RoundTable Review: Dream Theater – The Astonishing
Album: The Astonishing
Label: Roadrunner Records
Release Date: 29 Jan 2016
Length: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Progressive Metal
Studio Albums: When Dream and Day Unite (1989); Images and Words (1992); Awake (1994); Falling into Infinity (1997); Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999); Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002); Train of Thought (2003) Octavarium (2005); Systematic Chaos (2007); Black Clouds & Silver Linings (2009); A Dramatic Turn of Events (2011); Dream Theater (2013).
Location: United States
Reggie – I don’t know what it is about concept albums, but I cringe when I hear the next album from one of my favorite bands is going to follow “some kind of story.” It’s not that it’s bad music. Take Metropolis Pt: Scenes From a Memory…it’s one of Dream Theater’s greats and it’s unique as far as me liking that kind of thing. That album is a great package deal. I guess the issue I have with concept albums is that all of the songs will be related either in their story (obviously) or in the overall tempo. Therefore, things can sound the same. Then, there tends to be a lot of filler…words, sound effects, whatever. Now, make the concept album over 2+ hours and I am like, holy shit man, seriously! Needless to say, I was excited to hear new DT music (as always), but not entirely excited to hear it was going to be a 2+ hour concept. Intrigued, but not excited. But, that’s just my personal opinion. I wouldn’t be excited about any band doing it.
Song for song, there are some really good DT songs…better than they have written over the years. They do have some of that classic tone and a bit of an edge that seemed largely absent with the past several releases. Things start off on a pretty good note up through The Gift of Music. After that, things start to go well into story mode and I think I just don’t have the patience for it. The songs I like are sporadic and after a few listens in its entirety, I found myself skipping to what I wanted to hear.
I appreciate the creativity that goes into an album like this. I really do. Perhaps the guys in DT are too talented for their own good. But, for my taste, I just like to hear songs; songs that don’t necessarily follow a story or a tempo. One thing to note is that the longest song is just over 7 minutes….very rare for these guys who are known for epic song length. I appreciate the risk with changing things up. I think we all know that DT could make a 2+ hour concept album made up of just four or five songs.
In the end I made an abridged version with the following songs and as it turns out, I like the heavier side of DT. Not always, but mostly. Here are my selections (in order): The Gift of Music, Our New World, A Life Left Behind, When Your Time Has Come, Moment of Betrayal, My Last Farewell, Chosen, A New Beginning, A Tempting Offer, The Road to Revolution, Losing Faythe, A Better Life, Ravenskill, and Astonishing. These all fit on one CD.
This is a hard album to rate because creatively, it’s an undertaking I am sure must have been tough. There are a lot of songs I want to hear and a lot I don’t especially most of the filler stuff. But, the abridged version I created for myself will get some repeated spins. 3.75
RiffRaff – Since 2005 Dream Theater have only released one album that I would consider wholly excellent. They seemed to have lost that spark that made records like Six Degrees, Images and Words, and Metropolis Pt. 2 (one of my favorite albums ever) so special. I had thought some of that spark returned with a fresh drummer of Mike Mangini, but that was lost on the drab and disappointing eponymous 2013 album. With The Astonishing that spark of old has most definitely resurfaced, and while not back in full force, it’s there enough for me to deem this album their greatest work in the past decade.
To describe The Astonishing simply, it’s a two hour and ten minute rendition of Rush’s masterpiece 2112. From the narrative to the progginess to the distinct movements my brain kept making connections between the two. Give a listen to the Discovery movement of 2112 then Ravenskill on The Astonishing; the mood, tone, and even positioning in the album call this more than a nod. Of course The Astonishing isn’t an ape of Rush as this is still a uniquely Dream Theater affair, but the influences are worn proudly on its sleeve.
Going back to that spark that I’ve been missing in my DT albums I’d have to say it was a lack of emotion. They lost that adventurous edge. The Astonishing is a double album honest to god rock opera complete with a fleshed out narrative (buying the physical version is worth it for the lyrics and liner notes alone). Definitely their most ambitious since Six Degrees and they went at it full force. While it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by Scenes from a Memory, it brandishes much of the emotion that makes the murder mystery so special. They also find a good balance of technical prowess and scaling things back to something more simple yet emotive.
However, The Astonishing’s biggest boon is also one of its biggest faults. Over two hours is a lot to take in, especially in a single sitting. While I have been able to accomplish a few full, single session listens, it is a bit of a chore. Taking it in as a whole and following the narrative is certainly rewarding, but when put on while traveling to work or putzing around on the internet and not putting my full attention into it, it does start to meander as the real heavy hitting, standout songs are spread a tad too thin. This is acceptable when put in the context of a narrative, but I did find myself skipping to the good stuff very often when I only have a half hour to listen on my way to work.
In conclusion, The Astonishing is an excellent, very ambitious album and resides in the top tier of DT records. If you have the time and patience, it will reward you; if you don’t, maybe making yourself an abridged playlist will do you good. 4.25
Irmelinis – This album took a lot of patience and time to get into, even for an old Dream Theater fan like myself. The band’s music is normally quite demanding, and on a double album of this length it’s near exhausting to listen to. On DT’s previous record there wasn’t much emotion and dynamics present in the songs, fortunately these parts are improved on “The Astonishing”, but is that enough?
For fans of bands like Rush and other progressive rock operas that go on for an eternity, it might provide to be sufficient. For me, nay. I am not impressed. Every track is ambitious, leaning heavily on DT’s signature sound (too much at times), there’s groove, ballads, and plenty of instrumental virtuosity. It might take another ten listens for me to “get it”, however, I doubt “The Astonishing” will ever be as rewarding as “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, another lengthy album of theirs. Dream Theater need to drastically change style for them to become interesting again. 2.0
ChristopherMammal – I’ve been waiting more than ten years for Dream Theater to release something as excellent as “Images and Words” and “Octavarium”. “The Astonishing” isn’t it.
After listening to the first three tracks I told my Metal State colleagues I thought the double album would be brilliant. It wasn’t. The short intro is an intriguing prelude to the rock opera that follows. Track 2, the Overture, is composed in the best opera style, a medley of the tunes you’ll hear during the show. This track is that magical kind of hybrid music that should please fans of melodic metal and neo-progressive rock equally. The opera proper launches with “The Gift of Music”, a song that quite impressively establishes the theme of the story about to unfold.
From track 4 onwards, however, the music meanders into the unexceptional terrain of adult contemporary rock. There are splashes of fine prog; sprinklings of fine metal, not so much. There’s not nearly enough of either to stop me feeling that I’m listening to Air Supply, the Australian AOR band that reached its heights in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this song had popped up on “The Astonishing”:
The evangelical tone of the double album reminds me of Happy Little Sunbeams, a Christian pop group of the 1980s. A well-meaning colleague insisted on giving me the Sunbeams on a cassette.
So, what’s better than “The Astonishing”? This is:
If you decide “The Astonishing” is just the thing for you, you can also pick up best-of compilations of Air Supply and Andrew Lloyd Webber at Amazon. 2.0
A Metal State of Mind Score – 3 out of 5