Even devoted fans must have gulped a little when Dream Theater announced that their new album would be a two-hour concept record – accompanied by an in-depth dystopian story (in which oppressive rulers grapple with musical rebels), characters, maps (yes, maps) and deep breath 34 tracks.
So yes, the vital stats may intimidate. But beyond the ‘oh-fuck-that’s-long’ veneer (and the cheesier plot points, some of which are very cheesy…) you’ll find a passionate, thoughtful work of beautifully ambitious rock.
Part of us wants to warn that if you don’t already like Dream Theater, chances are this won’t sway you. In many ways this is probably true: Dream Theater have split opinions since the word go (between those who worship every superlative flourish, and those who’d rather stick their heads in toasters than sit through a full album). With its symphonic tendencies, cinematic scale and prog-metal emotion – poised for transformation into musical theatre and video game versions – The Astonishing may do the same.
And yet there’s something about it that just might open Dream Theater up to the masses. It’s certainly the right timing. As Star Wars, Game Of Thrones and the like command colossal audiences, fantastical societies are suddenly more of a ‘mainstream’ prospect than ever. Fantasy means big business circa 2016 – who’s to say a record like The Astonishing won’t capitalise on this in some way?
More importantly, however, for all its enormity this is one of the least ‘twiddly’ DT albums we’ve heard in years. Yes the likes of A New Beginning showcase their exhilarating chops, but it’s not done gratuitously. Confident, digestible melodies are prioritised over virtuosic showboating. No song lasts more than nine minutes. And with Mike Mangini now well settled into the Mike Portnoy-shaped drummer seat, they play like an established team. By the time the riffy Our New World kicks in, you can virtually hear them smiling.
Big and unapologetically bombastic. What better a way to kick the winter blues?