Dream Theater are still an Enigma Machine. "Dream Theater" opens with a very dramatic classical orchestration with heavy dark foreboding strains 'False Awakening Suite'; that lasts just under 3 minutes, yet inexplicably is in 3 parts, but it is a grand start to this latest Dream Theater project. The metal speed licks really take off on 'The Enemy Inside' and there is that familiar DT sound with Labrie's vocals, and the precision riffing of Petrucci along with the power of Rudess keys and the rhythm machine of Myung and Mangini. They really are a force to be reckoned with, blending heavy duty power metal riffs with melodic orchestrations on this release. The violins and cellos certainly are a blast of fresh air not found on other albums of recent years, not counting the one off "Score" concert. The music in the opening song greets me like a long lost friend and is as great as any other DT I have heard. I looked forward to hearing new original instrumental breaks and the band certainly pour out their passion on this track; an incredible start to the album.
Next up is 'The Looking Glass' with a melodic guitar riff and some odd time sigs mixed in the structure. Sounds like they are channelling Rush; is that a bad thing? Even the lyrics are about the pitfalls of fame sounding like Neal Peart's ideologies in his composition 'Limelight'. It has a great lead break over a pulsating bassline, but overall this is not one of the best songs I have heard from the band, a bit drawn out and too reliant on a basic melody.
'Enigma Machine' runs for 6 minutes, beginning with chiming keys that are chilling and ethereal. The deep metal distortion crashes through beautifully. It locks into a weird time sig, reminiscent of the Inspector Gadget theme, but it has a compelling atmosphere. This track is one of the reasons to get hold of this album. The lead break goes into overdrive with twin powering on the speed licks and trade offs with the keyboards. Then it goes up a few gears with staccato Hammond flourishes, and double kick drums at a frenetic pace. Rudess chops out some amazing keyboard phrases and then there is an astonishing lead break with hyper speed fret melting Petrucci who is blindingly brilliant. The pace slows into a shuffling crawl, till a new section takes over with more fractured signatures and gob smacking riffing, then a drum solo and more melodic motifs. What a masterpiece instrumental!
'The Bigger Picture' is a long song at 7:40, and features LaBrie in a melancholy mood, softly singing to a gentle piano. The tranquil atmosphere is a standard for DT who always include a soft ballad at some point. After the blitzkrieg attack of the previous track it is not such a bad thing in context. The chorus builds into a heavier vibe and very catchy melody. The song actually gets quite heavy with choppy riffs and a string orchestra cascading over like warm honey. The lead break is glorious, empowered with twin harmonics and simplistic string bends and sustain. This song grew on me as a genuine highlight due to the powerful melodies.
'Behind the Veil' opens with ominous horns and atmospherics, a cinematic soundscape, and very eerie keyboard shrieks. Suddenly the peace is punctured like a balloon with a flurry of thrashing metal riffs, and it locks into a rocking rhythm with very dirty guitar distortion. LaBrie moves into his nasty mood with spiteful lyrics and it is apparent this has a dark edge about the evil that men do. The instrumental break is terrific with Rudess and Petrucci having way too much fun trying to outdo each other in technical finesse. This is an aggressive song and certainly a thrashing prog fest by any standard.
'Surrender to Reason' is layered with synth strings, opens with an Alex Lifeson guitar sound and transcends into Porcupine Tree territory with acoustic guitars in the verses, then builds into tricky distortion riffs and grandiose organ flourishes. Not a highlight of the album but it has the power to grow on you.
'Along for the Ride' is the obligatory ballad of the album, LaBrie revels in these and of course it breaks up the incessant complex riffs and instrumental workouts. The acoustics are crystal clear, and LaBrie is an accomplished balladeer. The problem is this sounds the same as other DT songs and sticks to formula. The band could do with a revamp and try something different as it's getting very similar from album to album. Having said that, there is a section where Keith Emerson walks in and begins to play a ditty on the Moog, actually it's Rudess at his rudest mimicking 'Lucky Man's sound, but of course a Moog moment can never go astray for the prog afficianado.
