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Album Review: Dream Theater – The Astonishing

3 min read

The Astonishing is a musical behemoth. Rather than create a traditional collection for their thirteenth studio album, Dream Theater have drawn inspiration from franchises such as Star Wars and Game of Thrones, creating their own universe and story to set to an album of music. At thirty-four songs in two ‘acts’ separated over two discs—almost double the size of their most recent albums—it stands as a two hour commitment that hinges heavily on your enjoyment of its story, perhaps more so than your enjoyment of the music itself.

Dream Theater The AstonishingThe addition of such a strong concept doesn’t even do much to change their sound. Strings and piano appear more often than usual as the dominant factor of songs, and ambient clips such as children laughing or natural sounds give it a more cinematic feel, but it features the same progressive metal sound that Dream Theater fans will be familiar with. Songs do alter in style depending on which of the eight characters within the album they focus on, with evil characters going into aggressive or ballad tracks for sad moments, yet their usual style shows through all of this as an omnipresent force.

While Dream Theater aren’t new to releasing albums with a large scope, whether they feature a small number of overly long songs or simply just expand to over seventy minutes long, The Astonishing takes it to another level; the first act itself is the length of a normal Dream Theater album, with the second only falling slightly short. It’s a surprisingly ambitious project, but one that doesn’t always come together. Its length and style mostly lends itself to Dream Theater fans, while threatening to alienate outside listeners. Its highlighted moments are truly striking—the overly theatrical style of Lord Nafaryus and Three Days convey the Nafaryus character and his intent perfectly, if not feeling somewhat clichéd as they do so, while Ravenskill in particular gives a sentimental look at life and the world before launching into the hard rock core of the track. The Path That Divides also handles the inclusion of a fight scene in the story amazingly well, but its length squanders most of the goodwill that generated, leaving it in an unsatisfying position.

By its second disc, it almost gives the illusion that they were scared of playing with their sound too much, the ambient tension of Heaven’s Core’s guitar and piano being broken by the inclusion of a bog-standard Dream Theater hard rock breakdown serving as a good example; the folk twist of Hymn Of A Thousand Voices stands as the lone exemption, and is the second disc’s strongest song because of it. The length feels limiting for the album overall, rather than giving it a feeling of expansion. Treating the album similarly to contemporaries in other genres—Coheed & Cambria or Janelle Monáe’s story based works come to mind—would have been beneficial, with acts spanning multiple albums giving the plot and audience more time to breathe rather than drowning them.

As an overall package, The Astonishing is confusing. The concept was well planned, and fans of Dream Theater’s grandeur and scope will surely feel the full effect of the album, but the alienating effect on outside listeners is hard to ignore. Some compositional changes and trimming of extra unnecessary tracks may have helped it along, but even then it would feel like too much is going on to properly fit on one album. Despite some glimmers of strength and a potentially powerful concept, The Astonishing ultimately crumbles under its own weight.