Dream Theater – The Astonishing

Tuesday 15th, March 2016 / 17:15
By Shane Flug

dreamtheaterRoadrunner Records

Progressive metal’s pioneering mavens of majesty have really outdone themselves this time.

Depending on which fan you speak with, wildly-ambitious effort The Astonishing may go down as either the quintet’s best album so far of the Mike Mangini era (who joined in 2011 after drummer/co-founding member Mike Portnoy left), or their jump-the-shark moment.

Their first rock opera since Scenes From A Memory (1999), brainchild of guitarist/bandleader John Petrucci, demands to be heard as a binge-listen, spanning two acts and a 130-minute run time.

It’s the year 2285 in dystopian U.S.A., ruled by the Great Northern Empire of the Americas, and music is automated, played by flying machines called NOMACS. In the village of Ravenskill, a bard named Gabriel has the rare ability to make music, much to the dismay of the empire, led by antagonist Emperor Nafaryus (no, not kidding) and its desire to maintain power by suppressing artistic expression.

The admittedly cheesy 2112-ish concept—even by Dream Theater’s own standard—borrows heavily from empire-vs.-rebellion story arcs of sci-fi/fantasy franchises like Star Wars, and, surprisingly, it succeeds in its intent to make it flow and feel like you’re listening to an audio movie, with vocalist James LaBrie guiding us through the story as the narrator and the characters in one of his more-dynamic performances recently. Choirs and an orchestra conducted by composer David Campbell, also back the band. To help the listener follow along, the concept double-album’s packaging includes a lyric “screenplay,” a world map and art of the characters, which look like something out of a bargain-bin role-playing game.

Funny enough, it took the band a 34-track album to finally compose an entry to their discography that comprises of much-shorter and more self-restrained tunes and keeping trademark “Dream Theater” moments of long instrumental passages demonstrating their virtuosity to a minimum, as much that as may polarize some fans who appreciate those (though “A New Beginning” is one such highlight). Instead, The Astonishing takes a wondrous and melodic approach, with LaBrie, Petrucci and Jordan Rudess’s keyboards leading the charge. Mangini and bassist John Myung go along, not outplaying their bandmates. The prog power-ballad side to Dream Theater is the most prominent here with standouts such as “A Life Left Behind,” “Chosen” and “Hymn of a Thousand Voices,” but fortunately, they still haven’t abandoned their heavy side of sonic, crunching riffage with “Three Days,” “Moment of Betrayal” and “The Path That Divides.”

Forgiving the plot’s corniness, there’s tons of fun to be had with The Astonishing when there’s time to book the two-hour journey. The effort of making a rock opera demanding active participation of the listener not falling on its face is in and of itself something to applaud, though it’s understandably a polarizing project that will challenge longtime fans’ expectations.

Finally, in today’s automating era of self-checkouts, 3D printers and algorithms, the story’s subtle commentary makes a relevant point that “The Gift of Music” is too beautifully human to hand over to the robots.