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Admittedly, I'm a big Dream Theater fan, and any release they're going to have is going to make big news in the metal world, no matter what. I was quite curious how the band would sound without the shackles of Mike Portnoy controlling them while he's off making... fucking nu-rock with Russell Allen. What?
Anyway, the band overall really doesn't sound much different. In fact, on this new one, they hearken back to their "Awake" and "Images and Words" days with a lot more rock tendencies than metal. There is still plenty of metal to be had, but many songs reek of... as much as it pains me to say it, blandness. Just listen to the opener, "On the Backs of Angels," and try to remember ANYTHING from that song. It sounds just like (and I mean JUST LIKE) "Pull Me Under," but with what little life THAT song had sucked out of it.
I now find myself writing the review of most Dream Theater detractors--- it's obvious the members of DT are very talented musicians, but they're not really doing anything with this talent. They're piss-poor songwriters, especially John Petrucci, goddamn... Just listen to that closing ballad, "Beneath the Surface," penned exclusively by Petrucci. ("ballad" and "Petrucci" in the same sentence? Yeah, you know it's gonna be painful) What a buncha pseudo-emotional bullshit. "Until one day I stopped caring, And began to forget why I longed to be so close, And I disappeared into the darkness, And the darkness turned to pain, And never went away..." Puke. Oddly enough, though, "Beneath the Surface" is probably the catchiest/most memorable song on the album. Just goes to show catchy doesn't always equal good.
The big question on everyone's minds (probably) is "how does Mike Mangini fare in DT?" He's... okay, I guess. Just as technically tight as everyone else in the band, but far less self-indulgent. He doesn't contribute any songwriting, though. Perhaps next album will see him doing some lyrics, and then we'll see the true capabilities of the new skinsman. For God's sake, though, please don't give him the microphone.
As for the rest of the band. Jordan Ruddess's keyboards add a bit more atmosphere than on the past few DT albums (but don't worry, there's still plenty of wanking to be had from the keys maestro!) John Petrucci scales back a bit on the speed (just a bit) with his guitar-playing, but it's still noticeably Petrucci. John Myung is actually... audible? What the fuck?! That's right, everyone's favorite underrated bassist actually gets a chance to remind everyone that, yes there is indeed a fifth member of DT. (he even gets his first co-writing credit since friggin' "Lines in the Sand" AND a bass solo on "Outcry!") And finally, James LaBrie is probably the worst player on this album, sounding detached from the music with an emotionless mid-range throughout most of it. Then again, he's never been the best singer; it's probably just his Canadian blandness reaching a career high.
No particular songs stand out as being either good or bad. They're kinda just there, with the occasional catchy chorus ("Build Me Up, Break Me Down" come to mind). Some parts may grab you (the two-minute jam at the beginning of "Lost Not Forgotten" sounds pretty cool), but the album as a whole sounds kind of... empty. There's not much substance here, and the songs all seem to kind of run together into one big ol' jam session. But at this album's core, it's still Dream Theater, with 10-minute songs and technical-as-fuck solos abound. They could have made a much, much worse album. In the end, this album is kind of like Stratovarius' "Polaris": it's not meant to be a great album, it's just supposed to be an album that shows that DT can manage without a longtime member. The next album is probably going to be great, because they now have a chance to really get their shit together, get "new Mike" more involved, and maybe even evolve their sound a bit. (you gotta admit, the material on this album does kinda blend into the rest of DT's discography)
**on a side-note, I think "Bridges in the Sky" should have stuck with its original title, "The Shaman's Trance." Fuck, that's a cool title. On top of that, it would have made the guttural belching at the beginning and end of the song make a bit more sense.
***edited a misfact, and added a little more to the review