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Follow up to Dream Theater's grandiose Octavarium is their ninth studio album Systematic Chaos. Released in 2007, this record comes across as the most beastly form of progressive metal ever heard. For me it was the album opener "In the Presence of Enemies - Part I" that made me go and buy the record straight away. A complete run of the whole record was absolute bliss and full of surprises and left me in disbelief for most of the time.
The record has billions of notes shooting through every track in the form of really long, epic compositions. The more runs done on the record, better is the understanding of the bands achievement in this mammoth musical release. There some moments for breathing in the form of the inspirational 'Prophets of War' and the instantly likable 'Forsaken' and it felt as good as 'Pull Me Under' for me. Dream Theater's music has always been different from other metal or other progressive metal bands in terms of their overall sound. But this record has some of the most crushingly heavy sounding parts reminiscent of Pantera's The Great Southern Trendkill. It's is an absolute surprise and pleasure to hear John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy deliver some ultra-aggressive moments.
There are tracks that a have simple conventional song writing approach as well as some very complex arrangements which also make this one of Dream Theater's most balanced releases despite being unpredictable at the same time. The interplay of distorted vocals by both LaBrie and Portnoy with some clean singing, is something that's never been heard before and sounds apt for the record. But again it's the vocals that might not be accepted by fans that are used LaBrie's ways of conventional singing. Jordan Rudess's keyboards in this record are a perfect mix of fun and dexterity and it’s his playing that makes this Dream Theater's most experimental record. John Myung's virtuoso bass playing gives density and ample weight making the music sound ever so uncompromising. It's however Myung's bass that I would have loved to hear off the beat, rather than galloping along Petrucci's and Portnoy’s instrumental lines.
To round up, Systematic Chaos is a must have for enthusiasts of progressive music. The record has plenty of instrumental wizardry and melodic passages which will easily have a lasting appeal on anyone who can appreciate Jazz and Classical. This record makes me mighty proud of their music and it is easily Dream Theater's unstoppable victorious march towards composing music!
About four years ago now, every metalhead's favorite "trendwhore" punching bag of a record label, Roadrunner Records, signed two of the biggest and most popular metal acts throughout the world. One of these bands was Dream Theater, which to me was the more shocking and nerve racking of the two musical acts. Dream Theater paired up with Roadrunner? This must be some kind of bad dream. Could a Dream Theater/Roadrunner pairing result in a real mallcore outing like die-hard Dream Theater fans thought Train of Thought was? Well those two bands had their Roadrunner debuts come out in the same day, and with the other band's album I bought Systematic Chaos.
Thankfully, Systematic Chaos is not a mallcore album. In fact, it is not that bad of an album in general. Dream Theater's Roadrunner debut contains everything you would want in a Dream Theater album; well crafted progressive metal, high levels of instrumental technicality, and great individual performances meshing together to form a sum greater then their individual parts. Still, Systematic Chaos gets a lot of unnecessary criticism from Dream Theater fans for a variety of reasons. While those reasons are more spelled in musical fact then silly assumptions (as in the case of Train of Thought), this is a clearly tone downed album by Dream Theater, and you can tell they were clearly held down by the creative restrictions of a Roadrunner imposed musical insurance policy.
There are a lot of good things to like about Systematic Chaos, but I think arguably the best thing about this album is James Labrie. This is arguably James Labrie's best performance on a Dream Theater album, and for one very big reason. Throughout Dream Theater's history, I have never heard Labrie manage to achieve a sense of equilibrium between emotion and aggression so consistently throughout the album. In the past, there were moments where I thought Labrie was trying to be overly emotional to the point where it was grossly excessive (check Metropolis Pt. 2 or Octavarium), or there were times when he tried to be overtly aggressive (Train of Thought, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence) and it sounded weak. The fact is, the best Dream Theater songs are often the ones where he finds this sense of balance (among other things), and what makes his performance on Systematic Chaos so good is that he strings together these performances pretty consistently together throughout five of the eight tracks on this album. Aside from the use of vocal distortion briefly on The Dark Eternal Night and his performance on The Ministry of Lost Souls, Labrie's performance on Systematic Chaos is the best among the individual members.
I couple this in by a really top notch performance by keyboardist Jordan Ruddess. After two albums where I felt Jordan's work really lagged behind the other members and he was just being lazy, Jordan really steps up his performance on Systematic Chaos. First of all, it's just that he is playing more often that makes all the difference! For the first time in awhile, Jordan seems to use his keyboards outside of the confines of solo duels or instrumental sections of songs. Not only that, they seem to add something to the songs. Keyboards help drive along songs like "In the Presence of Enemies", "Forsaken", and "Prophets of War", and they largely succeed in such a role. There is also an increased variety in keyboard sounds, moving away from strictly synths to using some basic piano sounds and some orchestra string like sounds. Jordan's performance adds very greatly to this album, and I like that he sounded like he really contributed to the band for the first time in a few years.
However, after these guys, one can start to hear Roadrunner's insurance policy taken out on Dream Theater taking effect. The member arguably effected by this the most is John Petrucci. Despite the increased use of Jordan Ruddess, Systematic Chaos is arguably Dream Theater's most guitar centric album. Do not take this though as their being too much guitar work on this album. While on Train of Thought John's riffs were able to really carry the songs on their own and in Octavarium they were not able to do that, Systematic Chaos is kind of in between those two. Clearly Roadrunner wanted Dream Theater to really rely on John's guitar work to carry the songs, and it does not work for the most part. The one song it does work on, The Dark Eternal Night, does this great, but the others (Constant Motion in particular) do not do this nearly as well. The riffs just simply are not good enough for the most part. The other thing is that compared to the two albums that proceeded it, John's solos are not nearly as good as they were previously. It's almost like he relied too much on his alternate picking skill and did not really try anything else, because the solos just sound toned down compared to everything else he has done. While they are still very good solos in the grand spectrum of guitar solos, they are not the best that he has done by a wide margin and it hurts the music.
The other major issue on this album is Mike Portnoy. The drum work on Systematic Chaos is really sub par compared to other Dream Theater albums. The problems I have here with such result really from a bad use of certain beats at certain times. There are times when Portnoy uses a really technical sounding rhythm in a part where such a thing is not necessary, and he uses a basic sounding rhythm when such a rhythm does fit the tone. While I do appreciate his increased use of double bass and attempts at being faster, he simply does not get it right. The other thing that really annoys me about Portnoy on this album is his creative meddling in aspects like the lyrics and vocals. The extra vocals on Constant Motion and The Dark Eternal Night are an attempt to add aggression, yet they are just so painfully laughable and are not quality at all.
John Myung's work speaks for itself, so I am just going to skip to the lyrics. Systematic Chaos's lyrics are good for the most part, when they're written by John Petrucci and not by Mike Portnoy. In the Presence of Enemies is a great depiction of someone struggling between good and evil, Forsaken is a pretty good attempt at writing about vampirism, and Ministry of Lost Souls is a masterfully poetic piece about drowning and being saved from such a fate. But this is not the case for Mike Portnoy. His lyrics for the most part stink. His Twelve Step Suite starts growing stale by this point, and Constant Motion's lyrics about obsessive compulsive disorder are interesting but again, sound poorly written. The one exception to this is Prophets of War, who's lyrics were written by James Labrie. This is a rare attempt at Dream Theater sounding politicized, and it actually works for the most part, calling into question the ethics and reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003 without ever mentioning such. It is thought provoking to say the least, and I think Labrie did a great job with this. He should really be allowed to write more lyrics on Dream Theater albums.
The mix on Systematic Chaos is one that to me raises a lot of questions. By no means is this a bad mix, it actually sounds pretty good for the most part. Mike's drums sound crystal clear and more drum like then they ever have, and his cymbals have just the right cut in the mix to be heard. The bass work of John Myung can be heard under everything else pretty well but not overpowering. Labrie's vocals are crystal clear. Here is the problem though. For an album that attempts to be carried by the guitar, the guitars on Systematic Chaos sound way pushed back in the mix, to the point where they almost sound over powered and rather mechanical with the rhythms. The leads are out there for all to hear, but John's lead tone is not as good as other Dream Theater albums. The keyboards also sound kind of pushed back, which is not really fair considering how good they are for the most part. All in all, Dream Theater could have done a better mix on Systematic Chaos.
Systematic Chaos was Dream Theater's Roadrunner Records debut, and it is one that sounds like it was clearly effected by Roadrunner. With the key aspects of Dream Theater toned down to the point where they offset the great performances by Labrie and Ruddess and a not so great mix, this album is one that is not one of Dream Theater's greatest efforts by any stretch. Clearly, Dream Theater was in the presence of Roadrunner Records when they were recording Systematic Chaos.
