DREAM THEATER – The Astonishing (2016)

DREAM THEATER - The Astonishing (2016) full

In their new monster recording “The AstonishingDREAM THEATER goes … well, theatrical. This 2 hour concept double CD (4LP) production “plays” out like a play – truly an epic story of love, betrayal and redemption this was clearly written with the intent to take on the road as a big rock opera/theatrical production.

Lyrically conceived and written by guitarist John Petrucci, the story takes place some 200 years in the future where the reigning powers have allowed the NOMACS to suppress musical expression in favor of electronic noise (sound familiar?).
In a manner similar to Rush’s 2112, “The Chosen One” rises from the “oppressed” with the offer of the gift of music to humanity – the music to serve as the vehicle to spur revolution and the restoration of humanity. Yeah, it’s much more complicated than that but no spoilers here.
The fun of an album like this is to be able to explore the characters, scenes and backdrop for oneself – far be it from me to spoil anybody’s virgin listening experience.

Musically, this is truly different from where the band has gone before. Sure, they’ve done the epic story telling tracks before (“The Count of Tuscany” just one example), but those songs really could stand alone.
The Astonishing is an entire theatrical performance (akin to Pink Floyd’s The Wall) and plays out exactly in that fashion, each song dependent on the preceding track for support and context both lyrically and musically. Sound effects are used to create a cinematic vibe and there are some choral and symphonic elements but they never seem to overwhelm what the band is trying to accomplish.

It’s cool how the narration of the story is actually worked into the body of the songs so we don’t get corny spoken parts interrupting the flow of music. The way they reference themselves in “When Your Time Comes” is brilliant.
And in general, the genius with much of the diversity here is that if you take the work as a whole it actually pays tribute to many different forms of music (rock, jazz, classical, etc.) and in doing so specifically supports the legacy of Dream Theater and in general all forms of musical expression.

So what about the music that supports this epic story? Well, there are a few things that really surprised me. With the exception of the “overture” type songs that we hear at the beginning of Act I and Act II (not new to Dream Theater), it has been a long time since I heard these guys emphasize the melody and really serve the song in this regard. Some of these songs are a bit mellow (especially Act I), so don’t expect huge technical riffing and endless soloing.
That is definitely de-emphasized here to the point that I almost didn’t believe what I was hearing at first (only because it was such a departure for DT), but with repeated listens these melodies are strikingly beautiful. Even Mangini takes a back seat to the song – his normally mathematical machinations supplanted by supporting rhythms injected with the occasional flamboyancies.

Interestingly, much of this music reminds me of the Images and Words/Awake era in that regard, as well as Scenes From A Memory. The piano plays a huge role, especially in Act I. More surprising though is that LaBrie handles the vocals of (in addition to the narrator) all 8 of the key characters!
Those familiar with Ayreon – Arjen Lucassen is the master of 2 CD concept releases – will recall his “thing” was to give each character in his stories a different “voice” in the form of an individual singer. Folks, James LaBrie does all of the voices here, which is extremely challenging.

And while I would have loved to have heard some guest vocalists on a release like this, LaBrie makes it work. He is truly brilliant on this record. Look, I’ve been a sceptic of his voice in the past, at times when his voice was less than stellar. But his performance here is THE focal point of The Astonishing … and to me that is “astonishing” in and of itself since the history of this band has always been that the vocals kind of take a back seat to the instrumental wizardry. Not so here. Although I will say that while Act I feels a bit more melody driven, Act II brings some of the heaviness, instrumental wizardry and soloing that fans will want.

My final surprise with this release musically is that the NOMACS don’t play a bigger role here. Their “music” only occupies 5 short tracks on the entire 2CD set. I really thought there might be more “warring” between traditional music and robotic music, but as it turns out the NOMACS are a very small part of the story here as this is really a story about humanity vs. humanity – the machines are controlled by the behavior of the humans, and the ultimate outcome dictated by human actions.

DREAM THEATER - The Astonishing (2016) back

In summary, “The Astonishing” is a different beast, one that might frighten some fans away while simultaneously entice others to explore.
But one thing is for sure – this is Dream Theater through and through, and I for one am really glad to see them not only revisit their more melodic roots but also bring something this inspiring, positive and this hugely theatrical to the stage. (review by JSwank)
Highly Recommended

CD 1:
01. Descent of the NOMACS
02. Dystopian Overture
03. The Gift of Music
04. The Answer
05. A Better Life
06. Lord Nafaryus
07. A Savior in the Square
08. When Your Time Has Come
09. Act of Faythe
10. Three Days
11. The Hovering Sojourn
12. Brother, Can You Hear Me?
13. A Life Left Behind
14. Ravenskill
15. Chosen
16. A Tempting Offer
17. Digital Discord
18. The X Aspect
19. A New Beginning
20. The Road to Revolution

CD 2:
01. 2285 Entr’acte
02. Moment of Betrayal
03. Heaven’s Cove
04. Begin Again
05. The Path That Divides
06. Machine Chatter
07. The Walking Shadow
08. My Last Farewell
09. Losing Faythe
10. Whispers on the Wind
11. Hymn of a Thousand Voices
12. Our New World
13. Power Down
14. Astonishing

James LaBrie – vocals, percussion
John Petrucci – guitar, backing vocals
John Myung – bass guitar, Stick
Jordan Rudess – keyboards, synthesizer
Mike Mangini – drums


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