Review by Tom Mead
Concept album: two words that will have many people running for the hills in terror. But The Astonishing is no ordinary concept album. This is a Dream Theater concept album, so it’s a 2-disc, 34-track, 130-minute behemoth; the above-mentioned people would no doubt rather drink liquid nitrogen than even attempt to give this a listen.
It is understandable to be sceptical about what’s on offer here. Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci has created a futuristic dystopian story where a totalitarian government rules a society where music is artificially created and personal expression is strongly discouraged. Sounds a lot like Rush’s 2112, and there are also elements of Hunger Games and Romeo & Juliet. This is a ridiculously ambitious and daunting prospect by a band that, for many, is the epitome of all the worst excesses and pretensions of prog rock.
The ironic thing is, despite the conceptual nature of this project, The Astonishing might actually gain Dream Theater several new fans, as it is arguably the most accessible-sounding album they’ve ever made. Things start off in typical fashion, with Dystopian Overture acting as a bombastic, frantic run-through of the album’s major themes before lead single The Gift of Music kicks things off properly with a fast pace, backed by choirs and strings, that recalls Dream Theater’s earlier conceptual piece Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. But throughout The Astonishing, the usual widdly excesses are in startlingly short supply. There has most definitely been a conscious decision to focus on accessible, shorter songs (the longest is just 7 minutes) that carry the story effectively, with the emphasis on vocals, piano and strings as opposed to guitar and drums.
Now, for many Dream Theater fans, this sounds like a disastrous state of affairs, and I can understand the frustration. Many of the songs here are essentially ballads, devoid of much of the technicality that typifies most of Dream Theater’s music, but I’d argue some are amongst the best ballads they’ve ever written. When Your Time Has Come has a great synth-laden atmosphere that perfectly fits a key moment in the story, when the star-crossed lovers Gabriel and Faythe meet for the first time. There’s also Chosen, which is introspective yet powerful, and Hymn of a Thousand Voices, a melancholic fiddle-based folk song that’s quite unlike anything Dream Theater have recorded before.
There’s no lack of bite here though. The music on The Astonishing varies to suit each character in the story, with darker, heavier passages fitting the more dramatic and tragic elements. An ominous fanfare heralds the entrance of villain Emperor Nafaryus in A Savior in the Square, and the crushing Moment of Betrayal, which sets up the tragic events in the latter part of the story, is the album’s heaviest song. We also see variety in A New Beginning, which is one of the few songs to have Dream Theater’s usual length and complexity, and in the upbeat rocky number Our New World.
Despite the accessible nature of many of the songs here, The Astonishing is ultimately far from perfect because it asks an awful lot of its listeners. To fully appreciate it, you need to listen to the whole thing in one go and pay close attention; most of the music here sounds better when you consider the role it plays in describing the characters and advancing the story. In that respect, the whole thing has more in common with a stage musical than a standard rock album, and this unorthodoxy simply will not be to everyone’s tastes. Also, Dream Theater have done the whole concept album thing much better in the past with the seminal Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory. There are many good points to The Astonishing, but it does not flow or effortlessly engage the listener as well as Dream Theater’s previous attempt at rock opera did.
If you’d hoped that Dream Theater’s new concept album would be as good as Operation: Mindcrime or The Wall, then you will be disappointed here. To be fair, those albums, along with Dream Theater’s own Scenes From A Memory, are masterpieces that are near impossible to equal. Dream Theater should be applauded for attempting something of such scope and ambition; they’ve created a decent story, complemented by good music, and, when all is said and done, it’s nice to see a band that’s been going for 30 years still willing to try new things. Be patient and attentive, and you’ll realise that The Astonishing is a rewarding listen indeed.