Dream Theater – The Astonishing (Album Review)

Review of the new Dream Theater album “The Astonishing” on Roadrunner Records.

With the abundance of new albums that are released these days, it is hard to get too enthusiastic over one release.  It is uncommon to achieve the kind of anticipation that there used to be when a new cd was due to come out and few artists are able to generate such excitement.   Within the Prog genre, Dream Theater are one of those bands, and with their upcoming new album, they have certainly set the Prog world on its collective ears.  Few bands in the Prog genre have been able to sustain the career that Dream Theater has.  In fact, over the last 10 years their popularity has continued to grow.  There have been larger tours, top 10 albums and even Grammy nominations.  Now, 6 years removed from the departure of founding member and original drummer, Mike Portnoy, Dream Theater step up to the plate with their most ambitious studio effort in their almost 30 year existence, the 2-disc rock opera, ‘The Astonishing’, due out on January 29th. The band has slowly been revealing information over the last couple of months about the story and characters helping to build the intrigue about the album. They have also announced tour dates in which they will be performing this rock opera in its entirety.  It has been slightly over two years since Dream Theater released their self-titled album, one of the more successful albums of the band’s illustrious career.  However, while indeed “astonishing,” this new project might stand to be its most polarizing to date.

Already billed as a rock opera, the expectation, from what they have been revealing, is for something along the lines of their previous concept album Scenes From A Memory (highly regarded as their pinnacle) meets Tommy, The Wall, or Operation Mindcrime. All of these are timeless, epic, concept albums which set the bar unreachably high.  Yet, Dream Theater almost pull it off. Let’s be clear; this is an incredible achievement. The scope of this album is something to behold. Very few bands could produce such an album. The production, orchestration, and musicality are all top notch, and it is epic beyond epic.  On the surface, it is everything a Dream Theater fan should treasure. However, with all its wonders, for some it might simply be too much and too long.  With 34 tracks spread out over 2 discs and over 2 hours of music, it is a lot to absorb and impossible to do in one or even a handful of listens.

John Petrucci’s story and concept is not for the faint-hearted, ADD, casual listener. The story is about a future land in which music is only done by machines as controlled by the empire; however, a small band of rebels hold onto and fight for the hope of true music.  The story is complex and there are a number of characters.  Labrie does the brunt of the work here, singing the parts of all the characters, tackling the different styles and ranges in his most accomplished recording. As mood and themes are introduced, there is a familiar atmosphere a la Six Degrees. The production is signature Dream Theater as carried out once again by Petrucci.  Sonically, Rudess seems to be most up front on this album.  There is an abundant use of pianos, strings and weird sounds.  There are the usual instrumental surgical chops the DT community expects, and the cooperative soloing efforts of Rudess and Petrucci are as assimilated to each other as ever.  The guitar solos have a great mix of virtuoso chops and melodic maturity and beauty. John Myung and Mike Mangini continue to provide the solid foundation which allows LaBrie, Petrucci, and Rudess to shine, although, missing is the overall playing creativity and interaction of drums and bass—perhaps this is necessary when delivering such a long and epic production.

This album might not be what every Dream Theater fan is used to getting from the group.  It takes several patient listens from beginning to end to come to grips with the entirety of the music. There is excellent music; however, complete songs are largely absent here.  It is not an album where it is easy to pick out 3-4 songs you can listen to repeatedly at first. The case for the 34 songs is defended by a significant amount of transitions and filler material for the purposes of theatrical continuity; however, the songs have a tendency of becoming homogenous as the music progresses the story onward.  As in any musical or Broadway play, there are repeated themes, altered by various characters and tempos throughout.  In a theater setting, this is necessary.  But listening while driving or working on a computer without total focus, the effect this is meant to achieve instead often results in, “haven’t I heard this part before?” Maybe this says more about the lack of attention span this current generation is afflicted with.  A shorter, more condensed collection could have resulted in an even better musically intense experience and historically rank higher among DT enthusiasts (see suggested playlist below).

