Top positive review
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Beautiful, complex and very nearly a masterpiece of modern music
on 12 September 2011
Dream Theater fans tend to be an obsessive bunch, almost invariably skilled and knowledgeable musicians themselves. As I sit here writing this on the morning of the CD's release in the UK, there are debates raging on various forums about Dream Theater's latest album. Some are analysing the music like it's a crime scene, dusting through every bar looking for odd time signatures and evidence of earlier influences. Others are obsessing over the mixing and mastering. And yet another group is combing through the lyrics (particularly those by John Myung) looking for clues to the secret of life. I'm going to take a radical angle here and discuss the music itself, and how it affects me. I'm not saying those other issues don't matter. Clearly they do, or else so many people wouldn't write so passionately about them. But I'm not a gifted musician, I know nothing about the techniques of recording and mastering music, and if I want great words, I tend not to look to rock stars for them. Why I fell in love with Dream Theater back in 2001 was the exceptional musicianship and gorgeous textures of their music. So this is how I'll try to appraise this latest album.
Firstly, as we all know, Portnoy left in September 2010. What affect has this had? Well, immediately, only Labrie sings. There are no more growls and toe-curling death-metal rapping, for lack of a more apt description of that abomination that marred A Nightmare To Remember. And Labrie sings brilliantly. Nowhere on this record does he sneer or snarl or bark or shriek his way through passages, as he occasionally did on the previous 2 or 3 releases. He merely sings, and his voice has colour and charm and beauty and power. It is becoming a cliché on those forums I mentioned, but it is nonetheless true: this is the James Labrie of Images and Words and Awake. It is among his best work.
His contribution to the song-writing is also evident. Build me Up, Break Me Down sounds like something that would have fit nicely onto one of his solo albums, and has a wonderful chorus. Not my favourite track on the album, but a good, solid piece. Lost Not Forgotten works for me on many levels (Petrucci's guitar solo is wonderful. Echoes of Under A Glass Moon, but this could never be a bad thing). The opening contains an over-the-top segment of (it seems to me) completely aimless widdling, but it doesn't last too long.
The real surprise on this album was the 3 ballads. With a few notable exceptions (Anna Lee, Hollow Years, Disappear) I've never really taken to DT ballads. Too sickly, too banal. The appeal of Dream Theatre is usually the formidable musicianship and wholly unique arrangements of their pieces. Water them down to a 3rd-rate Coldplay and what's the point? But on this album, the ballads (I'll repeat, 3 of them!) are a) well placed on the CD, and b) beautiful. This Is The Life has a soaring guitar solo (2 of them in fact), and tasteful playing from Rudess. Far From heaven ddn't do it for me at first, but after many listens, is now one of my favourite DT tracks. It's a short one, but...such a beautiful, gorgeous vocal line from Labrie. And finally, what may be the most purely sublime piece DT have ever written, the album's closing track: Beneath The Surface. I like to think I hold myself together quite well, I'm not an overly-emotional person, and very few things move me to tears - but this track did, the first time I heard it. And with each repeated listen, it somehow becomes more and more beautiful. One of those tracks (for me at least) which, once it's sunk in to your soul, it's hard to imagine a time before it was a part of your life.
The other tracks on the album are very strong. Bridges In The Sky begins oddly, with a noise that any lover of a spicy mutton vindaloo will find familiar, but turns into quite an epic song, with a soaring melody and - lord be praised - a tasteful instrumental section which fits with the song, as opposed to a collection of impossibly difficult technical exercises. Some chap on the Dream Theater website's forum is currently engaged in a forensic examination of this song, claiming that its structure exactly mirrors that of Metropolis. Maybe so, maybe so. I personally couldn't care less about that degree of analysis. To me, it's just a great song, and to my ears sounds nothing like Metropolis. Besides which, I'd much prefer Dream Theater draw on their own catalogue for inspiration rather than any other band's, which is what I feel they were sometimes doing with Octavarium, Systematic Chaos, and Black Clouds. After all, nobody ever did it better than they themselves did.
Outcry is an album highlight, a great balance of technique and beauty. Breaking All Illusions is the album's masterpiece, with one of the most beautiful and spine-chilling endings I've ever heard in a song. I know the album is still fresh and it's tempting to be hyperbolic before it's really had a chance to sink in fully, but nonetheless, if I were stranded on an island I honestly think I could be happy with only this track for company. Dream Theater have often written exceptionally beautiful endings to otherwise mediocre tracks (Octavarium, Best of Times), but here, the entire track is one flawless gem.
So, in conclusion...I loved Mike Portnoy (still do). I think his drumming on In The Name Of God was a masterpiece of technique counterpoised against emotion. He was that rarest of entities - a truly musical drummer. But I didn't like the direction DT was taking with recent albums, and I feel that he was the reason for that change. Too much death metal growling. Too much musical masturbation, too little music. Sometimes it was just plain silly, and other times, embarrassingly derivative (watch the Systematic Chaos `Making Of' DVD and count the number of times Portnoy says things like: "Wow, this is great, we sound like Biohazard here!" Or "This is our cool Meshuggah section". Just be freakin' DT please!). This album is the sound of a group of preternaturally talented musicians playing as a tight unit. The songs are well constructed and brilliantly executed. They are original and inspiring, sometimes sending chills down the spine. There are moments which are supremely beautiful, but never childish and mawkish as seen on previous albums ("The Answer Lies Within" - is that right? There was I thinking an unexamined life was the way forward). This is not an easy record, it takes time to even begin to get a grasp of all that is going on here. Hence, it is classic Dream Theater. God forgive me but I'm happy Portnoy left if this is the result. This is what made the group wholly unique, and this record - while drawing on their past - is entirely new and fresh.
Album highlights, in order:
Breaking All Illusions
Beneath The Surface
This Is The Life
My whole-hearted recommendation is to buy this album. And thank you Dream Theater, on the off-chance you're reading this. The music you create makes my life so much better.