2013-09-30

Album Review: Dream Theater

Typically, when I write album reviews, I add some biographical information and retrospective thoughts about how the album I am presently reviewing fits within the context of a band or artist's complete history. I am tempted to do that once again for Dream Theater, the self-titled new album from the world's most famous progressive metal band. Unfortunately, in the case of Dream Theater, so much has already been written, and so much is currently being written, and so many fans have yet to write, about all of that stuff that it just becomes superfluous.

What is it about Dream Theater that inspires so much fanaticism among their loyal following? There are many possible qualities: the individual members' much-noted virtuosity, the consistency of the band's output, the lofty lyrical themes, the grandiose album concepts, the tireless outreach efforts lead by some members of the band...

It could be any and all of these characteristics, but if I would like to advance an alternative hypothesis. Throughout the years, Dream Theater has managed to fuse all the most exciting elements of progressive music - the odd time signatures, multi-movement compositions, and adventurous instrumental solos - with what is essentially pop-rock sensibility. That is to say, while a Fates Warning album is dense with occasionally jarring harmonic passages; while a Gordon Knot album is potentially so thick and confusing as to be difficult to bob your head along with; while a Symphony X album is thick with orchestral passages and fantastical, mythological lyrics; while a Porcupine Tree album is full of gloomy ambience; while a Meshuggah album is full of grit and growl; while the rest of the prog-rock and prog-metal world is neck-deep in a rather unique artistic vision, Dream Theater has always managed to pull back before going too far in any one direction.

When it`s bad, it tends to come off as disingenuous. At their worst, Dream Theater is like a prog-rock cover band. Heck, they've released their cover songs as albums and EPs. They've played whole classic rock albums from other artists live, in concert. They specialize in being able to perform the music of other people, and their fans eat it up. But there is no denying that a valid criticism of the band is their tendency to cover, copy, and cite from rote.

When it's good, though, Dream Theater's music offers what many progressive bands simply cannot: A dive into the prog-metal pool without getting too wrapped up in silly lyrics, without getting too bombarded by jarring time-sig changes, without getting too heavy or too deep, without getting too ambient or too improvisational. In short, Dream Theater offers progressive music for the casual listener, and this is no small feat in a genre that tends to appeal to obsessive music nerds like myself.

This brings me to Dream Theater's latest, self-titled album. Upon listening to this album, I find that for the first time since 1994's Awake, the band has managed to record an album that is worth taking at more than face-value. There is musical interplay between the instruments, not merely technical unison lines interspersed amid solos and power chords. There is a variety of tones produced by the bass, in addition to some surprising tonal choices by guitarist John Petrucci. Jordan Rudess's compositional fingerprint is felt in ways that haven't really shown themselves on previous Dream Theater albums. And LaBrie's vocals are as strong and appealing as ever.

To put it succinctly, this is the most musically interesting Dream Theater album I've heard in years. I don't mean this in a way that detracts from the band's prior output, either, although it is probably inevitable that a band that has recorded as much material as Dream Theater has will always have comparatively stronger and weaker albums.

Part of what makes the new album interesting is the aforementioned interplay among the instruments. But another part of it is that the band's softer side is on display for a change. If you're the kind of fan who always had a soft spot for songs like "Lifting Shadows Off A Dream," or "Surrounded," this album is for you. If you're the kind of fan who always identified with the more-rock-less-metal aspect of songs like "Take The Time" or "Caught In A Web," this album has you covered. It's not that the album lacks heaviness, it's just that it demonstrates some much-needed maturity. After all, critics of progressive music are always calling it juvenile or cheesey. Mature compositions render that kind of criticism impotent.

So what we have in Dream Theater's self-titled album is music that is simultaneously approachable, mature, well-arranged, and classically Dream Theater. It is exactly what one might hope to see from a self-titled Dream Theater album. And, to my great delight, the album is the first one in a long time to hearken back to the Awake era.

To be sure, criticisms of the album can be made. The sterile production quality hides some of the best aspects of the album, such as the excellent performances of new drummer Mike Mangini. The vocals also sit a little too high in the mix. In fact, each instrument seems to occupy such a well-defined sonic space that the songs can sometimes lack the live feel that exists on related albums like The Winery Dogs or Levin Minnemann Rudess. There are also clear musical references to band's influences. The first two songs sound like they could appear on a Symphony X album, and "The Bigger Picture" is a clear and lofty tribute to Rush.

Still, the band has packed so much into their self-titled album that it's easy to forgive them for some of the shortcomings. For my money, this is the best Dream Theater release in twenty years. It seems that they have rekindled the creative spark that got lost in the new millennium. Perhaps the departure of founding member Mike Portnoy was ultimately an impetus for good. It certainly seems that way, because the new album is much, much better than I expected.