There are moments where the band is at its Prog best and there are a number of tracks that indeed are memorable. The album’s first single and main opening track, “The Gift of Music” is replete with virtuosity and melody, and does a nice job setting the tone. One of the best tracks “A Life Left Behind” kicks off with a brilliant acoustic piece by Petrucci before jumping into a nice jazz motif seemingly lifted from a Rudess solo album.  The hook in the chorus here is the best on the album.  “Chosen” is one of the more outstanding power ballads the band has ever written and is one of those repeated melodies that appears throughout the album. It should be the audience cellphone lighting moment of the show.  “A New Beginning” is the first disc’s most metal track and the long extended guitar solo here is one of Petrucci’s best on the disc, exuding loads of bluesy improvisation.

Disc 2 kicks off with the rocking “Moment of Betrayal” which is destined to be the song most Dream Theater diehards will pick as their favorite.  Much of the rest of disc 2 is tasked with moving the story along.  There are few fully fleshed out songs, rather more parts that lead into other parts, outside of “Our New World” which is ready for radio single treatment. All this leads up to the epic closing title track which brings everything to a climactic ending.

Part of the curse of being a long time top band is the burden and pressure of living up to the expectation of their own past masterpieces. Not only have DT set the bar at its highest level with their past classics, other bands have raised their level of musicality as well.  Dream Theater’s efforts with ‘The Astonishing’ should be appreciated and admired as they continue to push themselves to try to be beyond what they have done in the past. Their desire to perform the album live in its entirety should turn out to be a worthwhile experience.  While not a perfect album and not their best work, it is a worthy addition to an already “astonishing” catalog, even though it will take some real investment of your time.

Released on January 29th, 2016 on Roadrunner Records

Key Tracks: A Life Left Behind, A New Beginning, Moment of Betrayal, Our New World

Full Tracklisting:

Act I

1. “Descent of the NOMACS” 1:11
2. “Dystopian Overture” 4:51
3. “The Gift of Music” 4:00
4. “The Answer” 1:53
5. “A Better Life” 4:39
6. “Lord Nafaryus” 3:28
7. “A Savior in the Square” 4:14
8. “When Your Time Has Come” 4:19
9. “Act of Faythe” 5:01
10. “Three Days” 3:44
11. “The Hovering Sojourn” 0:28
12. “Brother, Can You Hear Me?” 5:11
13. “A Life Left Behind” 5:49
14. “Ravenskill” 6:01
15. “Chosen” 4:32
16. “A Tempting Offer” 4:20
17. “Digital Discord” 0:48
18. “The X Aspect” 4:13
19. “A New Beginning” 7:41
20. “The Road to Revolution” 3:35

Act II

1. “2285 Entr’acte” 2:20
2. “Moment of Betrayal” 6:12
3. “Heaven’s Cove” 4:20
4. “Begin Again” 3:54
5. “The Path That Divides” 5:10
6. “Machine Chatter” 1:03
7. “The Walking Shadow” 2:58
8. “My Last Farewell” 3:44
9. “Losing Faythe” 4:13
10. “Whispers on the Wind” 1:37
11. “Hymn of a Thousand Voices” 3:39
12. “Our New World” 4:12
13. “Power Down” 1:25
14. “Astonishing” 5:51

Suggested Playlist:

1. “Dystopian Overture” 4:51
2. “The Gift of Music” 4:00
3. “A Better Life” 4:39
4. “A Savior in the Square” 4:14
5. “When Your Time Has Come” 4:19
6. “A Life Left Behind” 5:49
7. “Chosen” 4:32
8. “A New Beginning” 7:41
9. “Moment of Betrayal” 6:12
10. “Begin Again” 3:54
11. “The Path That Divides” 5:10
12. “My Last Farewell” 3:44
13. “Losing Faythe” 4:13
14. “Our New World” 4:12
15. “Astonishing” 5:51

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  • Robert

    Great review, you wrote “haven’t I heard this part before?” This is a true sign of a conceptual theme of music that are repeted over and over again to make the music deliver the story. Gonna Love it!!

