When someone talks about concept albums in metal, Dream Theater’s ‘Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory’ is bound to come up; mainly because it was a landmark album that was universally admired both for its themes and musicianship. Dream Theater haven’t done a full concept album since then; they’ve done concept songs, but haven’t really dedicated a whole album to it. Seventeen years after ‘…Scenes from a Memory’, they have decided to create another concept album. ‘The Astonishing’ is the result of more than two years of work by John Petrucci and the band, and they have come extremely close to topping ‘Scenes from a Memory’, by taking you out of this world and into their fantastical land to tell you a tale of struggle, love, despair and hope.
Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this album. It may not be the perfect Dream Theater album, but it is their most ambitious album to date. Split into two acts, it consists of a whopping 34 tracks totaling 2 hours and 10 minutes in length. You might think this is too long, but the music and the story will keep you engaged through most of this duration, much like a good movie. I am not going to delve into the intricacies of the story here, because that is something the listener should understand on his own. But I will say the when compared to the stories told in other concept albums, it is pretty straightforward. I felt that there was more emphasis on characters and their relationships rather than in telling an intriguing story, and evidence of this can be found throughout the album in James LaBrie’s passionate performances of the characters.
The album has a lot of soul, and yet shows little of the band’s technical side. Blistering solos on the guitars and keyboard, bass gymnastics, and out-of-this-world drumming are few and far between in ‘The Astonishing’, and even when they do appear, they do so for just a few fleeting moments. This lack of flashy playing, however, does not take away from the auditory experience of the album; the point of this is not fan service, but to achieve the grandiose vision of the band. This album is laid out like a musical and I can very much imagine watching this being acted out on stage while the band plays the album in the background (are you listening, DT?).
As I said earlier, this is not a perfect album, as it could have been a bit shorter in my opinion. The first act spends a lot of time setting up the characters and premise, and by the end of it, you will be pretty invested. However, the pay-off in the second act comes too early (much like the second season of ‘Twin Peaks’, if you know what I mean) and the last few songs seem like they are repeating the same idea. When I compare both acts, Act 1 is the easily my favourite both in terms of the story and the music. Act 2 isn’t as compelling as its predecessor, but still has a few good songs. Incidentally, it also contains my favourite song off the album: “Moment Of Betrayal“. I didn’t quite understand the whole thing with the NOMACS (the flying spherical robots) though; the album has these tracks scattered across both acts where you can hear the mechanical-robotic sounds of the NOMACS, but I couldn’t understand how they fit into the whole concept. Luckily, these breaks do not take away from the experience, but neither do they add anything to it.
Dream Theater has pulled out all the stops when it comes to the production on ‘The Astonishing’. The sound is perfect right from the guitar squeals to the splashes. John Petrucci oozes feeling into every note he plays, and you can clearly hear it in his solos. His guitar tone is much meatier than that of the last album, kicking you in the gut in the more aggressive sections. John Myung on bass along with Jordan Rudess on the keyboards expand the sound-scape of the album to create this rich, creamy, textured sound that lingers just long enough before fading away. Rudess’ keyboard work is apt as he lends an important sense of emotional depth to the songs, which only James LaBrie‘s vocals can match. Mike Mangini on the drums never misses a beat, and his critics from the tail-end of DT’s Portnoy-era may well be silenced by his performance on this album. But the real prize goes to LaBrie; portraying 8 characters is not an easy task, but he somehow manages it without compromising on quality or emotion.
With ‘The Astonishing’, Dream Theater has brought to fruition what they have said is their most ambitious project. ‘The Astonishing’ tells us a story about the importance of music through music, and what better story-tellers are suited to this task than Dream Theater? The band has given fans, old and new, an album which they will cherish for a long time. This is the kind of album that people will look back on with fond memories; I know I will. I’ll be looking forward to seeing this album performed live in some form or the other, for that is how this album was meant to be heard and seen.