Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Dream Theater : "the Astonishing"

I guess I latched onto some of  the heavier moments on "Awake"  and have always wanted these guys to be a metal band ever since. Perhaps they were a metal band at that time since metal has evolved since then. Sure they are great musicians. But after two false starts on this one I begin to wonder if they can still really write a song and not just a showcase for collective shredding. The first actual song is "the Gift of Music' . James Labrie continues to be the band's weak spot as he is unable to make them sound any heavier than Journey. They are quick to dip into piano balladry at a minute and a half into the second. With the main riff sounding more like rock radio from the 80s. In the last minute they lock into a heavier groove, and by heavier I mean more aggressive than where the song was heading. There is a little too much happy frolicking on this one. This is the first album without Portnoy that I have given a shot and without him it seems like he was the main advocate for the band being metal.

One the second real song they are on a soaring ballad. Sure James' voice sounds good on this one and you can already hear the big chorus coming before you get there. It sounds almost like christian rock. Of course concept albums are a real novel concept when it comes to progressive rock. The story is something along the lines of 2112. They get marginally heavier with a riff that reminds me of another story telling band ...Coheed and Cambria, and I think I would prefer their Geddy Lee shrieking to the cheese factor packed into the vocals here. Sure the solos are great, would you expect less, but are they enough to hold your attention for one album much less a double album? The chorus has more hook to it on this one, but it's like Marillion circa 1989.

They are offered a prime chance to get heavy even from a story telling perspective when they introduce the antagonist on "Lord Nafaryus" instead it results in a song that  prances around like Queen and makes "Hedwig and the Angry Inch " seem butch in comparison. When it does speed up for a few moments, Labries voice is just as grating. The guitar takes on a more Pink Floyd tone on " A Savior In the Square". Midway into the song it actual crosses the line into metal, though in it's most grandiose form. Their spirits are lifted again into the upbeat "When Your Time Has Come". If you like inspirational rock music then I guess this is for you, but to me in sounds like they are frozen in time. I guess if you are a fan of these guys its easy to wowed , by precision these guys play with and make it hard to stop and take an objective listen to ask " Are these songs any good?" If we are honest there are some better ballads on the last Taylor Swift album, if you strip away the guitar runs along the edges of 'Act of Faythe".

The incessant use of dramatic piano lines is what keeps dragging this album back down into being second rate Andrew Loyd Weber ". They get back into the rock on " Three Days" though it gets to big for it's spandex britches midway into things. But it pulls itself together in a manner similar to Sigh or Therion, though a much more light weight version of either . "Brother Can You Hear Me" starts off a march and builds into something more akin to the more theatric of  the Roger Water's song from the wall. But Roger Water's has way more personality to his voice , despite Labrie being a technically better singer. Technique has actually hindered Labrie for the bulk of his career. It's one thing to breathe right and sing from your gut, but he sounds like his vocal coach is constantly looking over his shoulder.

The beginning of "A Life Left Behind Me" sounds like the intro to Heart's "Crazy" , but evolves into one of the more interesting prog rock pieces  so far on this album, then it gets mucks up by the balladry even the vocals come in and the piano driven melodrama takes things back to a Celine Dion direction. Another ivory twinkling ballad crops on "Ravenskill" which at this point is beginning to make the album rather tedious. Sure it does build into something more hard rock...not metal , by the end , but at this point even power ballads are getting under my skin. And yet that is just what we get on "Chosen". At best you could fall the writing formulaic. The power chords come in at the chorus and the lighters go up in the air. A guitar solo breaks through the piano, and sure it shreds , but is the rest of the song just bookends for the solo?  Tinkling piano trades places with a heavier riff on "A Tempting Offer" that finds the band back in form. Here the piano knows it's place rather than consuming the song and gives them a chance to rock out a little, even the melodrama on the chorus doesn't bother me.

I should have counted the number of songs that start off with piano when a began listening to this album, as now I don't want to waste any more time going back to find out, it is well over half .  "the X -Aspect" is another power ballad. Bag pipes come in midway and really only spare us from the inspirational power chords. "A New Beginning " is more novel as it starts with guitar and has an upbeat riff that serves as the song's spine. Double bass and more metallic trappings battle it out against the more lavish keyboards, but find them back into the kind of dizzying acrobatics that put them on the map. It doesn't sound like the band is at their most inspired , but the playing glosses that fact over. Midway into it and we are back to another piano breakdown. One thing I can say about the fact that their are so many songs that aides the band is it has helped them keep their songs under the ten minute mark and get to the point. Sometimes the point is the grandiose layers of symphonic fluff that open "the Road to Revolution" marking this as an album whose song titles are heavier than what is inside.There is a little chug for the big ending , but not much in the way of balls , which is the theme of this album. But once past that song we are done with the first album and on with the second.

This might be one of the longest reviews I have written so to spare you a painful recounting of every time they launch into something fifty shades of gayer than Styx, I'll just report the moments where that is not the case. So if I'm not writing about it on the second lp, then it's flowery piano fluff. There is the epic overture, big not heavy.  "A Moment of Betrayal" finds some power chords and offer up a chug. This is where I begin to listen for the new drummer. The comes  the brief drama of "Heaven's Cove" that serves as more of the intro to "Begin Again" . "The Path That Divides" where Labrie manages not to annoy me when he gives a more effects coat and rapid fire delivery once the song begins to rock out. This song reaches a better balance of melodrama and finds the band playing to their strengths.  The come out of the gate with a more metallic flare to "the Walking Shadow". The inject some progressive moments into the balladry we are trying to avoid on "My Last Farewell".  But even the heavier riffs sound like something we have already heard from the band before.

The story might not stand out as much as at it does on "Them" or " Operation Mindcrime" , but sits back in the lyrics like some of Coheed And Cambria's stuff. Faythe who is being lost on "Losing Faythe" is the female love interest/ protagonist. There are some good guitar tones on this song. "Whispers in the Wind" like most of this album is well produced. Sonically they are going for big lush Broadway like sounds like do not lend themselves to heaviness. Violin accompanies the piano that leads into " Hymn of a Thousand Voices". This gives a somewhat more organic quality to another ballad. It is a hymn and I would not be surprised if they come out of the closet as being a christian band.   While  "New World" is a rock song, it seems more like regressive rock than progressive as it is middle of the road and sounds like it came out of the 80s.The title track sounds like it would in the closing credits to a romantic drama. It builds up as power ballads do, but never gets heavy. I'll have to round this down to a 6, because even though  much like 'Use Your Illusion" his could have been streamlined  down into one great album, what is presented here is a bunch of power ballads that are hard to stomach. There are some good moments squeezed into the 26 songs, but this makes me wonder if its a case of even a blind pig gets some corn. It scored so high despite this because when they do get the corn it's close enough to golden.

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