To be honest with you, I’m not exactly sure what is going on with DREAM THEATER’S new album The Astonishing (January 29, Roadrunner Records) after several listens. There are 34, count ‘em 34 tracks across a double concept album rock opera spanning two hours and ten minutes. I tend to do a song-by-song analysis on most of my reviews. Well, that will NOT be the case this time or we’d all be here till July reading. There are quite a few moments of greatness, but there are also moments of, well…not-so-greatness. This was to be expected, though. There’s simply no way to guarantee everything will work out the way you envisioned when taking on a mammoth task such as this. So, let’s do this: I’ll tell you guys what I dig about it, and if anything catches your interest, maybe you go buy it and see what it does for you. Sound cool? OK, here we go…
From the very first listen I was enthralled with leadoff single “The Gift of Music”. It’s punchy, catchy, and hits in all the right places for a longtime fan like me. James LaBrie’s vocal delivery makes “Lord Nafaryus” come to life. Venturing into slower territory we have “When Your Time Has Come” which could be this decade’s answer to “Take Away My Pain” from 1997, one of my all-time favorites. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess captures an excellent tone here and on several others, and John Petrucci’s guitar solo is off the charts. Some might find the strings and heavy-handedness of “Act of Fayth” a bit on the cheesy side, but I really enjoyed it. However, one of the problems with some of the tracks is there are way too many long piano intros before we get to the meat and potatoes of the songs themselves. “Three Days” comes to mind. When it goes, it GOES, but it takes awhile to get there. LaBrie voices yet another character on this one. Hell, he did all the voices, so kudos to him.
One place where the keys really shine is on “A Life Left Behind”, a simply beautiful number that I thought was an instrumental at first. “A New Beginning” is seven minutes and change of frenetically-paced goodness, reminding us that this band can still knock it out of the park when it wants to. “Moment of Betrayal” is another one that soars high and was a wise choice for a second single. There’s definitely an ominous sense of doom in “The Walking Shadow.” Conversely, the best song this disc has to offer is also the most uplifting with “Our New World”. From the vocal harmonies to the amazing guitar riffage and solo by Petrucci, this is a fantastic tune! It’s one that I guarantee everyone will go nuts over, like I’ve been doing.
At the end of the day I applaud DREAM THEATER for making the album THEY wanted to make and not compromising on any fronts. This was clearly a labor of love, not just for John Petrucci, whose idea and vision The Astonishing was, but for everyone in the band, and I am sure that some people will truly appreciate that from start to finish. I just think that the really great songs are unfortunately surrounded by too much filler. I also think this should have been a single album of 11 or 12 tracks at most. But hey, these guys are at the point in their career where they’ve climbed every mountain and can do whatever the hell they want. There’s an awesome record in here somewhere. And much like JUDAS PRIEST’S 2008 Nostradamus double album, you just have to weed out the chaff to get to the good stuff.
STANDOUT TRACKS: “Our New World”, “The Gift of Music”, “A Life Left Behind”, “When Your Time Has Come”, “Act of Fayth”, “Moment of Betrayal”, “A New Beginning”