Most people by now – especially in the progressive metal circles – need no introduction to one of pioneering bands of the current genre, Dream Theater. Vocalist James LaBrie, guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and drummer Mike Mangini have put forth their most recent effort with their 13th studio album, entitled The Astonishing. This New England-Canadian quintet have brought forth their individual musical prowess to the group yet again to take on quite a labor of love with this next project, an expansive concept album – a rock opera – that has been their most ambitious to date.
The Astonishing is a double disc album that consists of 34 tracks and contains two hours and ten minutes of music. There is plenty of music to listen to at one sitting, but unlike the usual Dream Theater fare, the songs are relatively short – ranging from 28 seconds at the shortest to 7:40 at the longest – but in reality, it almost plays like one two-hour track. The story and lyrics were formulated and written by John Petrucci, and he and Jordan Rudess created the music, with additional musical assistance from David Campbell with orchestrations. Though this is set in a dystopian kind of future, there are definitely spiritual underpinnings within the storyline – some overt and others covert – that give the story its hope at the end. As can be seen from the storyline (detailed below), there are archetypal themes of love, betrayal, salvation, faith, repentance, and freedom, all within the context of the power of music and creative expression as a freeing force among humanity. John Petrucci and Richard Chycki return once again to produce, record, and mix this album, and they even launched their own separate website to be interactive and informative for the fans to check out the album in more depth.
The tale that makes up The Astonishing‘s storyline is set in a futuristic dystopian period set in the year 2285, focusing on the area we know as New England, but renamed in this new feudal society as “The Great Northern Empire of the Americas.” During this time, music is all but eliminated in society except coming from the NOMACS, machines that are the only source of soulless music created by technology rather than human expression. The tyrannical leader Lord Nefaryus rules over this empire, and people under his rule focus on survival rather than what are now considered luxuries, such as engaging in entertainment. Even the thought of creativity is suppressed, until a promising young man named Gabriel (meaning “Hero/Warrior of God”) from the town of Ravenskill marvels everyone with his beautiful voice when no one has heard a human sing for years. This gift gives the community hope and Gabriel’s brother Arhys feels this opportunity is the time for revolution against the overbearing government and suppression of the creative spirit in the populace. Meanwhile, Lord Nefaryus visits the village to hear Gabriel for himself. He plays, and finds that he and Nefaryus’ daughter, Faythe, have a mutual connection, which catches the attention of Nefaryus, much to his chagrin. He is also jealous of the people’s adoration of Gabriel and decrees that Gabriel – who had been ushered away right after his performance – must surrender himself to Nefaryus within three days and guarantee the disbanding of the militia intending to revolt, and if not, Nefaryus will destroy every home and kill everyone in the town until Gabriel is captured. Gabriel has a difficult decision to make, and Faythe decides to sneak out to see him again, though discovered by her mother, who sends along her brother Daryus to accompany to keep her safe, though he more than willingly goes along to put his own plan into motion. As she arrives in Ravenskill, Faythe finds Gabriel through his nephew, Xander and brother, Arhys, and talks of her plan to win over her father by using the power of music and their unity in support of it. Meanwhile, Faythe’s brother Daryus hatches his own plan against Gabriel and also uses Xander, his nephew, against him by holding him hostage at home until his father Arhys returns. As Arhys finds his son as a bargaining chip, he is faced with Daryus’ offer that if he delivers his brother Gabriel to him, he will personally guarantee the safety and best upbringing the Empire has to offer for Xander; but if not, they will continue to hunt and to capture Gabriel. As his promise to his wife’s last dying wish to care for Xander at all costs, Arhys agrees to Daryus’ offer to betray his own brother (as well as the militia he commands). Back at the Emperor’s household, Faythe tries to convince her father to meet with Gabriel to hear him out, and if he is not convinced, Gabriel will surrender himself. Eventually, his wife Arabelle convinces Nefaryus to agree to his daughter’s arrangement so that he doesn’t lose her, as well as bringing to light the old music player Faythe had found in the archives belonged to him and that he had a secret affinity for music from days past. He eventually agrees to the meeting, to be held at the abandoned amphitheater Heaven’s Cove. Faythe and Gabriel plan to meet there earlier to be together and rehearse the music, as she plans to sing with him as a moment of solidarity. He tells his brother Arhys that they will be meeting at the amphitheater, who in turn contacts Daryus about the earlier meeting time, but does not disclose that Faythe will be there, nor that Nefaryus will be arriving later for an official gathering. Arhys thinks that the rehearsal meeting with just the three of them will afford the best opportunity for an easy surrender. As Arhys lies in wait for Gabriel and Daryus to arrive at Heaven’s Cove, what he doesn’t expect is that his son Xander follows behind. As Arhys sees the evil look in Daryus’ eyes, he changes his mind and defends Gabriel, stating he would rather die than betray his brother, and Daryus subsequently kills him in front of his son, unbeknownst to him. Xander runs to his father’s body, and as another figure appears that Daryus suspects to be Gabriel, he runs in the darkness and attacks to take him down as well, only to find out it is not Gabriel, but his sister, Faythe. Grief-stricken, the arriving Gabriel shrieks so loudly that it ends up deafening Daryus, but renders Gabriel’s beautiful voice useless afterwards. Then, at even worse timing, Lord Nefaryus and his wife arrive, only to find his dying daughter and deafened son in this confusing scene. In his sadness over the situation, Nefaryus asks Gabriel to sing as an attempt to save his dying daughter, but he cannot after his voice was compromised after his guttural scream. However, the townspeople had begun to arrive, and as they saw his struggle, the people started to sing. Their singing gave Gabriel strength, after which he is able to sing again and brings Faythe back to life. The story ends with Gabriel and Faythe remaining together and raising Xander. Lord Nefaryus changes his rule and ends the NOMACS monopoly on music and becomes a just leader that the people needed all along in their new world.
