DREAM THEATER has been around for so long that they could almost be regarded as the grognards, the Imperial guard of prog-metal. They practically laid the initial framework for the whole genre along with a few other bands such as FATES WARNING and QUEENSRYCHE in a galaxy far, far away. Their 1989 debut album “When Dream and Day Unite” shattered the very foundations of the musical worldview of many, including the young speed-metal rascal… me! With each new album, the novelty appeal has dimmed a little over time and now the band is one of those prog-outfits that the prog-snobs just love to hate, whether for the sheer excess of notes or the vocals of James LaBrie that the online truth commissions often regard as the weakest link in the band. Yes, it is true that the band’s back-catalog has its peaks and valleys, like with any other elderly band whose career spans five decades. For instance, the 2016 outing, “The Astonishing,” was not maybe that astonishing but the following full-length, “Distance Over Time,” positioned the band steadily back on track. Heralding the release of their fifteenth album, “A View From The Top Of The World,” due out on October 22nd, 2021, via Inside Out Music, DREAM THEATER released a music video for the album opener, “The Alien,” in August and another one for the track, “Invisible Monster,” in September. Judging by these two teasers alone, the album was already going to be well worth the wait.
The opening track, “The Alien,” is a 9-minute full-tilt prog-metal boogie that resonates with all the familiar DREAM THEATER elements. The song is laced with a plethora of offbeat riffs that chop the air as relentlessly as the Swedish chef in The Muppet Show. The riffing is balanced with skyscraping, melodic passages and these prog legends have pilfered from this safe so many times that they certainly know how it is done. If the band has at times executed its sonic wizardry as though with a “put on the silver suit and go through the motions” ethic, this is not one of those times. If the pandemic has any silver lining, it seems to have ushered bands to pull out their A-game. “The Alien” is easily one of the best songs DREAM THEATER has released in the past 20 years. I guess I was not the only one whose initial thoughts in August were something like, “If this sets the tone for the new album, it is going to be quite good!” It does – and it is.
The second single, “Invisible Monster,” hinges on a bit more mellow, mid-tempo trudge with the lyrics paraphrasing the mental state of the world, depicting anxiety as an invisible monster that is haunting us from the inside, “always felt but never seen.” Considering the theme, it is probably not entirely coincidental that one of the characters in the music video resembles a figure from the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, Seventh Seal, namely the character depicting Death, with whom the protagonist plays chess in one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time. The song’s main motif has a nice cinematic feel to it and the riffs punch hard.
Sandwiched between the single tracks on the album, yet another riff-origami further proves that the ink in the band’s songwriting pen is very much in sublime condition. “Answering The Call” shoots forth such robust, syncopated riffs, that you simply cannot resist the urge to shuffle your feet to the music… once you have figured out the complex rhythmic pattern, that is. The hook of the song is just as catchy as those pedigree riffs in old DREAM THEATER classics such as “Ytsé Jam,” ”Panic Attack,” or ”Gift of Music.” I could just listen to the riff on repeat and never stop.
I cannot say for sure whether it is a sign of the times or an indication that I have been listening to some weird stuff, but I have been noticing a recurring, somewhat Jungian theme in music lately. It pops up here and there pretty much regardless of the genre. DREAM THEATER‘s take on the matter is conveyed by “Sleeping Giant.” It is about embracing your dark side, the shadow within, in order to live your life more completely. Befittingly, the song starts with a lengthy intro of labyrinthine riffs that resonate with the air of evil circus music. Later on in the song, keyboardist Jordan Rudess shows off his honky-tonk piano and Hammond B3-organ chops quite prominently, creating an even more twisted cabaret feel. I guess confronting one’s shadow may very well be quite a haggard awakening to a reality that looks like a circus sideshow.
There are no ballads on the album. The verses of “Transcending Time” are tinted with a good pinch of the softer aesthetics of 1980s hard rock, but the mellow parts are properly balanced with a fair amount of heavy riffing. The same pretty much holds true for the following track, “Awaken The Master,” as well. The latter is spiked with maybe a tad more liberal shredding and remarkably heavier riffs. In essence, both tracks are exactly the kind of sonic rollercoasters of which we are accustomed to expect from the band.
The album probably could not be regarded as a genuine DREAM THEATER release if it did not have at least one crazy epic. Even the shortest track on the outing clocks over 6 minutes, which in some circles might suffice to be considered the appropriate length for an epic song. The title track, “A View From The Top Of The World,” brings the sonic journey to a close over the course of 20 minutes! It is quite an all-encompassing listening experience, covering the full spectrum of emotions, from adrenalized guitar riffs to contemplative piano sequences, like a genuine prog epic only should.
The view from the top of the world, according to DREAM THEATER, looks (or sounds, to be precise) pretty damn great. The new album is one of their best works to date, hands down. “Haters gonna hate,” as the saying goes, but even the prog-elitist could do himself a big favor by checking out this offering – he might be surprised by the vigor of this 32-year-old prog dinosaur. The band isn’t showing any signs of stagnating into a creative halt. “A View From The Top Of The World” is a masterful mixture of musical virtuosity and emotion. That should say quite a lot, coming from someone who is not exactly a diehard fan of the band.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- The Alien
- Answering the Call
- Invisible Monster
- Sleeping Giant
- Transcending Time
- Awaken the Master
- A View From The Top Of The World
James LaBrie – Vocals
John Petrucci – Guitars
Jordan Rudess – Keyboards
John Myung – Bass
Mike Mangini – Drums
Inside Out Music