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July 8, 2016

Dream Theater's The Astonishing (Part 3)

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2, here is the final part of this surprise review of a music album.

Disc 2 begins with “2285 Entr’Acte”, a short instrumental that combines bits and pieces of the songs on Disc 1. Nice little instrumental, wouldn’t be my favorite but it is sweet. It then becomes “Moment of Betrayal”. Gabriel is ecstatic, certain that the plan he has built with Faythe will succeed and change Lord Nafaryus’ view on life. The Chosen will meet his dear Princess tonight, third day of the ultimatum, to rehearse for the big concert. Arhys contacts Daryus to arrange something near the amphitheater, where Gabriel will be captured. The Ravenskill Militia leader still recognizes that it’s a horrible thing to do.

The next song is “Heaven’s Cove”, a mostly ambient track that conveys an emotional weight, presenting the location of the finale: Ravenskill’s amphitheater, known as Heaven’s Cove. It’s the first location that has a song dedicated to it, presenting its feel; the earlier songs “A Savior in the Square” and “Ravenskill” did this a little, but mostly served to advance the plot. It’s still a sweet melody that turns epic when LaBrie gets in. It helps hammering in that entertainment hasn’t been a part of the people’s lives for a long time now.

Following this is “Begin Again”, Faythe’s solo song about feeling accomplishment at the thought that she’ll change history tonight, singing with Gabriel, changing her father’s view on life. Think of it as a companion piece to “Chosen”. It’s also a ballad, but to be honest I prefer “Chosen”. It doesn’t even say much that hasn’t been said, really; Faythe was bored with her life, thought she couldn’t escape it, met Gabriel, now it’s all changed, woo hoo! It feels a bit superfluous, though I guess that’s because the second album needed some levity. This is the last moment of lighthearted sweetness for a long while, enjoy it while you can.

Ten bucks says some people will complain because he's not
how they imagined him to be: White.

Next is “The Path That Divides”. Gabriel and Faythe are on their way to Heaven’s Cove, and so is Arhys, as he’ll soon meet Prince Daryus there. However, as he approaches his destination, Arhys suddenly realizes, “wait… this isn’t a good idea.” …No, you think? I really like how this song’s title and one of the early parts of it is a direct reference to lines from “When Your Time Has Come”. The proud soldier is about to go away, when Daryus arrives. A fight ensues between the two men when the Prince figures out that he’s not getting what he wanted. Unbeknownst to Arhys, he has been followed by Xander, who watches the fight – and thus, sees his father, the proud warrior, the man who boasted about his combat prowess, be killed by the Prince. Cue NOMAC track to let that dark moment sink in.

Xander runs towards his father’s body in “The Walking Shadow”, and screams at Daryus. Seriously, excellent work there from James LaBrie; if you thought he couldn’t pull off the impressive metal screams, here’s one song to prove you wrong. Daryus, as the monster that he is, assures Xander that his time will come too; by the way, in the lyrics booklet, that part is incorrectly given to Arhys; and with the tone, it’s like the proud warrior is inviting his son to die with him. It just doesn’t make sense. However, Daryus sees a shadowy figure approaching. Thinking it to be Gabriel, he leaps with his sword and attacks, only to realize too late that he has actually stabbed Faythe, his own sister, who was coming to the amphitheater for a rehearsal.

Gabriel arrives moments later in “My Last Farewell”, only to be confronted with the horrific scene. Arhys dead, Xander crying, Faythe on her final breaths (and yet she manages to stay alive despite the deadly wound for at least five more minutes), and Daryus catatonic (well, I think of him as such; not only does he say nothing on this song, he’s also absent as a singer in every track following this one, even “Astonishing”). Gabriel mourns and calls out Daryus, and releases all of his pent-up rage in a loud scream that pierces Daryus’ eardrums, deafening him forever.

