Sunday, July 15, 2007

CD Review: Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos

The new Dream Theater CD, Systematic Chaos, has been out for about a month now, and here is my review of this latest offering from these progressive metal giants. Song-by-song:

In the Presence of Enemies, Part I (Prelude/Resurrection) – The first song of the CD clocks in at nine minutes, and begins with the meandering explosiveness that is Dream Theater’s signature style. Guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess engage in some tight interplay as bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy do more than just find a groove in which to plant themselves. Vocalist James LaBrie doesn’t appear until the 5:15 mark, which sees the song solidify into a theme on religion and the promises it pretends to hold. It is a strong beginning that ends with a flurry from both Petrucci and Rudess.

Forsaken – This is a short (for Dream Theater) song of about five-and-a-half minutes that could be a single except for the fact that commercial radio is a vast wasteland of gutless personalities. The song is a progressive metal power ballad that showcases LaBrie’s vocals soaring over a restrained background. Petrucci fires off a short solo and Rudess supplies plenty of atmosphere with gentle piano and grand orchestral sounds. Myung and Portnoy hold the rhythm down and guide the song throughout.

Constant Motion – This baby is a thumping, stomping monster that more than lives up to its title. LaBrie and mates fire off some aggressive multi-tracked and back-and-forth vocals. About halfway through, Myung and Petrucci slow things down for a few seconds before Petrucci fires off an eastern-tinged solo that leads into Rudess’ spacey keyboard solo. The song then goes back into the original stomp mode through the finish.

The Dark Eternal Night – Begins with a dissonant rhythm from Petrucci and Myung with some mad, pseudo-thrash drumming from Portnoy before LaBrie’s effects-enhanced vocals carve their way into the mix. At about three-and-half minutes the song goes from sinister to a carnival ride that lasts for about three more minutes. This passage is mostly indulgent silliness that includes Rudess providing some piano sounds that are reminiscent of silent movie chase scene themes. It ends with Petrucci taking a blistering solo that seems completely out of place given what just preceded it, though Portnoy does a terrific job of punctuating the changes with his drumming. The song then goes back into dissonant mode and ends with Petrucci slowing down into a heavy, Sabbath-like grove over which he plays some spacey effects as the song fades out. If not for the middle section, this song could be a metal classic.

Repentance – A slow, sad song about regret. This one clocks in at nearly eleven minutes. LaBrie sings the words with longing as the sedate melody guides him. After a semi-acoustic start, Petrucci plays a bluesy electric solo about five minutes into the song before what is apparently the Dream Theater Repentance Choir takes over for about 90 seconds before a time change that brings on wordless vocals, distorted bass and acoustic guitar. Rudess comes in with some underlying keyboards to add to the grim atmosphere. At the nine-and-a-half minute mark, another Repentance Choir member recites some spoken word warnings/wisdom as the song ends.

Prophets of War – This song starts slowly, but the tension builds with some interesting effects with LaBrie’s voice and that are reminiscent of Queen. The spoken word feature comes in here at the four-minute mark. The song seems to be a warning about what we are doing in Iraq.

The Ministry of Lost Souls – This song clocks in at almost fifteen minutes. After a grandiose opening that lasts nearly a minute, a change with Petrucci’s semi-acoustic guitar sets up LaBrie’s longing vocal for a ballad-like ride that lasts more than seven minutes. An abrupt change comes in with some heavy guitars and drums and playful keyboard work. The heaviness escalates with more time changes and keyboard fills and a scary solo. Petrucci fires of a nimble solo of his own as the rythym stays hot. Petrucci and Rudess then play a harmony solo over Portnoy’s frantic drumming as the main theme returns (at nearly the eleven-minute mark) with Petrucci punctuating it with his guitar before things get quiet for a few beats with some soft piano under the vocals befor again coming back to the main melody. Petrucci plays the song out with a crying solo.

In the Presence of Enemies, Part 2 (Heretic/Slaughter of the Damned) – The longest song on the CD at sixteen-and-a-half minutes begins with some quiet piano and vocals with some subtle sonic effects that sound like Petrucci on guitar. Myung perks things up a bit at the two-and-a-half minute mark by adding a heavy bass line to the mix. A minute later Petrucci comes in with a slamming rhythm that signals a change in emphasis that sends LaBrie’s voice into sinister mode. About six minutes in, the tempo picks up to a gallop, almost like Iron Maiden at their best. Three minutes later, a time change comes in with Rudess adding some piano and other keys to the mix for a beat until another quick time change comes in with Petrucci’s guitar and Portnoy’s drums paving the way. They are soon joined by Rudess punctuating the sound with his keyboard effects. At the eleven-minute mark Petrucci plays a chopping solo followed by a solo from Rudess. Petrucci then plays a multi-tracked solo before Rudess takes the tempo down and back to the main melody with his spacey keyboard tones. LaBrie comes back in with his sinister mode vocals as the band winds it with a bang.

I give this effort an A-minus. The chops, as always, are top-notch, and the power, precision and passion shine through to the point where even the more indulgent passages, such as the one cited in Dark Eternal Night seem more like minor inconveniences than true distractions from the music. If you are a Dream Theater follower you probably already own this CD, and if you are new to this band, as a few co-workers of mine were, you might just become converted as they have been after listening to the sounds these guys were able to make. This is a great collection of music, so go out to your local Newbury Comics and purchase a copy. You will not be disappointed!

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