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July 4, 2016

Dream Theater's The Astonishing (Part 2)

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Continuing from Part 1, welcome back to this review of The Astonishing, a rock opera created by Dream Theater.

Not sure if they modeled Gabriel after what LaBrie
looked like when he joined the band in 1992...
We continue into “The Answer”, where Gabriel explains that he’s not at ease with the role his brother puts on his shoulders. Then we go in “A Better Life”, where Arhys says that he comes from a lineage of warriors and will fight until the established totalitarian order is toppled. More than that though, he explains that he does it for his son Xander, whom he refuses to see grow up in the extreme poverty of the people of Ravenskill. He swore to his wife, who died at Xander’s birth, that he would do anything to give him a better future. It’s a good motivation for the character, and while it’s also a bit cliché, I’m willing to give this one a pass because it’s so heartfelt.

He looks straight out of a PS4 game.
Or XBox One? Not sure. I'm a Nintendo
guy, I can't tell the quality of CGI
graphics apart on the other consoles.
Also to note, James LaBrie voices all the characters here. He tries to give each character a distinct feel; Faythe and Arabelle have soft voices. Arhys sounds proud and strong. LaBrie also tries to make Gabriel a tenor, and emphasizes this in his voice when playing him. Lord Nafaryus has a heavy, threatening voice when he gives orders and all the ham that goes with it (though, this is Dream Theater; hamming it up at least a little was inevitable), though he tones it down considerably when talking about his loved ones. Like Nafaryus, Prince Darius has a gruffer voice, but unlike his father he keeps that tone through the whole album. It’s nice, but as a result you can’t always tell which character is talking right now. Thankfully, the lyrics booklet provides info on which character is speaking, along with the location and time of day each song takes place – you know, like a play. I suspect this is gonna go on Broadway at some point… Talking about the booklet, it presents all eight characters of the story with nice, if slightly unnatural-looking, CGI models. There’s some kind of President Snow vibe on this picture of Lord Nafaryus… though I suspect Nafaryus is nowhere near as bad, and would never use children as human shields… This is also the only place where you can see the name of Prince Daryus. The other seven characters’ names are said in the lyrics (Gabriel, Arhys, Faythe, Nafaryus, Arabelle, Xander, Evangeline), but nowhere in the lyrics is Daryus’s name ever given. Whoops! And we’re talking about the second antagonist of the story, he should be kind of a big deal! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Lord Nafaryus” presents to us the primary antagonist as the proud sovereign of the Greath Northern Empire of the Americas, who rules with an iron fist. Nafaryus makes a big deal of Gabriel being able to move crowds, but he particularly hates that the young tenor is being called a God. Yeah, that would annoy me too. He also states that Gabriel will never become the ruler of this land… just wait, just wait. When he discusses his family, Nafaryus suddenly changes; he’s no longer the hammy ruler, but a loving family man who cherishes his wife and children – though even here he seems to prefer his daughter over his son, despite his son being the next ruler of the G.N.E.A.. That part is really sweet and shows that Nafaryus is a more complex character than his name would suggest. My theory is that being hammy is the only way he found to be heard and feared, and this façade usually vanishes when he’s with his family. A strong song that I really enjoy.

“A Savior in the Square” opens on the calm life of Ravenskill, before a show Gabriel puts together for the citizens. Nafaryus and his family show up and take place among the people to hear the Savior’s gift. Gabriel found an old guitar, a relic of ancient times, and already discovered how to play it. Is that a secondary superpower of The Gift? He instantly learns to play any instrument? People, we gotta test this, bring a Theremin! Then Gabriel sees Faythe and is speechless at her beauty. Love at first sight? Can’t believe they went there. I’m gonna have to keep a cliché counter or something. The song continues into “When Your Time Has Come”, where for the first 2/3rds Gabriel sings a song that is absolutely beautiful, and also oddly prophetic (read the lyrics with the plot of the rock opera in mind, and you’ll probably see what I mean). Before checking the booklet, I also thought the last part was sung by Gabriel, though it’s actually sung by Faythe, who was so moved by his song that she falls in love with him – and turns to the side of the rebels.

The next song, “Act of Faythe”, details the backstory of the pink-haired spunky princess – oh right a spunky princess, we’ve never seen that before, am I right Disney? She feels sorry for the citizens who live in extreme poverty and decides to try and help them. She also explains that she grew up with a music player she found hidden in the castle, a player with the word “Bug” written on it. As a result, she’s one of the few people in the G.N.E.A. who grew up actually listening to music. How do I know that? Well, the lyrics say a lot, but still miss out on a lot of details. The Dream Theater website thankfully expands on the story, filling out all the blanks, but it would have been good not to have so much information missing in the album itself in the first place if you ask me. This song doesn’t even mention “Bug” anywhere, yet it’s a plot point in a later song!

Gabriel’s song has ended. “Three Days” starts as Lord Nafaryus admits he was touched by the song… but also that his fears have been confirmed: Gabriel is a menace to his throne and must be arrested! The sovereign is still nice enough to give them a three day ultimatum; if Gabriel is not brought to him before them, Ravenskill will be in flames and in ruins. Wow, harsh much. This song contains a more jazz- or swing-sounding tone in the middle and at the end, it’s really nice. And it meshes surprisingly well with the prog metal that surrounds it. And so fun to sing, too! On this, Lord Nafaryus and his family leave, probably off to a residence closer to Ravenskill (because they will be moving a lot between Ravenskill and said residence, and if the royal family lived too far, it would cause a whole other bunch of continuity problems… I’ll get to that later). As if to indicate the end of this scene – or the beginning of the next – we then get a NOMAC track. I still think those are meant to separate the album in four “acts” in case they make a play out of it. Admit it, “Three Days” would be a perfect way to end Act 1.

