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July 1, 2016

Dream Theater's The Astonishing (Part 1)

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

I decided to do something special this time around: A review of a music album. A long one.

I never hid it, I am a gigantic fan of music. I love all the genres, except country music and the more Death side of the metal genre. I’ve never been big on growlers, I want to be able to understand what the singer says – and bands that veer into growling or outright screaming all the time… yeah, no, sorry. Not my type. I can see why some people enjoy this, but it’s not my cup of tea. I’ve always enjoyed rock, and then metal came in naturally, until I discovered Dream Theater and progressive metal. Ever since, I’ve been hooked.

Left to right: Jordan Rudess (keyboards), John Myung (bass), James LaBrie
(vocals), Mike Mangini (drums) and John Petrucci (electric guitar).

Ah, the Majesty Symbol. Best seal
of quality ever made.
There is just a quality about prog metal and how its melodies incorporate all kinds of keyboard instruments. I became a fan around the release of their self-titled album, in 2013. I was checking the tracklist on Wikipedia and, seeing Illumination Theory, going “22 minutes? That’s for real?” I had past experience with longer pieces of music (among others, I enjoyed In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which is 17 minutes long), so I gave the album a listen. General consensus from die-hard DT fans is that it fits what the band usually does, but doesn’t have enough “special” about it to make it stand out.

The band’s next effort came out on January 2016: The Astonishing, a two-disc album that is also a rock opera, thus telling a full story. It’s 130 solid minutes of music, longer than a lot of movies. The advantage of rock operas is that since they tell a story, you can get into the plot, identify with the characters, and love it both for the ongoing storyline and the music that accompanies each part of it. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, as an example, is 81 minutes detailing a singer’s backstory, then showing him willingly separating himself from the rest of the world, slowly going crazy because of drugs and almost becoming a fascist, until his own consciousness puts him on trial to make him tear down his metaphorical wall. The music is excellent and the story, while flawed (there are some details missing that could have helped understanding the plot), is still enjoyable. That’s a common issue with rock operas, really; combining music and story in a little under 80 minutes (or, for those who dare, in more than 80 minutes over 2 CDs) means that some details, however vital they may be, could get left out. I'll discuss this later.

The Astonishing also makes use of a full orchestra; to be precise, the City of Prague Philarmonic Orchestra. Not a first time for Dream Theater, who have used an orchestra for some of their live releases and included other symphonic instruments on a few studio tracks, but never before have they used one for an entire album. As a result, while these discs contain the mandatory electric guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and vocals, it also puts some emphasis on the orchestra, peppering most, if not all songs with violins, trumpets (even bagpipes at one point!)… And, most importantly, a choir to accompany James LaBrie’s vocals. I would say it’s closer to symphonic metal than prog metal. For a while now, I’ve tried getting into symphonic metal, and it’s difficult because some of the most prominent bands in the genre (like Rhapsody, formerly known as Rhapsody of Fire) tend to tell long stories through multiple albums, causing a new listener to feel locked out of the continuity unless they go and binge-listen to the band’s music in a few sittings. Another issue I have with symphonic metal – at least, the tracks I’ve heard – is that the mixing results in the orchestra often being nearly buried under the metal music. It’s called “symphonic metal”, guys, not “prog metal with a side-order of orchestra in the background”. The “symphony” half has to feel like it’s a part of the whole thing, it can’t feel like an afterthought. Dream Theater did especially well in that regard on The Astonishing, leaving plenty of room for the orchestra and allowing their music to mesh with the progressive metal instruments. Same goes for James LaBrie’s singing, which never overshadows the choir too much, although I think LaBrie’s vocals could have been raised a little more on some songs during mixing of the album. Just a little.

The Johns of the group usually get to shine together
at the front of stage.
The music still has all the trademark Dream Theater elements: Complex melodies, tons of odd time signatures (and of course, a lot of time signature changes in every song), heavy electric guitar, soft electric or acoustic guitar (John Petrucci excels at both), solid keyboard work from Jordan Rudess… If I have a few things to say about Dream Theater themselves on this album, it’s this: First off, I think bassist John Myung isn’t given enough spotlight for such a massive album (though granted, bassists aren’t usually the ones to steal the show, and Myung is a more reserved type of guy so maybe he doesn’t mind; still, more of him would have been good). Then… Mike Mangini. I say that name, and I can see some DT fans bare their teeth and growl, while others point and let out a ghoulish rale. Others just sigh. I know their previous drummer, Mike Portnoy, who was one of the most prominent faces of the band, was unique in the way he was drumming and Mangini’s style is less impressive, a bit more mechanic, a bit less inspired, but I still enjoy the post-Portnoy DT albums nonetheless. Outcry, Lost Not Forgotten and The Enemy Inside are among my favorites. Just because one thing changes doesn’t make the whole thing unlistenable – take the hint, people who hate the new DT just because it doesn’t have Portnoy in it. However, I felt like Mike Magini’s drumming was stronger in this album, closer to what Portnoy could achieve: drumming that accompanies the melody, with more eccentricities depending on the current section in a song, feeling like the drums are just as much an instrument as the guitar. Oh, Mangini’s defects still do show up on a few tracks (in A New Beginning’s 4-minute outro, as an example), but overall I thought he did a lot better here than in A Dramatic Turn of Events or the self-titled album.

