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The Sonic Manifestation of Self-Indulgence - 15%

GiantRex, November 30th, 2018
Written based on this version: 2016, Digital, Roadrunner Records

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to make it clear from the beginning that I have been a shameless apologist for Dream Theater for many years. I find continued enjoyment in Falling into Infinity. Conversations about this band with my friends have resembled the absolute worst forum circlejerks given physical form. Multiple Dream Theater tracks were featured in the playlist at my wedding. If there were a religion based on Images and Words, I would join it. Dream Theater's music has, in a tangible sense, changed and enriched my life.

Taking into consideration all of the above, I want it to be understood that I do not mean it lightly when I say I despise The Astonishing. In objective terms, it is not an abhorrent album. It was, ostensibly, born through considerable effort and genuine care from its creators. A true passion project. The type of project an artist might wistfully dream of one day creating, if only they had the time. Projects created without artistic passion and integrity rarely manage to produce such a visceral reaction. Nonsubstantive efforts typically amount to mediocrity. Laziness. A shrug, maybe a grunt of acknowledgment, and everyone moves on with their lives.

The Astonishing is the antithesis of an artistic effort achieved through mediocrity. It is so egregiously terrible because it was achieved through greatness allowed to run unchecked for far too long. It is the inevitable result of a band predisposed to excess and self-indulgence allowed to run rampant within their illusion of their own legendary image, with everyone around them enchanted by their spell of infallibility. As mentioned before, objectively, this is not a horrible album. It is competently performed and produced, a cohesive package, the product of a genuine artistic endeavor. Subjectively, this is one of the most revolting albums I have ever experienced.

For more than a decade now, starting roughly with 2005's Octavarium and becoming much more blatant on 2007's Systematic Chaos, Dream Theater has openly flirted with attempting to break into the world of mainstream rock recognition. Any reasonable observer would be inclined to point to the band's longstanding affiliation with Roadrunner Records as the cause - Black Clouds and Silver Linings received a full aisle-end display on its release day in 2009 at my local Best Buy in Bumfuck Nowhere, USA. This trend has seen Dream Theater - a band which once had enough self awareness to title their greatest hits album Greatest Hit in an open admission that Pull Me Under was their only song which had ever achieved anything resembling mainstream recognition - include at least one track on each subsequent album which was intended to become a marketable rock single. In broad strokes, these songs represent the nadir of Dream Theater's expansive catalog, the tracks which are always skipped on repeated listens to the albums which contain them. These songs see Dream Theater lean fully into all of their worst qualities - the copied and pasted electronic beats used by every djent band, constant crooning and soaring lead vocals contrasted with spoken backing vocals, power chords punctuated with wankery, and an utter inability to know when to stop - in a vain and nakedly brazen pursuit of revenue.

The Astonishing is the result of a band which has reduced its repertoire to include only the aforementioned elements thinking that it has a concept that rivals the The Wall in its staggering greatness and everyone around them believing them in spite of years of evidence to the contrary. There is not a single moment on this album which an intellectually honest person would attempt to argue qualifies as metal. Despite its glaringly bloated running time, at no point on this album does the band perform anything that would have been considered a riff prior to the proliferation of alternative rock and “metal” bands in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The notion that this is the same band which recorded Images and Words and Awake is a travesty.

The common characterization of The Astonishing is that it is a rock opera. Roughly, it is 2112 meets Les Miserables. If you find that notion repugnant, move along. This is not the band for you, but you already knew that and you're reading this because you enjoy seeing the casual evisceration of what amounts to the turgid distillation of the essence of everything you detest about this band and its cult of followers. If you're enticed by the concept of Dream Theater playing up the theater aspect of their name, I have bad news for you. This album isn't winning a Tony Award.

The Astonishing goes beyond the paltry distinction of being a mere concept album. In essence, it is an audio play, a musical with no stage production and one man voicing all of the characters. As I mentioned before about being an apologist for this band, I want to again make it clear that I am a fan of James LaBrie. His attempt to voice all of this album's characters is one of its weakest points, one of the many reasons that it becomes such an unbearably overwrought listen so quickly. LaBrie has employed multiple voices in the past, most notably for Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, in which he does an effective job of differentiating the blithe, innocent Victoria from the other characters in the narrative and thus makes her naivete about the danger she is in that much more crushing when she is murdered. For The Astonishing, LaBrie's voices convey little emotion beyond “I'm the hero,” “I'm evil,” and “I'm a girl.” I think this is partially because his range has noticeably decreased over the years, but I think the more significant problem is the unnecessary number of characters in the cast.

Let's talk about the cast for a minute. There are so many characters. I'll be damned if I can ever remember anyone beyond Designated Hero Protagonist Guy, Faythe, and Lord Nefaryus. I want everyone to know that typing those names caused me physical pain. The characters and the narrative in which they exist are the most excruciating aspect of the album. At the heart of the matter, the reason why this album offends me so profoundly is this: How is it possible that a band which has created so much intricate music somehow spent years crafting and refining a story that, were it not being performed by Dream Theater, I would assume was lifted directly from an edgy high school student's notebook? It is truly uncanny the degree to which the narrative evokes the image of its author being a fifteen year-old who scribbled it in the margins of their algebra notebook and later shared it with their friends at the lunch table in a desperate bid to attempt to appear deep and mature. In my mind's eye, Faythe & Co. dress in clothes purchased from Hot Topic. Lord Nefaryus, being the cartoon villain he is, is Jafar from Disney's Aladdin. Hero Protagonist Guy is that one theater kid you knew in high school who thought he had real talent and was going to make the bigtime but instead burned out before the age of 20 and became the resident fedora tipper taking six years to finish a two-year program at your local community college. Together, the ragtag band of heroes teach the bad guy the true meaning of music and save America, or something equally as cloying and contrived. I find it impossible to care at all about any of the characters, and therein lies the failure of the narrative. There is no pathos.

The most common criticism of this album is that it contains very little actual musical content. Much like the criticisms levied at the narrative, they are well-founded. Randomly selecting a point in time in this album and pressing play is statistically more likely than not to land you on a piano-and-vocals interlude. Interlude is a misnomer, though, because when such aimless passages constitute the majority of an album's running time, they are no longer interludes. They are the content itself. This might have been a much more charming album if the narrative had taken a backseat to the music and the whole ordeal lasted around 45 minutes, but instead this album is the poster child of why double albums are, with very few exceptions, a terrible idea - the band rarely has enough content to fill two discs. Dream Theater certainly did not, and yet, therein lies the greatest paradox of this album. It is incredibly vacuous and starved for content, yet I would laugh at the idea that anything whatsoever was cut from it. I've never encountered another album that demands so much from the listener in exchange for so little in return. Disc two suffers from this in particular. Think the listener might be starved to hear some electric guitar or, god forbid, some actual drums? Time for another pointless minute of electronic noise. That will surely immerse them. We're in the future, you see.