After a very smooth and calm record called "Octavarium" Dream Theater tried out something new again on this new record. They were looking for a more technical approach, sounded very modern and also diversified on this album and concetrated more on a heavier approach than the stuff they had just done before.
The epic "In the presence of enemies" that is separated in two parts for no obvious reason at all shows us a typical, very technical but not very outstanding or fresh epic track that has its moments, especially concerning the introduction and the solo parts of the second part. But many times, the same vocal lines and main riffs come back and are only interrupted by smooth ballad passages and a few strange sound effects so that this song becomes very difficult and sometimes boring to listen to within more than twenty-five minutes. This song is finally one of the less convincing epic Dream Theater tracks.
Now, what can we find between the two parts of this overlong average epic song? We can find teh usual ballad and commercial track with "Forsaken" that has a little gothic touch and a catchy chorus but nothing outstanding and ha sto go down as a quite weak track. "Constant motion" sounds like a more technical rip off of a Metallica song. Dream Theater goes Thrash Metal but not in an original way like on some parts of "Train of thought". This song feels misplaced and even though it is a catchy and energizing track this just doesn't fit to the band's style and Metallica have also done some better songs like these back in the late eighties. So this is another song below average.
"The dark eternal night" is a very modern and technical song with weird vocal sound effects, a rather epic chorus and some very simple lyrics and harsh riffs. This song shows us a completely new side of Dream Theater's universe and doesn't copy any band or any style and that's why this song is at least outstanding. Personally, I like the style of this song even if it is a very particular one. It is definitively the highlight of this record for me even though traditional fans might have some problems with this experience.
But then comes "Repentance" where Dream Theater would like to sound like Opeth. This song is just too long, too boring and without the glimpse of a doubt the weakest part of the famous twelve-step suite. The idea of mumbling voices of different well known artists in the ending of the song to create a strange sound collage is original but executed in a rather bad way as this passage gets very long and annoying. After a Metallica and an Opeth rip off comes now a Muse rip off. Some parts of the previous album "Octavarium" had already been influenced by this band but this track seems to be entirely copied from the promising English prog rock band that also gained commercial success. But Dream Theater are not Muse and even though they almost sound like the original and create an appreciable song without a doubt the song has the mood of an unoriginal copy and doesn't have exactly the same kind of magic Muse are used to put in their songs and that's why "Prophets of war" ultimately fails. "The ministry of lost souls" is finally a rather traditional Dream Theater song and has surely some musically interesting parts but it is way too long with a length of almost fifteen minutes and seems somehow endless to me.
To conclude, this album is Dream Theater's most unoriginal one. It is somewhat a homage to their different influences. It is a very modern record where the band shows its technical skills but forgets to create something unique they were always used to create on all their records. And that's why this album is probably the band's weakest one. This record has the mood of a compilation album without an own soul and that's why it ultimately fails. This is a chaos without any rationally appreciable system.
I have to say, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this album. I love Dream Theater and no one can deny that the band members are incredible players, but this is an odd album for me. There's times when I listen to it and love it, and then times when I listen to it and really don't think it's that great.
There is some top-notch stuff here, though. The opening two songs are fantastic, with the former (In The Presence of Enemies Pt. 1) being a pretty solid Dream Theater song, with lots of soloing and terrific playing all around. It's sort of the kind of song I expect them to do on a regular basis; it's not amazing but it certainly isn't too shabby at all. Forsaken, the second track, is a terrific shorter piece, focusing more on a slightly darker (and dare I say "gothic") atmosphere and a good catchy chorus. Forsaken was the single and if I'm not mistaken the song that got radio play. The rest of the songs sort of waver between okay, good and not that great, except for The Ministry of Lost Souls. This is the kind of song Dream Theater need to be writing; long, technical, multiple long solos and non-conventional structuring. It's one of my favorite Dream Theater songs and definitely the strongest on the whole album. There's a few interesting moments here and there, such as the Opeth-like psychedelic rocker Repentance, which is a good relaxing song and something of a throwback to the psychedelic/trippy feel of 70s progressive rock. Other than that though, the songs are just not that great. The solos are all cool, the band is in top form and James LaBrie sounds terrific, but the songs just don't pack any real punch.
I don't hate this album and I listen to it fairly often, but my selection of songs on it is pretty thin. When the band tries to sound heavy and metallic, like on Constant Motion and The Dark Eternal Night, it just plain old doesn't work. However, the softer songs like Repentance and the more typical Dream Theater songs like the opener and The Ministry of Lost Souls really let the band shine. This isn't a bad album, it just lacks some of the fire that other Dream Theater albums have. Thankfully the slight slump in songwriting isn't an ongoing problem, as the latest album has shown.
In conclusion, Systematic Chaos has a couple of good Dream Theater songs and a couple of not so good songs. Don't expect to be blown away by this album but don't expect a total failure. I'd recommend buying a couple song off of iTunes or whatever service you use, and leave the rest alone.
Ever since the surprise success of "Images and Words" back in 1992, Dream Theater was always one of those bands that thrived on a massively loyal fanbase while just falling short of a major mainstream breakthrough. However, that all seemed to change when this 2007 effort managed to crack the Billboard's Top 20 and introduced the band to a new legion of music listeners. Of course, the magic of it all was that every signature aspect of Dream Theater was surprisingly kept intact through it all...
Musically, I like to describe this album as a sort of cross between 2003's "Train of Thought" and 2005's "Octavarium." On one hand, the riffs/song structures are surprisingly heavy and the vocals are more aggressive thanks to some interesting contributions by drummer Mike Portnoy on such tracks as "The Dark Eternal Night." On the other hand, there are plenty of melodic moments on such tracks as "Repentance" and "The Ministry of Lost Souls," and "Forsaken" has an accessible fusion of both elements. Hell, "Prophets of War" even has some of those Muse influences that everyone is so divided on!
As several have suggested in previous reviews, I believe that this album's highlight is none other than the 25 minute epic known as "In the Presence of Enemies." Cleverly divided into two parts as an homage to Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," the first part starts the album off with a nice extended introduction and some cool soft/heavy trade-offs during the verses and choruses. The second part is where the song truly shines as it features a twisted atmosphere during the building verses and chilling chorus, a demonic fast paced segment with guitar playing that just screams Iron Maiden worship, another extended solo section that brings in some clever allusions and a nicely dramatic ending. Throw in some strange Faustian lyrics and you have one of my personal favorite Dream Theater epics to date, even if the long-winded introduction makes it an acquired taste...
Speaking of lyrics, this album also features some of the band's most intriguing themes to date. While past topics such as stress ("Constant Motion"), alcoholism ("Repentance"), and politics ("Prophets of War") continue to be touched upon, this album also dabbles in more supernatural themes and plays with the occult on "Forsaken" and "The Dark Eternal Night." Some moments may be a little too generic at times, but it's generally pretty interesting to hear Dream Theater's take on vampires, demons, and other twisted forces.
In terms of weaknesses, this album's biggest flaw seems to be a few lesser tracks not standing up to the highlights on here. "Constant Motion" is a solid number inspired by Metallica, but a few awkward vocal trade-offs keep it from being a true highlight and "Prophets of War" is set back by a slightly awkward structure and the controversial Muse touches. Portnoy's more prominent vocals may also be unwelcomed by some listeners but I find them to be pretty tolerable.
All in all, this may be my fourth favorite DT album and one of the strongest albums that 2007 had to offer. Definitely worth checking out, especially if you like the two efforts before it.
1) Cool balance of heavy/melodic styles
2) Interesting changes in lyrical themes
3) "In the Presence of Enemies" may be my favorite Dream Theater epic to date
1) A few lesser tracks
2) Controversial vocals by Portnoy
3) Slightly generic lyrical moments
My Current Favorites:
"In The Presence of Enemies," "Forsaken," "The Dark Eternal Night," "Repentance," and "The Ministry of Lost Souls"
Dream Theater as a band are truly a respectable outfit. Whether you like them or not, it is pretty much undeniable that they have kept evolving in a truly soldier-like fashion throughout the years, sometimes even using current trends to their advantage. This is a band that can truly do what they want, and it's impossible to say that anything they do is "not Dream Theater" because of this. This brings me to their latest full length offering Systematic Chaos, which, as all of Dream Theater's best albums do, has inspired a world of controversy amongst anyone who is enough of an asshole to voice their opinion on the internet.
