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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