As mentioned previously, this album plays like one long song, with each relatively short track segueing into the next seamlessly – sometimes with sound effects – which makes it feel like a radio play. Each disc has its own act and overture to introduce the act with musical themes heard throughout, much like an opera or musical would have. There are several instrumental tracks that are purely representational of the robotic NOMACS with digitized synths that really communicate the cold and threatening machines that are part of running the everyday lives of the townspeople, and other themes that recur relating the certain characters that bring about a certain continuity to the album. Overall, The Astonishing is less heavy than previous albums; it is more orchestral and the music ebbs and flows between heavier and mellower songs that change styles, depending on what the piece calls for in the storyline. The album includes a number of different instruments, besides a full orchestra, including bagpipes, solo violin or cello, organ, herald trumpets, and a number of different choirs (boys, gospel, classical), to name a few. Another aspect of the music that differs from other albums is that LaBrie‘s vocals change slightly with each character, giving some grit and snarl to Lord Nefaryus’ voice, for instance, while being more ethereal and delicate in his delivery depicting Faythe. This further creates the play-like atmosphere in this album and helps to bring the listener into the world of these characters. The album is not overly progressive (i.e., lengthy songs and multiple meter changes) as is Dream Theater’s usual fare, but the songs are more concise and straightforward as they tell the story, weaving one track to the next. These details can be found in a wonderful track-by-track explanation can be found at this special website complete with streaming audio for each song next to its explanation.
The Astonishing is an album that you definitely need to spend time to marinate and take in all that it has to offer. However, at over 2 hours of music, it takes dedicated time and multiple listens to achieve that. This album is much in the same conceptual approach as Scenes from a Memory and plays through almost like a very long single track like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. The band draws upon its classical training and influences in this album and will appeal to those who like soundtracks and musicals just as much as it can appeal to the progressive metal world; in this case, maybe even moreso. This is an album that will likely polarize Dream Theater fans. And this particular approach of a rock opera/concept album set like a musical – complete with Acts I and II and overtures – it will probably appeal to more of a niche market even outside of the prog metal realm. If people are looking for something rocking and heavy, this album may not really appeal to them. It is not a stand-alone album that one can sit for a short listen or pull out singles to listen to in the same way as most albums (and most of the other Dream Theater discography). This album is meant for the stage, which is how they are approaching their tour in support of this album. It is difficult to be taken in pieces and really is a concept album in its true form where the songs interconnect and build upon each other, with musical themes that run throughout. For one, I am glad that Dream Theater decided to take another conceptual approach, which they haven’t done in years, and created something ambitious and perhaps a once-in-a-career approach to try something new and far-reaching. It is obvious the amount of time and detail they put into this album, and each member of the band put in top performances, as would be expected from these talented musicians. LaBrie‘s vocals in particular were a strength to the album and he continues to be in top form. Again, Petrucci and Rudess form the main team that carries the majority of each song, though Myung‘s bass plays both supportive and at times highlighted roles throughout the album and Mangini‘s drumming is precise, as usual, but at times is subdued based on the needs of the songs on this album in particular. As a person with a classical background, I appreciated the expansion of the music to include a wider range of instrumentation and the operatic concept approach of this particular album. I understand that for some it may come across as less exciting for those hoping for a straightforward metal album, but it perhaps might also become a good introduction for others into Dream Theater who may not otherwise have listened to them. I love concept albums as a general rule, and I think Dream Theater has reached their pinnacle with this one, so in one respect, I hope that their next album differs yet again as their creative explorations and possibilities are endless. There are many nuances in the story that I appreciated about this album – the advocacy of the importance of the arts in society and for the individual, the redemptive ending, the struggle for freedom and trying to make the right choices – as well as the classical influences and presence included among the musical landscaping of the album. However, because of its overarching storyline and musical themes, it doesn’t really lend itself to standout singles that you can play on repeat like you might with a track like Pull Me Under. It is both a strength and a drawback with an album constructed this way, and as a result, I would likely not be pulling it out as repeating album. Everything was executed tastefully and excellently, the mix was balanced and clear, and the artwork was outstanding, so I see no quality issue… but I think for most listeners, it will depend on what kind of mood you’re in whether The Astonishing will be your soundtrack of the day.
Also check out lonestar’s review of the album here.