This album is less graceful and emotional than the previous Octavarium, focusing mostly on heavily progressive songs with long durations and a lot of bells and whistles, but not much of the so-called technical wankery that so many of the band's detractors often accuse them of. The songs here flow like the white water rapids, the band jumping through musical and songwriting hoops with relative ease. Yes, the technical proficiency of the notorious band members is heavy here as always, but the band strings their songs together with a sort of curiosity and adventurousness that makes them easy to enjoy and digest with a few listens. There is a lot of confidence at work here, the sound of a band that knows what they're doing and has been doing it for a long, long time, and I like that.
Kicking off with the truly mountainous "In the Presence of Enemies part 1," Dream Theater show that they have no intention of slowing down yet. The song moves through some dark, somber instrumental work before it reaches the halfway mark, where James LaBrie's charismatic whine makes its appearance with a stirring build up to the great, hooky chorus line. "Forsaken" shows the more commercial side of the band with a big chorus and some delicate opening piano lines. One song that everyone seems to love to criticize is "Constant Motion" for its slightly Thrashy overtones in the crunching guitars, and I guess I can see that; it's certainly the worst song on this album, but I kind of like it anyway. "Prophets of War" is the other weaker song, a propulsive and catchy number that seems dwarfed within the cataclysmic gulfs that the longer tracks around it create.
"The Dark Eternal Night" is probably my favorite of the bunch, as it is just a stellar song with a host of unsavory and yet deliciously progressive musical ideas ranging from bouncy swing to huge Heavy Metal riffage, all coming together for a damn near orgasmic composition that I will never tire of. "Repetence" is a bit slower and maybe a tad over-long, but the emotional, soaring leads will make you forget that instantly. "The Ministry of Souls" is a real gem, with its foreboding air and balladesque beginning chords exploding into a hugely gratifying experience that you will want to return to again and again, and in "In the Presence of Enemies part 2," we see the band propelling forward with an insane and wondrous concoction of musical bliss to end this album in style. Get this if you like good Progressive Metal - it might just surprise you.
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com
Before I get to my bashing, let me just say that "In the Presence of Enemies" and "Ministry of Lost Souls" are fucking great songs. Let me also say that despite all this controversy, I love some of Dream Theater's releases. Images & Words is one of my favorite albums ever, Awake is incredible and Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory is just outstanding. Shit, I even enjoy Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence more than most people. I even liked them enough to go see the Score concert live.
That being said...what the fuck were they thinking? I was actually pretty excited to see that they split up their epics for a change. I thought "oh, maybe it will sort of be like Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd." Obviously I didn't expect it to be as good, but I thought maybe that sort of approach would be intriguing. I can now safely admit that I was beyond wrong.
Well, this album starts off pretty solid with "In the Presence of Enemies, Pt. 1" and ends on an even better note with "In the Presence of Enemies, Pt. 2", but everything in between other than "Ministry of Lost Souls" is just shit. We're off to a bad start with "Forsaken," and it's incredibly irritatingly pop chorus. I don't care what people say, "Constant Motion" is a Metallica cover with a different title and done a lot worse. James LaBrie wasn't meant to sing in a thrash style like James Hetfield. Nothing against him, it's just not something he was meant to do. "Dark Eternal Night" is just embarrassingly cheesy, stereotypical metal. There's not even a reason to mention "Repentance" and "Prophets of War" is just a really bad, preachy Muse song. Oh, and all those people who claim Dream Theater to have overlong, emotionless, solos that don't serve any purpose but to show off...congratulations. Dream Theater has finally provided you with an album that perfectly portrays this image. Enjoy using Systematic Chaos as your prime example in future Dream Theater bashing.
Now to the good stuff. "Ministry of Lost Souls" is actually a very touching song with lyrics that don't suck (*cough* Dark Eternal Night *cough). I would even go as far to say that it's one of my favorite Dream Theater songs out of their past three or four albums. Yes, as stated before some of the soloing is unnecessary and obnoxious, but even so, it is quite enjoyable on this song more so than others. My main complaint about the solo in this particular song is that it is a little bit too intense and random for the calmness of the song before the solo kicks in. Finally, we have our closing track, "In the Presence of Enemies, Pt. 2." Not much to say about this song except it kicks ass and works as a somewhat dark epic. Though the song "Octavarium" is still a much better epic than "In the Presence of Enemies" is.
Yes, every member in Dream Theater is unbelievably talented at their instruments. Yes, their older work DID have a fuck ton of emotion and true feelings involved in their music, but that doesn't mean it does anymore. Unfortunately, it seems that Dream Theater is getting noticeably older. LaBrie doesn't sound as powerful as he used to and the rest of the band has resorted to random jam sessions in the middle of their songs that wear their influences on their sleeves. Get Images & Words. If you have Images & Words, then get Awake or Metropolis Pt. 2. If you Have those get Six Degrees, and stop there. For fuck's sake, just don't get this!
One would think that, considering the nature of Dream Theater’s craft - ever-changing, idea-abounding, virtuoso progressive metal - that, for better or for worse, it would be impossible for them to ever write entirely boring music. Even on their 2003 failure Train of Thought, there was an abundance of interesting material, so much so that it elevated the album beyond the plethora of shit that almost made it worthless. However, it took 2007’s Systematic Chaos to debunk any hope that Dream Theater might always have something worthwhile to say. That album was the release that almost every band produces in their career that affirms the harrowing epiphany that, suddenly, the group in question is a fraction of their former selves.
If there is anything on Systematic Chaos worth listening to, then it is the individual movements that comprise “In the Presence of Enemies”, which was split up into two tracks to bookend the album. “Prelude” and “Resurrection”, which encompass the first part of the epic, are quite good. “Heretic”, which leads off the second part of the epic, is excellent as well, but the remainder of the song goes downhill from there. To compound the deterioration of quality that takes place from the beginning to the end of the composition, about half of it is tedious instrumental fluff. Oh, and the title ‘Dark Master’ is repeated approximately a dozen times.
Yes, you read that correctly. ‘Dark Master’... Who the fuck is this? Rhapsody of Fire?
Most of the lyrics on the album are like that: fantasy-style, based off of ridiculous stories. “The Dark Eternal Night”, in particular, features some of the most cringe-worthy lyrics that John Petrucci has ever written, painting a portrait of a town rampaged by a monster. I’ve heard the defense that such a topic is ‘metal’, which is probably true, but seeing as how John Petrucci himself recently went on record as stating that fantasy lyrics are ‘immature’ and ‘for inexperienced writers’, I feel confident in stating that such a defense is void. The guys in Dream Theater used to write tremendous lyrics that, yes, were also very artsy, but, for what they were, struck a chord with the listener. No longer does that seem to be the case.
I must admit that on “Repentance”, there are solid lyrics. The problem is that the song demonstrates how poor of songwriters the band has become. Firstly, the work as a whole sounds like a glaring rip-off of something off Opeth’s Damnation. Secondly, the song’s outro lasts for three-and-a-half minutes, and is overwhelmingly repetitive. It gets very boring, very quickly, and the frustrating part is that, had it been cut down to one minute, it would’ve worked very well.
James LaBrie, who has given at least one noteworthy performance on each Dream Theater album, gives none on Systematic Chaos. It’s not his fault, because as Mike Portnoy confirmed on his forum this October, he and John Petrucci, as the band’s primary producers and songwriters, tell James how to sing. Normally, this would not be a bad thing, except that neither JP nor MP seem to have a clue about what James is good at. He’s most famous for hitting high notes, showcasing overbearing power and, at times, an endearing snarl, but here, there’s none of that. Why not utilize some of James’s strengths, instead of forcing him to strain himself, as on the unbearable “Forsaken”? He might not be able to hit all of the high notes anymore, but at least allow him to leave his signature on some of the compositions.
Another example of unforgivable songwriting can be found on “The Ministry of Lost Souls”. The first seven minutes of the song are extremely saddening, slowly building, and then at about the 7:20 mark everything stops, JP boots up a chugger of a riff, and the band jams for four minutes. One of Dream Theater’s trademarks has always been their instrumental breaks, but never have they been so confident that they thought they could pull off a jam session in the middle of such a mellow composition. There’s a reason why: it sounds terrible, and reeks of pretension.
