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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/)