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Not terribly significant - 68%

gasmask_colostomy, May 9th, 2018

Coming after the more or less fucked up Train of Thought and the more or less forgettable Octavarium, we have the middle-of-the-road Systematic Chaos. I say it’s a middle of the road album because it sounds more or less like what you’d expect from Dream Theater during the time period, though without being particularly unique in the genre either. It’s not easy to say that a 78 minute album with a two-part, 25 minute song is a safe play, but that’s what it feels like in the context. There is nothing too experimental here, nothing too soft, nothing jarringly heavy, and not much that stands out as truly excellent in the band’s long discography. That said, Systematic Chaos is a fairly likeable album.

One of the reasons why this feels like a safe bet is because the five-piece covered enough bases to make sure that no one could complain either of lax musicianship or a dearth of catchy material. The front half of the album (discounting the first installment of ‘In the Presence of Enemies’) contains the most immediately accessible material, including a five and a half minute rock single, a more metallic and technical version of the same, and the larger ‘The Dark Eternal Night’, which contains a memorable chorus alongside some instrumental diversions. The song ‘Prophets of War’ could easily be scooped into the “more accessible” category too, not only by virtue of its length, but due to more restrained instrumentation that – as noted in Kluseba’s review – gives it more than a passing similarity to Muse, both vocally and musically. Three songs head over 10 minutes, of which the closing second part of ‘In the Presence of Enemies’ is the most like what the band have done before on these kind of songs, while the other two work with variations of other aspects of their oeuvre.

I mentioned that this is not especially experimental, meaning that there is less progressive than expansive about Systematic Chaos. Sure, Jordan Rudess plays a moderate role with keyboards and all of the longer songs encapsulate very specific instrumental sections, but the songs are not really that complex in construction, nor do any of the solos break any new ground despite the skill of the lead players. Compare this to Symphony X’s Paradise Lost that was also released in 2007 (the bands in fact had a split single release) and much less progressive happens, while what does emerge from this perspective is going on in a more relaxed manner, more akin to prog rock than metal. Of course, Symphony X have the advantage of speed and a spliced power metal gene on their side, but the difference between their ‘Domination’ and Dream Theater’s ‘Constant Motion’ would be glaringly obvious on a musical score as well. Add in to that the similarity of one song to Muse, the proximity of ‘Forsaken’ to some of Paradise Lost’s early ‘00s material, and a generally more mainstream metal production; at this juncture, we find Dream Theater playing the role of followers, not leaders.

However, it isn’t necessary for every album to push the envelope, even if the band in question has done so in the past. The single material is certainly catchy and I enjoy all the songs from the first half of the album, probably rating the opening of ‘In the Presence of Enemies’ as the most musically interesting part of this release, though the drama of the break in ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ is also a highlight. ‘The Ministry of Lost Souls’ is a good shout for a melancholy semi-balladic epic towards the end of the album and would have made a suitable closer were it not for the other 16 minute epic that follows it. What epic songs should have is a good story in the lyrics, which James LaBrie more or less manages to pull off in ‘Lost Souls’, though he does sound a bit clingy with romantic lines like this: “I was the one who would not abandon you / Even in death, I was the one who would not leave you”. An additional problem is that his vocals are not powerful enough to carry some of the emotional climaxes and big choruses that are expected of him, which, contrasted with the beef of the guitars and drums, is a reasonable-sized problem. His delivery lacks conviction and volume at these moments, which would thankfully be improved on the much better follow-up Black Clouds and Silver Linings.

As a result of the variety and a few mediocre ideas, I’m not so keen on the latter half of the album, especially seeing as ‘Repentance’ is a decent ballad stretched out way beyond its limits, while ‘The Ministry of Lost Souls’ could certainly do with cutting. As Dream Theater were not using as many progressive elements as on past albums, it seems baffling that they decided to extend the song lengths so much; this would have been a tighter album with about 20 minutes knocked off the combined length. As it is, Systematic Chaos is a palatable collection of material that I can listen to with medium concentration, though not a terribly significant point in Dream Theater’s discography.