Throughout the course of Systematic Chaos’s running length there is an undertone of the band following a formulaic approach, trying to stay true to their sound but unwilling to challenge themselves. This is discouraging, because a vast majority of the time, once a band stops trying to advance their music, they become boring. One can’t help but think that, after twenty years, Dream Theater knows their fanbase so well that they have become complacent with churning out predictable album after predictable album because they know that their supporters will praise them for it. I’m not about to claim that the band is selling out, but they’re not as ballsy as they used to be, which is ironic because prior to the release of Systematic Chaos, Mike Portnoy asserted that the only preconceived criteria he had going into the writing sessions of the album was that it had to have ‘balls’. Instead, it ended up being perhaps the least risky record the band has released to date.
Systematic Chaos stands tall as the only major blemish in the Dream Theater arsenal, alongside a few minor blemishes. The discouraging trend, however, is that their music is becoming more and more bombast, less and less subtle, and in doing so, is getting more obvious and attracting more fans. If I was Dream Theater, I wouldn’t change the formula that spawned Systematic Chaos because it’s working well for them. As a commercial product, they’re as good as ever, but as artists, they’re fading. They are no longer driven like they used to be, which is probably understandable, but if that lack of drive continues to produce low quality outputs such as Systematic Chaos, then fans have a cause for concern.
Wow. Talk about a comeback. After years of steadily declining quality since Jordan Rudess took over as keyboardist in 1999, with undeniable classics mixed in with some really ass songs, obnoxious "modern" touches (culminating in Train of Thought's mallcore influences), and James LaBrie losing his voice (he was actually threatened with being fired during the Six Degrees tour because he had started smoking and his vocal performances were getting inexcusably bad), Dream Theater have made a huge leap forward with this, their ninth album and first with Roadrunner Records.
Systematic Chaos is no Awake, but then again, Dream Theater are all in their forties (with Rudess on the wrong side of fifty), and this is an ass-kicking album by any means. The prog is back, the riffs are back, and James LaBrie is back (although you must hear audience recordings to get the full extent of his talent right now, as this album has fewer high notes than any other). Guitarist John Petrucci has ditched some of the nu metalish oversaturation from his rhythm guitar tone, making it as natural as it has been since Falling into Infinity. The band have finally gotten the hang of producing their own records, and Systematic Chaos boasts an excellent production, with the appropriate sense of grandeur and a spacious sound stage.
Crtics of Dream Theater's infamous "wanking" will perhaps be assuaged by the sharp decline in solo time and general fluff since the Train of Thought era. The sprawling "In The Presence of Enemies" puts its 25-minute running time to good use, with the band working together more and vying for solo spots less. They blaze through the first third of the song, which opens the album, as almost a single overwhelming force, with some of the tightest integration of parts that I've ever heard in a Dream Theater song. This is nine mintues of pure gold, and wastes no time with silly intros like Octavarium, pinning you to your chair with an attention-grabbing riff followed by an explosion of swirling instrumentation. This is a band that has its shit together.
Mike Portnoy fans may be a little disappointed that he sounds more like a normal drummer and less like a drum kit caught in a violent hailstorm, but his marginally more subtle approach serves the album well (except for "Constant Motion", where he plays uses a prog rock drumming style in a thrash song, which of course doesn't work very well). John Petrucci has finally replenished the riff stores he depleted sometime around 2003 and smashes the listener's head with some of his best rhythm work to date, in addition to his always masterful solos. Jordan Rudess follows suit, downplaying that awful wailing solo patch and bringing it some truly great atmospheric work, with touching piano melodies and various organs, effects, and strings to flesh out the soundscape. John Myung is once again kind of lost beneath it all, as shy with his bass as he is with his personality.
"Forsaken" will probably catch some flak for its gothic overtones and terrible animated music video (although Dream Theater's videos have always been pretty bad), but it's the best single they've had since "Pull Me Under". James LaBrie takes flight in a way that he rarely gets the chance to on this album, and the chorus hook is appropriately catchy. The riffs here are not very technical at all, but brief shred leads are sprinkled throughout the song to keep Petrucci awake. Less successful is the other single, "Constant Motion", which has some OK thrash riffs combined with James LaBrie delivering a godawful attempt at mimicking James Hetfield of Metallica, a vocalist who has a completely different style and range. Mike Portnoy completely drops the ball on this one, unfortunately, with inappropriate drum lines (where's the skull-crushing snare pounding and double bass drumming?) and some tuneless backing vocals.
All is forgiven with the blistering "The Dark Eternal Night", even if Portnoy ones again regals us with some more bad vocals (this time some yelling with distortion added to give the impression of death growls--why didn't he just have Michael Akerfeldt of Opeth do it during Akerfeldt's trip to the studio to record a spoken word bit for "Repentance"?). This time around, he gets the drumming right and absolutely beats the shit out of his kit, even doing some blastbeats in the chorus. John Petrucci goes into riff overdrive, his big highlight being a brutal, odd-time descending riff that hits you like an axe in the head. The riffing in the bridge is so violent that it could almost qualify for extreme metal, and the melodic interjections from Rudess are less intrusive than they initially sound after a few listens. James LaBrie and John Myung do absolutely nothing of interest in this song, but it's heavy fucking metal of the first order regardless.
The band's more melodic side is explored in the dreamy, psychedelic "Repentance" and dramatic half-ballad "The Ministry of Lost Souls". "Repentance" is a gloomy, exceptionally atmospheric song that serves as a continuation of Mike Portnoy's ongoing saga about defeating alcoholism, serving as a contrast to the more metal-oriented installments on previous albums. Petrucci even whips out an acoustic guitar as things calm down a bit from the fury of "The Dark Eternal Night". "The Ministry of Lost Souls", clocking in at nearly 15 minutes, has the bombast of 1999's Scenes from a Memory, but with more emotional impact, with a powerful string fanfare as its main theme, a wistful verse, and the obligatory huge chorus. The instrumental bridge is somewhat overextended but doesn't overstay long enough to seriously detract from the song. The fadeout kind of does wear out its welcome, although hitting the skip button during a fadeout is not really a big deal. James LaBrie's vocals are some of the most soulful and mature of his career, and the lack of crazy high notes is offset by the sheer passion he projects.
If there is a truly disappointing song on the album, "Prophets of War" is it, as Portnoy and Petrucci continue the Muse worship featured on Octavarium's un-classic "Never Enough" and adding touches of Queen for good (bad?) measure. And, while I don't really care about crappy lyrics most of the time (most rock and metal lyrics suck anyway), but these are just too preachy for their own good, with dumb jokes about "profiting from war" and gang shouts that sound like they came from the pen of Dave Mustaine, except with James LaBrie's characteristic bad grammar (that's a nice dangling participle you've got there!). It's funny when Dave Mustaine is squawking about it in a Megadeth song, not so funny in Dream Theater. But wait, there's more! Remember the bit from Train of Though with James LaBrie rapping? Remember how awful it was? They did it again, only now it's Mike Portnoy rapping, and instead of sounding like that guy from Linkin Park, he sounds like that guy from Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life". That's not metal at all, guys. Fortunately this little mistake goes away after six minutes, comprising less than 8 percent of the album.
Having only one unpleasant song on an album is better than the vast majority of bands can manage, and the first time Dream Theater has pulled it off since Awake (it too had only one stinker, the forgettable acoustic "The Silent Man"). As usual, Dream Theater have packed the CD to the brim, the album coming out at a minute and nineteen seconds short of the maximum capacity of a single disc. At the very least, you're getting 73 minutes of top-quality prog metal, and some people actually like "Propets of War". This is an essential purchase for any fan of progressive metal, and one of the top albums of 2007. If Dream Theater repeats this improvement again, they will be at the same level of greatness they attained with their twin masterpieces Images and Words and Awake, but even this is pure class and a cut above the imitators pouring out of Europe, such as Pagan's Mind, Evergrey, and Circus Maximus.
I have noticed a trend in the release of Dream Theater albums. Scenes From a Memory is widely hailed as their greatest piece of work, some people even going so far as to call it the ultimate progressive metal album. Because of this, every album since SFAM has completely polarized the fans; one camp of fans will love the album right from the get-go. The others will hate it and look for anything they can find showing that it is not as good as Scenes was, and then after a few months everyone remembers a tour is coming and they all fall in love with the album as they listen to it a million times to gear up for the show.
So, is Systematic Chaos a good album, or has Dream Theater really been losing their touch the way half the fans have claimed upon hearing every album since Scenes?
The album consists of eight tracks, technically seven songs, as the epic-length tune “In the Presence of Enemies” is split into two tracks, with one opening the album and one ending it. This totals to almost 26 minutes of music, and in my opinion, it is more enjoyable to hear as one song. DT also reportedly performs the song in one shot on stage instead of breaking it up. The remaining six tracks are of varying length and style.
