"The Astonishing" is the 13th full-length studio album by US progressive metal act Dream Theater. The album was released through Roadrunner Records in January 2016. It´s the successor to the self-titled album from 2013. "The Astonishing" is a double album release, featuring no less than 34 tracks and a full playing time of 2 hours and 20 minutes of music. It´s a concept album telling a dystopian sci-fi tale. Bearing that information in mind, "The Astonishing" is arguably Dream Theater´s most ambitious release up until now, and we are dealing with an artist who has already released the 57:33 minutes long EP "A Change of Seasons (1995)" (featuring the 23:09 minutes long title track), and of course the double album release "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002)" (featuring the 42:02 minutes long title track) among other ambitious projects. In that respect Dream Theater is today what an artist like Yes was in the 70s. Always pushing progressive rock/metal forward. There is a risk that in doing so you sometimes slip and fall or maybe become a bit overblown (which is what many fans and critics felt when Yes released "Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)", without further comparisons to this project), and I´m afraid that´s the trap Dream Theater step into on "The Astonishing".
Stylistically the music on "The Astonishing" is unmistakably the sound of Dream Theater. It´s progressive rock/metal with challenging rhythmic playing, adventurous keyboards, virtuoso guitar playing, and James LaBrie´s distinct sounding voice in front. The album is generally a bit more song oriented and not quite as technical as we´re used to from the band, although there are still some very complex sections to be found on the album. The overall feeling after listening to the album is that of a musical or a rock opera though, which is something new in their discography. "Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999)" was a concept album too, but it never felt like a rock opera/musical style album. Any minute while listening to "The Astonishing" I´m expecting other singers to join in and play/sing the supporting roles of the concept, but it´s only LaBrie singing, which is a bit of a shame when they opted to go down the rock opera/musical road, but LaBrie of course still does a great and professional job.
As far as concepts go, the story is overall rather predictable and the lyric lines are often cliché filled and quite frankly not very sophisticated or intriguing. The music is relatively dynamic with both heavy parts, epic parts, and more ballad type mellow parts. The more mellow part of the band´s sound is more prevailent here than ever before, and it becomes a bit tiresome after a while, because most of the more mellow tracks are very simple and not that memorable. In fact that ´s an issue throughout the album. The melodies either sound like a rehash of ideas from previous releases or they are forgettable and with such a long release the least you could ask is catchy melodies. You don´t really get that here.
It´s not all bad of course, and we´re as usual exposed to brilliant musicianship (as usual though it´s almost impossible to hear John Myung´s bass in the mix), a professional sound production, and professional songwriting too (although it´s not that interesting, it´s still obviously written by professionals). That´s why I don´t label "The Astonishing" a complete disaster, because obviously it´s a very bold attempt at doing something different, and I greatly respect that. I´m just pretty sure that if they had collected all the good ideas featured on the album and made a 45 minutes long album out of those ideas, instead of diluting them with filler material to push the playing time a good way past the 2 hour mark, this could have been a better quality release. I won´t rule out the possibility that others could enjoy this far more than I do, but to my ears it´s their least interesting release to date. Still, because of the professionalism on display, I think a 3 star (60%) rating isn´t all wrong. That´s as objective a rating as you´ll get.