To circle back to where we began, I want to emphasize that The Astonishing is not a product of laziness. It is not a cynical cash grab. It is as intricately crafted as anything Dream Theater has ever released, perhaps their most ambitious project to date. That's what I find so incomprehensible about it. How is it possible that a group of ostensibly responsible people all sat down in a room together, discussed this, and decided it was acceptable? It boggles my mind. How is it possible that seemingly nobody involved in the creative process spoke up and noted that perhaps this was too much of a departure from expectations even for a progressive metal band? The band was clearly surrounded by an army of yes-men. Everyone involved, including the band themselves, appears to have been convinced that everything the band touches turns to gold. That should have been plainly and demonstrably false after the events of the last fifteen or so years, but I wouldn't be here yelling into the void if that had been recognized somewhere along the way. Dream Theater's fans are commonly and correctly cited to be impossible to please, but this album is so far off-course that there was never any hope of it pleasing anyone but the artists themselves. That particular nugget of truth is why I argue that this album possesses genuine artistic integrity, but unfortunately, artistic integrity alone does not make a good album. Vision alone does not make one a genius, and change for change's sake does not equate to progress. This album was a legitimate undertaking from conception to release, created by people with decades of experience, and is an artistic failure on every level.

So why then do I give this album a score higher than zero percent? Because I am a brainwashed, card-carrying, certified member of this band's cult, and dammit, Our New World is a pretty enjoyable song. I can't help myself. Fuck this album, fuck everything that led to its creation, and most of all fuck me.

Too Little, Too Long - 33%

jontayl, May 15th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2016, 2CD, Roadrunner Records (Digipak)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Remember Images & Words, one of the greatest metal albums ever made? Or how about Awake, a prog masterpiece?

The Astonishing is only astonishing for one reason: It’s astonishingly bland. It’s two hours of Elton John-style piano ballads, muted and downtrodden technical wankery, and occasional dubstep interludes. You’d might as well just listen to one of Jordan Rudess’ many side projects. One of his solo albums would cost a lot less to purchase and would ask for a lot less of your time. They're also mostly a lot better than this hot mess that he and John Petrucci cooked up.

After Black Clouds & Silver Linings, Mike Portnoy’s departure had the band in a state of borderline creative turmoil. Mike Mangini, however, was a very welcome replacement, and he gave the band a more-than-solid drumkit presence on A Dramatic Turn of Events and on the band’s eponymous album. Look no further than Bridges in the Sky, Enigma Machine, or Illumination Theory for proof.

But The Astonishing is what happens when Mike Mangini is treated as a session musician. He’s turned way down in the mix, the mastering makes his famous “golden ratio” snare sound lifeless, and I can’t quite always differentiate his toms from Jordan Rudess’ keys. Though Mangini’s freeze-dried, electronic-sounding snare is on full display, that’s about all there is to hear. Even his bass drums-the anchor of damn near any metal album–sound like someone hitting a sack of cornstarch with a baseball bat. Dull, lifeless, and with no sustain to speak of. This is not a recipe for success, and it shows.

In addition to Mike Mangini’s sonic banishment, also noticeably absent from the limelight is bassist John Myung. It’s as if Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci decided that a rhythm section wasn’t worth having. Indeed, the volume and prominence levels devoted to Mike Mangini and to John Myung are depressingly, stunningly, and shamefully low. Listen, for example, to A Better Life. The rhythm section is lifeless. Incorporating the airiness and sparseness of Nick Mason with muted double-bass rolls and sophomoric bass frills, it’s little short of a musical embarrassment. It’s basically what would happen if someone were to throw a wet, fuzzy blanket over a speaker that happened to be playing a decently-mixed rhythm section.

And then there’s the storyline. A 2112-style dystopianism admixed sloppily with Quadrophenia-esque soul-searching, and then dashed with the former glory of Metropolis Pt. 2's murder mystery plot. How many different characters are there? It’s hard to say, though James LaBrie does his best to comically alter his voice to depict different antagonists. Who winds up victorious in the end? I’m not entirely sure, though I’ll figure out if I decide to buy the novella based on The Astonishing’s plotline.

Oh, yes. There’s a novella. That may be the album’s most laughable offense, if not the one that most thinly veils the band's self-indulgence. Tell me this: What kind of over-marketed, radio-friendly musical drudgery has a novella to go along with it? The only time that this has worked out remotely well for anyone is when Rush helped write a book based on the plot of Clockwork Angels, and the only reason that that wasn’t a complete disaster is that lyrical genius Neal Peart was at the helm. Make no mistakes about, though: John Petrucci is not Neal Peart. As someone who loves Dream Theater, I feel like a chump, honestly. I feel like Dream Theater made an album out of sheer self-importance, sold it for $18.99 on iTunes (no, that is not a typo), and then got even greedier and played their fans for suckers by releasing a whole line of shitty merchandise.

But the album’s single worst offense is its length. It’s two hours. Two hours of the same hyper-technical, minimally engaging sonic sludge. It’s not without its saving graces: Our New World, A New Beginning, Three Days, Dystopian Overture, and 2285 Ent’racte are all solid progressive metal songs. The main problem here is that, collectively, these listenable songs make up about 15% of the album in its totality. It’s too long to only have five songs worth hearing. Listening to music is an investment: You spend time and hope to gain some level of enjoyment. And considering the paltry returns juxtaposed with the temporal opportunity cost, The Astonishing isn’t a very good investment. 38/100.

Bombast and overindulgence personified. - 59%

ConorFynes, October 7th, 2016

My relationship with Dream Theater reminds me a lot of the saddest scenes from the Toy Story movies. I still remember the day, over half a lifetime ago (!!!) that my first copy of Scenes from a Memory came in the mail. The package hadn't come a moment too soon, arriving on the day of my elementary school's graduation ceremony, a triviality I happily skipped in order to free up precious hours I could spend with the album. Even as a child I quickly developed strong opinions towards each of Dream Theater's other albums as I heard them. Images & Words and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence stirred me almost as much as SFAM, while I was left hanging dry by Awake and Train of Thought. Even if I wasn't always sold all the time by Dream Theater, alongside Led Zeppelin and Yngwie Malmsteen they were arguably the biggest musical influences on me before turning 12.

Like Toy Story however, the enthusiasm wasn't permanent. It's never that I bought into the popular opinion that Dream Theater are "wankers", nor did the heavyhanded cheese wear on me. I wouldn't even say I necessarily grew out of them; rather, it was just a case of gradually opening myself to more extreme and fascinating sounds. Like childhood toys, they quietly faded into memory. However, even as bands like Opeth and later Deathspell Omega and Blut aus Nord expanded my vision of what progressive metal could be, I never lost a love for them. Whenever I heard of a new album coming out, I would light up with excitement. I would feel like a kid again. I defended Systematic Chaos and Black Clouds & Silver Linings from less enthusiastic fans, and shared the joy when they returned to roots on A Dramatic Turn of Events.

It wasn't until 2013 when my opinion finally took a sour turn. Their self-titled album was the first time I felt they had released a piece of dogshit. Even if a few songs on it shined, it was finally enough to convince me that Dream Theater was finished as a creative act. Slogs like "Illumination Theory" were enough to sap my anticipation for future records. That's a good part of the reason why I'm reviewing The Astonishing in early October, as opposed to January when it was released. Is it possible to feel reinvigorated and simultaneously let down by a band with a single album? In most cases I'd say the answer is no, but when a consummate "has been" band tries to pull out all the stops, supposedly creating the most ambitious work of their career, strange things are bound to happen.