Dream Theater seems to be slowly moving away from their typical lyrical style of writing about love, loss, life, and pain. The bulk of the listening time on Systematic Chaos deals with the supernatural. “The Ministry of Lost Souls” makes a return to some of the ideas found in Scenes From a Memory, dealing with “the other side” and the human soul. Musically I would go so far as to say that Lost Souls might be one of the best stand-alone songs Dream Theater has ever written, and is one of the stronger tracks on the album. It’s not particularly heavy, and is more…. haunting than anything else. It has an almost gothic feel to it, and while the subject matter is somewhat depressing, it is a very calming song to listen to.
“Forsaken” is about a man who is visited every night in his sleep by a sexy vampire chick, who beckons him to spend eternity with her, and (understandably) he finds himself loving being bitten every night. The song begins with an eerie piano melody reminiscent of horror film soundtracks, and kicks into a very cool riff without warning before quieting back down. LaBrie’s voice is a little haunting at the beginning of this track. The music video for the song is also one of the only “real” videos [read: something other than the band trying to look like badasses while playing the song] that DT have ever done, and the art style in the video is very cool. There was also Hollow Years, but that video had nothing to do with the song at all, as far as I could tell.
“The Dark Eternal Night,” as stated by Petrucci, is about a pharaoh who comes and terrorizes a town with his crazy ancient Egyptian curses. Dark Eternal Night is a heavier track, with very powerful, relentless drum work, a great “springy” sounding bass performance that dominates much of the song and a big instrumental noodle section reminiscent of the ones found on Train of Thought, but with much more variation. Overall a nice, heavy, metal-as-fuck track. Parts of the main verses are a little nu-metalish, but you just can’t argue with this riff. It’s killer. And interestingly, the keyboard solo heard at the end as the song fades out was apparently an in-studio improvisation Rudess played on his Continuum, which wound up making it into the final mix of the album because it contained too much awesomeness for them to have left it out.
“In the Presence of Enemies” is supernaturally-toned as well, speaking of what sounds like a holy war between dark and light opposing armies facing off, with an “ultimate warrior” figure and his master being the centerpiece. Part Two of the song, while musically awesome and great fun to listen to, holds what could possibly be the most unintentionally hilarious lyrics Dream Theater have ever written. It sounds awesome when you’re listening, but if you’re paying attention to the lyrics you’ll stop and go “are you guys serious? you’re kidding, right?” every time you hear the line “Dark master within, I will fight for you” in combination with the Frankenstein-sounding keyboards. Yes, heavy metal has always had this “darker” side, but it’s just so goofy-sounding and unexpected and…. Almost forced coming out of a band like Dream Theater that I can’t help but feel kind of embarrassed hearing it. This doesn’t stop me from ruining my car audio blasting this track on the way to work and class, though. It’s “music for speeding” as old Marty Friedman might put it.
Repentance is the latest installment of the “Alcoholics Anonymous” series, and this one’s different, a slow, somber and quiet voyage into depression and addiction. We hear a return to that recurring melody and many lyrical references to the other songs in the series so far. This track begins with the same opening line as This Dying Soul, part two in the series. The guitar solo reminds me very much of Gilmour with some Petrucci flair, solidifying a nice hinted Floydian sound present throughout the song. Many, many guest voices can be heard on this track, including Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth, guitar legends Satriani and Vai and, oddly enough, even pro wrestler Chris Jericho. The song represents Steps Eight (Regret) and Nine (Restitution) in the AA recovery program, leaving just three more steps and one more part of the AA saga which we are almost sure to hear on the next Dream Theater studio album.
The only unsatisfying songs I have to really lay into on this record are Prophets of War and Constant Motion. Remember “Never Enough” from Octavarium? Remember how it sounded almost exactly like Muse’s “Stockholm Syndrome?” Well, they’ve done it again. PoW sounds almost exactly like one of Muse’s newer tracks, Take a Bow. The subject matter is the same as well, with anti-war themes. Constant Motion suffers from a similar syndrome with shouty Damage, Inc. style vocal patterns, but this less blatant. The musical work, especially the guitar and keyboard solos, still feel “Dream Theater-y” and feels like it is their own work. Prophets of War feels like blatant plagiarism. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a big Muse fan, somewhat of a Metallica fan, and I’m not a big fan of the war in Iraq but I really, really don’t like hearing this from a band like Dream Theater when I know that they don’t need to so blatantly copy somebody else’s sound. Drawing influence is one thing, but boldface rip-offs are irritating.
Despite the overenthusiastic Muse worship and the silly lyrics in the big epic length track, I feel that Systematic Chaos, overall, is probably Dream Theater’s best, most worthwhile album in a long time, probably weighing in around the same level as Six Degrees, which was another very well balanced and overall awesome album. It’s less of a shred fest and much more progressive and inventive than Train of Thought (an album I still really enjoy), and much stronger in its diversity than Octavarium was.
I still just find it funny that nothing they ever do will get them any mainstream recognition. Not even a deal with Roadrunner Records, of all labels.
Few bands polarise opinion quite as much as Dream Theater. Their fans tend to be the most rabidly devout around while their critics are never shy about throwing in accusations of soulless, self-indulgent wankery. Whichever side of the divide you happen to fall into, there is no denying the importance of the band to progressive music – any band writing labyrinthine songs at the dawn of the 90s were obviously going against the grain, and Dream Theater's place in the annals of metal history was secured long ago.
It is, however, also almost unquestionably true that their output over more recent releases has been a very patchy one, with their CDs teetering precariously between the sublime and the atrocious across individual songs and the final product often ending up a rather unsatisfying mixed bag.
Sadly, 'Systematic chaos' will not be the CD that breaks them out of this malaise, and is just as unbalanced and frustrating as its immediate predecessor, 'Octavarium', with some highly impressive songs hamstrung by some truly awful occurrences.
The best example of this bipolar scenario is probably the song "The dark eternal night", which breaks jarringly between some brilliant progressive music - the sort of stuff Dream Theater can do in their sleep, of course, but still sonically astonishing – and some truly gruesome nu-metal rubbish, complete with de-tuned stop-start guitars and shouty tough-guy vocals. It seemed that with 'Octavarium' the band had learned their lesson after the nu-metal dabbling on the 'Train of thought' CD, but unfortunately they have decided to have another go at it here – cynics may find it a little more than coincidental that this has happened on their debut CD for Roadrunner Records.
It's a shame that the CD is dragged down by some questionable shifts in style, since the 'straightforward' progressive metal on some of the songs really is fantastic. The 2 parts of "The presence of enemies" that bookend the remaining 6 songs are probably the strongest cuts here, with over half of the first part being an instrumental tour-de-force before vocalist James Labrie finally gets in on the action and delivers an assured performance.
Labrie's overall display is as frustratingly divisive as the rest of the band – when he just gets on with singing in his usual emotional, operatic style he is as good as always – the gargantuan progressive ballad "The ministry of lost souls" has him performing at his very best. It is when he starts trying to sound aggressive that his delivery becomes almost comical. The James Hetfield impression he attempts on "Constant motion", right down to the vocal melodies, is a woefully misguided addition to what is a pretty insipid song anyway.
The problem they have most likely stems from the fact that, as a self-proclaimed progressive band, Dream Theater feel as though they should not be seen to be standing still, and feel obliged to show they can incorporate any sort of modern rock influences from nu-metal to Muse. It may be that it would be less adventurous of them to continue turning out music in the same style they are known for, but the end result would almost certainly be better and far more consistent. Even pretentious progressive bands are allowed to stick to what they know – Dream Theater have nothing to prove to anyone, and can do a lot better than this by simply writing variations on the style of music that earned them their status in the first place. 'Systematic chaos' is a CD with as many good songs as it has bad, and this is doubly frustrating when you consider the sheer quality of the good ones. On that kind of form, Dream Theater could have written the best CD of 2007, but their insistence on mixing and matching has cost them once again.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)
Systematic Chaos is an eight track album and much like Dream Theater's other works is a musical progression in it's entirety - that is, the songs aren't only progressive as individual peices, but the whole album uses recurring themes to bring the album together. The nature of the vocals and each song's individual theme leave the intent and interperatation of the album quite open. For example, the 6th track, "Prophets Of War" explores the futility and pointlessness of modern warfare, however on the demo, the spelling was "Profits Of War" which is much more in line with the lyrics, but one can't help but wonder as to the intention of such a change.
