Another Review of DREAM THEATER’s “Dream Theater”


For a band that has uncompromisingly stuck to a single sound and style for over two decades, it’s surprising that Dream Theater continue to polarize audiences and spark heated debates. Perhaps it’s an essential part of Prog culture to be opinionated and contrary, but I don’t think I’ve seen an album so fiercely contested this year. While some continue to stick to praise of the band’s undeniable technical skill, nostalgic style and relative consistency, others have condemned them for precisely the same reasons. While I would certainly argue that the band over a decade past their prime, Dream Theater haven’t shown any signs of stopping or even slowing down. Even this, their fifteenth and latest record to date has been enjoying exposure and popularity that most self-exclaimed Prog bands wouldn’t dream of having. If it hadn’t been painfully clear already on albums past, “Dream Theater” is a sign of a band that have become too comfortable with themselves. With such success and an unquestioningly loyal fanbase, Dream Theater have lost the incentive to innovate and reinvent themselves. Considering they yet retain the legendary musicianship and tightness that first made them famous, it’s really disappointing to hear such a talented band so content to play inside the box. Even so, as familiar and predictable as Dream Theater’s self-titled might be, it’s no doubt a work of some depth and tender care. It won’t go down in history as one of the band’s shining moments, but it should be enough to satisfy the majority of their fanbase, if not convert newcomers to the fold.

Dream Theater has fulfilled a pretty major role in my life and musical upbringing, and as such, it’s difficult to write about them without some sort of nostalgia. I was struck with awe when I first heard them over half a lifetime ago, and since then, I’ve followed them eagerly. Although my recent attention’s largely been usurped by newer bands making more interesting music- Haken and Leprous both come to mind- Dream Theater will always hold a special place in my heart. I’m sure Dream Theater themselves would attest to the fact that newer bands have taken progressive metal to greater heights and excesses, but even now, they continue to breathe life into a genre they helped innovate. There are few bands that have been so influential to the birth of a style, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough to at least give them a partial pardon for sticking so closely to their original sound. Like “A Dramatic Turn of Events”, “Dream Theater” capitalizes on the proggy end of the band’s oeuvre. Although I may have been fooled by the fiercely aggressive single “The Enemy Inside”, most of the album places a greater emphasis on melodic songwriting and well- rounded arrangements. Fans of their 1992 classic “Images & Words” should rejoice. Much like the two albums that preceded it, Dream Theater’s self-titled sounds like a cross- section of their career. The aforementioned “The Enemy Inside” has a biting edge and technicality to it that sympathizes most with 2007′s “Systematic Chaos”. “The Looking Glass” has an upbeat vibe to it that recalls “Images & Words”, and the mandatory instrumental “Enigma Machine” is quite a bit like “Ytse Jam” from the 1989 debut. Even the band’s weak link “Falling into Infinity” gets a representation here with the cheesy ballad track “Along for the Ride”. When Dream Theater aren’t revisiting their older incarnations, they take after Rush; “The Looking Glass” is a stone’s throw from Rush’s “Limelight”, the opening of “Surrender to Reason” is an obvious homage to “Xanadu”, and the twenty-two minute epic “Illumination Theory” has plenty of moments that sport the Rush influence proudly.

When speaking of the self-titled’s place in the overall scheme of the band’s catalogue, “Dream Theater” might be found somewhere between the melodic sensibility of “Falling into Infinity” and proggy throwback of “A Dramatic Turn of Events”. Although Dream Theater remain as flashy and technical as ever, the songwriting places a greater emphasis on melody than what’s been heard from them in recent years. Those who might balk at the prospect of a second “Falling into Infinity” need fear not, however; in the case of “Dream Theater”, the melodic focus has come at no cost to the proggy edge or musical complexity. “Behind the Veil” and “Surrender to Reason” each offer some pretty memorable melodies built around tasty progressive arrangements. “Surrender to Reason” in particular has one of the best choruses the band has ever done. Sadly, there are many passages which feel the brunt of James LaBrie’s fading voice, which is really starting to feel the weight of age. I’ve been a longstanding fan of LaBrie for his usually rich and distinctive mid-range, but with some of the more stressful passages he attempts here, even I can begin to see why some people have always singled him out as the band’s weak link. Particularly on “Illumination Theory”, LaBrie tries to convey aggression and range that he may have been able to make sound wonderful in younger days, but it sounds like he’s trying to push himself past his limits. Even so, there are plenty of moments here where his voice sounds as great as ever- “Surrender to Reason” once again makes for an excellent example.

It comes as absolutely no surprise coming from a band that has built its career around musical virtuosity and stellar performance standards, but Dream Theater can still play circles around other bands. On this time around, John Petrucci earns all special commendations. Although Jordan Rudess still gets some room to solo on the keyboard, all of my favourite moments on “Dream Theater” are Petrucci moments. People often take Dream Theater’s technical excellence for granted, but hearing a fresh album reminds me why I was so drawn to this band in the first place. Although Petrucci is most often known for his speed and technical wizardry (both of which are featured on the album), he also delivers some of the most beautiful leads he’s ever recorded here. “The Bigger Picture” and “Illumination Theory” each have solos that could easily rival the beauty of those featured on “Goodnight Kiss” or “The Best of Times”. Seriously, even if his work with Dream Theater doesn’t always give room to show it, John Petrucci is one of the best and well-rounded guitarists out there. Petrucci explores a wide variety of rhythms and leads harsh and lush on “Dream Theater”, and the excellence of his performance is more than enough to compensate for some of the album’s weaker suits.

