Two of my favorite bands are Dream Theater and Ayreon. The former because of their insanely top notch technical musicianship and ability to write some of the best instrumental sections ever into their songs, and the latter for the unique combination of epic storytelling and songwriting project mastermind Arjen Lucassen brings. I have long wondered, though, what would ever happen if the two were to be combined somehow? If either one of the two tried to borrow elements from the other or if some new band came along and managed to combine elements of the two expertly themselves? Well, after years of wondering, I finally have my answer as in 2016 none other than Dream Theater themselves decided to make an attempt at an Ayreon style rock opera, the result of which is a hugely ambitious concept album titled The Astonishing. So, what has this experiment led to exactly? Well, for the very long answer, you can read the following few paragraphs that answer everything in great detail. If you’d like a short answer, please feel free to skip to the very end of the review.
Over the years, Dream Theater have become a rather controversial band, as some of their early releases such as Images & Words, Awake and Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory are widely considered as some of the absolute best progressive metal records ever, but in recent years the band has lost of their fans as they’ve had some questionable releases, a rather infamous meltdown with former drummer Mike Portnoy that led to him leaving the band, and overall it seems the band has lost a lot of the respect they once had among metal fans. Personally, I’ve enjoyed every album of theirs to at least some extent, and I’ve welcomed drummer Mike Mangini from the very start and now think of him as a very important part of the group. At the same time, while their previous self-titled release was excellent, I was anxious to see them attempt something a bit more focused again, and so I had very high expectations for The Astonishing when I first heard it would be a concept album, and those expectations only rose when I learned it would be a full blown, 2 disc rock opera. Needless to say, my expectations were more than met, and the album instantly became one of my all time favorites. However, seeing how the band’s recent output had been getting a mixed reception, this album marked a possible turning point for the band, as to whether or not they could finally win their fans back, or if those fans would only drift further away.
In that regard, making an album such as The Astonishing was a massive risk, as it’s such an ambitious undertaking, and unsurprisingly many folks were not pleased with the result. Stylistically, this album is not going to please those looking for a pure, straight-forward prog metal album, and I really don’t think that’s what the band was going for. Instead, they have brought in a full orchestra, added in some choir vocals for added effect in some sections, and have made what can best be described as a mix between an Ayreon style rock opera, a broadway musical and even in some aspects a Disney movie. So yes, that mix of styles was bound to be met with mixed responses, but personally, I was always on board and excited to hear what the band would do with this album and over a year after its release, I have to say it’s absolutely brilliant and one of the greatest things ever created. I will say, though, in order to fully appreciate this album it certainly helps if the listener enjoys at least one or two of those styles I mentioned, or even progressive rock as well, because anyone looking only for progressive metal will be hugely disappointed.
Obviously, Dream Theater have some of the best musicians in the world, with guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess in particular being considered among the absolute best of the best at their respective instruments, but on this album while they’re still given a bit of space to show their talents, these are often limited to shorten periods than normal, as this is a largely vocal driven album, making James LaBrie perhaps the most important factor as to whether or not the album could work or if it would be a massive failure. For the most part, the album is focused more on telling its story than on flashy musicianship, but in some ways I love this as one criticism against the band has always been that they’re all about technical showmanship and can’t put any feeling into their music, but the few solo sections on this album are much more melodic than usual and to me they help prove that everything said against them is false, with John in particular putting in a lot of extra touch into his solos on this album. On the whole, the music is much softer than usual for Dream Theater, as it’s a very fun and very showy album, with a lot of added orchestral elements and there are many more progressive rock oriented sections where Jordan uses piano sounds. In fact, many tracks here could best be described as mini ballads, with no metal to be found. At the same time, there are still some metal moments to be found, and if anything the lower quantity of heavier sections helps them to stand out more than usual, and indeed, there are some very intense passages on this album, especially during the first half of disc 2, which is very much a turning point for the story.
Speaking of which, while I can’t go into full detail to avoid turning this review into a novel, the story is a very important aspect of the album, and while it’s at times extremely cheesy, I find it works very well when set to music and it’s certainly very entertaining. Basically, the album takes place in a dystopian world, ruled by the evil tyrant Emperor Nafaryus, and it’s a world where all music has been taken away to be replaced by noise machines (or NOMACS.) A rebel faction called the Ravenskill Militia, led by Arhys exists, and is counting on his brother Gabriel, who’s considered the chosen one who will use his voice to free them from the evil empire. Other important characters include Faythe, the daughter of Nafaryus, who falls for Gabriel once she discovers his music, and Daryus, son of Nafaryus, who’s jealous of the attention his sister gets and so he seeks to end the rebellion on his own. Obviously there are far more pieces to this story, but for the sake of giving a brief summary, those are all the essential characters and plot elements to know. I’d definitely recommend that anyone interested in the album read about the story and characters on the Dream Theater website before listening for the first time and to read the lyrics while listening at least once, to help get the full experience. Some questions to ponder, as you listen: Will Gabriel come through in the end? Will love prevail? Will Nafaryus learn the error of his ways? Can music save the day? And most importantly: Is Emperor Nafaryus such a ridiculous(ly awesome) name that Disney writers are now beating themselves up every day for not coming up with it themselves? Okay, I think the answer to that last one is pretty obvious.
