Roadrunner Records [Release date 29.01.16]
Epic. Sprawling. Career defining? Perhaps. Dream Theater have unleashed upon its adoring fans an album of such substantial girth that it makes the job of reviewing it reasonably tough. DT are known for super long songs and bulky albums, but The Astonishing certainly takes the cake in at least length, clocking in at a whopping 2+ hours over two cd’s. It’s not so much an album as it is an event.
As a lifelong fan of the band, I have come to view their album releases as a spectacle. They’re one of only a handful of bands that I will go and purchase the album on the release date whether I have heard a single note from it.
In this day and age with price increases in everything, that is a bold act in itself. And yes, I typically make sure I stop somewhere and purchase it instead of pre-ordering online. I don’t trust the USPS and want the damn thing in my hands that day, preferably as early as possible.
Due to the length of the album I will have to be fairly selective and careful how I approach reviewing The Astonishing. I didn’t have the luxury of a pre-release and since it’s been only a couple of days since the actual release and the fact that it is such a lengthy album, it doesn’t quite allow for as many listens as say a typical 45 minute album does.
On my initial listen I did what I usually do with a new Dream Theater album: I just absorbed it without making any critical decisions one way or another about it. I just listened to it and let the notes wash over me.
As soon as it was done I was overwhelmed at how the album made me feel. There were so many things that instantly grabbed my attention. I loved that the longest track is 7 minutes and 41 seconds (“A New Beginning” which is probably my favorite so far.) I loved the incidental stuff, the shorter tracks that acted as a bridge to the next song. It gave the album a cinematic feeling as if watching a musical, whether it be stage or film.
It’s not just some standard concept album: The Astonishing is a sprawling epic of proportions I don’t think many concept albums have undertaken. Set in the future under an oppressive regime, a cast of characters tries to thwart the Empire utilizing music. I’m not going to delve too far into the story, as I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it myself.
Musically, it encompasses the full spectrum of emotions. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: many people feel that progressive music is devoid of emotion, but any time I listen to a Dream Theater album (among others) I feel through my entire bearing and fibre so much (intellectually and spiritually.) John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess have written an album that totally boggles my mind to think of the depth and devotion dedicated to creating this brilliance.
Even though those two are the writers, this is an album that feels like the whole band were as invested in bringing it to life as John and Jordan were in writing it. It truly felt like a group effort, each member taking particular care to ensure that whatever note they played at any given moment was as perfect as could be; that James LaBrie made sure that whatever lyrics he was singing conveyed the exact emotion and image intended.
I love how they openly wear their influences on their sleeve more than ever before, with hints of Kansas, Dixie Dregs, The Beatles, Iron Maiden, as well as taking pages from their own amazing catalog of music drawing inspiration from albums like Scenes From A Memory, Octavarium, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Images and Words, and Awake. All of this while at the same time maintaining the amazing streak of incredible music they have created since the addition of drummer Mike Mangini.
If you have hated Dream Theater all of your life, I would say this album will not be the one to win you over. In fact, I suspect this album (at least for the time being) will divide and alienate the fanbase like no other Dream Theater album has. And that is fine too.
I implore and beg you to give it plenty of listens before casting judgement upon it. It is entirely unfair to give The Astonishing a mere passing chance. I absolutely hated Scenes From A Memory and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence on the first few listens and now I love them immensely. I know many people hate this band, and that is OK.
They write the music that they love and hear in their heads and only hope that there will be people who will love it as well. If they were simply in the music business to appease the standard music consumer they would make albums that sound like Coldplay and Beyonce.
I’m thankful they take the time to write music as deep and cerebral as they do because, though I love simplistic bands too, I also love having a band and albums that make me think.
This could very well be the penultimate album for Dream Theater, the one they have been working their way towards their entire career.
I shall require another 10-20 listens before I figure out if this is their masterpiece or not. It at least lives up to its title: The Astonishing is indeed an astonishing piece of work from one amazing band, in scope and scale. Now if only they would tour closer to my area a bit more, then I would be totally satisfied. ****1/2
Review by Chris Martin
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Each week David Randall presents ‘New to GRTR!’ on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, with the emphasis on independent artists and labels. During December he replays favourite tracks including power plays featured during the year. This show covers the period January-March and was first broadcast on 1 December 2019.
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