    The suggested playlist is not relevant on a concept album of this propotions, it is just a mayham of picking song here and there and trashing the story. My opinion.

    • progreport

      It is unlikely for most people to be able to spend over 2 hours to listen to this every single time. The playlist just offers a suggested list of the songs we thought stood out.

    • JSH56

      It works if it’s a bad concept.

  • Seanchan

    Great and balanced review. I read elsewhere that this is their best work since Six Degrees. Should this be true, combined with the ambitious tracklist and opera style, it will be astonishing

  • Dorkmaster Flek

    I think giving a pared down suggested playlist is fine. You should listen to it all the way through at first, but I could totally see skipping some tracks on repeat listens. Even I don’t listen to Scenes all the way through in one sitting these days. 😀 Super stoked to hear it for myself!

  • Hathematics

    I am exceedingly skeptical of this album, and I hope that I’m flat wrong and love it. I despise the fact that they are discussing doing a true musical production of this, and are in talks for a novel and video game within this universe. Screams marketing ploy to me. Trying to milk the “Concept” portion of the album for everything it is worth. I love that they are pushing the envelope, but I think they were too far and shouldn’t over extend themselves like this. I really do hope that I love the album, though. I guess we will find out in about a month, after 3-4 front to back listens.

  • jkbaca41

    “The story is about a future land in which music is only done by machines
    as controlled by the empire; however, a small band of rebels hold onto
    and fight for the hope of true music.”

    The concept sounds a bit Kilroy Was Here to me.

  • zlxgxire

    Hate me all you want. Drums sound absolute crap.

    • German

      Absolutely yes, the snare for Def Leppard Hysteria, and the toms and the bass drum sound alike. Shit.

      • zlxgxire

        Three albums is enough for me. I have waited and waited and waited hoping someone would fix this in the next album. Now I’m totally done.

  • Ic3man81

    Rush (2112) meets Ayreon (The Human Equation) – long and boring.

    • Jamie Long

      Long and boring…my thoughts exactly.

  • chefkey

    Yes, the drum sound sucks. Almost like Mike was doing a bunch of flams that got quantized so they overlapped and made a fat doubling sound. Too punchy and cutting, they were distracting. Then in Jordan’s typical prose the whole album is decked out in way too much of a vaudevillian nature. I never understood his love of that old saloon style, it just comes off as corny.

    Now for the good: The album has a lot of nice orchestrated melodies that are main stream enough to appeal to a more broad audience. I am sure this was their goal and they have achieved that much. The album is listenable and I would be curious to see a movie of this. I think the whole album might benefit from including some other great musicians in the cast of a film.

    Don’t get me wrong though, the last two albums before this were better and they deserved grammys for both. Will this album garner the industry acceptance they have been deprived? Probably not, but with the right industry backing they could at least get the movie they want and then all bets are off.

  • Robert Mills

    Just got done listening for the second time. It is certainly ambitious, but it is over long. There’s definitely a lot that could have been trimmed out of this album. I’m certainly glad that I didn’t try to travel and get tickets to this tour, because I wouldn’t want to sit through this album live.

    They easily could have cut this down to one really amazing singular disc. There are several really great songs in there…but the problem is that all the songs feel short and incomplete when you compare this to other DT efforts. For years, DT was criticized for never having anything radio friendly (by the record label) and now they’ve done a lot of shorter material…but it doesn’t feel like DT.

    A++ for ambition and effort.
    B- for execution.

    Unfortunately, I’d put this somewhere down towards the bottom of their catalog because it is just too damn long.

    • JSH56

      D for enjoyment.