The musicianship is nothing less than brilliant, and Dream Theater's seamless musical progressions continue to earn praise. The melodic content in the performances of LaBrie and Petrucci leave little, if anything, to be desired. Many would catagorise John Petrucci as a player who prizes technique over expression, but this reviewer would happily use Systematic Chaos against that argument - there's plenty of material there for the shred-heads, but for those who like a more restrained style of soloing there is some brilliant work. See track seven, "The Ministry Of Lost Souls" in particular for such a performance. As usual, LaBrie can move from Hetfield-esque rhythmic vocals to hyper-melodic wailing in an instant. Myung and Portnoy bring up the rhythm section skillfully as usual, although their work is rather overshadowed during softer moments in the album.
Recurring melodic and rhythmic themes have always been a part of the sound of Dream Theater and Systematic Chaos displays this quite well. The first, seventh and eighth tracks make the best use of this, leaving the other five tracks as relative freeform performances. Track five, "Repentance", is possibly one of the best songs released during the year from any metal band and features a guest performance from Steve Vai. The final words of the song linger with the listener and lend themselves thematically to the next track. The next track, "Prophets Of War", includes a rap interlude that hasn't gone down well with some fans, although given the context of the song, they are quite appropriate. Irrespective, the song closes in a way that is sympathetic to the beginning of "The Ministry Of Lost Souls", thus signalling the beginning of the end for the album. "Forsaken", "Consant Motion" and "The Dark Eternal Night" act more like precursors to the other tracks than anything, but it would be incorrect to label them as "filler". From "Repentance" onward, there is a continuous fluxuation of tension, whereas from "Forsaken" to "The Dark Eternal Night" there isn't such a large shift, giving a sense of continuity in comparison to the highs and lows of the later track. Summarised, the album begins straightforward (that is, for a Dream Theater album) and continuously gets more progressive.
Systematic Chaos, in a word, DELIVERS. With a combination of brilliantly planned progressions, top-notch musicianship and new musical ideas while holding onto the sounds that make Dream Theater so unqiue and interesting, I would highly reccomend this album to any fan of progressive metal, metal or progressive music in general. Even if you're a casual listener, the melodic vocals of LaBrie will keep you interested, and for those more interested in the building blocks of the songs and the instrumental parts, there's a wealth of sound to explore.
The name Dream Theater has come to be symbolic of many different elements over the years. Expressive lyrical imagery. Technical skills. The combination of both heaviness and progressive tendencies. They're the shining beacon of prog metal, according to some, and seemingly destined to go down in heavy metal lore. Over their now 22 year career they've shown the potential to reach amazing highs, such as with their 1999 album, Scenes From a Memory, or their epic song, Metropolis, Pt. 1 The Miracle and the Sleeper, off the Images and Words album. But unfortunately, as the allegedly "definitive band" of progressive metal, Dream Theater has almost always seemed to run into the same problems the entire scene faces. They're incredibly pretentious. At times their music can drag on far longer than it should. The band forsakes emotion for technical proficiency. These criticisms have always followed the band from album to album, and with their 2007 record, Systematic Chaos, such criticisms remain present.
But before we delve into negativity, what does this, the ninth Dream Theater album, do well? Well for starters, for a grand total of two tracks, the American band manages to impress. The opening song, In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 1 is a fairly good attempt at an epic track. Each member of the band compliments his partners rather well, as they all make us of their technical prowess without trying to grab the spotlight from one another. Though the band wastes no time in getting into "pretentious prog metal wankery mode," they somehow find a way to make the song captivating and interesting. The seemingly endless time changes, overflowing with guitar, keyboard, drum, and bass lines feel as though they do, in fact have a purpose and are not just there for the sake of having a long song. When James enters the song, the band eases up on the progressiveness and the band adds some emotion into the track. The other track is Prophets of War. A fairly accessible song, the track is built upon a steady diet of catchy riffs and synths. Think Dream Theater meets electronically driven alt rock. Surprisingly it works out very well, with the song's mournful main riff being the highlight and most memorable part of the album.
The thing I like the most about Dream Theater is how they work as a band. Like I mentioned before, each musician completes the other extremely well, giving the band a very balanced musical formula. Dream Theater impressively play as though they were a single entity; none of the instruments impede each other in any way, each aspect of their musical attack is given room to leave its mark upon the song , be it through intricate guitar riffs, flashy keyboards, or heart pounding drumming. And they do it time and time again, through songs such as the aforementioned In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 1, Ministry of Lost Souls, and Pt. 2 of In the Presence of Enemies. However, as the old saying goes, (one of) the band's greatest strength(s) is also (one of) their greatest weakness(es). As well as each of Petrucci, Myung, Portnoy, and Rudess perform together, when they begin their noodling they fall into an almost machine-like routine which saps much of the life and emotion out of the song they had just built up. Anybody who knows the band knows that they are all very talented musicians, and such a fact renders the long, interweaving passages rather useless.
Such song writing tendencies is the root Systematic Chaos' greatest disappointment. This disappointment surrounds the second to last song on the record, Ministry of Lost Souls. The first 7 minutes of the song are fantastic, and quite easily some of the best material which Dream Theater has ever written. The track is a slow, dark ballad flowing to the brim with emotion through long, quiet riffs Labrie's soft vocal efforts, and soothing synths. It's quite an enjoyable and relaxing piece, and though it does not contain the energy of an Overture 1928 or a Home, it manages to retain a sense of interest. The song would have been superb had it ended at around the 7:20 point (and as it could have made a convincing ending, the way it fades out), and could possibly have contended with Prophets of War as song of the album. But it doesn't stop. Instead Dream Theater cranks up the distortion, slams the pedal to the metal (pardon the pun), and begins pumping out yet another senseless four minute instrumental section. Only unlike the opening track, in Ministry of Lost Souls, the dark, heavy riff fest does not fit the song at all. It's as pointless and inappropriate as they come. The band attempts to repent for their sins by reverting back to the tranquillity of the first seven minutes, though seeing as the song could have ended four to five minutes earlier, it is a rather pointless exercise.
The rest of the songs aren't anything to write home about. Constant Motion features Dream Theater attempting to play Trivium in ripping off Metallica's sound. Through James' identity crisis (your last name is Labrie, not Hetfield), lacklustre chugging riffs, and well lack of direction for seven minutes, the song is a certifiable train wreck. Repentance has drawn comparisons with the likes of Porcupine Tree or Damnation-era Opeth, but the main difference here is that Repentance has no real hooks, and lacks the emotional power and effort which the aforementioned artists apply to their music. After the massacre of Ministry of Lost Souls, I must say that it was quite the audacious decision to follow it up with the long, sixteen and a half minute piece. A sixteen minute song is difficult enough to take in, but as bands such as Symphony X, Rush, and Porcupine Tree prove, a track of such magnitude can be successfully moulded together. In The Presence of Enemies Pt. 2 is a decent effort, but ultimately does not succeed due to the tired meanderings of the various instrumental sections.
Looking back, Systematic Chaos is an album that showcases a ton of potential for the band, but ultimately falls short of its goals. The American band's inclination to wander off into its own world of progression, technicality, soullessness, and noodling holds the band back for a vast majority of the album, and the twenty or so minutes where the group impresses is not enough to save the album. It's too bad really. My expectations were never all that high for Dream Theater's ninth studio album, but after Scenes From a Memory, it is quite clear that the band can do better than this. Avoid if possible.
(Originally written fro Sputnikmusic)
Dream Theater’s tenth release, and the first on Roadrunner, Systematic Chaos marked a new beginning for the New Yorkers. Now, before hearing it, I read a lot of comments stating that it was a lot like Train of Thought. And I can’t help but agree, which is a very good thing, ToT being what it is. Chaos blends the songwriting of an Images and Words or Awake with the riffage of Train of Thought. But, as always, there is a progression in their sound. As different as Octavarium was from ToT, Chaos is different from Octavarium. It is also much better than Octavarium.
This album topples Dead Reckoning by DT’s progressive peers Threshold, which I had once given the top position of 2007 Prog albums. The true masters of progressive metal return triumphantly!
There is much less soloing in this album than the other Dream Theater LP’s, which is a definite improvement after the solofest of Octavarium. More attention is given to the actual idea of the album, instead of to the technicality of the song, giving the record a much more completed sound. This album is epic. Not only do they fill up the entire album (78:44), but the songs themselves have build-up and climaxes that add to the majesty of the whole. Especially the sixteen minute closer, “In the Presence of Enemies, Pt. 2: Heretic/The Slaughter of the Damned”. An exceptional album closer.
