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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)