On the one hand, I'm happy that Dream Theater have reclaimed some of their energy they most certainly lacked in 2013. Some of the best prog instrumentation they've put out in years is here. James LaBrie hasn't sounded this powerful as a vocalist arguably since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Even its mere stance as a concept album implies they're trying to make another Scenes from a Memory. There's some of the liveliest music I've heard from Dream Theater in a long, long time. On the other hand, they've somehow managed to lop off the buzz with a mind-numbing amount of filler and the most clichéd, idiotic and self-absorbed concept I've ever seen set to music. I guess hearing quality Dream Theater material without having to wade in shit would have been too simple, and not "progressive" enough for them, right?

I know The Astonishing is hammy and self-involved from start to finish; I can't help but love certain things about it however. At its very best, it comes across as a spry continuation of the bright prog they revived on A Dramatic Turn of Events, blown up considerably with symphonic orchestration and sprawling structure. Ignore the lyrics to "The Gift of Music" and "A New Beginning" for a second, and focus on what they're doing with the music. The busy interplay and effortless finesse is nothing new for them, but it can certainly feel that way in light of their last album. A lot of Dream Theater's detractors brush them off on the charge of wankery, but that polished technicality is easily the most exciting thing about them here. I don't think it's ever been the amount of notes that Dream Theater plays that have set many listeners against them; it's the way they fall short when they opt for other approaches.

Lamentably, The Astonishing is pretty chock-full of these "other approaches". Even if it's easily the most bombastic album these guys have ever put out, it's also probably the softest album note-for-note. The technical prog-outs are as impressive as ever, but their ballads post-Kevin Moore have always been hit-or-miss. Many of the 34 tracks take the shape of piano interludes and lilting vocals. Don't you get it? Dream Theater aren't trying to be badass here, they're trying to make you feel your feelings! Not that I haven't been struck emotionally by DT in the past, but whenever they did so, it was an authentic by-product of the band capitalizing on their strengths. Here, you can tell they set out specifically to tug on your heartstrings. Given the album's faux-dystopian concept revolves around the spiritual power of music I suppose it makes sense, but the dry kind of hammy superemotion expressed here almost serves to work against that thesis.

The biggest standout talent this time around is easily James LaBrie. Surprisingly, a lot of fans seem to agree. I've always loved his voice (despite understanding why others do not) but he sounds particularly passionate and confident as a vocalist. His stepping up to the plate could not have happened on a more fitting album. The Astonishing is a very vocal-driven album. I don't think there's any salvation for the plot or lyrics, but for what it's worth, the melodies and performance almost make the whole thing work. It's all the more impressive to hear James adopt different voices for each of the personae in this story. This ability to characterize his voice is something any fan who has heard their covers knows full well, and it's refreshing to hear this talent put to use on original material.

Although Dream Theater have given their detractors plenty of extra justification to hate them with this album, I'd honestly say a lot of the music is solid. A near-hour of this stuff could have been cut and the album would be no worse for well, but I get that they weren't trying to make a normal album with The Astonishing, and I can respect it as such. The only unforgivable aspect here are the lyrics and general concept. Falling somewhere between a mindless ape of 2112 and terrible Young Adult dystopian fiction, The Astonishing supposedly tells the story of an evil empire and a band of rebels who resist them using, uh, music? I get the basic idea they're digging up here, but I couldn't help but think of a battle where soldiers are popping up from trenches and shooting at other with riffs. Okay, so music enlivens the spirit, and creates e-m-o-t-i-o-n. Evil empires don't like emotion, apparently. I guess Dream Theater wanted to make a soundtrack to the film Equilibrium, instead where they take out all of the cool martial arts gunplay and replace it with fucking piano ballads. That's nothing to say about the moronic cast of characters. A rebellious girl named Faythe? An evil leader called Nafaryus? Pour a load of venomous earwigs into my hearing holes and end me now.

There are times where it reads like very bad Star Wars fanfiction, and even then that is giving it too much credit. I have a soft spot for self-absorbed rock opera concepts (see: Ayreon, Rhapsody of Fire) but The Astonishing sounds like a corporate-sponsored amalgamation of all the most predictable tropes coming together into a single, amorphous shitpile of irrelevance. Insult is added to injury when you consider how great the conceptual angle has worked out for them in the past. Scenes from a Memory is arguably my favourite album concept ever, where clever lyrics unfolded a mindbending concept that still leaves me in awe. So it took them less than two decades to shed that brilliance completely in favour of a microwaved casserole 2112? Lyrics aren't everything, to be sure, but with the weight the album's marketing placed on the hokey concept, it's almost unbelievable they allowed something like this to mar otherwise solid music.

It's incredibly easy to criticize The Astonishing. Dream Theater haters could have a field day with this one like none other in the past. My job of reviewing this album would be a tad simpler if I could simply dislike it. But when you look past the trite concept, the filler interludes and ballad material, the saccharine bombast and ridiculous length (and it is possible to look past all of that, sort of) there's some of Dream Theater's most exciting material in a long time waiting. Of course, all but the band's biggest fans won't have the patience to get to the good stuff. Maybe in a few years they can release a "Greatest Hits from The Astonishing" EP and call it a day?

Proves Dream Theater is still relevant. - 85%

Empyreal, June 24th, 2016
Written based on this version: 2016, 2CD, Roadrunner Records (Digipak)

The Astonishing has been getting mixed reviews since it came out, which doesn't surprise me – it's perhaps the most audacious and ambitious work Dream Theater has ever put out. But then, the band has never been one to rest on its laurels. Even in the later 2000s when their sound appeared to be smoothing out into a more formulaic waters with albums like Black Clouds and Silver Linings, they always found ways to make each album stand out and never repeated themselves, blending pop, rock and prog influences with hard-hitting metal to create an idiosyncratic sound. This one, an over-two-hour musical opera concept album, was never going to be one to please every listener. I think it's a pretty brilliant work though.

This is just a tremendous, ambitious work. The production is beautifully full and the instrumentation is, as expected, spot-on – but somewhat more agile and ready than what I remember of their other recent works, making them sound about a decade younger than they are. Dream Theater haven't sounded this inspired in years, frankly – even singer James LaBrie turns in an impassioned performance, with his nasal whine in about the best form it can be these days. I think he really delivers here. He does voice every character in the story the album tells, but frankly, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Having a death metal growler, a female operatic singer and who knows who else would've just cluttered the album up. LaBrie's voice being front and center lends a familiarity to the proceedings that I feel it needed, rather than having this turn into some sort of Ayreon-style thing.

Rather than focus on individual hard-hitting, catchy songs, the album flows seamlessly from one piece to the next – from rhythmic prog guitar crunching to poignant piano balladry and everything in-between. There is really no halfway with the songwriting here – it's an unapologetic, full-on musical journey, played out for the two-hour runtime with no breaks. It isn't for people with short attention spans, which I think will probably be the album's doing-in in the end – most people just won't listen to it, even if only because they don't have the time to do so. Two hours is a pretty long time.

But for those who do have the time, there's quite a bit of good stuff to be found here, from the Rush-imitative burst of energy “The Gift Of Music,” the stirring “A Better Life” and the album's most progressive moments in the theatrical “Brother, Can You Hear Me?” and its companion, the hugely emotive “A Life Left Behind.” Instrumental "Dystopian Overture" comes to life with vivid, colorful instrumentation - a great song. The second disc is a bit more thrifty in its time spent, with the frenetic, busy prog of “Moment Of Betrayal,” the atmospheric “Heaven's Cove” with its slow build and the garroting “The Walking Shadow,” which is one of the heavier, more metallic moments in an album that, frankly, isn't really much of a metal album beyond a few isolated parts.

