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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.