It might have felt a little bit like a slap in the face for the band themselves, but joy was undeniably unconfined when Dream Theater released their 14th album, Distance Over Time, early in 2019. A purposeful return to their classic sound after the polarising extravagance of 2016’s The Astonishing, it echoed the towering grandeur and riff-driven intricacies of the band’s most revered 21st century works, Train Of Thought and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, and threw some boss-level virtuoso showboating into the mix for good measure. It was, in essence, proper Dream Theater.
In truth, The Astonishing remains a sorely underrated work, and arguably the band’s most authentically progressive album overall. But both Distance Over Time and this successor, A View From The Top Of The World, suggest that prog metal’s standard bearers have rediscovered their comfort zone and found it to be inspiring as it ever was.
Time for a little more joy, then. Once again, this is proper Dream Theater, but less concerned with sustained heaviness or saluting cherished past glories than its predecessor occasionally seemed to be. A View From The Top Of The World also feels less strident and dogmatic than anything they’ve released in a while: a sign of these Covid-bothered, politically febrile times, perhaps, but also evidence the band are still determined to meddle with their own formulae and sidestep repetition at every turn.
Nonetheless, opener The Alien does seem to tick every conceivable box for longtime fans. From a neck-snapping, mutant metal intro to the grand sweep of James LaBrie’s vocal melodies, it’s an unashamedly textbook slice of classic modern prog metal, as conceived and refined over three decades by Dream Theater themselves. Neatly wonky but free-flowing mid-song solos from John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess aside, it belongs firmly in the aforementioned comfort zone, but is executed with such exuberance that it hardly seems to matter. Similarly, Answering The Call switches from fidgeting, staccato verses to bittersweet, harmony-drenched choruses, with symphonic stabs and some gritty, prog thrash riffing gluing it all together: well-trodden territory for the quintet, but revisited here with endearing, wide-eyed glee. Meanwhile, Invisible Monster injects a dose of spooky metal grandeur into a tale of a lurking, spectral assailant who threatens our safety and sanity… well, the subtext is hard to miss.
Any band arriving at their 15th studio album could be forgiven for running low on ideas, but if A View From The Top Of The World’s first three tracks are merely good rather than great, the remainder of these new songs offer exactly the kind of haughty display of prowess that fans will be hoping for. A stately but schizophrenic sprawl, Sleeping Giant makes sublime use of every one of its 10 minutes, with countless great riffs, seamless mood shifts and a near-chewable sense of gothic melodrama. It also boasts one of those wild and mischievous instrumental sections when Petrucci and Rudess appear to be goading each other to ever more preposterous acts of virtuosity, before gently shape-shifting towards an elegantly and deeply satisfying melodic crescendo.
In comparison, Transcending Time is a comparatively straightforward DT banger, but it’s an exceptional one with a lethally memorable refrain, and one of LaBrie’s finest vocal performances. For those demanding a reason to bang their heads, Awaken The Master fits the furious bill. This album’s heaviest moment, it’s a joyous ensemble piece and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser at future shows, but with numerous moments of fresh ingenuity and drummer Mike Mangini in powerhouse metal drummer mode.
Of course, every Dream Theater record is scrutinised most keenly in terms of the scope of its biggest epics. A sumptuous, 20-minute tour-de-force, the title track brims with brilliant ideas and none-more-prog conceits. It begins with militaristic syncopation, building and mutating toward LaBrie’s dramatic entrance, before scorching off on one of this band’s most fearless musical journeys yet. Much like the scintillating Illumination Theory (from 2013’s Dream Theater), A View… is partly an exercise in giving the people what they want, and partly a reminder that these musicians remain capable of just about anything. Blessed with a grade-A chorus and rich atmospherics, it hammers home the self-evident truth that Dream Theater are in an extremely harmonious and creatively vital place right now. They have also never sounded better – kudos to producer Andy Sneap for a speaker-levelling mix – nor more delighted by each other’s absurd levels of talent. Not just proper Dream Theater, then, but something ever-so-slightly bigger and better.