24 February 2016

Dream Theater - The Astonishing

Dream Theater can never be said to be unambitious, they have always been trying to push the envelope more than a lot of bands ever even attempt to imagine.  For many years’ they have created a discography that is the envy of many bands, it is a legacy that is beyond reproach.  I am not going to go over their back-story as it has been completed many times before, but what I will do is go through the story of this album.  Since their last two albums 'A Dramatic Turn of Events' (click here to read Marc Richardson's review)  and 'Dream Theater' (click here to read Marc's review of this one) the band have been creating a new concept album (their second after 'Metropolis Part 2; Scenes from a Memory') which deals with the story of the Earth in the year 2285; the world into a dystopia and the north American seaboard is ruled by the Great Northern Empire of the Americas.  In this future, there is no music and the only entertainment comes from drones called NOMACS.  In a small village, a man called Gabriel can naturally make music and sing; obvious this is not pleasing to the ruling family and a confrontation or two arises.  Obviously we will deal with the plot as the album is reviewed; now you make have noticed the "we", this is because of the length of the album and the fact it is the first joint review between Eddie Carter & Andrew Oyston.  Eddie will be reviewing the first half of the album, Andrew the second half; hopefully it will make sense and the joint conclusion will make sense.  Either way, it is a challenging release before a note is played; so without further ado, let's hand over to Eddie for the first half of the album.

Ok, so we start the album with "Descent of The Nomacs" which symbolises the drone and oppressive nature of the world in 2285, it is a short noise piece that is over so quickly that when you focus on it by itself it just sounds like an industrial piece of music.  So we will skip to "Dystopian Overture" which introduces the albums various themes in a montage sort of way, it is a beautiful piece of music that goes from progressive genius to Zappa crazy in places, it gave me a dry smile when I first heard it and it brings together all the best parts of what Dream Theater always create; they always have a bigger picture when they are writing and creating, this song feels like it is an introduction to a film (in this form, a story to music) and it gives exciting glimpses of what is to come.  "The Gift of Music" is the opening story which sets the story out for the audience, it is sung the point of view of the people and introduces Gabriel who is the hero of this story.  Now, it is a good song but already it is starting to feel as if the music is actually being forced around the story, instead of the music being an equal partner in this tale.  When the music is on centre stage it works, when the story and words arrive it feels forced and unnatural which is very unlike the Dream Theater of old.  Following on the "The Answer" which is a short piece that is sung from Gabriel's point of view and he is voicing his doubts about his abilities and messianic elevation.  It is for plot progression and it sounds like it could be used in a play, but the song ends with marching feet and the sound of an army on the march which fades into the sad violin and keyboards of "A Better Life".  The song is sung from the point of view of Commander Arhys who is in charge of the Ravenskill Rebel Militia and deals with his losses and his hopes for the future.  Unlike "The Gift of Music", the words and music are in harmony and it you can hear the sadness and hope within this song.  But once again, I am appreciating the song more than loving it as it feels as if I am hearing this in the wrong medium which takes a bit of the shine away from the song.

"Lord Nafaryus" introduces the villain of the piece and how he takes his family to Ravenskill to hear the alleged music of the saviour and to see what all the fuss is about.  It is all dramatic, with a hint of anger and fear added to the mix. It is the first song to settle into its own natural rhythm and it can be taking out of the context of the album and stand as a track on its own two feet.  The guitar and keyboard work on this song is brilliant, one of the stand out moments of the record.  "A Saviour in the Square" is about a public performance that Gabriel gives which is interrupted by the ruling family.  He is advised to keep playing or the Nomacs with release their music onto the village and towards the end of the song Gabriel sees Princess Faythe and falls in love with her.  The song itself chops and changes to reflect each facet of the story and it goes along in a linear sort of way; however, and this is a big however, it is not the smoothest of transformations to each point of the songs and it ends with the start of the performance which merges into "When Your Time Comes" where the villagers applaud the start of the music.  The song is a plea to the ruling family from Gabriel to let music fill their lives and come over to the side of good (and he is also singing directly to Princess Faythe) and it is one of the shining light of this side of the album and it almost bring everyone to tears.  It is a song which is hard for a band with the calibre of Dream Theater to get wrong and they certainly do not make a mistake on this number.  It might be the deepest of songs that they have ever wrote, but it does its job on this album with expertise and is another song which could be taken out of context on the album and not lose any of its power.  Next is "Act of Faythe", in this song (which is heavy on the strings) the Princess recounts how she found a music player when she was younger and how she kept this secret; she also starts to reciprocate the love of Gabriel and you know in a few moments it will all turn to shit.  The song itself is decent, nothing special for Dream Theater and it does not really move as much as it really should do and when she finds the player, the song actually feels a little too predictable for this band.  "Three Days" changes back to Lord Nafaryus who is briefly moved by Gabriel's performance, sees the man as a threat and gives the village three days to hand Gabriel over or he will destroy them.  The music is dramatic, it has a feeling of matinee play, the rock band Ghost and Tim Curry all wrapped into one.  It is going full on evil villain at this point and it makes for a much better song, yet it is so Jekyll/Hyde that it is hard to like, let alone love and it does not make for the smoothest of listens (and this opinion is from a man who listens to more Frank Zappa than is legally allowed in some states of the USA).

