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Most reviews you will see for any Dream Theater album will come from one of two sets of people: the blind fanboys who would chop off their left testicle to come within 5 feet of John Myung, or the haters who would demand a 3rd testicle to go that near to one of the members of Dream Theater. I've already seen reviews of the band's latest opus, their debut on Roadrunner, and most of them call it a true successor to Awake, or what Train Of Thought wanted to be. Honestly I'm not the biggest DT fan out there, I can clearly see their flaws, but can also greatly appreciate their strengths. I'm not comparing this album to any other album by them, because I rarely have the same view on any two albums from the New Yorkers.
Ironically, the album starts with no bullshit (I say ironically because Dream Theater are arguably the least 'no bullshit' band on the planet) and quite a nice little descending lick followed by John Petrucci playing a riff drowned by effects, then a little while in they all start raping their instruments in the way we all love to see Dream Theater do. From there it doesn't really stop. Admittedly that isn't ALL they do (and it never has been), but often when they're taking it easy there's not much that really grabs your attention.
Mike Portnoy seems to have taken some more involvement in this album, not only playing about 5 drum kits in one, but also performing backing vocals and writing the lyrics for the next two movements of his ongoing Alcoholics Anonymous Suite. I'll go into depth about the last two factors later on, but his drumming is the most important duty he has in Dream Theater. He is consistent, as ever, but yet again I fail to be amazed by his technical skill. You can tell he has it, but he never uses it in a way which is either creative and musical, or just mindblowingly fast. His use of double bass drums is quite catchy (even though I've seen him using three...I don't get what that's about), and his (gorgeously produced) toms have some nice texture when used in heavier parts, but as with all his performances, his vast collection of cymbals (some the size of my fingernail) ruin it. Seriously, they just don't sound good, at all. I think it is just taste, as I've never liked the sound of small cymbals, but they just sound like they should ring longer than they do. Still, he can hold a riff down excellently (though I was doubting this in Prophets Of War) when he's not trying to show off his ability to play dotted rhythms (WOW!!!111!). Solid performance but the guy is quite overrated.
When I was reading reviews for their 2005 effort Octavarium, I came across quite an interesting quote which I think is certainly applicable for Systematic Chaos. It is a reviewer (who gave Octavarium a 15% score) who was asking what parts of the epic title track of that album can redeem it's apparently low quality otherwise, and one of the things he said was "Is it when Myung is heard for the first time since 1995?". Honestly I laughed at that, and it sprang back to me while listening to Systematic Chaos. John Myung is a fantastic bassist, both technically and musically, but Portnoy and Petrucci (that album's producers) have kind of left him out. You can just about make out his basslines in the quieter parts, or during keyboard/guitar solos, but when there's a full power riff ploughing it's way through your speakers there's no distinction between John Petrucci's 7 string guitar and John Myung's 6 string bass. After his rather awesome performance on Octavarium (remember Panic Attack?) I was hoping to see more excellence from him this time around but only on Repentance did I really notice his existence behind the rest of the band.
John Petrucci is now a well recognised shredder, among the likes of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai (partly due to the release of his first solo album, and his appearances on the G3 tour), but, as with Portnoy, I've never seen the massive appeal. There's no doubting his supreme technical ability, and anyone who's heard The Spirit Carries On would admit he can play solos with outstanding soul and conviction. Unfortunately, he normally prioritizes his first skill over the second, and for most of this album he is, well...all technique, no feeling. He has some nice melodies and chord choices in choruses, but when he needs to showcase himself (the solos), he becomes a guitar machine, and not in the good way. Mindless fretboard wanking is not how Steve Vai and Joe Satriani (who, funnily enough also make guest appearances on Repentance, but only on backing vocals) became famous. The only solos worth noting are on Repentance, In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 2 (one of his better technical solos) and The Ministry Of Lost Souls (the first and second, the third sounds manky), in terms of quality. The Constant Motion solo is worth remembering in case you're ever asked what the worst solo ever is. Seriously, so many effects over some "that's nice, dear" scale runs. Greaaaat. His riffs, as usual, are pretty uninteresting but his performances on Repentance and The Ministry Of Lost Souls are definitely impressive.
