RATINGS: A = must own B = buy it C= average D = yawn F = puke

Dream Theater — The Astonishing

Rating: A

Dream Theater has outdone itself — and that’s saying something for a band known for hourlong epics, symphonic ambition and time changes that would have given the late Cliff Burton whiplash.

But the prog-metal juggernaut has done just that. 

With The Astonishing, the dream team has delivered a rock opera pitting musical expression against governmental tyranny, savior against oppressor, iPod against NOMAC.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What we have here is something to celebrate, a double-disc triumph that could have crumbled beneath the weight of its own ambition. Instead, guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess have crafted melodies that stick in your head, songs mostly stripped of shred and arrangements meticulously matching the storyline that Petrucci wrote before approaching the band with his concept.

The plot is simple: about 300 years in the future, a man named Gabriel stuns his community with music, a luxury that’s been forgotten since his village is more focused on foraging for food than artistic enjoyment. The world has become a dystopia ruled by an emperor removed from the otherwise impoverished society. Mechanical orbs called NOMACs (Noise Machines) zip through the skies, showering their own “music” upon the landscape. 

What amounts to blips and buzzing (no, not the latest Radiohead release) is what constitutes music until Gabriel strums a guitar and raises his voice, which threatens Emperor Nafaryus, charms his daughter Faythe and stirs a Romeo and Juliet subplot.

Cheesy? Definitely? Echos of 2112, I hear you say? Absolutely. But not nearly as cheesy as the album’s uber-cringeworthy pre-release emails and Facebook updates made it sound.

What we have here is nothing short of greatness, arguably Dream Theater’s best album since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Some solid rockers (“The Gift of Music,” “Moment of Betrayal”) mix with even more ballads (“The Answer,” “When Your Time Has Come”) that rank among the band’s best lighter-waving material (think “Anna Lee,” “Through Her Eyes,” “Surrounded,” “Beneath The Surface,” etc.).

Fans weary of Petrucci and Rudess’ scalar gymnastics have their wish, as each song serves a purpose with surprisingly few indulgent solos. But don’t worry, there’s still virtuosity aplenty.

Fans craving Train of Thought heaviness will be disappointed, as The Astonishing favors prog over power. But power is a relative term. In one sense, these songs constitute the band’s most powerful adventure in years, layering actual symphonic instrumentation — even bagpipes! — atop contemporary rock performances. 

As they proved on the Score DVD, the symphony-meets-rock blend can work seamlessly. 

And despite some initial misgivings, the story works. Its timeless themes of forbidden love and societal oppression transcend the dystopian backdrop. In fact, Petrucci could be criticized for not fleshing out the NOMACs. Instead, such sci-fi concepts serve as window dressing and are not essential to the story, itself dispensable for those who prefer focusing on the music. And I think many listeners will forgo the fantasy for the tunes.

With The Astonishing, it’s the music that matters. And with fans already sharply split on whether it screams masterpiece or massive failure, Dream Theater’s 13th studio effort sees the band’s reach meet its grasp. Highly recommended.

Track listing:
Disc One

Act 1
1. Descent of the NOMACS
2. Dystopian Overture
3.The Gift of Music 
4. The Answer  
5. A Better Life  
6. Lord Nafaryus  
7. A Savior in the Square  
8. When Your Time Has Come  
9. Act of Faythe  
10. Three Days  
11. The Hovering Sojourn
12. Brother, Can You Hear Me?  
13.A Life Left Behind  
14. Ravenskill  
15. Chosen  
16. A Tempting Offer 
17. Digital Discord
18. The X Aspect 
19. A New Beginning
20. The Road to Revolution  

Disc Two
Act II
1. 2285 Entr'acte
2. Moment of Betrayal 
3. Heaven’s Cove  
4. Begin Again  
5. The Path That Divides  
6. Machine Chatter
7. The Walking Shadow  
8. My Last Farewell 
9. Losing Faythe 
10. Whispers on the Wind 
11. Hymn of a Thousand Voices 
12. Our New World  
13. Power Down
14. Astonishing 

— By A. Lee Graham