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In the Presence of Roadrunner - 75%

SilenceIsConsent, April 2nd, 2011

About four years ago now, every metalhead's favorite "trendwhore" punching bag of a record label, Roadrunner Records, signed two of the biggest and most popular metal acts throughout the world. One of these bands was Dream Theater, which to me was the more shocking and nerve racking of the two musical acts. Dream Theater paired up with Roadrunner? This must be some kind of bad dream. Could a Dream Theater/Roadrunner pairing result in a real mallcore outing like die-hard Dream Theater fans thought Train of Thought was? Well those two bands had their Roadrunner debuts come out in the same day, and with the other band's album I bought Systematic Chaos.

Thankfully, Systematic Chaos is not a mallcore album. In fact, it is not that bad of an album in general. Dream Theater's Roadrunner debut contains everything you would want in a Dream Theater album; well crafted progressive metal, high levels of instrumental technicality, and great individual performances meshing together to form a sum greater then their individual parts. Still, Systematic Chaos gets a lot of unnecessary criticism from Dream Theater fans for a variety of reasons. While those reasons are more spelled in musical fact then silly assumptions (as in the case of Train of Thought), this is a clearly tone downed album by Dream Theater, and you can tell they were clearly held down by the creative restrictions of a Roadrunner imposed musical insurance policy.

There are a lot of good things to like about Systematic Chaos, but I think arguably the best thing about this album is James Labrie. This is arguably James Labrie's best performance on a Dream Theater album, and for one very big reason. Throughout Dream Theater's history, I have never heard Labrie manage to achieve a sense of equilibrium between emotion and aggression so consistently throughout the album. In the past, there were moments where I thought Labrie was trying to be overly emotional to the point where it was grossly excessive (check Metropolis Pt. 2 or Octavarium), or there were times when he tried to be overtly aggressive (Train of Thought, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence) and it sounded weak. The fact is, the best Dream Theater songs are often the ones where he finds this sense of balance (among other things), and what makes his performance on Systematic Chaos so good is that he strings together these performances pretty consistently together throughout five of the eight tracks on this album. Aside from the use of vocal distortion briefly on The Dark Eternal Night and his performance on The Ministry of Lost Souls, Labrie's performance on Systematic Chaos is the best among the individual members.

I couple this in by a really top notch performance by keyboardist Jordan Ruddess. After two albums where I felt Jordan's work really lagged behind the other members and he was just being lazy, Jordan really steps up his performance on Systematic Chaos. First of all, it's just that he is playing more often that makes all the difference! For the first time in awhile, Jordan seems to use his keyboards outside of the confines of solo duels or instrumental sections of songs. Not only that, they seem to add something to the songs. Keyboards help drive along songs like "In the Presence of Enemies", "Forsaken", and "Prophets of War", and they largely succeed in such a role. There is also an increased variety in keyboard sounds, moving away from strictly synths to using some basic piano sounds and some orchestra string like sounds. Jordan's performance adds very greatly to this album, and I like that he sounded like he really contributed to the band for the first time in a few years.

However, after these guys, one can start to hear Roadrunner's insurance policy taken out on Dream Theater taking effect. The member arguably effected by this the most is John Petrucci. Despite the increased use of Jordan Ruddess, Systematic Chaos is arguably Dream Theater's most guitar centric album. Do not take this though as their being too much guitar work on this album. While on Train of Thought John's riffs were able to really carry the songs on their own and in Octavarium they were not able to do that, Systematic Chaos is kind of in between those two. Clearly Roadrunner wanted Dream Theater to really rely on John's guitar work to carry the songs, and it does not work for the most part. The one song it does work on, The Dark Eternal Night, does this great, but the others (Constant Motion in particular) do not do this nearly as well. The riffs just simply are not good enough for the most part. The other thing is that compared to the two albums that proceeded it, John's solos are not nearly as good as they were previously. It's almost like he relied too much on his alternate picking skill and did not really try anything else, because the solos just sound toned down compared to everything else he has done. While they are still very good solos in the grand spectrum of guitar solos, they are not the best that he has done by a wide margin and it hurts the music.

The other major issue on this album is Mike Portnoy. The drum work on Systematic Chaos is really sub par compared to other Dream Theater albums. The problems I have here with such result really from a bad use of certain beats at certain times. There are times when Portnoy uses a really technical sounding rhythm in a part where such a thing is not necessary, and he uses a basic sounding rhythm when such a rhythm does fit the tone. While I do appreciate his increased use of double bass and attempts at being faster, he simply does not get it right. The other thing that really annoys me about Portnoy on this album is his creative meddling in aspects like the lyrics and vocals. The extra vocals on Constant Motion and The Dark Eternal Night are an attempt to add aggression, yet they are just so painfully laughable and are not quality at all.

John Myung's work speaks for itself, so I am just going to skip to the lyrics. Systematic Chaos's lyrics are good for the most part, when they're written by John Petrucci and not by Mike Portnoy. In the Presence of Enemies is a great depiction of someone struggling between good and evil, Forsaken is a pretty good attempt at writing about vampirism, and Ministry of Lost Souls is a masterfully poetic piece about drowning and being saved from such a fate. But this is not the case for Mike Portnoy. His lyrics for the most part stink. His Twelve Step Suite starts growing stale by this point, and Constant Motion's lyrics about obsessive compulsive disorder are interesting but again, sound poorly written. The one exception to this is Prophets of War, who's lyrics were written by James Labrie. This is a rare attempt at Dream Theater sounding politicized, and it actually works for the most part, calling into question the ethics and reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003 without ever mentioning such. It is thought provoking to say the least, and I think Labrie did a great job with this. He should really be allowed to write more lyrics on Dream Theater albums.

The mix on Systematic Chaos is one that to me raises a lot of questions. By no means is this a bad mix, it actually sounds pretty good for the most part. Mike's drums sound crystal clear and more drum like then they ever have, and his cymbals have just the right cut in the mix to be heard. The bass work of John Myung can be heard under everything else pretty well but not overpowering. Labrie's vocals are crystal clear. Here is the problem though. For an album that attempts to be carried by the guitar, the guitars on Systematic Chaos sound way pushed back in the mix, to the point where they almost sound over powered and rather mechanical with the rhythms. The leads are out there for all to hear, but John's lead tone is not as good as other Dream Theater albums. The keyboards also sound kind of pushed back, which is not really fair considering how good they are for the most part. All in all, Dream Theater could have done a better mix on Systematic Chaos.

Systematic Chaos was Dream Theater's Roadrunner Records debut, and it is one that sounds like it was clearly effected by Roadrunner. With the key aspects of Dream Theater toned down to the point where they offset the great performances by Labrie and Ruddess and a not so great mix, this album is one that is not one of Dream Theater's greatest efforts by any stretch. Clearly, Dream Theater was in the presence of Roadrunner Records when they were recording Systematic Chaos.