Progressive metal needs an epic factor, and Dream Theater's has been kept very high for a long time by Jordan Rudess. Most of the album has 2 or 3 tracks of overdubs, sometimes to back up guitar solos, sometimes as solos in their own right while a regular keyboard part plays underneath it. I still think he's the best member of Dream Theater, always plays with taste and impeccable timing, and his choice of tone is always perfect for the situation. While there aren't many (though there are LOADS in In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 2) moments where you can say out loud "wow, Jordan is a great player" (see: These Walls), he's always consistent and if you want to just listen to what he's doing, you'll never get bored. It wouldn't be going far to say this is his best performance yet.
Vocals. A mixed bag if there ever was one. As I'm sure you all know by now, the vocals in Constant Motion are pathetic. James LaBrie is trying to sound like James Hetfield (adding an 'ay' sound to every other word) and Portnoy and Petrucci are together making something resembling M. Shadows. NOT something any Dream Theater fan looks for. Also, in Prophets Of War, and In The Presence Of Enemies, there are some shouts and chants which, while fitting the lyrics well, do not work too well in the music. Just like when LaBrie tries to rap (unfortunately it's happened again), when they try different approaches to vocals, it plain old doesn't work. He has a good operatic voice, and while he can sound quite irritating when hitting high notes, he puts a lot into his singing. There are times when he sounds simply awful (the aforementioned Constant Motion, and The Dark Eternal Night), and also times where he sounds commanding, and like a real frontman (In The Presence Of Enemies Pt. 2).
Other than LaBrie, Petrucci and Portnoy, there are yet more backing vocal appearances from many famous musicians, such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Mikael Akerfeldt, Steven Wilson, Neal Morse, Corey Taylor and Chris Jericho (!), all on Repentance. While most of them do a good job, you wouldn't really notice that those voices were there without being notified of it beforehand. Also, I am very disappointed in Dream Theater for getting such wonderful people as Akerfeldt, Satch, Vai and Wilson to appear, but only give them backing vocal duties. I mean, Satriani and Vai! There should be some kind of law against them not playing a solo on a song they appear in.
lyrically; I've never been too interested in Dream Theater. I notice they have some rather complex concepts and the story behind Scenes From A Memory is fascinating, but as with all new CD's I buy, I am always compelled to give the lyrics a look. All of the lyric writing is shared between Petrucci and Portnoy, aside from Prophets Of War which was penned by James LaBrie. When Mike Portnoy announced the tracklisting on the internet, pretty much everyone guessed that the music and lyrics would be heavier and darker, and they were certainly right in terms of lyrics. The common themes of faith and religion return, but with a more cynical twist on them. In The Presence Of Enemies seems to be talking about a loss of faith, or even the tyranny of religious authorities. I'm not one to judge what the lyricists were intending but that's what it's telling me. Forsaken is in a typical DT style, involving love and a woman, but with a more mysterious twist. Then, aside from Repentance (the new AA song from Portnoy about his alcoholism), the rest of the songs are about a mixture of war, politics and religion, with some more-than-regular darkness thrown in. I personally think that Mike Portnoy's lyrics are pretty weak, but Petrucci's written some very effective lyrics on Systematic Chaos (particularly The Dark Eternal Night and The Ministry Of Lost Souls).
Overall the music is a tidy mixture of Octavarium, Train Of Thought and Awake, with the strengths and weaknesses of all those albums rolled up into one, but thankfully most of the less impressive aspects are contained on certain songs, so if you want to listen to just the highlights, you can just stick on a few tracks without having to sift through several movements to find the good bits. Summing up a work with such scope and variety is quite difficult to do, especially concisely (then again, this review is pretty damn long), but it's another step along the road for Dream Theater. It pales in comparison to Octavarium but it's mostly solid, and worth a purchase if you're an existing Dream Theater fan, but there are better places to start than Systematic Chaos.