For me, the benchmark of Dream Theater’s musicianship has always been their 1992 release Images and Words. That single album defined what to expect from the band- consistently excellent songs, a strong emphasis on incredibly technical and simultaneously melodic solos, with James LaBrie’s passionate vocalisation providing the icing on the cake. A good Dream Theater album is one that evokes Images, and my worry about this album was- is it going to do that? Dream Theater does that and then some more. It is the album that the band has been trying to create since Octavarium, and they have more than achieved Petrucci’s desire to define what the group is all about.
False Awakening Suite is a song specifically written for the live tour, and if you plan to hear this in the atmosphere it was designed for, you are a very lucky person indeed. Seen as a song in itself, it is nothing special. It should not be considered an introduction to the album- there are no references to other works in the album that I can pick up on, which might have been a nice touch, but that is not the point. As a brooding overture to a live show, it comes across remarkably well on a far shorter album.
The Enemy Inside was the first single released from the album, and I must admit I didn’t like it at first. It seemed unoriginal and not really progressive enough. However, once you work your way around it and understand the structure a little more, it becomes obvious just what the band have done with this song. Whilst appealing to pure metal fans, there are hints of the elaborate solos for which the group is also famed. As well as one of the strongest riffs on the album, LaBrie also pours raw energy into the chorus in a way reminiscent of early Dream Theater works.
The Looking Glass is Dream Theater’s homage to Rush, and is similar both in style and substance to their 1981 hit Limelight. This is one of the rare occasions in which Dream Theater has ventured into what might be termed progressive pop, and this is a direction in which I hope they continue to venture; it adds a different flavour of sound to the album in a manner that isn’t always present in some of their works.
Enigma Machine is the first time since 2003 that the band has written an instrumental. Unlike their earlier ones which can often sound like jam sessions, this piece is meant to evoke imagery of spies (hence the title) and subterfuge. It’s not an easy piece to be introduced to Dream Theater with, hence some unkind critics accusing it of technical overindulgence. However, it’s impossible not to listen to it and not think you’re in a James Bond movie.
The Bigger Picture is the one song that I have mixed feelings about. Though it is unquestionably a good song in its own right, as Dream Theater songs go it’s not particularly special viewed in the light of the other songs on the album. It is however an excellent song if you want to introduce people to progressive metal; however, I feel it’s too close to The Looking Glass due to its prog-pop style.
Behind The Veil is a surprise favourite, and is the song on the album that defines what “progressive metal” means. It opens with a very ambient, atmospheric solo which Petrucci then bursts into with a typically heavy riff. This song deftly combines the prog-pop elements of the album with much heavier tones such as those found on The Enemy Inside. It also includes impressively melodic sweeps behind LaBrie’s vocals as well as a surprisingly catchy chorus. The most impressive thing about this song, however, is how well the solos blend into the context of the song. Sometimes (especially on their earlier releases) it can feel as if the band’s had an idea and then decided that they can arbitrarily link it into the song- but in Behind The Veil, nothing is out of place.
Surrender To Reason is the only song on the album where the lyrics were not written by guitarist John Petrucci (rather it’s penned by bassist John Myung). Most reviews of Dream Theater albums tend not to mention the lyrics, the reason being that this isn’t a particular strength of theirs compared to their technical skill. However, Myung does tend to make his words a focal point of the song, which frequently isn’t the case for the band’s other works.
Along For The Ride, though not traditionally in the style you would expect of Dream Theater, is easily both one of the best songs on the album and one of the best songs they’ve ever recorded. It’s a particularly catchy ballad that has an unusual sing-along quality that’s not always as easy for an experimental band like Dream Theater to create. Of particular note is keyboardist Jordan Rudess’s analogue-esque synth solo. Rudess’s strength is not just that he is a technically brilliant musician, but also his ability to know what sounds to use. Whilst his choice of synth for this track would be hideously out of place on The Enemy Inside (for example), on AFTR it effectively complements the softer atmosphere.
This just leaves Illumination Theory. The group is renowned for its epic works, and this is a welcome return to a style of writing that I felt had been neglected recently. Musically speaking, it is incredibly immersive; with both driving riffs and a haunting string section building up to one of the most grandiose song climaxes of their career. I must shamefully admit that I was about to give this song a poor review, based on my misinterpretation on what it was trying to achieve. However, to appreciate this song, just turn it up to full volume and follow the contours of the music (with the lyrics as an annotation of the mood it’s attempting to convey rather than the focal point). By the time you get to the last movement, there will be shivers down your spine.
There are two things about the album in general that I wish to pick up on. One of the most noticeable aspects of this album is LaBrie’s vocals. Over the past few albums, I feel that his voice has perhaps lacked that essential “epic metal” quality. However, on this album, he clearly returns to his earlier roots. This is one of the things that distinguishes Dream Theater from A Dramatic Turn of Events– his voice has so much power behind it. There are traces of this throughout the album, but he is at his best on Illumination Theory.
What disappointed me about A Dramatic Turn of Events (their 2011 release) was that many of the songs are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and unlike their other albums I felt that they didn’t quite explore the different ways in which the component parts of progressive metal can express themselves. With Dream Theater, there is a far greater exploration of all of Dream Theater’s stylistic elements, from the heavy riffs of The Enemy Inside to the gentle ballad Along For The Ride. The band has stated that they want to draw on all their previous albums for inspiration, and it shows. Hopefully the band will continue to release great albums, and I firmly believe that if this is the case, then they will all be judged against the bar that Dream Theater has set.