But going back to my earlier point, the danger when you bring forward a story with your music is that some will analyze it from a storytelling standpoint. I’ve seen The Count of Tuscany being called corny, I’ve seen people who hated the ending to Metropolis Part 2, and I’ve also seen some people who thought The Ministry of Lost Souls was creepy rather than heartwarming or even tear-jerking. This story was mostly written by John Petrucci, who inspired himself from epics similar to Star Wars or Game of Thrones. Can’t be more blatant than that; a medieval-like setting in a science-fiction future. Forcing a genre into another; it’s like having your cake and eating it too! Petrucci also mentioned that a major theme of the story is the automatization of everything; how everything becomes virtual, everything’s connected (seriously, the Internet of Things… Does my toilet really need an app and Bluetooth connectivity?), we’ll have self-driving cars, putting more and more of our lives into the hands of machines… Yeah, it’s a scary thought. Taking it to the point that technology is the one doing all entertainment-related things, though, that may be pushing it.

The Astonishing takes place in an alternate history where the United States turned into a monarchy of sorts, and we follow events taking place in the Great Northern Empire of the Americas. All entertainment is produced by flying spherical devices called the Noise Machines (NOMACs for short). The booklet that came with the album shows that the inside of the NOMACs, when they’re seen from behind, looks a lot like the interior of the circle in the Majesty symbol. Nice little touch there. The villagers working under the totalitarian regime of the royal family cannot create entertainment and don’t even have time to produce anything. So wait, the Americas are mimicking the medieval times, and travel with horses, except there are still machines except the only machines we ever hear about are the NOMACs…. We’re not even into the plot yet and I’m already confused!

Yes, those things.
They can see you

The highest number of tracks they had on a studio album
before this one? 11. Live album? 18.
This is 34.
By the way, look at the back of the CD case. Yes, it’s normal to have track titles there. First thing we notice is that these two discs contain a total of 34 songs. Is that a problem? Technically no. It’s actually a surprise, coming from Dream Theater, to see so many tracks on a double album (The first CD has 20 songs, which is one less than the band’s sixth, seventh and eighth albums combined, and that’s about 240 minutes of music! And the second CD has 14, about as much as the CD release of Score, split on three discs!). For this album, the band experimented with shorter songs, the longest one being 7 minutes 40 seconds. It’s not usually what they do, but they managed it pretty well here. And while no single song can be called “epic” here, the album itself qualifies as “epic”. Also, some songs continue into others, like “Dystopian Overture” that continues into “The Gift of Music”. I must say though, this tracklist has some, um, major spoilers to say the least. If you already know the names of the characters, you might figure out something important that happens near the end, just by looking at the titles…

The tracklist also has five songs decorated with a NOMAC symbol, indicating them as NOMAC tracks; those are basically noise representing the unsettling “music” the machines artificially create. The first track, “Descent of the NOMACs”, is exactly what it says on the tin. The next three, “The Hovering Sojourn”, “Digital Discord” and “Machine Chatter”, appear after very important plot-related moments. As if the NOMACs know what’s going on and highlight the important songs… Honestly, I’d find those things even more unsettling if they were indeed spying on the people and aware of what’s happening. The last NOMAC track, “Power Down”… yeah, you don’t need a degree in rocket science to figure that out. It spoils that the NOMACs get shut down at the end, which implies a good ending to the story. But shhh, I didn’t tell you, the CD case did!

As for whether or not those tracks are superfluous… the middle three are, in my opinion. They’re the shortest (the five songs total about 5 minutes together), but outside of the first one and “Power Down”, there is not much of a point to them outside of hammering it in that the NOMACs really suck at music composition. Besides, other tracks, like “A Savior in the Square” and “The Path That Divides” also contain short moments that could count as NOMAC music.

The album really starts with “Dystopian Overture”, an instrumental that encompasses multiple musical moments (yay, alliteration!) of the album. After a few dozen listens, I still haven’t figured out which song every section is taken from, but I figured out most of it. It starts with “Lord Nafaryus”, then “The X Aspect”… and so on. If there’s one thing I can say, it’s that for an instrumental supposed to represent the dystopian future, it actually sounds very hopeful! The song then changes into “The Gift of Music”, where the Narrator explains the setting. Then we get to hear Arhys, brother of Gabriel, father of Xander. He explains that he leads a revolt against the regime held by Lord Nafaryus-…….wait…..

Lord, Emperor? The album doesn't seem to agree on
what his title is.
Is that name for real? Lord Nafaryus? Really? That’s his surname? I mean, it’s silly. Really, really silly. Come to think of it, it doesn’t even make sense. Does that mean Faythe’s full name if Faythe Nafaryus? She doesn’t seem as pleasant now, does she? Kinda like Gru in Despicable Me, nobody calls him by his surname because it’s Felonious (no really, look it up)! Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. Still, I’d say a silly name doesn’t really fit the mood of the story… well, until you realize just how many common clichés are in it and you go “yeah… it fits right in with the rest”.

Arhys then explains that his brother has a fantastic voice. He’s this close to calling it magic, but he never does. We are supposed to understand that Gabriel brings music back and has such a marvelous voice that he can move crowds and rally them to the cause of the Ravenskill Militia… and that’s about it. It’s unclear whether it’s magic or just a lot of charisma. And while some authors use this ambiguity to keep some surprises from the audience, here it’s not handled all that well. There’s also implication that Gabriel is a “Chosen One”… just the 3912th Chosen One in fiction, keep ‘em coming, I’m definitely not tired of this cliché at all.

Three songs down, 31 more to go. I'll take a break here and resume this next Monday. In the meantime, I invite you to give the whole album a listen, you can find it on YouTube on Dream Theater's official channel.