Before I begin, I’d like to come clean: I have zero experience with Dream Theater’s music. I’ve never sat through one of their albums prior to the preparation for this review, and I’ve wiped my slate clean of all expectations. I have heard of this album as being heavier than past albums by the band, but that is ultimately meaningless because I don’t know what is deemed as being ‘heavy’ for this band. Aside from this I’ve also heard of the usual critiques of this band – ‘they noodle aimlessly and James LaBrie sounds awful’ says the detractors and ‘they’re progressive and visionary’ says the fans – so I genuinely had no idea what to expect.
Unpacking the performances reveals that Dream Theater had a pretty clear train of thought when writing this album – the words ‘progressive’ and ‘metal’ are quite blatant misnomers, and the character of the riffs and especially the vocals puts me in mind of that breed of alternative/nu-metal that was quite prevalent in the world of rock back in the early to mid ’00s. The idea that this album is in any way heavy is a purely aesthetic observation – the guitars on this album largely play very little of substance, opting instead for hypnotic and repetitive 2 to 3 note fragmented riffs mixed up with the occasional groove and some outright chugs that are about as far removed from any sort of metal as is possible. Any heaviness comes through only in the muddy nu metal guitar tone, as opposed to any quality riffing.
As the album unfolds a clear pattern emerges in the instruments – repetitive and worthless instrumental sections with some really blatant window dressing thrown in. Said dressing can range from very short melodic leads between chugs to short drum solos to lengthy leads. To be fair, no single song contains one very large reservoir of wank, with it being spread fairly evenly throughout – with the exception of ‘Stream of Consciousness’, an 11 minute load of technical masturbation that doesn’t go anywhere. Any technical chops exhibited throughout this album are utterly negated by the incoherent non-arrangement and misdirection of said chops. Even more obvious bouts of compensation come about with the usage of keyboards, which simply follow what the guitars are doing and are never given a chance to soar at all. I suppose the effect was to layer the music and give it an air of grandiosity but it falls flat given the utterly comical and broken nature of what is playing beneath them.
Another one of this album’s annoying characteristics is the tendency towards vocal orientation. There is clear pattern of the redundant faeces being played when James LaBrie keeps quiet being thrown out for a tuneless atmospheric interlude as in ‘As I Am’ or totally boring and uninvolved mechanical chugs that are as redundant as can be, with the rhythm either complementing the vocal line above or, as ‘Honor Thy Father’ demonstrates, deliberately being syncopated to give a quasi-rap cadence to LaBrie’s singing. All of this would be fine if the void left by the instruments could be filled with something compelling but this isn’t the case, given that James appears to have listened to one too many Creed albums. His voice has taken on that slightly gravelly radio-rock tone that is both completely inappropriate given that the music has more in common with nu metal than it does any sort of post-grunge drivel that steeped the airwaves of the time, and grating given that he sounds awful anyway. His voice suffers from that same vaguely tuneless and whiny tone that is common in this style of music, and the similarly anti-melodic vocal lines only compound this problem. The surprisingly hook-y nature of this album (with a lame radio rock hook being shoehorned into every song) makes this problem even worse than it needs to be, along with the needless electronic distortion done to his voice on songs like ‘This Dying Soul’.
The worst thing about this album though is simply that it carries almost no structural intrigue with it at all. The number of times the band will repeat a riff throughout a song is quite astounding. Individual sections of songs are never developed at all, and every monolithic chunk of the song doesn’t flow into the next part. A random atmospheric part will follow a loud hook, which will then be followed by a fit of directionless soloing which leads into another revolting quiet verse. The songs are simply far too long given that they carry so few ideas, and even fewer of quality. Every song rigidly adheres to a distinctly stagnant structure, which is the exact opposite of what progressive metal should be – a series of flowing ideas that are dwelled upon for long enough and developed in said time. This idea that this is somehow an experimental return to form is completely nonsensical. Even though I’ve never heard another album by this outfit I refuse to believe that they ever wrote drivel like this before this album. There is almost nothing of worth here, with any good bits being negated by bad parts and all of it being wrapped up in structures that are simplistic, lazy and overly dogmatic yet completely incoherent. It is simply a tragic misfire of an album that is a waste of everybody’s time.