I think the effort and passion in this album is huge and comes through fully – this is not a sterile intellectual exercise, but a vibrant and full storytelling experience the same way a movie or a play would be. It's unfortunate that the story and lyrics are so silly (Lord Nafaryus is the name of the villain – really?), but the music makes up for that by being completely serious and articulately detailed – this whole thing is, sonically, a pleasure to hear. The band obviously put their whole selves into this work, and I think it shows and is better for it.

Perhaps there's a bit too much slow, Lifetime Movie-esque balladry going on, to the point where some of the vocal lines and melodic cues start to sound alike after a while – especially near the end of Disc 1. But a lot of the ballads are extremely well written and earnestly performed, avoiding kitsch and instead coming off as heartfelt. It might be sappy, but it's a genuine sappiness, and doesn't come off as pandering or fake.

The Astonishing probably didn't need to be as long as it is to work – it would certainly be easier to take in with a shorter runtime. But it works well as it is, too. This is, surprisingly, one of the more palatable and easy to listen to Dream Theater albums – certainly compared to the sometimes directionless meandering of Train of Thought or Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, this comes off as more focused, and the shorter song lengths work in the band's favor.

I might not be in the mood for this all the time, but it's a very impressive work from a veteran band. It's a hugely ambitious album and for those who want something that goes a step beyond what you'd normally expect, it's a good choice and worth hearing. Dream Theater is still relevant as a prog band. This album proves they've got life left in their engines yet.

The Band Keels Over on Broadway - 2%

Woolie_Wool, June 16th, 2016

Anyone who knows me for long will know of my enduring and absolute adoration for Dream Theater’s first three albums and their grandiose, brilliant, massively overblown yet infectiously catchy blend of classic ‘80s power metal and classic ‘70s prog rock. Those three will probably be desert island albums for me as long as I live. James LaBrie’s fiery power metal belting and Kevin Moore’s shimmering synth work will be burned into my brain for eternity. However, this is not one of those albums. Today, I have come not to praise Dream Theater, but to bury them.

The Astonishing is neither progressive rock nor power metal, nor even the tedious Wacken festival metal that replaced the USPM in their sound in later years. This is sappy, treacly, sticky AOR like you might find in a waiting room (but the bands on your local waiting room’s soft-rock station do it much better than this), with the majority of the running time devoted to piano ballads. And boy, do these ballads suck. Jordan Rudess is a Juilliard-trained pianist, but it doesn’t show here—his piano lines are sub-Elton-John schmaltz, plonking in the left hand, tinkling in the right, playing memorable melodies with neither. Piano dentistry (to repurpose a phrase from critic George Starostin) is what this is—mechanical, repetitive tedium occasionally interrupted with moments of nearly unbearable agony. His garish “orchestrations” are no better, all soppy film soundtrack strings and fruity neo-Baroque hornpipe fanfares. I pity Mike Mangini; it must suck replacing notorious martinet Mike Portnoy and not only getting nowhere near the respect and authority Portnoy commanded, but being left out of songwriting sessions and not even allowed to play on half the album because of the relentless onslaught of balladry. When he does play, it’s nothing special. He projects no personality or individual style whatsoever, obediently keeping time.

I mean, it’s not like it’s impossible to write decent AOR-based prog rock either. Dream Theater themselves did it on the first side of Images and Words, serving up two heartfelt ballads in “Another Day” and “Surrounded”. Those were passionate and energetic, and Kevin Moore’s piano work served as an endless stream of powerful melodies and rich textures. Eloy’s 1994 comeback The Tides Return Forever is nearly all prog-AOR, and is a perfectly serviceable album with great hooks, and that one did it despite having a marginal singer with a German accent thick enough to be a speech impediment. The Astonishing, for all its Broadway melodrama and “emotional” songwriting, is soulless. For an album that pretends to be a parable of the centrality of human beings and human feelings to art, the actual music sounds like a product of one of the “NOMAC” robots depicted in the story—a computer calculating the optimal way to tug the heartstrings of credulous hew-mons.

Oh yeah, the concept. This pulsating, cancerous mass of bad ideas has displaced the actual music as the core of this album, being heavily featured in the awful, awful, no good, very bad promotional material that preceded the album’s release, with maps and character bios and other ancillary bullshit you’d expect from a Japanese anime-themed RPG. At least the lyrics on their early albums, while being completely meaningless, at least sounded vaguely cool, projecting weird fantasy imagery with deliberately obscure language and letting the listener’s imagination fill in the details. If Dream Theater wrote “The Killing Hand” from their first album today, there would be a 30-page short story about the history of the titular Killing Hand and the country that he rules, some Killing Hand merch, Killing Hand desktop wallpapers, and maybe an animated narrative music video produced by a Malaysian sweatshop, and no one, no one, with an ounce of self-respect would ever consume any of it.

And as well as being soulless, dishonest, treacly, goopy, and infested with terrible ballads, this album is long. There are around thirty tracks (not including the occasional burst of Skrillex-like ambient noise/dubstep that comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly), all of mostly similar lengths and generally homogenous composition. The total running time comes out to over two hours and ten minutes, and believe me, it will be the longest 130 minutes of your life. Structureless balladic non-songs come and go, spewing trite chord progressions and the occasional plodding, chugging downtuned guitar riff that relates to nothing and resolves to nothing. Overture-like things cycle through numerous unrelated themes with no logical transitions or any sense that these abominations were even composed rather than being hastily stitched together from rejected opening themes from previous songs and albums. It is mostly futile to try to distinguish many of them; especially on a particularly dire stretch in the middle of the first disc, the ballads run into each other and you start to feel like you’re drowning in an endless sea of melted sugar.

On the occasions where the band does wake up and start actually playing together, the “heavy” riffs are almost impossibly enervated, wallowing like a teenaged boy refusing to get up and go to school. Solos are rare, perfunctory, and largely unimpressive both technically and musically. People like to complain about intrusive “wankery” in Dream Theater’s music, but a long, winding noodly prog hoedown in this album would serve as a sorely needed relief from the melodramatic vocal and piano horseshit. Here John Petrucci grinds out some basic Guitar Center arpeggios like he’s passing a rock-hard, fist-sized morphine shit and Jordan Rudess listlessly responds with a squealy fourth-year-student synth lead platitude (how does he manage to stay awake?) and then the band collapses in defeat. And normally at some point in a Dream Theater album John Myung plays some tricky bass thing to remind the audience that he exists, but not here. He might as well have not shown up to the studio sessions—no one would ever know the difference.

So with the band essentially comatose, a massive burden falls on James LaBrie and his singing voice to do something, anything, to move the album along. But it’s not 1993 again and his worn old pipes aren’t getting any younger, and it would be a Sisyphean task to save this dross anyway, so mostly he follows the path of least resistance and falls back on soft-rock clichés—the breathiness, always his biggest vice as a singer, is absolutely out of control here and his tone sometimes threatens to dissolve altogether into a hoarse whisper. Occasionally he attempts to affect a different tone to portray some of the story’s different characters, particularly the ludicrous, cackling antagonist “Lord Nafaryus” (I’m not kidding), where he goes for a Harry Conklin-like sneer but mostly sounds like a cat coughing up a hairball.

