Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos (2007)

Let's face it. You either like Dream Theater, or you don't. There are very few that fall into that middle space. Progressive rock and metal fans from across the world have spent more than two decades marveling at the musicianship that this American based band have put on display. While others, like it or not, think their albums are little more than "musical masturbation." The argument is impossible to win. Regardless of your opinion, "Systematic Chaos" is an album that needs to be heard and dissected.

The tangled web of drums, guitar, bass and keyboards is woven into the fabric of "In The Presence Of Enemies - Part 1." The song has two distinct parts, with the first half being completely instrumental. The intro sounds like each instrument is playing a solo, but all to the same beat. They merge well despite the chaos. But as things slow, the true cohesion begins. This is where Dream Theater shines brightest. Petrucci, Portnoy, Myung and Rudess play so well off of one another, creating rich melodies and harmony, with layer upon layer of sound. The second half allows room for James LaBrie, the lightning rod for most Dream Theater detractors, the chance to enter with his clean vocals. His in-studio vocals are above average, but passive. The music is the star, and he is a supporting actor.

The soft piano that introduces "Forsaken" is a light appetizer. As soon as Petrucci's guitar comes screeching in, this evolves into a progressive rock work. Myung's bass rumbles in, while LaBrie carves out the beginnings of a story. The full band comes together here, with each member providing a necessary element to complete the effect. A choreographed stop/start is perfectly placed, launching the second half of the song with a fury. Petrucci takes over with a commanding, shredding solo, on top of Rudess' atmospheric background keys. The drumming over Portnoy isn't overbearing, but rather powerful. The track ends where it begins, in the deft hands of a keyboard master.

Fans of the band were prepared for the shred fest of "Constant Motion," with each member of the band showing off their respective talents. There is an odd similarity to old Metallica, as if Dream Theater were giving us a quick taste of what the metal legends would have been like had they not fallen off so terribly. The mesh of guitar and drums in the bridge section will leave you dizzy. The breakdown section is filled with high octane fret work and firing drums, but is capped by a dynamic keyboard solo. "The Dark Eternal Night" is a stomping track, which might catch you of guard at times. The melodies in the chorus are the strength, while the odd vocal structure in the verse is a low point. The instrumental work is all top notch, featuring some ridiculous dueling guitar and keyboards. The old time silent movie soundtrack breakdown portion is light-hearted and fun. But there is plenty of heaviness to absorb as well, with pounding drum beats urging the band along.

There most interesting composition on the album comes in the form of "Repentance," a mainly instrumental track with spoken voices confessing sins of their past. The song is emotional and moving, as the mood of the music shifts from dark and ominous, to a more piano-laden somber one. Even after nearly eleven minutes, you may still find yourself swaying from side to side with each passing drum fill or cymbal crash. LaBrie has a rare chance to take center stage in the opening minute of "Prophets Of War," as his voice is heard over only the pulsing keys. As the drums enter, one kick at a time, the track builds into an anthem of change. layers of guitars, drums and bass come together, a call to action against tyranny. There is an air of triumph in the pre-chorus, leading to a chant of support in the chorus itself. The strength of the instruments is outdone only by the strength of the message itself.

The fifteen minute melodic epic that follows, "The Ministry Of Lost Souls," is a mixture of everything you have come to love (or hate) from Dream Theater. Soft, clean guitars with soothing vocals begin the track. The refrains have all of the lighter inducing fair of a rock ballad, complete with Rudess' ringing piano chords. But the chain of solos that follow are signature moves, with Petrucci screaming ahead with brute force. His guitars wind in and out of the pattern; on time, off time, on his own time. Rudess' keyboards take command, only to be seized by a tremendous drum fill that steals the show for Portnoy. Myung's bass is the constant, tying each section together with his atomic clock of sonic low end. The guitars inevitably win out, with a raucous solo hitting pitches up and down the scales. At last, the band reunites, coming back to the songs course, welcoming LaBrie back, and cruising to a prog rock finish.

The closing number, "In The Presence Of Enemies - Part 2," starts as soft and delicately as it could, before taking a noticeably dark turn. "Dark master within, I will fight for you. Dark master of sin, now my soul is yours." Disturbing at first, perhaps, but there is so much more. The light is yet to come, with ripping solos coming from every direction. This is a track that adds fuel to the fire of the "haters." Some of the instrumentals will seem unnecessary, especially to someone unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the band's epic desires. But each note has a place, each instrument takes a swing at the piƱata of a successful song. And when all four (five including vocals) connect, there is a spray of confetti that is not easy to explain.

There is simply no denying the talent levels that the members of Dream Theater possess. Two and a half decades of success is proof of that. This band is a juggernaut, and not soon to be stopped. But what one hears as a cohesive, well constructed progressive metal masterpiece, another might characterize as a mish mosh of solos and "look what I can do" attitude. "Systematic Chaos" is both and neither. All at the same time. There, I said it.


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