Monday, March 4, 2019

album review: 'distance over time' by dream theater

Am I the only one who feels like something weird is going on with the hype cycle for Dream Theater this time around?

Seriously - I know the band has been long-running and many could make the argument their last truly transcendent album was over ten years ago and that they've just not been the same since Portnoy left and the vastly overpolished but kind of underwhelming 2016 project The Astonishing had pushed many of the casual fans away... but even with that, a new Dream Theater album didn't use to feel like a surprise from out of nowhere!

And yet here we are: maybe I'm just not attuned to the hype cycle but Dream Theater has released their fourteenth album and it's their shortest since 1992's Images And Words. They have described it as a stream-lined release clocking under an hour with only nine songs - which for a band like Dream Theater who will release EPs longer than some bands' albums is indeed a thing. And when you see the amount of critical acclaim the band has received - which absolutely surprised me, given Dream Theater can be a polarizing act in certain substrata of progressive metal - mostly surrounding how accessible the album is... well, maybe the benefit of lowered expectations had won people over? Honestly, I didn't know what to expect with Distance Over Time - a cute way to say 'speed', although the lack of direction means we're not getting velocity - but enough bad jokes, what did we get?

Well, I'll say this: it will make for a brief review, that's for damn sure! Not gonna lie, if I didn't have as much of a history with Dream Theater as I do, I probably would have put this on the Trailing Edge because it's the sort of project that doesn't really give me a lot to say. Yeah, the band went into the studio and hammered out a pretty heavy slice of progressive metal that's arguably some of their most "mainstream-accessible" projects to date... and in a sense that might be a major part of why it's just not clicking with me nearly as much as I was hoping. And this isn't coming from someone who doesn't want Dream Theater to evolve, but rather more reflective of the issues I've been having with the current wave of progressive metal for the past several years: a lot of chunky, down-tuned, grinding riffs, tacked on electronic-elements and production compression at the expense of melodies, and as such you wind up with songs that for me are nowhere near as interesting as they should be.

Now to be fair to Dream Theater, if we're going to start this conversation with production they've always had a reputation for bringing the cleanest possible tones and pickups to bear, and simply by bringing in heavier riffs and grooves you'd think that'd be enough to get some of that texture - hell, there are bass passages that almost feel like they're pulling from funk, which is about the loosest Dream Theater has ever been, and I do respect that. But the reason I still stuck up for Dream Theater even with all the polish was because they allowed the melodies to really come through, both in hooks and on the solos - so switching to more djent-inspired groove patterns at the expense of melodies somehow winds up getting the least interesting of both worlds! And if you were looking to James LaBrie's singing to hold the melody in the mean time, he's been suffocated behind increasing layers of synthetic compression and buried partially in the mix, which only hinders the larger impact of the hooks as well! Coupled with a few too many passages where Mike Mangini's cymbals and snares are pushed closer to the front of the mix than they should be and a few too many solos that are just a pileup of notes rather than structured in a way to drive a crescendo or melodic motif, and it's hard not to feel on an album that's supposed to be a loose and catchy collection of songs Dream Theater is playing against their strengths.

And keep in mind all of this is coming from the acknowledgement that this is a tighter and more kinetic project coming from Dream Theater - the tempos are quicker, the grooves are crunchier and sound well-balanced, and dig deeply enough and you'll find some hooks here with real promise. The most obvious standout for me is 'Barstool Warrior', which the band describes as an obvious homage to Peter Gabriel and you can definitely hear it with the fuzzy 80s synths and slower but more strident solos, but on the flip side the punchier gallop of the drums on 'Room 137' had a lot of presence - kind of expected given that Mangini wrote the song - and I actually really liked how tightly a real melody was synchronized with the rhythm pattern on 'Pale Blue Dot'; if more djent opted to integrate melodies in this way, I'd probably like the subgenre more! And there are other passages I appreciated - the hooks behind 'Untethered Angel' and 'Paralyzed' aren't bad, and I like how the frustrated buildup of 'At Wit's End' hits a breaking point that allows a more spacious breather midway through, which is an apt metaphor for the song's content. On the flip side, you can definitely tell that songs like 'S2N' are overarranged and feel like a bit of a pileup - especially with the inclusion of a bass groove that sounds like an attempt at funk that is about the last thing that fits with Dream Theater. Or on the flipside we get songs like 'Out Of Reach' that utterly lack a proper payoff - I kept waiting for the solo or strident crescendo to give the ballad any real power, and while the lack of payoff might also be part of the point, it doesn't make the song any better.

But going back to 'Barstool Warrior', what did strike me about the song is perhaps an unintentional parallel to former member Mike Portnoy's struggles with alcoholism that he chronicled on a number of Dream Theater tracks and albums... and that reminded me of how much more I liked Dream Theater's lyricism when Portnoy was at the helm. Now to be fair, you can sketch out a broader theme across Distance Over Time, which sketches out the open question of how much of either can be truly surpassed, or whether there's even the time and chance to do so, both from the very human scenes across 'Paralyzed', 'Barstool Warrior' and 'Out Of Reach' to the possible environmental disasters on 'Pale Blue Dot'. But very quickly you start to notice some inconsistencies in trying to celebrate that desired connection and communication, because we get 'Fall Into The Light' which is all about celebrating a detached transcendence, and 'S2N' is a 'switch-off' song that might as well blaze its criticism of social media information overload in neon - I've long been tired of these songs, and this is not a particularly good one. And then there's 'At Wit's End', which James LaBrie has described as a song about the psychological weight that a woman suffers under abuse and her painful struggle to recover away from it... and the song is written primarily from her new male partner's perspective. And on the one hand, that's not a terrible idea for a song in order to contextualize the helpless feeling that friends and allies and partners can feel in trying to help someone who is closed off but truly suffering... on the other hand, Dream Theater don't exactly approach this with the most tact, with the most prominent line on the hook casting the struggle coming with her possibly leaving him. His heart might be in the right place, but the execution suffers.

...and really, that's an apt consideration for this whole project. The writing is trying to tackle a big idea and return to the contemporary social commentary that infused their mid-2000s work, all backed by performances that are their most urgent and aggressive in some time... but with a diminished focus on melody and stronger hooks along the way, the execution delivers songs that are on aggregate pretty good but should be much better. That said, this is still a good album and I do think it'll have more replayability than The Astonishing on length alone, and there's definitely more to like here than dislike... so for me, it's an extremely light 7/10 and a recommendation for fans or those who prefer modern prog metal tendencies... but beyond that, there's not much to say. Maybe a bit more direction could have made this distance into displacement, that's all.

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