Few of the tracks on this album rise to the level of being worthy of the title “song”, but the few that do wouldn’t have made it past the demo stage on the Octavarium or Systematic Chaos sessions (to say nothing of the glory days of the early ‘90s, where none of this garbage would have even been conceived at all). First up is the lead single “The Gift of Music”, a tired Rush derivation that sounds like “The Trees” on Valium combined with the lyrical banality of “Presentation” and a shitty Flower Kings piano diarrhea splatter for a pre-chorus to add an additional shot of empty sentimentality. One thing it doesn’t sound like is Dream Theater, but neither does much else on this album. John Petrucci’s solo here is well above average for the album, which means it’s about 10% as good as what is normally expected of him.

“Act of Faythe” earns attention for sheer comedy value—like the sort of thing that might have played on The Simpsons when Homer undergoes some dreadful circumstance that imparts an Important Life Lesson that is milked for all the faux pathos it’s worth. It rides on the back of a pitiful maudlin minor-key string nothing and empty piano tinkling, eventually joined by vacuous backing guitar chords and a stock backbeat. James LaBrie gives the hands-down worst singing performance of his entire career, squeaking into the mic in a frightening teenage girl impression, outrushing breath overwhelming his feeble vocalizations. When I heard this I crumpled in my chair from laughing, it is so transparent, so cack-handed, so utterly incompetent at evoking an emotional reaction from the audience.

The album’s only lengthy song, “A New Beginning” is the only composition on this album that sounds like a Dream Theater song. It too is saddled with gross Baroque vulgarities, risible character impressions from LaBrie, and occasional interjections of piano dentistry, but it has a modicum of energy, actual bona fide metal riffs, and a few Yes-like prog rock melodies that manage to be mildly catchy. The bridge gets up off its ass and hauls, with frantic Hammond organ dueling with raging shred guitar leading up to a cathartic unison and an atmospheric bass-led groove section (so John Myung is alive after all!) that manages to have a real sense of swing (and is the one moment where Mangini proves to be better at something than Mike Portnoy—Portnoy would have ejaculated fills and clever little drumming devices all over this section and ruined the flow, whereas Mangini just keeps the groove rolling). If the entire album were composed like this, I’d give it a 60% rating and say it’s a bland retread of past Dream Theater glories—but it’s still an actual signature Dream Theater song, and in this company it’s a drink of clear, pure, cold water in the middle of a desert. It also saves this album—barely—from a zero rating.

Our final genuine song of the album is “Losing Faythe”, which returns to comedy territory (the character and unintentional bathos seem to go hand in hand). So our hero’s girlfriend got unceremoniously killed off in the previous track (the unspeakably obscene “My Last Farewell”—I think the title alone should be sufficient to dissuade non-masochists from exploring further). This song is a horrific rehash of the lighter-waving religious anthem “The Spirit Carries On” off 1999’s Scenes from a Memory, a song which already danced on the razor’s edge between touching balladry and self-parody, but this version falls clear over the edge into the darkest pits of humiliating silliness. It begins with some blatantly fake weeping (think the end of Anthrax’s viciously satirical “N.F.B. (Dallabnikufesin)”, but this takes itself entirely seriously!), and sounds like something some sensitive-guy ‘90s Christian rock band would play in a coffee shop: “inspirational” garbage lyrics about the villain’s miraculous redemption with fucking atrocious puns (puns!) on the deceased Faythe’s name, delivered in a counterfeit Chris Cornell howl, oozing with slimy sentimentality, backed by the regimented plonk of Rudess’ dentistry and mindless atonal bloops from Petrucci’s guitar. The solo is dogshit, a cheap, slow-moving melody any beginner could come up with that lasts for all of ten seconds or so before its merciful euthanasia.

I suppose that’s supposed to serve as the climax of this shit sandwich of an album, much like it’s vastly superior forebear served as the high water mark for Scenes from a Memory, but “Losing Faythe” is such a consummate failure that it fails to provide any sort of resolution, either story-wise (apparently Nafaryus—*stifled giggles*—is instantly forgiven after he accepts Our Lord Jesus and his heart grows three sizes and never has to accept responsibility for anything?) or musically—the closing few tracks are a confused mess of jumbled themes regurgitated from earlier in the album that go nowhere and accomplish nothing. The album grinds to a halt and dies, its shambling hulk smashing itself to bits as it clatters to the floor.

The same, one hopes, will happen to Dream Theater’s career, to spare the boys from Long Island the indignity of having to continue on with this smoking, gaping hole blasted in their legacy. Not that I’m holding my breath—this self-indulgent, tragicomic farce seems to be doing quite well with critics despite its musical and artistic worthlessness and total lack of any connection to what made this band a vital and creative force many years ago. This hurts me. It hurts to listen to this album it hurts to write about this album, it hurts to finally be forced to accept that a once-unstoppable prog metal juggernaut, a band I once called my favorite, is finally, irrevocably dead as a creative force. This album gets 2% for “A New Beginning”, otherwise it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If you like Dream Theater, if you like progressive music, if you like music in general that has heart and integrity and human feelings put into it, stay the hell away. Dream Theater is dead.

Killer Tracks: “A New Beginning” is listenable, I guess.

Great live experience but boring studio effort - 60%

kluseba, May 4th, 2016
Written based on this version: 2016, 2CD, Roadrunner Records (Digipak)

''The Astonishing'' is Dream Theater's most ambitious record ever but turns out to be the quintet's most disappointing release. Fan reactions are quite divergent over this controversial output. When I assisted one of the concerts where the band only played this album in its entirety, I saw some fans disguised as characters from this conceptual record who were quietly enjoying the show as if they were assisting an opera or theater play while others left in the middle of the show or shouted comments like ''You can do better than that!'', ''Play Pull Me Under!'' and ''Trial of Tears, please!''. While the concert was much more interesting than the studio record due to its better instrumental sound, colorful animations and vivid light show, the truth about this album lies in between both the negative and the positive points of view in my book.

Let's start with the negatives first. ''The Astonishing'' is artificially stretched to a length of far over two hours including thirty-four songs and offers quantity over quality. The same story could have been told in a much more consistent way in only one hour if the band had cut in its endless instrumental passages, multiple overtures and numerous codas and especially in the short instrumentals that try to portray what electronic music could sound like in a dystopian world in a biased, cringe-worthy and repetitive way. Even as a fan of progressive music and more complex records, this album is at times hard to sit through. The production of the album is another issue. While all the instrumentals were perfectly audible in concert, the studio album is overtly dominated by keyboard sounds and vocals. The guitar play sound generic and weak at times and the rhythm section has no shining moments throughout the entire record. Both drums and bass sounds are underused on this album which is probably due to the fact that these musicians weren't involved at all in the song writing which was a bad decision. If you expect a progressive band to develop diversified songs where different musicians have their shining moments, you got it all wrong here. Consistency is the key word here to provide a guiding line but over the course of far over two hours of music, this lack of diversity leads to unspectacular boredom. The most significant problem is the fact that half of the album consists of exchangeable ballads dominated by fluffy keyboard sounds and fragile vocals where the singer is mostly breathing his soul out instead of actually hitting notes. Most of this album is neither progressive nor metal music. If the ballads were sung by a woman instead of a man, they wouldn't be a far call from Adele to give you a precise idea but as much as I respect James LaBrie, his vocal skills aren't unique enough to carry this album alone. This leads us to another bad decision made by the song writers in the band. The story revolves around eight main characters including women and a child and a few side characters and they are all portrayed by one singer. James LaBrie is a diversified performer but he doesn't manage to offer eight distinctive styles to distinguish the different characters. Without the booklet, it's impossible to hear which character is speaking or singing in the story which is very confusing. The band should have chosen different guest singers, at least for the female and child characters. When asked why he didn't try out something like Avantasia with its numerous guests, main song writer John Petrucci said he didn't even know what Avantasia was. This is a classic example of a so-called progressive rock musician who is rather regressive and only knows the usual classics but nothing about inspiring contemporary projects. Even if we compare this album to the classics, it can't mess with conceptual records by King Crimson, Rush, Yes and the likes even if some band members and critics seem to think otherwise.

