“The Astonishing” might very well be Dream Theater’s most ambitious album yet, and that’s saying something, considering the band’s catalog. A double concept album clocking in at 2h10 minutes, it tells the story (written by guitarist John Petrucci) of a dystopian future (no one ever writes about a utopian future it seems) where music is generated by machines and the divide between the masses and the riches has widened exponentially. The hero Gabriel amazes crowds with his beautiful singing voice, but draws the attention of the ominous Lord Nafaryous, leader of the Great Northern Empire of the Americas. And when his daughter, Princess Faythe, falls in love with the hero, well, of course this doesn’t go down well with the nefarious, ahem, Nafaryous.
I used to be a huge Dream Theater fan. I’d travel to see them play and would attend to multiple shows back to back in different cities without batting an eye. But along the way, they lost me. I still saw every tour, but their albums never got me excited in the same way. I haven’t been really excited about any of their albums post “Train of Thoughts”, but “The Astonishing” might be their best since “Scenes from a Memory” (a perfect album in my view). Too often in the last decade they’ve tried being a modern metal band, losing their uniqueness in the process, but this album finds them embracing their progressive rock roots and returning to their core sound. It’s like classic Dream Theater, without being a copy of earlier albums.
The writing is ambitious but doesn’t rely on virtuosity as much as before. Structures are still complex, but arrangements feel slightly pared down. There are still plenty of virtuoso passages, but the band’s not afraid to step back and let the vocals shine through on occasion. John Petrucci has found his sense of melody again, after years of being seemingly more interested in breaking the speed barrier with his fingers, and turns in some of his best solos in a long time.
Jordan Rudess’ keyboards play a huge role throughout the 34 tracks, and singer James Labrie is in top form, playing 8 characters throughout the story. The band is also accompanied by an orchestra (with arrangements by David Campbell), adding textures and depth to the arrangements. It’s an amazing tour-de-force that, despite its running time, it never feels like filler. It may lack a standout song (like “Spirit Carries On” on the aforementioned “Scenes from a Memory”) but it more than makes up for it in consistency.
Their next tour will feature the band playing the entire album, and should be quite the spectacle. “The Astonishing” lives up to its name and is Dream Theater at its best. Highly recommended.