Dream Theater – the Opus is upon us

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Dream Theater‘s self-titled 12th studio album is due to be released this Monday; in the meantime I’ve been enjoying the stream via Prog magazine‘s website. It’s been up a few days but due to technical issues I’ve only been able to listen since yesterday. Nonetheless I’ve had a few listens right thru and initial impressions are, if not great then certainly not bad either. Here are a few thoughts on each song…

False Awakening Suite is the title of the previously-mooted instrumental intro. As intros go it’s ok; cycling in short order (2.41) thru a series of contrasting dramatic themes. Think a compact variation on the 6DOIT Overture. By comparison it suffers somewhat from its brevity: there’s scarcely time to appreciate the merits of one theme before the next one kicks in. I can see it working well as the live intro it’s reportedly been written to be, though.

My initial thoughts on first ‘single’ The Enemy Inside are here. Sufficed to say, although – like many songs – its placing within an album context changes the listening experience somewhat, and its metal directness makes it both a strong opening cut proper after the tease of False Awakening and an effective contrast to some of the more proggy and balladic moments.

Instant impression of The Looking GlassRush! Definitely a melodic tip of the hat to the Canuck power trio here (they do it again later in the intro for Surrender to Reason, too). Probably the most immediately-impressive song so far to my ears, as it happens.

Enigma Machine is the second instrumental track: a showboating interlude that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Awake, or even Scenes From A Memory: like Erotomania or The Dance of Eternity it demonstrates the band’s instrumental and compositional prowess without pushing the bounds of indulgence or outstaying its welcome.

There are hints of of …Puppets era Metallica and latter-day Pendragon in Behind The Veil and that’s no bad thing, and where the contrast between crunchy riffing and sweetly-melodic sections come off as disorienting and jerky elsewhere they’re really effective on this track. Another highlight for me.

Neither Surrender To Reason nor The Bigger Picture have really made much impression on me yet. I’ve listened several times but nothing’s sticking and they kind of exemplify the ‘mushy’ comment below…

Along For The Ride is a short, quietly-epic ballad with a feel not unlike This Is The Life from the last record. Wasn’t hugely keen when RR released it as the second album trailer but it grew on me pretty quickly with each listening and tracklisting-wise it provides a welcome moment of pure calm prior to the full on prog-ness of Illumination Theory. Nice solo spots from Petrucci and Rudess too: economical and understated by their standards and all the more effective for that.

Illumination Theory is the album’s only real excursion into the extended, symphonic mode, and as such it’s a daunting, multi-faceted beast of a track. Of all the songs here, it’s probably going to require the most digesting so take this early analysis with a pinch of salt. I’m reminded a little of song suites including Marillion’s Gaza, Fair To Midland‘s The Greener Grass and Frost*s Milliontown insofar as there’s a definite sense of disparate sections stitched together in a way that’s not initially pleasing to the ear: a jerky start-stop-start feel which contrasts poorly with previous DT epics such as Octavarium and The Count of Tuscany. Those songs, though equivalent in complexity and ambition clicked pretty much right away for me. Having said that, Gaza, …Grass and Milliontown now rate amongst my very favourite ‘epic’ prog workouts, so only time will tell whether Illumination Theory will become a favourite also. And speaking of Milliontown, that song sprang to mind when the false ending gave way to Rudess‘ piano fadeout.

To briefly summarize; the intricacies of this album will perhaps assert themselves more strongly over the course of time and repeat playing; I certainly hope so, because at the moment, a few highlights aside there’s a mushy, blandness to the album as a whole which after the near-triumph of ADToE I wasn’t expecting at all. It’s almost paradoxical, insofar as generally, DT have pulled back from the extended and twiddly prog workouts – for which they are both reviled or revered in certain quarters – and distilled their essence into more compact, more conventional songs. The average track length here is around the 6-min mark, for a start. Somehow though a number of the compositions feel unnecessarily cluttered and somewhat jerky, with few immediate hooks standing out. So what?! I hear prog fans snorting dismissively – this is DT not 1D right! Fair enough, but the two aren’t mutually-exclusive, as ADToE and much else of DT‘s best work attests. What made ADToE such a breath of fresh air was the ease with which it flowed as a complete piece: there were few gnarly moments of musicality for its own sake and it was chock full of memorable melodies and occasions for each player to shine. DT feels less well-balanced, though compliments are due to both Mike Mangini and James LaBrie who have certainly pushed themselves here. By contrast, Jordan Rudess and John Myung are afforded less prominence, which is a shame because their more up-front presence was again one of the most appealing aspects of ADToE.

False Awakening and Illumination Theory aside, the emphasis on this album is definitely on the hard rock rather than the prog side, albeit with a healthy smattering of ballad-ness and plenty of musicianly detail to make multiple listens a necessity. It’s perhaps closest to Awake than any other of their albums in this respect and yet nothing like that album in so many ways (Illumination Theory, for example has a feel very much at odds with anything they recorded with Portnoy, featuring shocking contrasts of crackling aggression and soothing lushness that bring to mind Oceansize or even Between The Buried And Me).

DT are buggers for defying expectation, though, which is precisely what keeps them interesting; and ensures that they never manage to please all the fans all of the time. If nothing else, DT (the album) offers further proof that those who wrote the band off in light of Portnoy‘s departure were mistaken: they certainly haven’t run out of ideas, it’s merely a question of which ideas resonate with, and stand the test of time for, whom.

Back to the listening booth, then  😉

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  1. Pingback: Fresh from the vault (11) | musicbugsandgender

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