Album Review: DREAM THEATER The Astonishing
"Astonishing" is a two-dollar word that get thrown around a lot lately, particularly among us music journo types that tend to subconsciously crib dusty adjectives from other reviews we read and then next thing you know… ain't so dusty anymore. I don't suspect that Dream Theater read too many reviews, at least not as evidenced by their rigorous adherence to a formula of their very own, one influential and chameleonic during their ascendance in the 1990's that has since fallen into a warmly reassuring pattern of predictable comfort prog. Whether this is bad thing or not depends on which fan you ask.
The Astonishing, Dream Theater's latest sprawling epic, seeks to both add a little juju back to a staid and true formula as well as (inadvertantly?) force critics to come up with some new adjectives (nah, there'll be at least one hack out there that writes "The Astonishing is, well, astonishing"). This effort to broaden the scope does not come without its own predictable moments: it's a concept album (no!) that spills over two discs worth of material (you don't say!) and features a constantly alternating mix of soaring, inspirational tracks and quieter, more introspective moments (well, fuck me running!). I jest, but basically The Astonishing presents Dream Theater playing to their strengths without necessarily stepping outside their comfort zone.
With Young Adult sci-fi blowing up the cinematic experience lately – think Hunger Games, Insurgent, The 5th Wave, etc – it's probably no surprise that Dream Theater's latest career stress test has a science fiction theme, one self-described as a "retro-futurist post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by medieval style feudalism". Definitely not Hunger Games, then. The actual plot details are kept pretty threadbare in the advance press materials, but in broad strokes there is an oppressive regime (the Great Northern Empire) being opposed by an upstart group of salt-of-the-earth insurgents (Ravenskill Rebel Militia), the latter of whom are putting high hopes for success on the arrival of a "chosen one" (because, yes, Dream Theater's grasp of shopwork sci-fi tropes is broad enough to encompass Star Wars and The Matrix, too).
Frankly the half-baked plot contrivances don't concern me personally too much, as I've always felt that guitarist John Petrucci's lyrical contributions were the most superfluous part of Dream Theater's music anyway. They actually read like Young Adult poetry, actually, a lot of platitudinal hand waving about new beginnings and finding another day that read slight even for a Hallmark card… in short, Dream Theater are kind of the self-help section of the Heavy Metal Bookstore, but they've always made it up for it with sterling musicianship and a refined compositional sense. Granted, the band's songwriting does at times ventures away from metal and prog rock and dreadfully close to pop treacle at times (this album's "Hymn of a Thousand Voices" would be pretty gauche even by CCM standards), but if you're still around for the ride in 2016 you're probably here for the jams.
At 129 minutes The Astonishing is surprisingly cohesive, even more so than previous concept efforts like Metropolis Pt. 2 and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, but if there is one aspect to the album that may displease longtime fans it would be a lack of extended instrumental workouts. Singer James LaBrie is front-and-center for this effort even more so than usual, and this time the band also brought in composer David Campbell to spearhead an orchestral accompaniment. Between the demands of the fairly involved storyline and the omnipresent orchestra, musical space for soloing purposes is limited but thankfully not non-existent. It's mostly to be found in the bridge sections and interludes that help to transition one sound or mood into another.
None of this prevents The Astonishing from featuring its share of single-worth cuts, though; in fact, the band have already released two official singles in "Moment of Betrayal" and "The Gift of Music", and you can add "Chosen" and "A New Beginning" to the list of potential faves to be excised out of context and performed in concert. The two hour run time does make for an exhausting slog, so even as the crowning ambition in an illustrious career The Astonishing may not get the spins as other classics in the discography; I know I've definitely listened to disc 2 of Six Degrees twice as much as disc 1 and never felt like I was missing much in the process, but that wouldn't really fly here. All in all, Dream Theater continue to strive for new heights, all the while remaining grounded in their own inherent limitations – it's safe to say at this point that the band's instrumental virtuosity will always greatly outshine their songwriting prowess – but, while they remain essentially critic-proof, some albums are obviously better than others, and if you can get past the cheesier elements and the demanding length, The Astonishing is one of their better albums in years, even if its singular vision doesn't offer easily excised "hits" like some of the older material affords.