Hey wait, Xander was close enough to be affected by that scream, wasn’t he? No? Ah, okay.  As for Faythe, she was listening to her music player when she got stabbed, hence why she was too distracted to react; and apparently the earphones also protected her ears from being affected by Gabriel’s loud scream. Which was, I paraphrase, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrh!!!”

Which, by the way, was not even impressive. I mean, LaBrie pulled off a pretty great scream one song earlier, in “The Walking Shadow”, and then we get this, which is supposed to be a scream so powerful it made at least one person deaf and awoke the entire village, and yet it doesn’t sound nearly as impressive. Come on, this could have been better! I know it could have been better! That rale is actually so weak it’s kinda funny. Especially in how powerful it’s built up to be in the story itself.

Also, just how freaking loud was Faythe listening to her music if she ended up unaffected by the scream? I… I… Does not compute, does not compute! Error! Insert Logic file! File not found! Help! Blue Screen! …You get my point. While this is supposed to be one of the most poignant moments of the album, the issues in logic seen here prevent me from fully enjoying the song. I get that it was contrived to get where John Petrucci wanted to go, but… I just can’t ignore these problems! Okay, moving to the next song… we’re almost done! …I hope!

“Losing Faythe” (the song title that reveals the biggest spoiler) has Nafaryus and Arabelle arrive on the scene with guards after hearing Gabriel’s scream. Faythe is still alive, but barely. Nafaryus realizes that none of this would have happened were it not for his ego and desire to capture Gabriel. I hate to pin blame, but isn’t Arabelle also partly to blame since she’s the one who sent Daryus? Faythe passes on after five minutes of excruciating pain, and Nafaryus sees no solution other than trusting that Gabriel’s Gift can save her.

Well gee, he was quick to turn over a new leaf... I guess people will really accept anything when they've got their backs to the wall.

However, as we learn in “Whispers in the Wind”, Gabriel’s voice has nearly run out with that scream (Ha! Sorry, I’m still laughing at that weakly thing they dare call a scream), and he expresses it in a slow, melancholic tune that he should be a whisper (but then again, here it made sense to at least be, you know, audible; since I’d expect Gabriel to barely have enough voice to sing this at the moment. I’ll let it pass). Thankfully, the situation changes; the villagers of Ravenskill heard Gabriel’s scream, and are coming to his help. A huge crowd, if the title “Hymn of a Thousand Voices” is any indication. They come to give a little push to their savior. With all the people in the open area in front of Heaven’s Cove singing to come to his help, Gabriel suddenly retrieves his voice (Show of hands: Who thinks this is BS? …Thought so.), and they all sing as a majestic choir, a prayer for Faythe, who is magically brought back to life. Huh, so the Gift WAS magic after all! It makes so much sense in a medieval futuristic world to suddenly have magic show up!

Wait… At that moment, Faythe has been dead for five minutes. And had been stabbed five minutes before that. Arhys was killed about three minutes before Faythe was stabbed. So wait, Faythe, who was dead for five minutes, could be revived, but Arhys, who was dead for 13 minutes, couldn’t? Does it have something to do with the wounds themselves, Faythe could survive for a moment but Arhys died on the spot? Is that why? And the townspeople are still somehow fine with their chant bringing back only one of the two? Gee, what was that exchange like?

“We’re a thousand people singing along to give you the power to bring your loved Faythe back to life!
“But… what about my brother?”
“Only your love! Let him rot!”
“…Do I have a choice?”
“……….Okay then… pricks. GLORY OF SOUND, GUIDE HER TONIGHT…”

So yeah, Faythe is brought back to life by the power of music. Faythe’s parents are overjoyed. Um, they should probably do something about that wound, take her to a doctor or something. Anyway, in the next song “Our New World”, Gabriel and Faythe remember that Xander no longer has a father. They also realize that Nafaryus made a full 180 seeing his daughter brought back to life, so they sing as praise for this new world that awaits them, a world where the sovereign is benevolent and people are freed from the misery they’ve lived in for so long. Gabriel and Faythe adopt Xander as their son.