  • Tyler

    Really dissapointed honestly, from a musical stand point this album did not deliver like I hoped it would. I understand the story perspective of things however. Repetition and orchestral shorts seemed necessary to tell a story but I didn’t want to hear a story I wanted to hear what Dream Theater can really do musically. I love long albums but this one had way to much repition and barely any diversity. 14 tracks alone started with a piano intro and many more seemed like backing tracks to a story I didn’t want to hear. However when unique songs did show up they were amazing. Three days, Lord Nafaryus, and Dystopian Overature really stood out. I really wanted to enjoy this album but the good songs seemed to be tarnished by these 5 minute piano shorts. A Life Left Behind was ruined by the same repetitious chorus and singing style of James. There were seldom drum fills and standout rythyms from Mike. Finally, John Petrucci and John Myung hit out of the ball park (when I could hear them). The reason I am so frustrated is due to the fact that these musicians certainly have the talent to make great music but fall short with new releases. Iron Maiden, Trivium, Slayer, and Witchcraft most recent albums have done the same thing. I certainly do not have any right to criticize these amazing musicians work but I certainly do know that I did not like it.

  • Jeremy Freeman

    Same here, just reading the track list is the cure for insomnia. Much like Soulworks The Living Infinite, hey, at least they stopped after like 21 songs.

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  • JSH56

    Is there a Reader’s Digest version of this album?
    😉

  • Craig

    Most people seem to have come to this album refusing to take it as it is and obviously ended up complaining that it didn’t meet their preconceptions. It doesn’t have enough riffs, it has too many ballads, too much piano, it’s too long or should be condensed, even the daft claim DT12 was better (that was the worst they’d done since FII) are all complaints I find misguided. If you want DT doing riffing there’s already TOT or SC for that why do that again? There’s some validity to the criticism about too much stylistic ballad repetition (but too much piano lol is there too much distorted guitar too) – they could have developed some of those sections to be more original (ironically though the chorus praised in A Life Left Behind is probably the worst and most generic the album gets) – but most of the criticism is misguided because it’s a rock opera where the storytelling and scene painting comes first (and if you didn’t want to follow a story don’t buy a concept album). People do not complain that Verdi or Wagner works are dragged out because they’re over 2 hours and have plot tracks that aren’t self-contained masterpieces as pure music because it isn’t pure music and it isn’t a standalone song. Even thinking about it as seperate songs is I think misleading and they probably only did it as signposting. No I don’t agree it should have been shorter – if anything I’d rather they took another 6 months to make it longer and upgrade a few of the rare moments where the quality dies drop to be too generic. Everyone wants everything shorter more condensed and punchy – there’s nothing wrong with that but go get a Rage album if you want that – come back to Dream Theater once you have an attention span and the time to have some repeated listens so the vagaries of I’ve heard this before become more a deeper experience of developed interconnection (suggesting a cut down playlist for a concept album strikes me as a bizarrely arrogant contempt for artistic intent). Some criticisms I do agree with though. Yes the snare sound is a bit crap and yes I do think Myung and Mangini could have been utilised more but it’s not a detriment that they sit back to let the thematics and the vocals.

  • Paulo Ribeiro

    A suggested playlist on a full conceptual album reflects the quality of the person that wrote this article. The mention of the old member and founder of the band transformed this article in the extended version of bad journalism. And ffs, even after 6 years keep listening these Portnoy drama queens. He decided to left the band. And he got replaced for a far better version. It hurts the truth. Astonishing is one of the best works DT made so far. You don’t like drums sound ? Simple, go and listen other bands.

  • Jamie Long

    I have been a Dream Theater fan since 1993, when I first saw the video for Pull Me Under. They have been my favorite band for all this time and I have seen them live 10 times and did a meet and greet with them twice (2005 and 2006).

    But this album is horrible. I have forced myself to listen to it till the end, but it was excruciating to do so. I put CD 2 back into the case and I will never open it again. The CD is, as someone said, “long and boring.” Actually, it’s worse than boring. I can’t help wondering if this was some kind of joke foisted upon the fans.

