DREAM THEATER — The Astonishing (review)

DREAM THEATER — The Astonishing album cover Album · 2016 · Progressive Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
2/5 ·
Have you ever been in a situation where your heart wants you to love a release but your brain keeps nagging you that it's actually not that good? That's exactly the position I've found myself in with the latest offering from US progressive metal titans Dream Theater. The album is The Astonishing (2016) and it's their thirteenth full-length. Much like the earlier Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002) The Astonishing is a double disc studio effort from the group. It's presented as a concept album in a rock opera format so on paper at least comparisons to acts such as Ayreon and Avantasia could be drawn, except the actual execution of the idea is all wrong.

You see projects like the aforementioned two have shown to the metal world that this format of concept album features a story with a cast of characters. That's exactly what Dream Theater has created here. The thing is those projects have also shown that in order for this format to be truly effective you also need to match a vocalist with each character. Yet on The Astonishing Dream Theater have elected to not bring in any guest vocalists to play the characters on their rock opera, instead having vocalist James LaBrie sing the lot, which results in the story becoming messy and lose all context. Now I'm not saying that even Ayreon did this sort of thing right every time. The first Ayreon album The Final Experiment (1995) actually had the opposite problem to The Astonishing as it featured a small cast a characters but a larger cast of vocalists sharing the roles. On further albums though Ayreon got the format dead right, including on The Human Equation (2004) which featured James LaBrie in the lead role, so it's surprising that LaBrie hasn't really brought anything from that experience to Dream Theater in order to make sure that this rock opera was done right. Maybe the band were afraid that having too many quest singers would mean their own singer didn't get as much singing time compared to the standard of an Ayreon album, but as my other rock opera example Avantasia proves you can still have a cast and a full time lead singer and make it work. So as a rock opera The Astonishing is something of a mess right from the word go.

What would save an album that didn't execute it's concept too well would be some awesome music but unfortunately that's the real kicker regarding why I don't see The Astonishing as being a very good Dream Theater album. It's just not that good. I wanted to love this album and I really tried my damnedest to like it, but the bottom line is that for the first time in their career Dream Theater have left me feeling completely underwhelmed by their music. Bored by it even. They pulled off a double disc album well with Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (an album that I recently found that I like more now that I did back when I was listening to Dream Theater a lot more often), but this time too much of the running time feels like filler designed to move the story along, which due to the above they aren't actually being very successful at doing. Conceptually it's overblown in the regard that story seems to have been the most important thing to Dream Theater and their music has really taken a beating for it, resulting in a drawn out album that I find a struggle to listen to at all, much less in a single sitting of over two hours and thirty-four tracks. It might help if I could even follow the story, but I can't. I don't know if it's because it's badly presented or because it's that uninteresting that my attention wanders, but neither is a good thing.

I'm not saying that this album doesn't have it's moments where I sit up and really take notice. I was even quite hopeful at the very start of the album with the decent instrumental Dystopian Overture followed by first proper song The Gift of Music, but such decent moments quickly become few and far between after that point. For a metal band, even for a progressive metal band like Dream Theater, there seems to be just too much time on this album given over to lighter and more ballad orientated music. I happen to not mind light music and have even enjoyed some of Dream Theater's forays into it on past releases (notably The Silent Man from Awake (1994)), but it's really not their forte. With so much time given over to it on The Astonishing its just yet another thing counting against me liking the album too much.

I've considered that an album with such grand intentions as The Astonishing can't really be fairly judged in the same amount of listens as one might a 'normal' album but there always comes a point where a listener has to write a release they are not enjoying off. The fact that I cannot find even a shred of motivation to listen to The Astonishing again says it all for me really. An absolutely (diehard) fans only release. I am bitterly disappointed.
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more than 2 years ago
I understand the sentiment here completely. I tried and tried to like this. Given up now though.
adg211288 wrote:
more than 2 years ago
I appreciate the comments everyone. I still can't quite believe I've given two stars to a Dream Theater album to be honest but revisiting some of their older work as well while trying to digest this one only showed even more how little it was doing for me.
more than 2 years ago
Though I've not heard it, I've read more reviews sharing your sympathies that I have championing the album. It reminds me in a way of Judas Priest's Nostrodamas, which has so many transitional instrumentals. When more effort goes into the story than the music the album suffers. A great story with great music - The Wall, The Human Equation - make for success. You've convinced me that I don't need to spend my time trying to like this album for just a couple of good songs. It is a music album after all.
666sharon666 wrote:
more than 2 years ago
I pretty much agree with everything said here. I stopped listening to this one quite quickly and now I can't say that I even remember all that much about it.

Maybe it'll be one of those albums we'll revisit years down the line and think that it isn't so bad after all. That's me doing some wishful thinking by the way.

Nightfly wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Alarm bells started ringing with me even before it was released and I had a listen on Spotify before buying. in fact the listen convinced me not to buy it. It's the first Dream Theater album I've not bought since their debut (normally i just automatically order on release) and the only thing likely to make me is if I see it in a bargain bin somewhere.
aglasshouse wrote:
more than 2 years ago
DT seems to be growing a bit ostentatious as of late. Maybe that's just me though.
Unitron wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Great review, we're pretty much on the same page. Too many ballads, and there are only a couple songs that I was able to really enjoy. Those two songs being Three Days and A Moment of Betrayal.


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