Wait, I just realized. Daryus can’t lead if he’s completely deaf. Therefore, the throne of the G.N.E.A. will go to the second royal child in line – Faythe will become Queen! And, thus, Gabriel will be King! So Xander will be a prince! On the plus side, Arhys’ wish came true, his son will never live in poverty again. On the other hand, family reunions will be a bit awkward.

“And this year for Christmas, Granddad Nafaryus gave you a brand new music player! And your deaf Uncle Daryus just gave you a full scholarship! Go hug your uncle, you know, the one who killed your real father! Go ahead, there’s nothing to be afraid of!”

…Damn, that was a nasty joke even by my standards.

“Our New World” is however very uplifting, and no matter how many jokes I’ve made so far, I greatly enjoy it. I know it feels like the last Disney-like number of the album, but its placement and the message are still pretty good. Nafaryus turns off the NOMACs in “Power Down”, and then we get our big finishing number, “Astonishing”. Arhys speaks to his brother a final time from the heavenly afterlife. By the way, can I say that I love how the melody of “Brother Can You Hear Me” has been taken and re-used in so many different styles? Every time it comes back on the album, there’s always a difference in the music. And it comes back in a grand finale here. Afterwads, Gabriel and Faythe go back on this adventure, promising to continue making the world a better place through music. A changed Nafaryus swears to become a better king, Arabelle forgives her son (He was easily forgiven, if you ask me), and everyone sings a final time.

“Eternally, in harmony, our lives will be astonishing again.”

Man, what a great album! Despite its many flaws – most of them in the story – I can’t help but enjoy it. I mean, John  Myung gets buried under the rest of the music, the volume for LaBrie’s vocals could have been increased a bit in some places (some lyrics are hard to decipher for someone like me, as English is my second language), there’s a bit of an over-reliance on ballads (which I can understand, considering the more “Stage Musical” feel of the whole thing). This is probably their softest album, even softer than Falling Into Infinity. And yet the story is just as strong on the side of emotions as Metropolis Part 2.

It would be too long for me to go back to the multiple issues I have with the plot, although what I remember in the end is that it’s about all the forms of love. Beyond the revolution against the tyrannical powers in place, we have the story of a man who has to choose between saving his son and saving his brother. A relationship that would be doomed between two people who came to love each other at first sight, at first note. We have the love a parent expresses for their child however helpless or rebellious they may be. Love for art, for entertainment, for music. The charisma that makes one move crowds, makes people change their own destiny. It may sound corny, but it’s all there. This is one powerful album we got here. As a bonus, it ends a lot better than the other rock operas that follow the same premise of music being outlawed (off the top of my head, Rush’s 2112 and Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage). It’s still not a full-on happy ending, but the entire album feels a lot more hopeful than those. In fact, that’s the word I get from this story: Hope. It’s the one feeling that can be felt through most of these 34 tracks. Even “Dystopian Overture” I felt was very lighthearted and hopeful for an instrumental meant to convey the horrific future.

Now, does it have plot holes? Plenty. Is it missing a bunch of lyrics? Yes. Are there things that just don’t make sense? You bet. This story only makes sense if you’re willing to make some pretty big leaps of logic, or at least rewrite small parts of it, in order to make it coherent. Keeping in mind that “most technology is gone, humanity is almost completely back to the Middle Ages, nobody’s got time to enjoy entertainment – or even sing, for that matter” is a pretty difficult task. I mean, can anyone among us even imagine a world without entertainment, let alone a world without music? I feel this also slipped out of Petrucci’s mind as he wrote the story, though I can’t blame him; This was a gigantic piece of work, errors were bound to happen.

In the end, I just love The Astonishing. I can’t really speak on the technical side of things aside from those few things I noticed; I don’t play an instrument (I tried harmonica; I stopped due to a lack of free time). Some of you may be able to see these problems better than me. But for what I got, I’m satisfied. Not the perfect Dream Theater album, but a damn good one despite its flaws.

Thanks for reading this review.