    I’m sure some Evangelical Christian types will love the story, but I thought it was third-rate, at best. I have nothing good to say about this release. I want my money and time back.

    • Jamie Long

      They should have called this CD “The Embarrassing.”

  • RJS

    FFS why do people want Dream Theater to be the ACDC version of progressive rock? Putting out basically the same album every few years with little variation.

    This is an album that, in order to completely understand it, you need to listen to a few times. If you don’t have the attention span to do so, that is on you. Once you start to understand the themes for each character, the musical variations on them, it makes a whole lot more sense.

    knowing this, I have a hard time taking anybody’s opinion seriously when they say “I listened to it barely once and it sucked”. The problem is is that you don’t understand it yet. If you don’t want to, that is fine. You’re missing out.

    Having said that, I don’t feel that this is DT’s best work. I have serious issues with some of the lyrics on this, and several other, albums. I don’t understand why they won’t hire somebody to polish up the writing. I have a hard time believing that nobody has ever said to John Petrucci, “you’re lyrics need a bit more work”.
    They used to have really interesting lyrics back in the day. When looking back, those tended to be by John Myung and Kevin Moore.

    Give the album time, it is one of their better one’s IMO.

  • Bryan Fink

    Dream Theater fans suck! That’s what i’m most disappointed by. Y’all just cannot accept it when they do something completely different and not what “YOU” wanted! Y’all are too critical of everything. Yea i know it’s not perfect i have ears i don’t need a review or the negative opinions of anyone else to point out everything i noticed when i listened to this. I instead choose to focus on all the positives this album has. Like all the time and talent that went into writing and recording this. I’ve been playing guitar and drums and making music myself for way longer than i’ve been a Dream Theater fan and i am nowhere near capable of creating something like this. Why expect this album to be everything they’ve already done why not accept it for what it is. The next one will be different also. They’re kinda like Rush in this regard they are going to keep changing and moving forward and aren’t going to repeat themselves no matter how much “YOU” complain and criticize. The album is long and was meant to be listened to in its entirety in one sitting and i’m sure once i’m thoroughly familiar with it i’ll skip over songs when i’m driving or doing something where i cannot devote my complete attention to listening to it. But the magic is in investing yourself completely and setting aside the time to take it all in. And i cannot believe someone complained that this would appeal to evangelical types. Man this is why America is on it’s way to being under the rule of someone like Emperor Nafaryus got to wonder if John Petrucci doesn’t feel the same way. Maybe you’d have liked this better if it had an Islam theme to it. Great album by a great band. Not their best, not their worst but a great one among many.

    • zlxgxire

      Dream Theater fans suck yes, they’re having too much blind faith.

      • Baal Sack

        Blind Faythe, you mean

    • Alex Venable

      Right on

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  • travisac

    The Astonishing improves greatly with repeated listening and probably will even more with time. Amazing vocal performances in particular. It’s not for everyone, but the same goes for every bit of music. For me it’s amazing as an ‘album’, and inspiring to listen to – kind of the point?

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  • Alex Venable

    One day all you sorry POS DT fans will be eating your shit for all the dumb mindless negative comments you’ve made about this impeccable band. Dream Theater will go down as the best bands ever for their discography and side work they have done with literally among the best musicians ever. What the fuck is wrong with any of you putting down a john petrucci masterpiece… the guy is the best ever, and much credit with jordans and james great work, the rest of the band and the orchestra there as well. It’s fucking music brahh, one of the greatest things we have as humans, appreciate its purity, technicality and musicianship!! These guys do this to spread the light on this fucking retarded human race… and of course it won’t be the same as past albums, they have already made those styles. They can do any style possible so respect it and quit being negative bitchs.. that’s why they have so many fans because so many people can relate to their style but all you old DT fans can’t accept new shit and change… the music isn’t pure within you then.. incorporate some passion and grace with your life and maybe you’ll be little happier.. especially when talking about a band full of amazing men like DT.

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