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Another year, another ballad. - 63%

Pfuntner, November 15th, 2009

So it’s the year 2009 and like the well-oiled machine that they are, Dream Theater have rolled out another hour plus prog metal extravaganza in the shape of an album. And typically, they brought along the obligatory radio friendly ballad track. I’ve noticed that ever since Octavarium, fans have railed against Dream Theater for apparently selling out by writing softer ballad tunes. This has always struck me as a fairly naïve point of view. Dream Theater has always had songs like “Wither”. In the early 90’s they had “Another Day”, a song that attempted to ride the coat tails of the smooth jazz scene. On literally every album since (except Train of Thought, but honestly that one doesn’t really count) they’ve had at least one song tailor made for whatever they think the pop music climate looks like. But since this is a prog metal band we’re talking about here, they tend to be a bit behind the times. And thank god for that, because “Wither” would suffer greatly from autotune (which we will discuss in further detail later on).

Let’s start digging into the meat of this one, shall we? Right from the start we have James LaBrie emoting and taking over exaggerated deep breathes to show you how distressed he is. We get a moody down tuned guitar backdrop, with soft keyboard patches providing the aural pillow for you fall on in slow motion for the inevitable music video. The pre-chorus comes in, builds some tension, and then we’re hit with a huge chorus that is irresistibly catchy. Seriously, next time you’re standing on the edge of a cliff with waves crashing around you, I dare you to not sing this at the top of your lungs. After the chorus we repeat the process, this time with some extra vocal harmonies and then we’re treated to an epic rendition of “Zelda’s Lullaby” as a bridge. Maybe it’s just my inner nerd (hardly concealed to be honest, I’m reviewing a freakin’ Dream theater EP for Christ sakes) but this part is pretty cool since the vocal melodies actually carry some really power. Finally we get a soft chorus (lose the whisper vocals buddy), an arena sized John Petrucci solo and another loud chorus. All in all, it’s kind of corny but catchy, and the solo is appropriately awesome.

The piano version of “Wither” is a bit more laid back, which is good news if you’re not into being beat over the head by theatrical guitars. Plus, you get an even better listen at James LaBrie breathing his heart out! The one problem here is the bridge, which is pretty audibly corrected, and thus brings us to the demo version. While I understand the logic behind using autotune in order show the main vocalist what the melodies should sound like, it ain’t exactly pleasant to listen to. John Petrucci would probably be a decent singer if his voice weren’t smothered in digital correction. Finally we get to the only non-“Wither” track on this little EP. “The Best of Times” exemplifies the correct way to write an emotional prog rock tune without descending into gimmicks. The song is exactly the same as the album version, except with a synth violin instead of a real one, and a drummer for a singer instead of a real singer. Joking aside, Mike Portnoy is a very inconsistent vocalist. Sometimes he nails it, and other times, like here, he just sort of hits the notes without really putting forth any effort. The rest of the song is great though, from the stately intro to the more upbeat Rush-esque section, and all the way to the unbelievably good guitar solo.

Overall, this is pretty much a “diehard fan only” release. If you want to get a good glimpse of Dream Theater’s emotional/poppy side circa 2009, you’re better off actually buying Black Clouds & Silver Linings.