Systematic Chaos might just be DT’s darkest affair. With songs like “The Dark Eternal Night” and “The Ministry of Lost Souls”, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree. The lyrics, while sometimes needing a bit of tweaking, fit in perfectly with the songs. The lyrical subjects are always in the negative, a contrast with other Theater albums, where there are usually a couple positive sounding songs. This is a good thing, however, what with the dark moods created by the actual music. The several crushing riffs give rhythm to the songs, something that DT lacked before, especially on Octavarium. This is a definite return to Train of Thought, although, as every truly awesome band, this album progresses beyond what has been done before.
I cannot choose a favourite track from this album. The standout songs are “Forsaken”, “Constant Motion”, The Ministry of Lost Souls” and “In the Presence of Enemies, Pt. 2: Heretic/The Slaughter of the Damned”. I was a little disappointed in “Repentance”, the song that appears to be ‘My Dying Soul” (ToT) pt. II. Just not enough there, I guess. It dragged on and I found it to be boring. “The Ministry of Lost Souls” is comparable to ToT’s “Endless Sacrifice”. While nowhere near as good as the dynamic Sacrifice, Ministry still retains some of the majestic elements of its predecessor. Very cool lyrics in this song, as well. The second part of In the Presence of Enemies is an extremely good song, complete with cool lyrics, rising melodies, rhythmic verses and the typical trade of Petrucci: solos. If I had to pick a fave song, this would be it.
Overall, this album has a very modern sound to it. The diminished soloing give it a better chance of being palatable to the more conventional masses. The production is good, nothing too special, but more than good enough. The vocals, sung by the seemingly unchanging LaBrie, are as well-done as ever, although a trifle annoying at times, but that’s the same with every DT album, with the exception of the impeccable Train of Thought. But the true jewel of this album is the songwriting. Each song seems to flow and meander perfectly, like the caress of a lover. Seamless, this album is. But this beautiful songwriting is typical of Dream Theater, as can be seen most easily on the albums Images and Words, Metropolis…, Train of Thought and now this one. I recommend it to one and all, but most especially to fans of Train of Thought.
Most reviews you will see for any Dream Theater album will come from one of two sets of people: the blind fanboys who would chop off their left testicle to come within 5 feet of John Myung, or the haters who would demand a 3rd testicle to go that near to one of the members of Dream Theater. I've already seen reviews of the band's latest opus, their debut on Roadrunner, and most of them call it a true successor to Awake, or what Train Of Thought wanted to be. Honestly I'm not the biggest DT fan out there, I can clearly see their flaws, but can also greatly appreciate their strengths. I'm not comparing this album to any other album by them, because I rarely have the same view on any two albums from the New Yorkers.
Ironically, the album starts with no bullshit (I say ironically because Dream Theater are arguably the least 'no bullshit' band on the planet) and quite a nice little descending lick followed by John Petrucci playing a riff drowned by effects, then a little while in they all start raping their instruments in the way we all love to see Dream Theater do. From there it doesn't really stop. Admittedly that isn't ALL they do (and it never has been), but often when they're taking it easy there's not much that really grabs your attention.
Mike Portnoy seems to have taken some more involvement in this album, not only playing about 5 drum kits in one, but also performing backing vocals and writing the lyrics for the next two movements of his ongoing Alcoholics Anonymous Suite. I'll go into depth about the last two factors later on, but his drumming is the most important duty he has in Dream Theater. He is consistent, as ever, but yet again I fail to be amazed by his technical skill. You can tell he has it, but he never uses it in a way which is either creative and musical, or just mindblowingly fast. His use of double bass drums is quite catchy (even though I've seen him using three...I don't get what that's about), and his (gorgeously produced) toms have some nice texture when used in heavier parts, but as with all his performances, his vast collection of cymbals (some the size of my fingernail) ruin it. Seriously, they just don't sound good, at all. I think it is just taste, as I've never liked the sound of small cymbals, but they just sound like they should ring longer than they do. Still, he can hold a riff down excellently (though I was doubting this in Prophets Of War) when he's not trying to show off his ability to play dotted rhythms (WOW!!!111!). Solid performance but the guy is quite overrated.
When I was reading reviews for their 2005 effort Octavarium, I came across quite an interesting quote which I think is certainly applicable for Systematic Chaos. It is a reviewer (who gave Octavarium a 15% score) who was asking what parts of the epic title track of that album can redeem it's apparently low quality otherwise, and one of the things he said was "Is it when Myung is heard for the first time since 1995?". Honestly I laughed at that, and it sprang back to me while listening to Systematic Chaos. John Myung is a fantastic bassist, both technically and musically, but Portnoy and Petrucci (that album's producers) have kind of left him out. You can just about make out his basslines in the quieter parts, or during keyboard/guitar solos, but when there's a full power riff ploughing it's way through your speakers there's no distinction between John Petrucci's 7 string guitar and John Myung's 6 string bass. After his rather awesome performance on Octavarium (remember Panic Attack?) I was hoping to see more excellence from him this time around but only on Repentance did I really notice his existence behind the rest of the band.
John Petrucci is now a well recognised shredder, among the likes of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai (partly due to the release of his first solo album, and his appearances on the G3 tour), but, as with Portnoy, I've never seen the massive appeal. There's no doubting his supreme technical ability, and anyone who's heard The Spirit Carries On would admit he can play solos with outstanding soul and conviction. Unfortunately, he normally prioritizes his first skill over the second, and for most of this album he is, well...all technique, no feeling. He has some nice melodies and chord choices in choruses, but when he needs to showcase himself (the solos), he becomes a guitar machine, and not in the good way. Mindless fretboard wanking is not how Steve Vai and Joe Satriani (who, funnily enough also make guest appearances on Repentance, but only on backing vocals) became famous. The only solos worth noting are on Repentance, In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 2 (one of his better technical solos) and The Ministry Of Lost Souls (the first and second, the third sounds manky), in terms of quality. The Constant Motion solo is worth remembering in case you're ever asked what the worst solo ever is. Seriously, so many effects over some "that's nice, dear" scale runs. Greaaaat. His riffs, as usual, are pretty uninteresting but his performances on Repentance and The Ministry Of Lost Souls are definitely impressive.
Progressive metal needs an epic factor, and Dream Theater's has been kept very high for a long time by Jordan Rudess. Most of the album has 2 or 3 tracks of overdubs, sometimes to back up guitar solos, sometimes as solos in their own right while a regular keyboard part plays underneath it. I still think he's the best member of Dream Theater, always plays with taste and impeccable timing, and his choice of tone is always perfect for the situation. While there aren't many (though there are LOADS in In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 2) moments where you can say out loud "wow, Jordan is a great player" (see: These Walls), he's always consistent and if you want to just listen to what he's doing, you'll never get bored. It wouldn't be going far to say this is his best performance yet.
Vocals. A mixed bag if there ever was one. As I'm sure you all know by now, the vocals in Constant Motion are pathetic. James LaBrie is trying to sound like James Hetfield (adding an 'ay' sound to every other word) and Portnoy and Petrucci are together making something resembling M. Shadows. NOT something any Dream Theater fan looks for. Also, in Prophets Of War, and In The Presence Of Enemies, there are some shouts and chants which, while fitting the lyrics well, do not work too well in the music. Just like when LaBrie tries to rap (unfortunately it's happened again), when they try different approaches to vocals, it plain old doesn't work. He has a good operatic voice, and while he can sound quite irritating when hitting high notes, he puts a lot into his singing. There are times when he sounds simply awful (the aforementioned Constant Motion, and The Dark Eternal Night), and also times where he sounds commanding, and like a real frontman (In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 2).
Other than LaBrie, Petrucci and Portnoy, there are yet more backing vocal appearances from many famous musicians, such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Mikael Akerfeldt, Steven Wilson, Neal Morse, Corey Taylor and Chris Jericho (!), all on Repentance. While most of them do a good job, you wouldn't really notice that those voices were there without being notified of it beforehand. Also, I am very disappointed in Dream Theater for getting such wonderful people as Akerfeldt, Satch, Vai and Wilson to appear, but only give them backing vocal duties. I mean, Satriani and Vai! There should be some kind of law against them not playing a solo on a song they appear in.
lyrically; I've never been too interested in Dream Theater. I notice they have some rather complex concepts and the story behind Scenes From A Memory is fascinating, but as with all new CD's I buy, I am always compelled to give the lyrics a look. All of the lyric writing is shared between Petrucci and Portnoy, aside from Prophets Of War which was penned by James LaBrie. When Mike Portnoy announced the tracklisting on the internet, pretty much everyone guessed that the music and lyrics would be heavier and darker, and they were certainly right in terms of lyrics. The common themes of faith and religion return, but with a more cynical twist on them. In The Presence Of Enemies seems to be talking about a loss of faith, or even the tyranny of religious authorities. I'm not one to judge what the lyricists were intending but that's what it's telling me. Forsaken is in a typical DT style, involving love and a woman, but with a more mysterious twist. Then, aside from Repentance (the new AA song from Portnoy about his alcoholism), the rest of the songs are about a mixture of war, politics and religion, with some more-than-regular darkness thrown in. I personally think that Mike Portnoy's lyrics are pretty weak, but Petrucci's written some very effective lyrics on Systematic Chaos (particularly The Dark Eternal Night and The Ministry Of Lost Souls).
