Album Review: Dream Theater - The Astonishing

25 January 2016 | 3:11 pm | Brendan Crabb

"Overall it's somewhat less focused on hefty guitar crunch and instead ramps up the considerable drama..."

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Casual Dream Theater fans — are there many of those, though? — look away, because The Astonishing may seem an impenetrable proposition. To the newcomer, this set — a fantasy concept suite exceeding two hours — could also be an exercise in prog-metal masochism.

For the dedicated (especially those favouring the mainstays' progressive side over their metallic one) this occasionally laboured effort will likely resonate. Muscular Moment Of Betrayal, for instance, effectively flirts with their heavier side. But overall it's somewhat less focused on hefty guitar crunch and instead ramps up the considerable drama, a quality they've long possessed a flair for. An orchestra and choirs enhance grandiosity. Standalone cuts boasting memorable, cinematic melodies — A Better Life, A Life Left Behind or Losing Faythe — prove tailor-made for James LaBrie's vocal gravitas, which those not enamoured by the narrative can embrace. However, diehards will surely immerse themselves in the lyrics and artwork, seeking clues to unlocking hidden nuances. Detractors often sneer at the virtuosic quintet's music for allegedly being devoid of soul. The story's motifs, such as robotics assuming many jobs formerly completed by humans, and that as technology advances what would eventuate if music wasn't made by people, could therefore be viewed as thought-provoking or pretentious. Often The Astonishing's themes and overall presentation represent a little of both. 

Although arguably not career-defining work, 30 years in it showcases new heights of ambition for Dream Theater, whose desire to push themselves is truly "progressive".