"The Hoovering Sojourn" is obviously the music from a Nomac and is over in 28 seconds, it sounds like an out take from an Aphex Twin album and does nothing to help the album, it could have been added to another song and saved some space - next.  "Brother, Can You Hear Me?" starts with the sound of battle and the marching of the troops, it does have a regal to the music and the song is about Arhys hiding Gabriel and is being defiant of the orders of the royal family.  To be honest, the song sounds like it could have been taken from 'Les Misérables' and it is another song that feels a little bloated and its message could have been delivered in half the time of the song; yes, it is well played and it does give a dramatic moment, but it is also a little too OTT - even for a concept album.  "A Life Left Behind" starts with an acoustic guitar, before the rest of the band join in and in this song Princess Faythe leaves the palace to be with Gabriel.  Being aware of her daughter's intentions, her mother the Empress Arabelle sent Faythe's brother Daryus to protect her.  It is a strange one, somehow it brings a few moments of brilliance that you always get with Dream Theater and then it just does not really have that emotional connection that you can get from the band.  As the album progresses, you start to realise that each character really needs a separate singer (no offence to James LaBrie, as great as his voice and performance is, it would have worked better if you could really tell the difference between the characters).  With this song having the points of view of three different characters in it, you could get a little lost as to who is speaking at any one time and you spend more time going over the lyrics to make sense of it, rather than just enjoying the song.   "Ravenskill" is about the brother and sister arriving to the village and trying to find Gabriel, it is another song that shifts a little too easily for my tastes between the styles and even the great Dream Theater cannot make this song work in my opinions.  It is a big part of the story as hear the union of Gabriel and Faythe, trust being built and it has too much going on it the words for it to come together.  It is a good song, but one that is very frustrating at the same time as well.  "Chosen" continues the story of Gabriel wanting to meet the Emperor and plead his case to bring the leader to the side of good by the power of his voice and music which will bring peace to everyone.  It has a great deal of emotion going on in the song, with the lightest of moments the band sound more passionate in this number than they have for a lot of this side of the record.  However, it does have that show stopping, West End of London theatre feeling and that is a hard feeling to shake.

Starting the final quarter of the first disc is "A Tempting Offer" which shows Daryus being a bad egg as he steals Arhys son Xander, so he can blackmail Arhys with wealth and his son's life for that of Gabriel; this is done in order to impress his father the Emperor, Daryus does this act which damns everyone to a darker path.  Once more I am not feeling an emotional response to this song and it is sad to say that at this point, the album is starting to drag a little too much. It is one of those songs which is important to the plot, but stand it on its own and it is not strong enough to stand up on its own two feet outside of the context of the record.  We are treated to another piece of Nomac music with "Digital Discord", another wasted track and at this point it is giving me more interest than the normal sections of the album - again, next.  "The X Aspect" shows Arhys makes up his mind and agreeing to sacrifice Gabriel as he remembers his promise to his dead wife.  It is a song which is tainted with grief from the beginning and it is musically a stronger number than the last few songs.  You understand the internal struggle of the song, the music is decent (for Dream Theater) and you are not surprised by the outcome of the conflict.  It is a song that makes a lot more sense in the whole album, but this is not a record that is full of standout tracks that work outside of the context of the story.  "A New Beginning" sees Faythe return to her father to plead with him to meet Gabriel one on one, she also discovers that the music player she owned used to be her father's.  The song is one of the longest on the album and it goes from one style to another (possible to show the different characters talking).  Between the two, they agree to a meeting and see what happens.  The more I listened to the track, it is actually one of the few on the album that could actually be shorter (which is something that does not happen with Dream Theater too often).  The first disc ends with "The Road to Revolution" that sees all the parties getting ready for the meeting of the Emperor and Gabriel in an abandoned amphitheatre called Heaven's Cove.  It is a natural pause on this incredibly long album, it is a solemn song which gives the story a perfect moment to hold its breath.  It is a good song, but I do feel it would have been better in a different context.  With that being said, it brings the first half to a decent ending and now I (Eddie) will hand over to Mr Oyston to review the second half.

My Oyston here, back from the queue for the toilets, with a an over-priced bottle of water and one of those extremely nice but eye-gougingly expensive little tubs of ice cream, ready for Act 2. So as we settle in for "2285 Entr'acte", we are given a resume of the musical styles used so far, sort of a 'in last week's exciting episode' catch up. Once the orchestra, I mean band, have warmed up, we are back into the thick of things with "Moment of Betrayal", a powerful piece signifying Arhys informing Daryus that Gabriel will be at Heaven's Cove that night. The song should work as a battle of morals, portraying the meaning of it's title, but comes across as kind of generic and could easily be a stand alone song on A N Other's album. This is followed by "Heavens Cove", a solemn sounding intro giving way to nice acoustic guitar work that is probably my favourite track of the second half of the album, even if it does come across as a candidate for a theme tune for a murder mystery show set in deepest Cumbria. It does keep to the main themes, though the shift in tone half way through is jarring, destroying what atmosphere I thought it had built up.