Overall the music is a tidy mixture of Octavarium, Train Of Thought and Awake, with the strengths and weaknesses of all those albums rolled up into one, but thankfully most of the less impressive aspects are contained on certain songs, so if you want to listen to just the highlights, you can just stick on a few tracks without having to sift through several movements to find the good bits. Summing up a work with such scope and variety is quite difficult to do, especially concisely (then again, this review is pretty damn long), but it's another step along the road for Dream Theater. It pales in comparison to Octavarium but it's mostly solid, and worth a purchase if you're an existing Dream Theater fan, but there are better places to start than Systematic Chaos.
Here we have Dream Theater’s latest offering, their ninth studio album, and their first one on the Roadrunner record label. I’ll be honest, when I cued up the album on winamp and pressed play, I had pretty low expectations. I loved Octavarium, contrary to many people (although my ridiculously long review of it was a little much); it showed that Dream Theater could exercise restraint with regards to songwriting and soloing, which was a much needed display after the excesses and indulgences that plagued Train of Thought. Unfortunately, the buzz for Systematic Chaos suggested that they were making Train of Thought 2, which immediately made me think of forced heaviness and meandering compositions. Then along came the singles. They were different, and I didn’t know what to make of them. I took the easy way out. I convinced myself that this album was going to suck.
I was wrong.
Right after I pressed play, “In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 1” pulled no punches and immediately gripped me, and assaulted my ears with a melodic riff accented by Jordan’s synth keyboard sounds. The first five minutes are among the finest in Dream Theater’s catalogue, with an emotional solo from John Petrucci. Splitting up this song and using this as an album opener was a brilliant move. It’s a great way to get the listener’s attention.
There is an energy to this album that hasn’t been on a Dream Theater studio record in years. The enthusiasm is much like what is found on the live Score CD/DVD, when Dream Theater played at Radio City in NYC. These guys have always put their all into their work, but there is something youthful about this album that simply defies expectations. Above all, you can tell that they had fun creating this, which for a studio album is quite the accomplishment.
Of course, this would be all for nothing if all the songs after “In The Presence of Enemies Pt. 1” were terrible. Thankfully, they are not. There is a variety to the songs, yet they all share a darker tone that unites the album as a whole. “Forsaken” and “Prophets of War” are the more radio-friendly tunes, “Constant Motion” and “The Dark Eternal Night” are the headbangers, “Repentance” continues the Alcoholics Anonymous suite (which now includes “The Glass Prison,” “This Dying Soul,” and “The Root of All Evil.” Yes, they’re all part of one long song, that’s why riffs and lyrics are being reused) and “The Ministry of Lost Souls” and “In the Presence of Enemies” are the obligatory epics.
But didn’t I say that the singles convinced me that the album was going to suck? Well, in a word, yes. However, “Constant Motion” now feels a lot more comfortable in the context of the album. It’s still rip-off of AJFA-era Metallica at times, but the verse riff is simply fun and the second half of the song infuses the Dream Theater spirit into the track. As for “The Dark Eternal Night,” that took some getting used to. It’s definitely the heaviest Dream Theater song ever, beating out previous candidates “The Mirror” and “Honor Thy Father.” It’s also quite unlike anything done by them before. It’s a grower, so try not to dismiss it outright simply due to it being an oddity. The second half of the song also showcases Rudess’s abilities quite nicely.
The other songs are solid overall. “Forsaken” is a wonderful follow-up to the opening track, beginning with a quiet piano passage, and blaring forth into an uplifting song with soaring vocals and a catchy rock-styled verse riff. “Repentance” sounds like something off of Opeth’s Damnation album, right down to a synth used by Rudess near the 2:55 mark, and overall is a moving piece of music. “Prophets of War,” which lyrically is about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is the most “upbeat” and infectious of all the songs (ironically), and has a crowd shouting in the background during the chorus. “The Ministry of Lost Souls” has a beautiful aesthetic quality to it, and “In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 2” concludes the album with force and bombast, in true Dream Theater style.
Of course, not everything is perfect here. Dream Theater continues to walk the fine line when it comes to wearing their influences on their sleeve. I’ve already mentioned the Metallica riffs in “Constant Motion” and the Damnation-style synths and atmosphere of “Repentance.” In addition, “Prophets of War” is unabashed worship of Absolution-era Muse, although this song is superior to the other Muse-styled song “Never Enough.” Also, a couple of the songs run long without enough ideas to warrant the extended play time. “Repentance” has a nearly 5-minute spoken section that, while important to the overall story within the AA suite, drags the song down as a stand-alone track as the music that backs the recorded confessions is completely forgettable. “The Ministry of Lost Souls” is also an offender. It’s a 15 minute piece, but the first seven minutes and the last three are basically the same pattern over and over again, and the five minute deviation in the middle isn’t enough to sustain my interest, no matter how lovely the vocal patterns in the chorus are (of which they are quite beautiful). I don’t see why this track is currently so highly regarded, as it’s too slow-paced and ethereal to be an epic proper. Overall though, these are my only real complaints, and they’re minor in the overall scheme of the album. And thankfully, instrumental wanking is not a part of the list. There are no Train of Thought excesses here.
Lyrically, Dream Theater has decided to change things up and try fantasy-themed writings. So here we have songs about dark lords, vampires, and everything else that power metal bands write about. It’s an interesting change, and we get superbly cheesy lines like “dark master within, I will fight for you!” Of course, there are the standard introspective lyrics too, although those have a darker slant to them as well.
The band members themselves are in top form here. Petrucci is the centerpiece of this record, with rocking riffs and tasteful solos aplenty. This is one of the strongest offerings from this man since the masterpiece known as Awake, which is quite the accomplishment. Rudess also impresses here, as I feel he’s finally come into his own. He showed his more mature side on Octavarium, and it continues here, along with some ragtime fun in “The Dark Eternal Night.” Portnoy does some interesting things on this album, such as the machine-like bass-hits in “The Dark Eternal Night” and his vocal contributions to that song and “Constant Motion.” Myung is still in the background, and lends more support to the tone of the songs than a superficial listen would suggest. Happily, he is a lot easier to detect in this album. Finally, we have LaBrie. As most know, he suffered a vocal chord rupture from food poisoning after Awake was recorded. With the release of Octavarium, he was near full recovery, as the impressive vocal melodies demonstrated. Score proved that his recovery was complete, for both studio and live settings. That tradition continues on Systematic Chaos. Although the vocal patterns aren’t as high or complex as those on some previous records, his voice is clear and confident. Keep your ear open during “Forsaken,” “Prophets of War,” “The Ministry of Lost Souls,” and “In the Presence of Enemies” for some strong vocal goodness from this Canadian frontman.
As for the production, this is the best I’ve heard from a Dream Theater studio album, period. Their move to Roadrunner has afforded them better equipment. Everything is clear, and each instrument has its own space to breathe and develop. The distortion on the guitars and Rudess’ keyboard patches are top notch. Everything sounds slick, but nothing is overproduced. I can’t wait to get the special edition DVD-Audio and listen to the 5.1 mix, which will no doubt be amazing.
This album is a focused effort. For it being a nearly 80 minute album, the tracks simply fly by. Also, upon multiple listens, I’ve come to realize another point about this album, which was a welcome revelation. It’s the spiritual successor to Awake, just like Octavarium before it was a kindred spirit to Falling Into Infinity. It’s got the same slick, aggressive production style, a gritty-sounding James LaBrie complemented by solid riff-work from Petrucci, and a darker tone mixed with a youthful maturity. Time will tell if Systematic Chaos has the same lasting appeal that Awake has, but the early outlook is good.
Overall, this is a solid album by a well-established band. Dream Theater still has plenty of ideas left. If Systematic Chaos is any indicator, we can expect to hear more music from them for many years to come.
Music (60%): 92/100
Album Cohesiveness (20%): 93/100
Production (15%): 100/100
Replayability (5%): 90/100
Overall (Weighted): 93/100