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Wow. Talk about a comeback. After years of steadily declining quality since Jordan Rudess took over as keyboardist in 1999, with undeniable classics mixed in with some really ass songs, obnoxious "modern" touches (culminating in Train of Thought's mallcore influences), and James LaBrie losing his voice (he was actually threatened with being fired during the Six Degrees tour because he had started smoking and his vocal performances were getting inexcusably bad), Dream Theater have made a huge leap forward with this, their ninth album and first with Roadrunner Records.
Systematic Chaos is no Awake, but then again, Dream Theater are all in their forties (with Rudess on the wrong side of fifty), and this is an ass-kicking album by any means. The prog is back, the riffs are back, and James LaBrie is back (although you must hear audience recordings to get the full extent of his talent right now, as this album has fewer high notes than any other). Guitarist John Petrucci has ditched some of the nu metalish oversaturation from his rhythm guitar tone, making it as natural as it has been since Falling into Infinity. The band have finally gotten the hang of producing their own records, and Systematic Chaos boasts an excellent production, with the appropriate sense of grandeur and a spacious sound stage.
Crtics of Dream Theater's infamous "wanking" will perhaps be assuaged by the sharp decline in solo time and general fluff since the Train of Thought era. The sprawling "In The Presence of Enemies" puts its 25-minute running time to good use, with the band working together more and vying for solo spots less. They blaze through the first third of the song, which opens the album, as almost a single overwhelming force, with some of the tightest integration of parts that I've ever heard in a Dream Theater song. This is nine mintues of pure gold, and wastes no time with silly intros like Octavarium, pinning you to your chair with an attention-grabbing riff followed by an explosion of swirling instrumentation. This is a band that has its shit together.
Mike Portnoy fans may be a little disappointed that he sounds more like a normal drummer and less like a drum kit caught in a violent hailstorm, but his marginally more subtle approach serves the album well (except for "Constant Motion", where he plays uses a prog rock drumming style in a thrash song, which of course doesn't work very well). John Petrucci has finally replenished the riff stores he depleted sometime around 2003 and smashes the listener's head with some of his best rhythm work to date, in addition to his always masterful solos. Jordan Rudess follows suit, downplaying that awful wailing solo patch and bringing it some truly great atmospheric work, with touching piano melodies and various organs, effects, and strings to flesh out the soundscape. John Myung is once again kind of lost beneath it all, as shy with his bass as he is with his personality.
"Forsaken" will probably catch some flak for its gothic overtones and terrible animated music video (although Dream Theater's videos have always been pretty bad), but it's the best single they've had since "Pull Me Under". James LaBrie takes flight in a way that he rarely gets the chance to on this album, and the chorus hook is appropriately catchy. The riffs here are not very technical at all, but brief shred leads are sprinkled throughout the song to keep Petrucci awake. Less successful is the other single, "Constant Motion", which has some OK thrash riffs combined with James LaBrie delivering a godawful attempt at mimicking James Hetfield of Metallica, a vocalist who has a completely different style and range. Mike Portnoy completely drops the ball on this one, unfortunately, with inappropriate drum lines (where's the skull-crushing snare pounding and double bass drumming?) and some tuneless backing vocals.
All is forgiven with the blistering "The Dark Eternal Night", even if Portnoy ones again regals us with some more bad vocals (this time some yelling with distortion added to give the impression of death growls--why didn't he just have Michael Akerfeldt of Opeth do it during Akerfeldt's trip to the studio to record a spoken word bit for "Repentance"?). This time around, he gets the drumming right and absolutely beats the shit out of his kit, even doing some blastbeats in the chorus. John Petrucci goes into riff overdrive, his big highlight being a brutal, odd-time descending riff that hits you like an axe in the head. The riffing in the bridge is so violent that it could almost qualify for extreme metal, and the melodic interjections from Rudess are less intrusive than they initially sound after a few listens. James LaBrie and John Myung do absolutely nothing of interest in this song, but it's heavy fucking metal of the first order regardless.
The band's more melodic side is explored in the dreamy, psychedelic "Repentance" and dramatic half-ballad "The Ministry of Lost Souls". "Repentance" is a gloomy, exceptionally atmospheric song that serves as a continuation of Mike Portnoy's ongoing saga about defeating alcoholism, serving as a contrast to the more metal-oriented installments on previous albums. Petrucci even whips out an acoustic guitar as things calm down a bit from the fury of "The Dark Eternal Night". "The Ministry of Lost Souls", clocking in at nearly 15 minutes, has the bombast of 1999's Scenes from a Memory, but with more emotional impact, with a powerful string fanfare as its main theme, a wistful verse, and the obligatory huge chorus. The instrumental bridge is somewhat overextended but doesn't overstay long enough to seriously detract from the song. The fadeout kind of does wear out its welcome, although hitting the skip button during a fadeout is not really a big deal. James LaBrie's vocals are some of the most soulful and mature of his career, and the lack of crazy high notes is offset by the sheer passion he projects.
If there is a truly disappointing song on the album, "Prophets of War" is it, as Portnoy and Petrucci continue the Muse worship featured on Octavarium's un-classic "Never Enough" and adding touches of Queen for good (bad?) measure. And, while I don't really care about crappy lyrics most of the time (most rock and metal lyrics suck anyway), but these are just too preachy for their own good, with dumb jokes about "profiting from war" and gang shouts that sound like they came from the pen of Dave Mustaine, except with James LaBrie's characteristic bad grammar (that's a nice dangling participle you've got there!). It's funny when Dave Mustaine is squawking about it in a Megadeth song, not so funny in Dream Theater. But wait, there's more! Remember the bit from Train of Though with James LaBrie rapping? Remember how awful it was? They did it again, only now it's Mike Portnoy rapping, and instead of sounding like that guy from Linkin Park, he sounds like that guy from Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life". That's not metal at all, guys. Fortunately this little mistake goes away after six minutes, comprising less than 8 percent of the album.
Having only one unpleasant song on an album is better than the vast majority of bands can manage, and the first time Dream Theater has pulled it off since Awake (it too had only one stinker, the forgettable acoustic "The Silent Man"). As usual, Dream Theater have packed the CD to the brim, the album coming out at a minute and nineteen seconds short of the maximum capacity of a single disc. At the very least, you're getting 73 minutes of top-quality prog metal, and some people actually like "Propets of War". This is an essential purchase for any fan of progressive metal, and one of the top albums of 2007. If Dream Theater repeats this improvement again, they will be at the same level of greatness they attained with their twin masterpieces Images and Words and Awake, but even this is pure class and a cut above the imitators pouring out of Europe, such as Pagan's Mind, Evergrey, and Circus Maximus.