There are also a few positives concerning this record. First of all, the concept and story are an intriguing modern fairy tale that may be predictable at some points yet enjoyably entertaining. The cover artwork and the booklet only add to the intriguing story and it's always obvious that the song writers put a great deal of passion, intellect and creativity inside this project. This album is definitely Jordan Rudess' personal masterpiece. His work was never as diversified, dominating and inspiring as on this album. If you enjoy keyboards and pianos or are playing these instruments, you should definitely own this album. While the electric guitar play is surprisingly lackluster, the record includes many harmonious acoustic guitar parts which is rather unusual but very interesting for the band. Even though James LaBrie isn't able to use eight different vocal styles, his work on this record is still excellent, emotional and motivated. It may be one of his greatest career performances as well. The song where his diversified vocal abilities work best is the enchanting ''Ravenskill''. While the album includes too many exchangeable slow-paced ballads, there are also a few tracks that try to break new ground. ''Three Days'' is one of the most vivid tracks of the record and includes a joyful swing passage that could play in a saloon. ''The X Aspect'' is the first Dream Theater track to include bagpipes and they blend in very well and add some epic melancholy to the story. The dramatic and diversified ''The Path That Divides'' includes some sword-fighting samples that lead to a truly cinematic experience reminding me of the Game of Thrones series and the likes. Aside from these new experiments, Dream Theater also offers some convincing classic tracks. The dynamic ''Dystopian Overture'' is probably the band's most ambitious and entertaining instrumental since ''The Dance of Eternity'' seventeen years earlier. ''The Gift of Music'' has somewhat cheesy lyrics but is the record's catchiest track and offers some memorable melodies. The closing title song ''Astonishing'' offers an epic conclusion with flutes and trumpets that ends an average album on a reconciliatory note reminding me of the two last scenes from the band's previous conceptual output Metropolis Part Two: Scenes from a Memory. Let's also mention that after a strong start and an overlong, disappointing middle section, the rising action and resolution of the story are rather good. Overall, the second act is more fluid and pardons somewhat for an exhausting first act.

In the end, the good and negative elements are rather balanced on this album but if compared to Dream Theater's stunning discography, this album is definitely the group's most disappointing record and suffers from its own ambitions. Instead of buying this album, I would really recommend you to catch the band on one of its concerts supporting this release. The visual elements complement the music extremely well and this fusion offers a high-quality experience for your ears and eyes if you are open to assist a more intellectually driven concert instead of a metal show. If you can't catch the band on one of its current live shows, cross your fingers and hope for an already highly recommendable live release of this experience. Finally, I hope that the band's next record will be much heavier and more modern again since ''The Astonishing'' includes enough ballads and retro sounds for the next three releases together and I'm not even exaggerating here.

What it's like to be Astonished? - 95%

mr93dante, February 4th, 2016
Written based on this version: 2016, 2CD, Roadrunner Records (Digipak)

Dream Theater - a band who blazed the trails for numerous bands of progressive metal genre strikes back with its new record. With the double-cd and two hour-long rock-opera, Dream Theater introduces us to its vision of a world in which music is created by machines.

First things first, The Astonishing is a concept album, with a certain story line and characters. With the official booklet provided with the CDs, the listener may enter this world and understand the story better. "The Astonishing" tells a story of futuristic world in which a human has no right or possibility to create his own music. It is a story of a war between The Great Northern Empire of the Americas and The Ravenskill Rebellion where "Music is playing the central role" (according to John Petrucci).

My first impression is that Dream Theater presented something very different from their previous recordings. It is because the whole album was recorded with an orchestra conducted by David Campbell. Of course, we heard it on the previous album but not in such extent. The amount of orchestral elements is impressive while there we can hear classic and also boys or gospel choirs, which gives an additional climax to this music.

As far as composition is concerned, John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess are the main heroes of this story. It is clearly audible that guitars and keyboards have the central role in here connected with Myung and Mangini supporting it in a rhythmical section. What one may find as a disadvantage of the album - you cannot expect any solo performances of John Myung or Mike Mangini, they seem to remain in a shadow of the rest. The songs themselves were composed with many interesting new ideas, which we did not hear before in DT. I mentioned gospel choirs but we can hear many memory remaining melodies and passages. Above the whole album concept, we may see that some musical themes tend to repeat which is understandable. One may perceive the whole album as a kind of official movie soundtrack due to its element of an epic.

I will give a separate paragraph for a vocal section, which concerns the performance of James LaBrie. He was a subject to discussions whether he is a good vocalist or not, but I think that in the album he have proved that he still is a strong player in the game. Having to face a quite hard task to be the voices of eight different characters required him to arrange different vocal techniques. Just listen to him in "Lord Nafaryus" or his maniacal laughter in "Three Days". The way in which he managed to perform the vocals is quite impressive.

If I had to say which songs on the album are my favorites, the answer is that I cannot just say which song is better than others are. Such judgments would be harmful statements to the album. We need to treat it as a whole. Nevertheless, if I was forced to say so I only have the impression that the first Act of the album is slightly better (with the stress on SLIGHTLY). Act 2 has also numerous and memorable moments which has driven me to tears (just listen to "Begin Again" and you will know what I mean). It is finished with a monumental "Astonishing" which somehow summarizes the album.

Nevertheless, If I was to recommend some songs to some DT newbies, I would suggest to check out "Dystopian Overture" ; "Moment of Betrayal" ; "My Last Farewell" ; "Our New World" ; "Astonishing" ; "Lord Nafaryus" ; "Three Days" or "A New Beginning". Still, you will not get the impression that you can get while listening to a whole album.

In conclusion, I think that DT did a great job and the album is certainly worth your money. It is nicely composed and performed. I am also impressed by the artwork, which you can see in the official release (provided with an original textbook, world map and portraits of the characters). I have only one word to say about the album: I am Astonished.

No one's got the time for Dream Theater anymore. - 70%

Insin, February 4th, 2016

Dream Theater’s most ambitious and conceptual albums have tended to be my favorites from them – Metropolis Part 2, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, and Octavarium. It’s been a while since they have attempted a project of such a caliber as The Astonishing; their last two if not four albums essentially have seen the band going on autopilot, producing some of their most uninspired, standard, paint-by-the-numbers “progressive,” material. The Astonishing dethrones all of the newer-era and even the bold mid-era works in terms of its elaborate concept and massive 130 minute runtime, but unfortunately it does not nearly dethrone them in terms of quality. The songwriting unoriginal and unintriguing, and the concept poorly executed and cliché, while not entirely bad, it nevertheless falls woefully short.