'Illumination Theory' is the huge momentous epic, a 22:17 pomp romp of prog excess as only Dream Theater can perform. It is in 5 sections in classic prog style, a multi movement suite in the classical tradition; I Paradoxe de la LumiÃ¨re Noire, II Live, Die, Kill, III The Embracing Circle, IV The Pursuit of Truth and V Surrender, Trust & Passion. It segues together like all great epics almost seamlessly and I can only shake my head in awe at the end of this mammoth track. It opens with stirring string ensemble and then plunges into a rhythmic distorted metal outbreak. So far so good. Then a riff that is lifted from "Images and Words" locks into place and LaBrie decides it's time to sing. The musicianship is awesome and saves this from getting dull even after 6 minutes of kanoodling and spouting off New Age influenced conspiracy theories about the Illuminati; "we seek to understand." A lovely keyboard workout follows and then a lead guitar domination, certainly driving the point home that the band are virtuosos. The music settles into an ambient scape with ghostly reverberations and strange chimes. There are even bird sounds as the orchestra movement begins to play; an extended violin and cello arrangement that stirs the soul. This piece stands out as it is a genuine classical symphony sound that is generated. It sounds like someone switched channels and we are hearing the ending of some old classic romance movie. This would make a beautiful concerto on the live stage and it took me by surprise after all the rock.
The power metal returns as though lurking round the corner ready to strike, with loud LaBrie languishing eloquently about mothers, children, wives and fighting for your life, teachers and students, crimes and freedom; whatever he is on about LaBrie is giving the microphone a real pasting. The epic shifts up a few gears as the pace quickens, with frenetic piano spasms and a schizo staccato riff, along with hyperactive percussive rhythms. The brilliance of all this chaos is answered with a swift lead guitar speed picking passage until Rudess says shove over it's my turn. Rudess' keyboard break is insane here with some of his best arpeggios and he is answered by Petrucci's wah wah workout; okay, we know you can play, genius! After this indulgence where is there to go but to move back to conventional melodies, a reprise of the string ensemble and LaBrie singing uplifting lines such as "you must suffer through the pain, when you surrender to the light you can face the darkest days." We believe his conviction and a huge crescendo climaxes. It is all so majestic and uplifting that you can't help but be mesmirised by the sheer spectacle of it all. The band go into full flight as the finale nears, with Petrucci's soaring lead guitar licks and Mellotron sounds emanating beneath. The darkness has lifted and all is well with the world again. Oh, just time for a ghost track with stirring symphonic prog nuances and a piano to boot. No complaints from me; this is bombastic prog at its proudest, with DT waving the prog metal flag triumphantly.
This latest Dream Theater album is a real mixed inconsistent affair; moments of brilliance with moments of familiar territory that demands some kind of diversity. The band are getting too familiar to be honest, and could do with a real shake up to try something different. Each album is sounding the same and some of the material on this latest album leaves a lot to be desired especially the middle section. Also Mangini's drums sound a bit synthetic lacking Portnoy's punchy style. The creative department also needs a shake up as there is not a lot of lyrical punch and Mangini had input into the songwriting but it has not affected the band that much at all; they still opt for the safe approach revisiting what has worked on previous albums.
Of course the opening tracks, and instrumental are brilliant, along with the epic final track, so this could be enough to warrant a 4 star rating and I have to consider whether this measures up to other 4 star albums of DT. And what is with that dull album cover and uninspired title? Not exactly as if there was a lot of effort put into it. One has to ask, if this does not measure up to the masterpiece releases whether this is as even as good as "Awake", "Six degrees?" and "Black clouds and silver linings", all of which I awarded 4 star reviews. Really it is not as good as these, so is it then better than the middle of the road 3 star albums "Systematic Chaos", "Train of Thought" or even "Falling into Infinity"? Well, it definitely had more impact on me than those which leads me to believe a marginal 3.5 star rating is warranted. I will settle for 4 stars but only due to the astonishing symphony intro, the awesome instrumental and colossal epic that I really enjoyed, especially all the symphonic elements, and guitar and keyboard freakouts. Dream Theater still hold the attention and even though this is no masterpiece it is well worth a listen and as always is going to divide the prog fanbase, which has become an essential part of the band's appeal. Love 'em or loathe 'em, Dream Theater still has the power to make the rock world wake up and take notice.