Speaking of weakness, “Dream Theater” was meant to be the album where new drummer Mike Mangini (previously of Annihilator) was really meant to prove himself, and his performance is undoubtedly the most disappointing aspect of the album. Seeing Dream Theater with Mangini a couple of years ago, I was able to see him effortlessly recreate Portnoy’s drumwork firsthand. By all accounts, he is a fantastic drummer. It’s that fact that makes his performance here all the more disenchanting. Although Mangini performed the drum parts on “A Dramatic Turn of Events”, he was playing parts written by Petrucci. “Dream Theater” was therefore his chance to prove to fans what he had to offer the band’s dynamic. Although his performance is more than functional, it doesn’t impress me nearly as much as I was hoping for. Although it’s possible that Mike Portnoy is rivalled only by Geoff Tate in terms of prog metal douchery, his drum performances had plenty of attitude and identity. Mangini’s drumwork is steady, but never feels particularly inspired or inventive. Whenever he disengages from a steady beat, his fills usually sound the same. Although Mangini certainly has the technical skills worthy of playing with Dream Theater, I’m convinced that there could have been far better choices; for my money, he hasn’t brought the performance here I was hoping for, and frankly expecting.

Lyrically speaking, Dream Theater have been dreadfully inconsistent over the course of their career. Although “Scenes from a Memory” is possibly the best-written and thoughtful concept album I’ve ever heard, and “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” had plenty of intelligent lyrical ideas, I wasn’t expecting good lyrics with this album. “The Count of Tuscany” from 2009′s “Black Clouds & Silver Linings” had some of the most laughably awful lyrics in prog history- suffice to say, a stories about spooky homoerotic vampires are best left for the bookshelves of impressionable teenage girls. The lyrics on “Dream Theater” are filled with the same clichés and half-baked philosophy that I would come to expect from a Prog band who didn’t put much consideration into their lyrics. At its worst, it’s as if the basic lyrical content was derived from the jaded conversations of conspiracy theorists and New Age philosophers, and filtered through a Censorship Board of Kindergarten teachers and pregnant Christian mothers.

In what is something of a longstanding tradition for the band, Dream Theater close the album off with an epic. At twenty-two minutes in length, “Illumination Theory” was the track I was most anxious to finally hear, especially after being so impressed by the album’s first single. Although Dream Theater complete a checklist of many things I may have been looking for in such an ambitious piece, this marks the first time where a DT epic isn’t a highlight on its respective album. Regardless what I may have felt about the band’s stylistic stagnation, I was expecting something major from the last track. Although there are some very engaging ideas on the epic, “Illumination Theory” ultimately fails to come together as a whole. In addition to their solid themes and ingredients, what made past epics like “A Change of Seasons” or “In the Presence of Enemies” so powerful was their ability to go full circle, to order and arrange their ideas in such a way that it felt like a full-fledged journey within the course of one track. The piece starts off on a good enough note, but by the time LaBrie’s contrived vocals enter the mix, the composition starts losing focus quickly. Even after several listens, no part of the epic really stands out, and the only indicator anywhere during the composition that it is indeed an ‘epic’ is a section in the middle where the band breaks away from the rock and metal for a period of extended ambiance, like they did with “The Count of Tuscany”. The grand finale could have been enough to add some life and colour to the piece, but LaBrie’s vocals continue to really irk me here- perhaps he recorded his parts for the epic on a particularly bad day? Especially considering many of the songs on the album are pretty impressive and enjoyable, it’s a real disappointment to see Dream Theater’s skill and tact with epics fall apart so much. There’s always the chance that I’ll feel differently about it a year from now, but I doubt it.

As was my experience with “A Dramatic Turn of Events”, I’m a little disappointed that “Dream Theater” doesn’t have its own identity relative to the band’s existing oeuvre. Unlike “A Dramatic Turn of Events” however, I don’t get the impression that this album is going to be remembered so fondly by fans a decade from now. Then again, it took “Systematic Chaos” over a year to finally hit me; the same may be true for this album. By any standard of mine, Dream Theater have delivered a worthy addition to their catalogue. All of the things listeners have come to love or hate about them are represented here in full. Slick musicianship and bombastic songwriting both have a home here, but the ultimate impression is one of stifling comfort and familiarity. At this point in their career, Dream Theater give the impression of a President who has been in office for thirty years and has grown complacent, no longer feeling the need to prove himself to the voters with particularly inspired policies or edicts. Dream Theater’s self-titled hits all of the marks that a DT album should, but they have left more than enough room for a more determined up-and-comer to approach and knock them off their throne.

1 Comment

  1. albert

    October 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Excellent review. But as far as I know, this is not the fifteenth album – it’s the twelfth album (13th if you count EP – Change of Seasons).

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

%d bloggers like this: