Great live experience but boring studio effort - A review of Dream Theater's ''The Astonishing''
''The Astonishing'' is Dream Theater's most ambitious record ever but turns out to be the quintet's most disappointing release. Fan reactions are quite divergent over this controversial output. When I assisted one of the concerts where the band only played this album in its entirety, I saw some fans disguised as characters from this conceptual record who were quietly enjoying the show as if they were assisting an opera or theater play while others left in the middle of the show or shouted comments like ''You can do better than that!'', ''Play Pull Me Under!'' and ''Trial of Tears, please!''. While the concert was much more interesting than the studio record due to its better instrumental sound, colorful animations and vivid light show, the truth about this album lies in between both the negative and the positive points of view in my book.
Let's start with the negatives first. ''The Astonishing'' is artificially stretched to a length of far over two hours including thirty-four songs and offers quantity over quality. The same story could have been told in a much more consistent way in only one hour if the band had cut in its endless instrumental passages, multiple overtures and numerous codas and especially in the short instrumentals that try to portray what electronic music could sound like in a dystopian world in a biased, cringe-worthy and repetitive way. Even as a fan of progressive music and more complex records, this album is at times hard to sit through. The production of the album is another issue. While all the instrumentals were perfectly audible in concert, the studio album is overtly dominated by keyboard sounds and vocals. The guitar play sound generic and weak at times and the rhythm section has no shining moments throughout the entire record. Both drums and bass sounds are underused on this album which is probably due to the fact that these musicians weren't involved at all in the song writing which was a bad decision. If you expect a progressive band to develop diversified songs where different musicians have their shining moments, you got it all wrong here. Consistency is the key word here to provide a guiding line but over the course of far over two hours of music, this lack of diversity leads to unspectacular boredom. The most significant problem is the fact that half of the album consists of exchangeable ballads dominated by fluffy keyboard sounds and fragile vocals where the singer is mostly breathing his soul out instead of actually hitting notes. Most of this album is neither progressive nor metal music. If the ballads were sung by a woman instead of a man, they wouldn't be a far call from Adele to give you a precise idea but as much as I respect James LaBrie, his vocal skills aren't unique enough to carry this album alone. This leads us to another bad decision made by the song writers in the band. The story revolves around eight main characters including women and a child and a few side characters and they are all portrayed by one singer. James LaBrie is a diversified performer but he doesn't manage to offer eight distinctive styles to distinguish the different characters. Without the booklet, it's impossible to hear which character is speaking or singing in the story which is very confusing. The band should have chosen different guest singers, at least for the female and child characters. When asked why he didn't try out something like Avantasia with its numerous guests, main song writer John Petrucci said he didn't even know what Avantasia was. This is a classic example of a so-called progressive rock musician who is rather regressive and only knows the usual classics but nothing about inspiring contemporary projects. Even if we compare this album to the classics, it can't mess with conceptual records by King Crimson, Rush, Yes and the likes even if some band members and critics seem to think otherwise.
There are also a few positives concerning this record. First of all, the concept and story are an intriguing modern fairy tale that may be predictable at some points yet enjoyably entertaining. The cover artwork and the booklet only add to the intriguing story and it's always obvious that the song writers put a great deal of passion, intellect and creativity inside this project. This album is definitely Jordan Rudess' personal masterpiece. His work was never as diversified, dominating and inspiring as on this album. If you enjoy keyboards and pianos or are playing these instruments, you should definitely own this album. While the electric guitar play is surprisingly lackluster, the record includes many harmonious acoustic guitar parts which is rather unusual but very interesting for the band. Even though James LaBrie isn't able to use eight different vocal styles, his work on this record is still excellent, emotional and motivated. It may be one of his greatest career performances as well. The song where his diversified vocal abilities work best is the enchanting ''Ravenskill''. While the album includes too many exchangeable slow-paced ballads, there are also a few tracks that try to break new ground. ''Three Days'' is one of the most vivid tracks of the record and includes a joyful swing passage that could play in a saloon. ''The X Aspect'' is the first Dream Theater track to include bagpipes and they blend in very well and add some epic melancholy to the story. The dramatic and diversified ''The Path That Divides'' includes some sword-fighting samples that lead to a truly cinematic experience reminding me of the Game of Thrones series and the likes. Aside from these new experiments, Dream Theater also offers some convincing classic tracks. The dynamic ''Dystopian Overture'' is probably the band's most ambitious and entertaining instrumental since ''The Dance of Eternity'' seventeen years earlier. ''The Gift of Music'' has somewhat cheesy lyrics but is the record's catchiest track and offers some memorable melodies. The closing title song ''Astonishing'' offers an epic conclusion with flutes and trumpets that ends an average album on a reconciliatory note reminding me of the two last scenes from the band's previous conceptual output Metropolis Part Two: Scenes from a Memory. Let's also mention that after a strong start and an overlong, disappointing middle section, the rising action and resolution of the story are rather good. Overall, the second act is more fluid and pardons somewhat for an exhausting first act.
In the end, the good and negative elements are rather balanced on this album but if compared to Dream Theater's stunning discography, this album is definitely the group's most disappointing record and suffers from its own ambitions. Instead of buying this album, I would really recommend you to catch the band on one of its concerts supporting this release. The visual elements complement the music extremely well and this fusion offers a high-quality experience for your ears and eyes if you are open to assist a more intellectually driven concert instead of a metal show. If you can't catch the band on one of its current live shows, cross your fingers and hope for an already highly recommendable live release of this experience. Finally, I hope that the band's next record will be much heavier and more modern again since ''The Astonishing'' includes enough ballads and retro sounds for the next three releases together and I'm not even exaggerating here.
Final rating: 60%« Metro 2033: Der lange Weg nach OttawaThe essence of occultism - A review of Dæmonarch's ''Hermeticum'' »
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