Moving on, I mentioned earlier that James LaBrie is a very important part of this album, and so this brings me to another very controversial fact: You see, on Ayreon albums (and really most rock and metal operas) each character is played by a different guest singer who has been brought in just for the album. Well, that is not what happened with The Astonishing. Nope, always wanting to do things their own way, Dream Theater decided to have James play every role on his own, be it male or female. I actually find he does an amazing job, as he has to show his full vocal range, as well as his ability to portray different characters, which he demonstrated expertly on Ayreon’s The Human Equation. This time around, he makes subtle changes in his delivery to indicate which character is singing. For example, while Nafaryus and Daryus are both menacing, you can tell the two apart fairly easily because the former tends to sound more quirky and showy, while the former is always more serious and business like. Obviously, James has to sing a bit higher than normal when portraying Faythe and other female characters, and he does this quite well, while he’s probably at his best when portraying the strength and determination of Arhys. All in all, I’d say this album represents some of his finest work to date, and as a longtime fan who’s always defended him even while others criticized, I’m extremely pleased with how he sounds on this album. At the very least, it’s definitely a very unique and interesting way of doing a rock opera, and so for that alone it stands out big time.
Usually I’d do a song by song section, but for an album such as The Astonishing, that would be rather difficult, to say the least, seeing how the album contains 34 tracks. Instead, I’ll be briefly detailing some of my favorite moments, both musically and for plot reasons. First off, though, it’s worth mentioning that a few of these tracks are brief instrumentals, which are mostly just various sound effects that may seem inconsequential at a quick glance but these are actually sounds from the NOMACS and are meant to represent the kind of “music”, the world of this album has become dominated by. Let me tell you, that kind of “music” sure is creepy and I’d want nothing to do with it, so if I lived in that world, I’d totally be sending in an application to join Ravenskill!
Moving on then, each disc begins with an overture track, and this kind of structure is meant to mimic that of a musical, with both tracks containing instrumental passages from various tracks on the album, with “2285 Entr’acte” in particular having some great call backs to some of the best moments on disc one, and both tracks allow John and Jordan to have some memorable solos. The first full song on the album is “The Gift of Music”, a rather straight-forward track which starts off as a mid tempo prog metal track before Mike Mangini starts speeding up his drums midway the first verse and we actually get a very brief power metal passage. Aside from that section, the track is the kind of prog metal the band is great at, and Jordan gets a really nice solo in the second half, while the track on the whole does a great job of introducing the concept of the album. The first few tracks on the whole serve as a nice introduction, with the brief ballad “The Answer” doing a great job of introducing Gabriel and showing us his doubts, while “ A Better Life” is basically Arhys giving his men a pep talk, and the track does a great job of showing us how determined this man is, and of course the aptly named “Lord Nafaryus” introduces us to one of the villain figures and shows us how unimpressed he is by the rebellion. Speaking of which, “Three Days” is an interesting track as it’s at times dark and quite heavy, while also being a very theatrical track, and James does an excellent job as Nafaryus on that track, as he issues a threat against Gabriel, and his vocals there are both very menacing and yet also suitably goofy. Likewise, “Act of Faythe” is a softer track and is a great introduction to the title character, showing us how this sheltered girl is surprised and amazing by what she sees from Gabriel and the folks beyond her castle walls.
Moving past the introductory phase, “Brother, Can You Hear Me” makes excellent use of marching drums, and is effectively a rally cry, and shortly after that comes the ballad “Chosen”, my personal favorite track from disc one, as by this point in the story Gabriel and Faythe have been united, and this is beautiful track where Gabriel finally starts to show some of his brother’s determination, giving us the super inspiring chorus “But I can’t climb this mountain without you. No I can’t face this on my own. With you by my side, we will open his eyes, and the truth will deliver us home.” Truly an inspiring chorus, and one my absolute favorite moments on the album. Disc one ends with hints of a possible betrayal on “The X Aspect”, as Daryus threatens Arhys with his son Xander, and says he can only be free if Arhys hands over Gabriel. Thus, begins an epic plot line that carries over to disc 2. Meanwhile, “A New Beginning” features a confrontation between Faythe and her father over her wishes to be with Gabriel, and this is a pretty cool scene, while musically this is the most progressive track on the album and features some great instrumental sections in the second half.
On to disc two, then, and after that excellent overture track, we get “Moment of Betrayal”, another more traditional prog track that is great on its own, but also sets off a huge chain of events, eventually paying off with a very dramatic scene in “The Path That Divides”, a track that starts off soft but quickly assaults the listener with some of the heaviest, darkest riffs on the album as the plot takes a violent turn with Arhys not betraying his brother, and instead being murdered by Daryus. This, of course, leads to Xander being really angry and he gives us an outburst of emotion on “The Walking Shadow”, the last really heavy track on the album, and probably the darkest moment of all, as Daryus attacks a target emerging from the shadows, thinking it’s Gabriel, but it turns out to be…. Faythe! Yep, it appears tragedy strikes, and Gabriel descends into darkness on “Whispers on the Wind”, before being riled up by a huge choir of fans on “Hymn of a Thousand Voices”, the climatic track of the album where Gabriel uses his voice to bring Faythe back, and we get a happy ending after. Following that track we get two happy tracks to close out the album, though the real standout of the two is “Our New World”, more of a soft progressive rock track where John Petrucci gives us one the happiest sounding guitar solos I’ve ever heard, and this section especially to me helps disprove anyone who says he can’t play with any feeling, because damn do I ever get major feels during that track! Really, most of the album does that to me, and his guitar work is brilliant throughout the album, but that song in particular really stands out. Lastly, the title track while more of a ballad, is a very nice closing to the album and it gives us an incredible final line “Our lives will be astonishing again.” Absolutely brilliant!
Even after over 2500 words, I will admit I still have not done this album justice, and to do so without writing a full length novel would be impossible, but alas, it’s now time to bring things to a close. For that, I will return to my opening question: What would happen if there was ever an album that combined the technical mastery of Dream Theater and the storytelling of Ayreon? The answer: That would be something absolutely brilliant! No, more than brilliant: It would be……… Astonishing!