After a slightly longer-than-normal absence since their self-titled 2013 album, the Long Island-based progressive metal band Dream Theater has finally returned to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The Astonishing, the band’s 13th studio album, serves as both their second double-disc album of new material and only their second-ever rock opera.
When it comes to the genre of progressive rock, the idea of making a narrative album is considered a logical expansion on the tradition of concept albums. The band previously recorded such an album with their 1999 classic, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. Compared to similar albums that preceded it, the album boasted a thought-provoking storyline about murder and deception, with some of the most complex music ever recorded in the rock genre. But while it was a well-acclaimed classic, the album felt like it was not written and recorded to its fullest potential, especially since the story was constrained to a single disc. Now that Dream Theater has decided to finally make another rock opera after 16 years, they seemed to approach it as an opportunity to record the album they failed to make years ago.
The Astonishing was written by John Petrucci. Its overall premise is much more simple and rudimentary than Scenes From A Memory. The setting of the album is a dystopian North America in the year 2285, ruled by the tyrannical Great Northern Empire and the ruthless Emperor Nafaryus. Hidden deep within the continent is an uprising, called “Ravenskill Rebel Militia,” that aims to overthrow the empire with music playing a major role in the uprising. The idea of youth rebels using rock music to overthrow tyrants has been a popular storyline for rock operas, the most famous examples arguably being Rush’s 2112 and Styx’s Kilroy Was Here. But when Dream Theater tackles this storyline, the band does it in a way that does not come off as lazy and hokey. It helps that the story itself features obvious stylistic homages to Star Wars, The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. Though the synopsis of the album is fairly simple, being able to wrap around the songs and lyrics with the overall narrative is not something that most listeners would be able to do on a first listen. The band, seemingly knowing this would be a possibility, made it a point to elaborate the story on the album’s official website.
When it comes to the task of representing all of the major characters, front man James LaBrie has shown to be surprisingly versatile. Depending on the character’s role in the story, LaBrie has crafted a distinct vocal style for each of them. The end result is an overall vocal performance that has not truly been, seen from LaBrie since the 90s.
In the music department, it is a radical departure compared to what fans have been accustomed to over the past decade. In previous Dream Theater albums, all of the members shared credit for the music. The Astonishing, however, was entirely written and composed by Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess. The Astonishing is the third album in a continued musical progression of the band since 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events to focus more on their progressive roots over their heavy metal influences. With this new album, its sound seems to be a mix of Rush and Dream Theater’s own 1992 classic, Images and Words. There is also a significantly higher number of ballads and soft songs than before, most of which are related to the romantic element of the storyline. Compared to past albums, there is a significant increase in orchestral arrangements included with the main band. Before, Rudess emulated orchestra sounds with keyboard presets. But seeing the massive scale of the album, the band hired famed composer David Campbell to provide the backing score. Using the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Campbell’s score definitely augments the metallic overtones of the band.
Despite the staggered writing credits, the instrumentation is as strong as many would come to expect from Dream Theater. Petrucci’s guitar work is still the mix of Alex Lifeson, Steve Hackett and Eddie Van Halen that defined him as one of the decade’s guitar heroes. Rudess’ multi-layered keyboards provide the progressive edge that made Dream Theater arguably the definitive progressive metal band. Disappointedly, the band’s legendary rhythm section seems somewhat subdued this time around. With Petrucci and Rudess handling all the writing, there unfortunately is not much room left for bass guitarist John Myung and drummer Mike Mangini to fully show off their skills. In the case of Mangini, his drums sound less organic and more mechanical thanks to the mixing job done with this album. With all that said, both musicians still manage to provide the driving beat throughout the entire album, even at the expense of some limelight.
Compared to any other rock album slated for release later in the year, The Astonishing is no doubt the most ambitious release of 2016. And to accentuate the excitement of the album, Dream Theater’s latest world tour will feature the band playing the entire album front to back, with a one-night stand at Radio City Music Hall on April 23.