenes From A Memory, its just that some are far better than others. Forsaken, Constant Motion and Prophets Of War are the "weaker" songs on here, though weak is probably a bad term for them as I still like them, they just don't match up to the quality of In The Presence Of Enemies (Pts 1&2), The Dark Eternal Night, Repentance and The Ministry Of Lost Souls. One thing that the interested should know is that you are most definitely in the wrong place if you want deep and meaningful lyrics. What you have here is mainly fantasy sort of lyrics (without being overtly so, in a power metal kind of way, thankfully) with Repentance and Prophets Of War holding the only "real world relevance" sort of songs. That's not to say that the lyrics are bad, you'll find worse on Train Of Thought and Falling Into Infinity, its just that not everyone is going to like them.

Of the songs themselves, In The Presence Of Enemies, the 25 minute epic split into two parts like Floyds Shine On..., is the stand out of the album for me, and works brilliantly as both opener and closer of the album. The opening half of In The Presence... is the closest thing to an instrumental that this album has with the first 4 and a half minutes of the 9 minute piece being given over to the most interesting and dynamic instrumental that DT have done since The Dance Of Eternity on Scenes From A Memory. Indeed, it may have been better to have made the song in 3 parts, with part 1 split into two separate pieces, the first being the instrumental. Of course the lyrical part is just as good, it just may have been better served separating the two parts. The most important thing this 9 minute opener does is show that all major faults from Octavarium are gone. Myung is audible again, it is most certainly DT playing at being themselves and not someone else, and that Petrucci has opened up a bit more, but has maintained some of that restraint he practiced on Octavarium giving a lot of feel to the sharp bite of his guitar playing. Of the really good songs on here, the next one is The Dark Eternal Night. Yes, it is ridiculously over the top and possibly the most technically demanding song they have ever written, but its just such good fun and, though composed as a technical tour de force, they don't lose sight of the need for melody and create a very enjoyable song, as long as you don't try and take it seriously, because its not meant to be. This is followed by one of the most unique songs that the band has ever written and composed, Repentance. This makes up parts eight and nine of Mike Portnoy's AA series, and possibly the best of the lot, certainly rivalling The Mirror. The uniqueness comes from the fact that this is a very soft and slow song, by their standards, with a real Pink Floyd feel, dominated by clean guitars atmospheric keyboards, this ends up being a very melancholic song, despite recycling the main riff from Train Of Thoughts This Dying Soul (though slowed down and cleaned up a lot) and I think it works better here. This song is also noticeable for a real who's who of prog names (plus a few others) like Daniel Gildenlow, Steven Wilson, Steve Hogarth, Neal Morse and a few others adding voices showing repentance for certain things. The Ministry Of Lost Souls feels close to being a 15 minute ballad, but the music is far more varied, if very definitely emotionally charged, than your average ballad and makes this song one of the best here. It even feels like it wouldn't have been totally out of place on Images & Words or Awake, though its much more highly produced than said albums.

Of The other three songs, though they don't match up to the standards of those already mentioned, they're certainly not filler. As The Dark Eternal Night is one of the most technically demanding songs the band has ever written, Forsaken is one of the least. Its much more of a pop song than any other song on here, but far better than many previous efforts the band have made at this, with an almost Evanescence sort of feel to it, though very definitely Dream Theater. Constant Motion was the song picked to be the single from Systematic Chaos and is the most Metallica like of the songs, but with a very interesting instrumental section in the middle. Constant Motion would have fitted well on Train Of Thought, though would probably have stood out on their as its clearly a bit more restrained than the all out tech-fest of Train Of Thought. Lastly, Prophets Of War is the only James LaBrie written song on here and seems to be following the political subjects initiated in Sacrificed Sons from Octavarium. This time the lyrics don't follow the atrocity of 9/11 but Americas own actions since then. However, rather than just criticize the actions of the Bush administration, as so many others have, he also focuses on the hope for the future and "setting things right", something that more people should look at to be honest. Musically this song has a very strong influence from Muse, just like Never Enough from Octavarium did, but this time it works much better, though it might be taken just a bit too far. The problem with these songs is that they are just not quite as strong compositional as the others on the album, though still quite enjoyable.

Overall this is Dream Theater on top form, all the musicians give what is certainly their best performances since 1999's Scenes From A Memory and LaBrie gives what is definitely his strongest vocal performance for the band yet, he's found how to work his voice and range brilliantly and has completely abandoned the unintelligible wailing that marred his performance on Awake. If you were looking for the band to come up with something completely new then you are going to be disappointed, but they are still the masters of this style of progressive metal and perform it better than any of the similar bands like Vanden Plas and Shadow Gallery. I fully admit that I was worried that Dream Theater may have lost the spark to create truly interesting songs and that the were on the rocky slope to oblivion, but here on Systematic Chaos they come back with a real bang, providing their best album since the classic masterpiece Scenes From A Memory, and a piece of work that I consider to be behind only the aforementioned Scenes... and the classic Images & Words, clearly there's life in the old dog yet. A brilliant album that is only let down by the fact that three of the compositions are clearly slightly weaker than the others and that, though the bass is definitely audible this time, it could still have been a bit more forward in the mix. A very strong 4 stars from me.

sleeper | 4/5 |


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