Next up is "Begin Again", another slow, sad beginning, this time with a piano and a soulful guitar solo. Probably my second favourite track, it veers towards Opeth at times. Then the lyrics kick in, and it feels like the lyrics/story were shoe-horned into the track, rather than complementing each other. It also doesn't really move the story forward, unlike the following track "The Path that Divides". Daryus kills Arhys, as observed by Xander. This track lays on the atmosphere, and the industrial trappings again, heavily compositing fear and dread. The track quickens, leading to the climax of death, backed by what seems like a choir. "Machine Chatter" is a full on "transformers vs random electronic noise", something cribbed from a bizarre mating of Mass Effect 2 and the Bourne Identity. It doesn't add anything, but I kind of get it. However, as with the other short pieces, the choice should have been made to make more of them or ditch them altogether. They are just filler otherwise. 

"The Walking Shadow", story wise, sees Daryus realising he has been observed, as chasing the shadow of who he believes is Gabriel in order to kill him. It is Faythe. At this point, Gabriel turns up and in his anger, screams so loud as to turn Daryus deaf and heard by the local town and the other main characters "My Last Farewell". The first track is full of drama, organ music, anger, and violence, with what should be footsteps but sounds like a heard of very noisy cows(!). The second track is slow and sad, quite easily portraying the story. Ok, it gets a bit melodramatic but it suits the tale well, one of the more successful of the tracks. Just ignore the scream at the end. The first time I heard it, I thought it was Billy Connolly on stage in the middle of a joke.

"Losing Faythe" should start with crying, but it's weirdly off crying, and leads to a slow, even more melancholy tale of Nafaryus and Arabelle begging Gariel to sing and save Faythe. Sadly, he can't "Whispers on the Wind". More sadness, although the feeling behind the signing doesn't quite match tonally with the story. However, before you can say, 'Faythe No More', "Hymn of a Thousand Voices" kicks off with a country style clappy tune that brings light to the story and the album. This could easily sound like a late-nineties Robbie Williams track but hold on, the choir enter stage left and all is well. Faythe lives.

"Our New World" is a re-birth song, all punchy and rocking riffs as Nafaryus realises the error of his ways and decides to power down the NOMACS for good. In good old fashioned 80's metal, you couldn't get any happier than this. Long guitar solo inbound, and there you have the mental image of manly-men high fiving whilst building a barn. And maybe a touch of homo-eroticism but this is the 80's, so Brokeback is 20 years away!

"Power Down" is the last of the industrial tracks, and the weakest of them all. I will say that the idea behind them isn't bad, certainly not as accompaniments to the story, but for a good example of how to use them, try Pink Floyds "Momentary Lapse of Reason". That album is full of those touches and remains as powerful today as it did thirty years ago,

Finally (yes, finally, after nearly two hours!), we get "Astonishing". Try to image the end of the show, a hint of 'Blake's 7' and the whole of the cast getting together to wave the theatre goers home. Oh, and mix in a little bit of Green Day and there you have it. To be honest, it's the encore the album didn't need, we've already had the closure but it gives Dream Theater a chance to run through the styles one more time before it's over. And don't forget the moral message as well. 

It may seem like I am being a tad sarcastic with this review, and maybe I am, but whilst the music is never bad, it's seems over earnest in the story telling, almost po-faced at times. It lacks a lightness of touch, even if the story itself is paper thin, and I would certainly question the two hour running time. Maybe someone will turn it into the rock musical it so desperately wants to be, but only if they cut half an hour from the tracks. Overall, I shall go with a 6 as well. 

So here is my (Eddie) feelings on the album -  When listening to the album, I find that if you look on it on an individual level that the songs are weak for Dream Theater; with the tracks being small pieces it sort of detracts from their overall performance and even as a concept album it is a little too direct and does not reach the highest of other concept albums or any of Dream Theater's previous works.  It suffers from all the characters having the same voice and the band should have given different characters to different singers, it would have given this album a better chance as it feels a bit confusing if you are not looking at the story.  Also it is a bit bloated for a single release and should have been done as a play or even a film as the concept album here is not the right place for the music or drama.  However, even a poor Dream Theater album is better than most other acts best work, the music is beautiful and works better as a whole and the tunes they are making is a sound that would make other bands weep; but compared to their own back catalogue it is too self aware, weak and bloated.  Turns out that I also agree with Andy & the album is scored as such.....

6 out of ten - Now I see where you were going, but it's not quite there....

Eddie's  & Andy's top track - Lord Nafaryus  (it's panto season and the villain would love to walk onto stage with this)

You can purchase The Astonishing from Amazon here

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You can stream The Astonishing on Tidal here

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