After the success of “Systematic Chaos” due to a popularity rise from their record deal with Roadrunner records, the band went back into the studio to record another. Now before it's release, Portnoy's mouth didn't stop running, saying that this album would be like “having “Octavarium”, “Pull Me Under” and “A Change Of Seasons” all on the same album.” Now this isn't true, basically there's an 8 minute song and 2 songs that are near 20 minutes. But what really is this album like...well to tell you the truth when this album came out...I was disappointed and to this day I'm not as disappointed...but I am still not loving this album.
Musically the band decided to go into a more darker direction. The band have been promising a darker album for ages, so this is what we get, with a lot more focus on minor chords and such. Now, tone wise this isn't too bad. In fact most of the problems lie with the material, which mostly is good. It's just fragments of the songs which really let the tracks down. Some are too long and some are quite weak. One big positive is that this may be the best I've heard James' voice in a very long time, with him pulling off some great vocal moments.
The special edition of this album would be worth getting a buy, because it does feature a bonus disc full of cover songs. Now, the band does do covers pretty well and I won't dwell upon them too much, but there are some interesting versions of these songs. The Queen melody for one is brilliant with a very interesting vocal performance from James LaBrie. “Stargazers” and “To Tame A Land” are also brilliantly crafted too.
The album opener “A Nightmare To Remember” is another song which could have been a brilliant and classic Dream Theater song. Starting off with a riff which is pretty much a slower version of Cradle Of Filths “The Promise Of Fever,” showing off extreme metal and black metal influence. The main body has some great twists and turns but the real catcher of this track would have to be the slower part. A brilliantly crafted melody with some great vocal harmonies, this is one of the shining moments on the album. Sadly the track goes into some mediocre instrumental passages and then it happens. A section of the song which has a death metal influence...so the bands crazed drummer decides to take the mic and do one of the worst impersonations of death metal. This has to be one of the most embarrassing moments on the bands career. Luckily there is a live version the band did with Mikael from Opeth doing the growls, and it sounds way better. The song does close off pretty well with some surprising blast beats and luckily it doesn't drag too much. I do feel a lot of this song needed to be trimmed off, but there are moments on this song which are incredibly majestic.
The first single to be dropped from the album “A Rite Of Passage” is probably one of my least favorite Dream Theater songs. It starts off pretty well with a pretty good riff, but the first verse is terrible with stupid effects and reverb on the vocals. Luckily the chorus is pretty good and the second verse does pick up and become more enjoyable, but the instrumental section comes out of nowhere, but I did like the noisy and interesting keyboard solo from Jordan. The lyrics are also a bit poor due to a lack of knowledge about the song's topic (it's about Freemasons by the way). Probably the poorest song on the album.
The song which I would probably agree has no problems on it would be “Wither.” The ballad for the album, the song is perfectly crafted and beautifully written. It does verge on cheese at times, but a bit of cheese never hurt anybody. The lyrics which deal with writers block are beautifully written and the wordplay is pretty good too.
“The Shattered Fortress” being the last of the 12 Steps Suite does seem to be a song which is supposed to tie loose ends. Now, after the release of this album, Portnoy did explain that this suite did almost seem like homework at times for the band. Some moments on this song do have some nice moments, but other than that it is basically a re hashing of old ideas from previous songs. I will let some riff slide, but it is very deja vu.
Trying to lay into the “The Best Of Times” is rather tough due to the nature and background of the track (with it being about Portnoy's dad who sadly passed away), but there are some minor flaws. The intro is absolutely beautiful, with some beautiful piano work from Jordan and a brilliant violin accompaniment. Then the song goes into ultra Rush mode. Now being heavily influenced by Rush and Rush being one of Portnoy's father's favorite band, I will let the obvious rip off fly. The lyrics are decent being very direct and personal to Portnoy, but I did prefer his lyricism on “A Change Of Seasons” (being about the death of his mother) to be better due to better crafted metaphors and word play. The song is one of the strongest on the album, but it still could have been handled way better.
“The Count Of Tuscany” starts off with one of the most beautiful sections the band has ever composed with some amazing guitar work from John Petrucci. As the idea expands it then crashes into a metal riff that easily could be found in a Trivium song. Now, riff wise it's not too bad, with LaBrie doing a great delivery of Petrucci's lyrics about a man he met on holiday in Tuscany. The chorus is really what lets this down. While having a great melody, the chorus is ruined by Portnoy's failed attempts at death growls. As the song moves on the instrumental sections are enjoyable with some Zappa influenced synth sounds. Then the song slows down with a Pink Floyd interlude. Then the last 8-9 minutes is one of the best compositions Dream Theater has composed. Very simple in nature, it tells the rest of the story perfectly with some beautiful instrumental passages. Sadly this song could have been so good, a staple in the bands career, but it missed the mark just slightly.
In conclusion, this is probably my least favorite Dream Theater album. But...this album has some of the bands best moments in their whole career. In fact, I find that mostly every song would be a brilliant track, but due to arrangements is usually left feeling very flawed and uninspired. I do blame Portnoy's almost obsessive control over the bands music. Luckily after his departure the band re ignited their former passions. I would recommend this for certain moments, but other than that this album is the perfect example of so close but yet so far.
Genres: Progressive Metal, Progressive Rock, Extreme Metal, Heavy Metal, Hard Rock. Symphonic Metal, Symphonic Rock
Year of release: 2009
Country of origin: USA