Dream Theater - The Astonishing Review

Dream Theater - The Astonishing
Dream Theater - The Astonishing. Roadrunner Records

Love them or hate them, Dream Theater are back with their most ambitious outing to date, the mammoth double-CD concept album The Astonishing. This is the tale of a Chosen One discovering music and using it to defeat a machine-run empire. It is a convoluted setting, but the story is cohesive throughout the album.

Clocking in at a whopping two hours and six minutes over 34 songs, this is truly an epic album, and not for the faint of heart. Loaded with the usual stellar musicianship, and augmented (in fact, at many times overshadowed) by orchestra and choir, The Astonishing is certainly the most ambitious endeavor Dream Theater have ever undertaken. But does it stand up under its own hefty weight?

Always Ambitious, Sometimes Sentimental

As one would expect, this album sounds amazing. Second only to Steven Wilson in terms of prog rock audio quality, the mix and production are superb. Strings and choir sound beautiful, industrial machine-like sounds (signifying the state of the machine rulers) buzz menacingly, and the band itself is totally on form. Instrumentally, the only nitpick is the complete absence of bassist John Myung in anything but a buried supportive role.

James LaBrie’s performance is varied, at times spectacular, at more times sappy. His voice soars on “Brother, Can You Hear Me” as well as the later cuts on the album, but on schmaltzy tunes such as “Whispers on the Wind” he sounds as if he is squatting down on his haunches, crooning to a gathering of small kittens. This definitely detracts from the flow of the album.

John Petrucci’s guitars are subdued and restrained throughout most of the album. “A Better Life” provides us with a tasteful solo, and he has some beautiful acoustic moments. Self-indulgence is minimal.

Make no mistake, though: The Astonishing is Jordan Rudess's crowning achievement. Keyboards, pianos, and strings dominate the musical palette. Rudess commands the stage here, for better or worse.

With all that in mind, the metal part of progressive metal takes a distant back seat to the proceedings here. Those looking for the next “Pull Me Under” or “The Enemy Inside” won't find it here. The heaviest, most progressive moments include “A Life Left Behind” and standout track “A New Beginning,” which is the longest song on the album, clocking in at just under eight minutes.

In contrast, and more typical of The Astonishing, if your favorite song from 2013's Dream Theater was “Along For The Ride,” you'll find a lot to like here. The Astonishing struggles to walk a fine line between classically influenced prog rock and Elton John-style original motion picture soundtrack sap. “Act of Faythe” and “Chosen” are groaners, and “Begin Again” would be at home on a Christmas album. Any momentum gained through progressive, energetic tracks is quashed by these mellow offerings.

The Astonishing asks for a significant commitment, and the listener’s enjoyment ultimately comes down to what is sought after: ambitious, epic, sweeping orchestration? Grab this. Full-tilt, intricate progressive metal? Not this time out. Dream Theater have certainly released an epic album, but it’s not for everyone.

Dream Theater - The Astonishing ​Tracklist

Act I

01. Descent Of The NOMACS
02. Dystopian Overture
03. The Gift Of Music
04. The Answer
05. A Better Life
06. Lord Nafaryus
07. A Savior In The Square
08. When Your Time Has Come
09. Act Of Faythe
10. Three Days
11. The Hovering Sojourn
12. Brother, Can You Hear Me?
13. A Life Left Behind
14. Ravenskill
15. Chosen
16. A Tempting Offer
17. Digital Discord
18. The X Aspect
19. A New Beginning
20. The Road To Revolution

Act II

01. 2285 Entr'acte
02. Moment Of Betrayal
03. Heaven’s Cove
04. Begin Again
05. The Path That Divides
06. Machine Chatter
07. The Walking Shadow
08. My Last Farewell
09. Losing Faythe
10. Whispers In The Wind
11. Hymn Of A Thousand Voices
12. Our New World
13. Power Down
14. Astonishing

(released January 29, 2016 on Roadrunner Records)