Musically speaking, this is far different than most Dream Theater releases, something made obvious by the sheer amount of songs and their short runtimes, each individually averaging below four minutes. (!?) The instrumental wankery that has until now been a staple of Dream Theater has been massively cut down upon, which could definitely be interpreted as a good thing (it would seem that they finally figured out that they have nothing left to prove). At least if interesting songwriting has been compromised for storytelling, we don’t have to hear Petrucci or Rudess play a thousand notes in one second, as they are wont to do on most DT recordings. Myung is again inaudible and the drums aren’t particularly interesting, blending into the background and not doing any more than they need to.

There are very few moments from The Astonishing that could be called metal; most of it is cheesy balladry with a few prog rock songs thrown into the mix, plenty tending to lie somewhere in between two categories. The prog rock songs aren’t bad but don’t really do anything new for DT, though the more typical rock/metal-leaning songs still end up sticking out more. A New Beginning is the most reminiscent of a typical Dream Theater epic, and the quiet part at five minutes in is truly the only little musical fluctuation that pops out during the entire album. Brother Can You Hear Me is not typical DT, instead an immense, grand anthem or a chant, and it sounds like something that warriors in the middle ages would sing to prepare themselves for battle. Its reprise in the final/title track gave me the chills the first time through and it was a powerful conclusion to the album even though I found the characters and plot to be lacking.

The NOMAC (noise machine) tracks, each short interlude placed throughout the album, really aren’t necessary, would perhaps be nice if they were used to break up longer songs, if those existed on The Astonishing. Fortunately these seem to take the place of unnecessary samples, of which there are few. Dream Theater also took the liberty of adding in the symphonic and choral elements that have been on their albums as of late. There are yet more additions: a horn section, and bagpipes. Yes, bagpipes. On the X Aspect. On a more positive note, I like the horns a lot; normally they hang in the background, but on Three Days they take the forefront briefly and gloriously unexpectedly.

If you haven’t been acquainted with the background information of The Astonishing, such as its characters and the premise behind it, before listening I would recommend you do so. This is an album that demands the listener’s full attention, and it is easy to miss something in the plot or not realize which character is singing if one happens to lose concentration for even a short time. LaBrie supposedly tries to sing in a different voice for each character, a feature that I am not really catching on to. It might be easier to understand who is narrating if he had taken an Ayreon-style approach and brought in a different singer for each character. People also say that his voice has improved since last album, but I don’t hear this either – he sounds the same as ever, below average but still listenable.

The plot itself is generic. No two ways about it. Borrowing heavily from Rush’s 2112 about the freedom of music, the rest of its concept is your typical young adult dystopian sci-fi, with perhaps a hint of fantasy. The idea of a future oppressive government has been used time and time again throughout sci-fi’s history, from Orwell’s classic 1984 to the The Hunger Games. On top of that we have “the chosen one” and straight people who enjoy the cliché of (forbidden) love at first sight. If you’re not sold on how bad this is, read the plot description from When Your Time Has Come from the official Dream Theater website:

“Like a lightning bolt from the heavens and without hesitation, they immediately know that they are meant to be together and that this encounter was no accident.”

If this isn’t the cheesiest thing you’ve ever read then I don’t know what to tell you, but thankfully these aren’t actual lyrics. Like many concept albums, The Astonishing runs the risk of being incredibly tacky, which it does indeed, and this is merely one of its offenses. The worst part of the plot besides the love story has to be how the conflict is resolved. I’m not going to ruin it for you but it involves the power of music so just use your imagination for this one.

The Astonishing isn’t doing anything new from a compositional standpoint, and the actual narrative and concept are weak and unoriginal as well. But because it’s so different from anything else that Dream Theater has done, it is difficult to assign it a numerical value. The band has tried really hard to make themselves inaccessible, not in terms of sound, but with sheer album length and their intense focus on a storyline. Ultimately it comes down to one’s personal feelings about many short songs, concept albums, and a whole lot of ballads. The Astonishing has some solid tracks on it, but in general the writing is boring and does not do anything interesting, though the lyrics at least keep things mildly entertaining. If no one’s got the time for music anymore, then they sure don’t have time for this two-hour overblown concept album.

Could have been much better - 70%

Human666, February 3rd, 2016

I feel sorry for Dream Theater. In my opinion this album could be a huge comeback for them after a series of unfocused and uninspired albums. I highly doubt if they could create a concept album as monumental as 'Scenes From A Memory', but this album could be a solid concept album from start to end if some changes were made.

So what this album is all about? 'The Astonishing' follows a storyline describing futuristic dystopia located in the United States, where apparently no form of entertainment is allowed. Without spoiling too much of the plot, the story mainly revolves around a hero named 'Gabriel' which possesses a unique ability to sing and create music in a region ruled by an oppressive emperor named 'Nafaryus' who sees 'Gabriel' as threat for his regime. There are approximately eight different characters in this story, and while it could be interesting to follow such a story, something was very problematic with the implementation of this concept.

First of all, eight characters are way too much for a sole vocalist to handle. If you don't read the lyrics strictly while listening to the song, it can be a confusing task to distinguish between the different characters, mainly because most of the lyrics are written in a form of first person and also because 'Labrie' just can't change his timbre enough to sound like a separate character. If there were more vocalists in this album, females and males, each for their character, this album could sound much more authentic and you could really feel the emotions and personalities of each character. Don't get me wrong, 'Labrie' did an amazing job in this album, his voice sounds crystal clear and powerful at times, shifting between registers at ease, but it still doesn't enough to carry eight different personalities for 130 minutes.

Secondly, this album is way too long and there are too many tracks which has no interesting musical ideas at all and just fill the void for the continuity of the plot. There are moments in this album where I really got the feeling that the music serves as a background for the story, and not vice versa as would expected from a music album! Honestly, I am sure that 'Dream Theater' went way too far in this aspect, there's just no excuse to drag such an album for that period of time. The storyline is quite simple and could be delivered in half of the exaggerated length of this album and nothing justifies recording such a long album, except for the sake of doing it!

So you probably ask, what is still good about this album? Actually, quite a bit. While not as inspiring as before, 'Petrucci' composed some really sophisticated and mesmerizing guitar solos and there are some catchy guitar riffs here and there. 'Labrie', while has his limits with varying his vocal timbre enough, still carries out some beautiful melodies. There are probably more ballads in this album than aggressive tracks, which sometimes makes the songs sounds quite alike, and after multiple listenings you'll probably chose to skip some of the songs.

I must add that there were some surprising moments in this album. For example the track 'Three Days'. It has a really dynamic structure and ends with something that sounds like a Broadway's segment combined with short black metal blast beats, quite surprising to say the least. 'Dystopian Overture' is also a nice instrumental piece with some catchy sections and a lot of variation. Overall, throughout the album there are some themes that repeat themselves and gives this album a decent sense of continuity and that it is a concept album.