Moving on to the next part of the album. Arhys puts some courage into Gabriel by showing him that the entirety of the Ravenskill Militia is behind him, ready to protect him, in “Brother Can You Hear Me”. This is a really nice track with great importance, showing the strength of the bond between these two brothers. It also ends as Gabriel, now filled with determination, choosing to keep up the fight despite Lord Nafaryus’ desire to capture him.

Next is “A Life Left Behind”, which starts with an excellent bit of Spanish-sounding guitar. This one follows Faythe as she’s still shocked by the effect Gabriel’s song had on her, and she finally chooses to listen to her heart and go to the man she loves. I swear this could have come out of a bad Harlequin and it would still have fit perfectly. Queen Arabelle admits that she can’t control her daughter anymore, and asks Daryus to spy on her to know where she’s going. Seeing this as his chance to get recognition from his father – oh hey, here’s another interesting trope, the son who tries his damndest to make his dad proud! Again, very common in fiction.

This continues into “Ravenskill”, which follows Faythe’s venture into the small town. See? That’s what I meant. If the trip between Nafaryus’ palace and Ravenskill is too long, Faythe would not logically have time to go back and forth between the two… remember, everything past this point happens in less than three days! I’d say the royal family is living a bit out of town while Nafaryus waits for Gabriel to be brought to him. To me, this makes perfect sense; that way, Faythe can go to Ravenskill, so can Daryus, and days-long trips are avoided. Goes in with the idea that people have reverted to basic means of transportation: walking, or horse carriages. Can’t go all that fast like this! So, at first she’s unsuccessful due to the untrusting community (and frankly, which Ravenskill citizen wouldn’t be? The Lord has sworn to set the whole place on fire in one, maybe two days!). Then she sees Xander, probably remembers he was close to Arhys in the crowd earlier (I’m making suppositions because even the website doesn’t state how Faythe knows Xander is Arhys’ son) and convinces him to bring her to the rebel training camp where Gabriel is hiding. Despite Arhys first trying to make her go away, the Princess reunites with Gabriel and the two hatch a plan; they’ll organize a concert and sway the Lord to their cause, again by singing.

Next is “Chosen”, where Gabriel sings about how this plan is the chance they have to get everyone a happy ending. Um, quick note, I haven’t seen a lot of rock operas that ended well… Downer endings tend to be common in the media… ask “Metropolis Part 2”… Despite the slightly sappy, Disney-esque tone, this is one of my favorite DT ballads now. Not that it tops some of their other best ballads, but it’s definitely up there in the Top 5. I swear, it almost makes me want to put the “Chosen one” cliché in my good graces again! After this song, Faythe runs back to her family to try and convince them to go to the concert on the third night of the ultimatum.

However, Daryus stayed behind and saw not only where the rebel camp is, he also found where Arhys lives. In “A Tempting Offer”, Daryus follows Arhys’ son home and takes little Xander hostage. When Arhys arrives, both men confront each other, and Daryus makes an offer to Arhys; if he surrenders his brother to the royal family, Xander will have a happy future, live in abundance, and poverty will be a past long gone. At the same time, Daryus will get the recognition he wants, and will no longer be the ignored child of the royal family. Daryus leaves on those words, leaving Arhys with a very cruel dilemma: Either he sacrifices his brother for his son’s future, or he doesn’t and the fight continues against the order, with possibly more casualties on the way. Even as the song ends, the violins repeat the melody of the confrontation, as if Arhys still had it in mind and started thinking. Come to think of it, this IS a story about all the forms of love; love between brothers, love of a parent for a child, and of course the love Gabriel and Faythe share. One of my favorite themes of the album, really; and this also happens to be one of my favorite tracks on it.

After the NOMAC-produced “Digital Discord”, it’s “The X Aspect”. Arhys weighs his options, wondering whether he should betray his brother to give his son a better life (arc words, if there ever were some), or take the risk of not handing Gabriel over to Lord Nafaryus. After asking himself what Evangeline would suggest, he finally decides to betray his own brother. And just to pour salt in the wound, the melody of “Brother Can You Hear Me” is reprised on bagpipes, like the universe telling Arhys “Remember what you said earlier, remember when you said you would always protect your brother! Jackass!”

Next is “A New Beginning”, where Faythe tries to convince her family to go see the concert. At first Nafaryus refuses, still seeing Gabriel as nothing more than a fraud (although, if Gabriel really was a fraud, then why is Nafaryus so Hell-bent on capturing him? With this, isn’t Nafaryus admitting that he’s scared of the guy’s gift?). Arabelle manages to calm down Nafaryus by reminding him that he, too, used to live in loneliness listening to music while no one else could; with the music player labeled “Bug”, the same one Faythe is listening to. I just hope Nafaryus had good taste in music, or I’d be sorry for her. Defeated by his own wife, Nafaryus reluctantly accepts to go to the concert on the night of the third day. And thus we get four amazing minutes of solos. I realize this album has less overly-long musical bridges compared to previous DT albums… then again, previous DT albums also had really long songs…

Disc 1 ends with “The Road to Revolution”, an ensemble musical number where Faythe and Gabriel state again their hope to sway her father to their cause, to the good of music. Daryus watches with a smug grin, no doubt proud of putting Arhys in such turmoil. Arhys, in turn, sings about how difficult choices can be in the face of revolution, and how he hopes his betrayal really is the right thing to do. Nafaryus… just hams it up for fun, as you’d expect. This is a great finale for the disc, and definitely a good way to end the first Act (if you prefer to think of this story’s acts as Disc 1 and Disc 2, rather than splitting it in 3 to 5 acts like most plays would).

Disc 2 will be reviewed next Friday!