So, here we are, The Astonishing. I would really like to say that I didn’t like it, that I miss the first Dream Theater period, truth is, I can’t. I really really can’t, I mean, it’s not the perfect album (unlike Images and Words that is for me the best album in history), but is (in my opinion) the actual step forward from the hole that the absence of Mike Portnoy left in Dream Theater’s songwriting an production phase.
Since he left, in fact, I perceived a lot of fear in their music, fear that their fanbase would leave them because they weren’t the same anymore, and they had, or better, they must show that their technical skills were in constant improvement, in order to try to please all their fans that had this fetish for their instrumental prowess. I didn’t like their previous Mangini-era album at all, I started to accept the fact that they reduced themselves to be an ordinary prog metal band, not the legend I felt in love with at the first listening of “Metropolis pt.2”. With this album, The Astonishing I felt like something was re-awakening, like Petrucci and Rudess had found a new formula to make things work for the best again, not only writing complicated twin solos, using improbable tempos, but they made something that can make the listener feel something again, different from the astonishing sensation of their immense musical funambulism.
Before going any further I want to say that I will not analyze every individually song in the album, because I don’t think that is the most appropriate way to speak about that. Thanks to my beautiful girlfriend who gave me a ticket for The Astonishing Live at Teatro degli Arcimboldi in Milan I feel that the best way to enjoy this album is by listening it without interruption or even better to go to a live show, so I will speak about the album in its entirety.
The Astonishing is something that goes further from being a concept album, is an actual metal music opera. They know this formula, Metropolis pt.2 (“Scenes from a memory” for you and me) was in fact a quite complicated story involving psychotherapy, crime investigation and paranormal, and for this album Petrucci, who wrote the history and lyrics, decided to deal with music and, I think, what it represent for him. The first musical piece introduces us to a dystrophic future, where the World is under the control of evil Emperor Nafaryus, who banned all the music and creativity and uses the NOMACS (Noise MAChineS) to broadcast an empty, endless cacophony and keep control over all the population. Only in Ravenskill, a village in the Endless Island a feeble voice awakens, Gabriel, the Chosen One, a young composer who still remembers how to create something that could really touch souls and his brother Daryus, the general of the Rebel Militia are a new hope for destroying this dreadful empire.
And this is all I will tell you about the story, mostly because I don’t want to spoil anything, I want to encourage you to listen to this album.
Musically speaking “The Astonishing” is a lot different from the rest of the production of Dream Theater. No long musical suites, no songs lasting longer than 7 minutes, and the story is narrated trough the voice of the characters, played by LaBrie himself. I think this choice is the most controversial production-wise. On one hand they have avoided the trap that is the cooperation with other singers, that could lead to excessive compromises and possibly ruin the musical idea of this album; on the other hand having only one singer makes hard, especially for non-English native speakers, to understand whose character is talking, not helping is the interpretation of Labrie, that decided not to give any particular characterization to the various characters. The music is one thing with the story, it blends with the emotion, is harsh and hollow, thanks to the expressivity of Ruddess’s keyboards every time the NOMACS are “on stage”; the orchestra underlines the sense of grandeur the emperor Nafaryous symbolizes, and DT couldn’t avoid to write a majestic sing along song like “Brother, can you hear me?” or “Our New World” to make the listener empathize with the hero, with catchy riffs and quite linear tempos.
But, for you, hardcore prog fans, do not despair! You can still find in this album all the funambulism that is DT’s trademark since 1985, for instance in the superb Petrucci’s solo in “A new Beginning”, or in all the parts when bass, guitars and keyboards melt in one single melody, yet remaining well distinguishable thanks to a good harmonization. The structure itself of the album doesn’t lack the typical prog metal opera features: there is an opening, that recalls the various themes of the most important moments of the piece, reading in between the lyrics there are a lot of quotes from other various songs like, “the wind of change” for instance, and it’s good how they have a sense in the plot of “The Astonishing”. So, the shortness of the songs is a symbol of a lack of “prog” ideas? Not in my opinion. If you have something good to say musically and from the lyrics point of view in this genre you can do so even with a “short” song.
For those of you that are wanting to go to the live show I will speak about it now, so if you don’t want any spoilers I suggest to skip this paragraph and jump to the end.
The live show is composed by a musical part, played in live by the band, that has no help from other musician (just a little reminder from a folk punk player and irish music enthusiast that is me: I was a little bit disappointed by not seeing anyone playing live the theme of “brother can you hear me?” with the bagpipes in “The X aspect”), and a visual part, that is played with a series of screens that surrounds the band while they play. This part is made in computer animation, but is simple, in order to keep the band as absolute protagonist of the live show. The characters are recognizable, even though I think the steampunk design used for them is a little overused nowadays and maybe they are a little anonymous, thus, if you are not used to the story (and you have not the lyrics at your disposal) you could find some parts a little confusing. The animation is not even that enjoyable, in my opinion it’s too simple, there are only a few moments in which the action is well detailed. I can’t really say anything about Ruddess, Myung, Petrucci and Mangini. They are simply perfect. LaBrie’s performance was not so perfect, his voice is still good and fitting for the songs he has to sing, but lacks especially when he has to reach the highest pitches, in his defense I must say that the show lasts more than 2 hours, and for a singer it is exceptionally difficult to give everything he has for every single minute of the show, especially if you have to do at least two concerts in the same town you visit. A choice I felt was very courageous, but fundamental for the immersion in the lore DT created is the decision of making as little variation on the live version of the songs as possible and creating the “fourth wall” between the stage and the audience. In fact only few times the band cheered the public, but that was not the point of this live show, the point is to immerge you, spectator, in the story they are narrating you, the only shame is that in some point music loses your attention, I found myself watching only the screen acting and not concentrating upon DT’s performance.
So, concluding what can I say about “The Astonishing?”
It’s a complicated album, not for everyone. You can’t listen to it and expect something like “Awake”, “Images and Words”, because, well it’s simple: the 90’s ended a good 16 years ago (le me old) and especially for a genre like prog the band has to change, to explore, not to give every 2-3 years the same product with different names (in my opinion), and this is what “The Astonishing” is. Is a step forward. In “Systematic Chaos” DT took us for a ride in something that I think is the most technical thing they have written, yet still full of passion and sentimental tension (Shall I remember you the story of “The ministry of lost souls”?), in “Black clouds and silver linings” they did pretty much the same thing (only I don’t know who has recorded this album, probably an amateur, the sound recording was inacceptable for a Roadrunner published work), and they repeated themselves among “A dramatic turn of events” and “Dream Theater”, without adding anything. And that were not the Dream Theater I felt in love with, They were not this guys that made some of the most majestic pieces of music I ever heard, the band that really made me like everything about music. They were an excellent prog band, formed by spotless musician, but they gave me less than I expected. With “The Astonishing” I can feel a change, still I have in my mind all the different songs, listening to it brings you actually for a ride in the dystopian future they created. The only thing I can suggest you is to go to a live show, or, if you can’t afford that is take two hours for yourself, close your eyes and let Dream Theater narrate you the story of Arhys and his brother Gabriel. It will be worth it.