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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.