To sum up, 'The Astonishing' had the potential to be a much better album than how it came out eventually. If it was shorter in probably fifty percent, it could be a much more focused album with less fillers and was overall a more enjoyable experience. Also, multiple vocalists could enhance the expirence and really make the different characters in the story more 'alive', so to speak. If you never found anything interesting in their classic albums ('Scenes From A Memory', 'Images & Words, 'Awake', etc.), this album probably won't change anything for you. However, if you have some appreciation for this band, definitely check this one out. But, consider that this album requires quite a bit of attention and time, which make it tiresome at points and can't be listened offhandedly.

I mainly feel disappointed after hearing this album, simply because I know it could really be astonishing if it was a little less ambitious.

I stopped giving a shit years ago - 50%

Writhingchaos, February 2nd, 2016

I’ll be frank here; I honestly had very little hopes for this album. Their last self-titled album was the biggest meh in a series of predictable and boring releases for over a decade now. Okay maybe in some ways, Black Clouds And Silver Linings can be considered an exception as it did away with some of the flab that made their past releases so sleep-inducing by bringing a bit of their Images & Words/Awake songwriting to the forefront, but still. The fact that it was going to be 2 discs worth of material was enough to get alarm bells ringing. Seriously this is a message to all prog bands out there; unless you have astute and amazing songwriting skills, double albums are very rarely a good idea. I mean c’mon since the turn of the century DT has been known for stretching their songs out way past their time using it as an excuse for being superficially progressive, and this is just pushing it to the extreme.

At the very least, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see that no song exceeded the 10 minute mark with the longest song being seven and a half minutes! Wow okay then, maybe there’s some hope after all, I thought. These guys finally kept the “Need at least three songs longer than 10 minutes in our albums” fetish (A Dramatic Turn Of Events was the worst offender in this department) in their pants this time. Well they did the same with their last album but cocked it up with shitty songwriting and finishing the album with a freaking 22 minute long borefest of the highest order. I have yet to meet a single fan or person face-to-face who actually thinks “Illumination Theory” was a good song on that album. Seriously guys like let that shit go already, you’re just not good at it anymore. Kindly accept that fact and move on.

But one the other hand, seeing so many interlude tracks and instrumentals barely exceeding the two minute mark, my guard immediately went up. Would this be the same problem that plagued records like “Testimony Of The Ancients” and “Nightfall In Middle Earth” having awesome songs being ruined by heaps of instrumental and narrative filler adding nothing to the music whatsoever and only serving to prolong the length of the album? Either which way, the prospects didn’t look too good. But anyways, back to the album.

I heard both the singles (“Moment Of Betrayal” and “The Gift Of Music”) that had been released a month before the album release, and I was (initially) quite underwhelmed. Neither song really did anything for me in the least except for a few sections here and there. Although “The Gift Of Music” (if I could just change the title and lyrics) did grow a bit on me after a few listens and the chorus of “Moment Of Betrayal” is actually catchy plus both songs actually did put a considerable emphasis on song structure rather than the instrumental sections. Now that I come to think of it, after listening to the entire album, those two singles are probably the better songs off the album.

Oh and the lyrics are just vomit inducing. I mean okay, they never head great lyrics, but here coupled with Labrie’s annoying whining is just grating in every sense of the word and had me cringing every time. Pass me the barf bag already. Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence too suffered from the same problem. I mean just take a look at this stanza from “The Gift Of Music”. Like the song title itself wasn’t cheesy enough.

People just don't have the time for music any more.
And no one seems to care
My friends have seen the chosen one
A quest for freedom has begun

Oh and believe me, it gets worse:

There walks a god among us
Who's seen the writing on the wall.
He is the revolution
He'll be the one to save us all.

Yeah no shit sonny boy. How about you become a freaking messiah and take up teaching the masses now? Wake up people and prepare yourselves for the new world order blah blah blah. Blearrgh! I mean sweet Jesus (irony!!), are you guys even for real? I’m sure even 12 year olds could come up with better lyrics than that in their sleep now. Yeah I think that pretty much sums it up. The keyboard work in the song is nice though, along with the guitar in certain parts. Yeah I know I sound like an elitist prick, trashing lyrics that don’t even matter in the grand scheme of things, but seriously you simply cannot call yourselves one of the longest running bands in prog and still write lyrics of this calibre. Keep in mind that the very fact that I used that word in the case of this sorry excuse for lyrics denotes that I’m actually being generous for a change. Suck on that one fanboys.

So on the whole, how does this album fare? Well sleep-inducingly okay, if I had to summarize it. I seriously wish I could just leave it at that and go on with my life, but then again, a review is a review. For starters, yes it is an improvement over the last two albums in case you were wondering. Yeah they caught the annoying “Let’s put random interludes in between the songs to stretch it out to a double album” bug, but at least the songwriting is stronger this time around, which does provide some relief that there may be actual hope for their next album after all.

Some of the songs like “The Gift Of Music” (ignore the lyrics though), “A Better Life” (the most metal song on the album) “A Savoir In The Square”, “Moment Of Betrayal”, “The Path That Divides” and "Our New World" do break out of the traditional DT shell, surprisingly offering quite a few ear perking moments and interesting ideas not to mention the band actually sounds cohesive and tight, but I was gazing at the clock most of the time, surprised that not even an hour had passed by. Yawn. I mean my pillow was already beckoning me even before the first disc was over, so make of that what you will. Some of the interludes and other songs with rampant piano playing sounded more like elevator music with vocals rather than anything associated with progressive metal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but then again that’s all that it is - inoffensively bland. Most of the songs sound way too samey and homogeneous to actually be able to pick out standouts tracks from all the mush. Okay maybe that was a tad harsh, but you get the drift. John Petrucci is in his same old solo whipping frenzy mode as ever before, and thankfully there aren’t too many times where he goes overboard. Great solo in “A New Beginning” by the way. Too bad the song is boring. Disc 2 kicks up the symphonic factor and crazy piano runs, but again fails to make much of an impression. The intro of “Hymn Of A Thousand Voices” sounds more like something I would hear in a country song. The violin so does not work guys, so please knock that shit off already.

All in all, Dream Theater do improve on some of their flaws (actual songs, no excessive wankery, having an actual flow to the album etc) but cock it up yet again by having just too much music on display. A good piece of advice to the band for all future endeavors: Too much music is still too music at the end of the day guys, no matter how hard you might try. There’s very little variance or ideas to keep you interested in the album all through, no matter how much of a patient listener you may claim to be. The title “The Astonishing” is a complete fucking misnomer just in case you were wondering; there is nothing even remotely astonishing about this album, except for the fact that they actually though having a 2 hour long album was a good idea. Now come to think of it, “The Astonishing Thought” would’ve been a much more appropriate title for the album methinks. Goddamn how many times have I said that word already now?

If symphonic prog of the highest order stretched out to a meandering two hours plus is your perfect cup of tea, you’ll probably cream your pants over this. However prog or not, if you like actually remembering the music you listen to, I would advise you to distance yourself from this album and go back to spinning Black Clouds & Silver Linings for the nth time if you haven’t already. For the curious, just listen to the songs I listed. I know I did, so maybe that’s saying something.

Anyways if you a fan of the band, go right ahead and listen to the album. Hell in all probability, you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more than I did. It is better than the last two after all. Then again, I fucking loathed their most technical and acclaimed (read overrated and overlong) album Scenes From A Memory (more like Scenes From A Wankery), accusing it of having all of the worst excesses of prog music, so what do I know?