Wednesday, October 23, 2013

album review: 'dream theater' by dream theater

If you know progressive metal, you know Dream Theater. It was one of the flagship bands to come out of the late 80s to adapt progressive elements into metal, and it was one of the few to do it as successfully as they did. Along with Queensryche, Fates Warning, and Tool, Dream Theater was one of the progressive metal acts that actually managed to achieve some measure of critical acclaim and commercial success, albeit most prominently in the 90s. They're a band with a reputation for incredibly long songs, instrumental excellence, and several fantastic albums throughout their career that are required listening for getting into the progressive metal genre. That's actually one of the reasons why this review is a month late - when hearing that the band was releasing a new album this year, I took the opportunity to relisten through the band's entire discography, and combining that with my regular review schedule (plus, you know, I have a full-time job), it took until now to finally talk about the band.

And really, the band has such a storied history of excellence that I'm a little lost at where to even take this review other than establish my feelings about the band: they're great, but I would never quite say they're my favourite. While production in Dream Theater's early days was inconsistent at points, they've managed to iron out those issues almost a decade ago, and for the most part, the instrumentation is incredibly complex and interesting across the board. Initially I was skeptical how well the new drummer Michael Mangini would fit with the rest of the band (and I did think A Dramatic Turn Of Events did suffer a bit as Mangini worked to find his place), but he turned around surprisingly well. I still don't think James LaBrie's voice is great in a more hardcore vein, but he's incredibly melodic and powerful when he needs to be, and he's a very compelling and emotive singer. I guess if I were to nail down an consistent issue I've had with Dream Theater, it'd be that I don't always find them good 'technical' songwriters. Oh sure, they've written incredible songs with deep themes and beautiful symbolism, but there are occasional moments of lyrical clumsiness that do irk me at points. But really, I'm nitpicking here and Dream Theater has long ago reached the stage of being one of the elder statesmen of the prog metal genre. 

With all of that being said, however, I did take pause at Dream Theater releasing a self-titled album for their twelfth - it's just a pet peeve, I know that, but it did forewarn me that Dream Theater weren't exactly going back to their concept album days. But the positive critical buzz the album has received over the past few months did reassure me this album was indeed better than the last, and I went in with some high hopes. Did Dream Theater's Dream Theater turn out?

Thankfully, it did, and while I wouldn't quite consider this album as incredibly strong as Images and Words, Metropolis Part II: Scenes From A Memory, or Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, it's still a very worthy addition to the Dream Theater canon. And besides, when you're dealing with a band who has made iconic albums not just for the band, but for the genre itself, that's a high standard indeed. For me, this self-titled album would slot itself comfortably into the upper echelons of the midrange of Dream Theater's output - definitely great, but not exactly anything that'll redefine the genre or be notably iconic. And sometimes, that is enough.

So let's talk about the instrumentation and production: for the most part, it's absolutely top-of-the-line. Do I even need to say much here about the instrumental prowess of this band at this point, particularly when every member gets distinctive and memorable solos at multiple tempos? John Petrucci is incredible on guitar, John Myung has potent presence on bass, and Jordan Rudess... you know what, if I'm going to highlight someone for instrumental excellence on this record, it'd probably be Rudess, because between the wide variety of perfectly integrated synth sections and jawdropping keyboard solos, I was consistently wowed here. If I'm going to nitpick instrumentally, it's a small thing with Mike Mangini. Don't get me wrong, he's a great drummer and while his drumming is different than Portnoy's, he does enough here to prove his own - but there's something about the way he strikes his snare drum at points that feels a bit out of place with the rest of the mix. I'll admit I don't have a great enough ear to pinpoint the exact cause - maybe it's because he's using brushes or it's an element of the production, but it didn't entirely feel cohesive and it caught my ear every time it happened. Still, that's very minor, and overall, Dream Theater performs as a seamless unit.

What becomes interesting is that Dream Theater really brings something of a different sound to this album, a much more diverse selection of songs in comparison with some of the heavier work they did in the 2000s. The album is distinctly not as heavy (there are heavy moments, but not in the way that, say, Octavarium was heavy as an entire album), which I argue is a better fit for the band as a whole, as it better suits James LaBrie's voice. And while there are a few moments the Rush influence is unmistakable, Dream Theater adds their own unique brand of complexity to the riffs to elevate the songs above just being a copy. It definitely helps matters that Dream Theater's sound and production has a distinctly symphonic bent, for which the band proves to be a great fit, particularly on the awe-inspiring epic twenty-two minute song 'Illumination Theory'. What I really found engaging about this album is that despite the band's occasional tendency to leap straight into insane, time signature shifting complexity and blazingly fast shredding, they also slow things down enough and prove to be very effective at their quieter moments. I've always had the belief that Dream Theater write incredibly beautiful ballads, and while there isn't a pure, acoustic number on this album, the slower moments are definitely welcome.

With that, we need to come to the songwriting and themes. Now I stand by the fact that Dream Theater aren't the best technical songwriters - they've got a simplistic style of poetry that works for them, and sometimes, simple songs can be the most effective and emotionally compelling. And indeed, songs like 'The Looking Glass', 'Along For The Ride', and 'Illumination Theory' work incredibly well in this vein, taking simple concepts and driving them home with a lot of clear focus. But if I'm going to have an issue here, it's this: since the majority of the lyrics are now being written by Petrucci, the songs feel very 'arch' and broad, without the tighter and more intimate focus that could make some of their earlier material really resonate. Don't get me wrong, it fits the style of music and grander symphonic presentation quite well - hell, I'd argue symphonic metal is one of the few genres that could get away with lyrics in this vein - but I feel a certain element of focus is lost for the album as a whole. And given the variety of musical styles and the breadth of topics (some of which, I must admit, feel a bit recycled from previous Dream Theater albums, but I'm not about to condemn a band with so much diverse material from occasionally revisiting themes), the album feels unfocused and lacking that true punch. I guess you could make the argument that 'Illumination Theory' serves as that climax point... but I don't know, to me 'Illumination Theory' works so much better as its own unique piece instead of a culmination point.

But regardless, what I do I think about the self-titled album from Dream Theater as a whole? Well, I really like it - its complexity, its breathtaking displays of talent from every performer, its real emotional heart that produces some incredibly moving moments - all of this comes together fairly well, but I feel there's a lack of a crystallizing moment to really bring it all together. Instead, we get a collection of very strong songs and a ton of great music, but not quite enough to make it something transcendent. For me, it's a strong 8/10 and a good recommendation. If you're a Dream Theater fan, especially if you like their lighter material, you're going to like this album. If you like their heavier material - eh, you get a few tracks, but I don't think it'll satisfy quite in the same way. 

Either way, it's a great prog album and it's a sign that almost twenty-five years into their career, Dream Theater still have something special and definitely worth your time.

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