Dream Theater's new album is one that I can't help but judge with unrealistic expectations. Their previous album, "A Dramatic Turn Of Events", was not just an amazing album, or the best album in the band's storied history, it was so much the perfect encapsulation of what I think progressive metal to be that it has risen to the point where I call it my favorite progressive metal album of all time. It's high praise, to be sure, but every time I listen to that record, I'm amazed by how the band can take such technically demanding material and mix it with some truly glorious vocal melodies. Other prog bands have written songs that match it, Dream Theater themselves included, but I can't think of another album that holds together so well as a cohesive piece of work.
Which brings us to the new self-titled Dream Theater album, one that has been advertised as being a pure distillation of who the band is. In a sense, they're absolutely right. More of Dream Theater's immediate influences, Rush especially, are felt here than at any other point in their career. Everything Dream Theater has ever done can be found on the record, from the thrash-inspired riffing, to the soaring vocals, to the dizzying displays of technical skill. And with all of that wrapped in a veneer of cinematic majesty, what could possibly go wrong?
Nothing goes wrong, per se, but "Dream Theater" is not the album I was expecting to hear. Everything about this album, from the title, to the theme, to the inclusion of drummer Mike Mangini in the writing process, hinted at this album being bigger and better than ever.
The problem with such a grand vision is that matching it is sure to be nearly impossible. "Dream Theater" is certainly a cinematic album, one pushing the boundaries of the band's scope, but it pushes without knowing exactly where it's going, which blurs the edges, and softens the attack.
There are spectacular moments on this album. The run through the middle of the album, with "The Bigger Picture", "Behind The Veil", "Surrender To Reason", and "Along For The Ride" is simply amazing. The songs lack the modern metal edge that had become a hallmark of the band's sound ever since "Train Of Thought", but they make up for it with a relaxed, and dare I say fun, attitude that is both new and refreshing. These songs take a step back on the instrumental wonder, but come together as some of the most fully realized songs the band has written in a long time. "Surrender To Reason", in particular, is six stunning minutes of music that I can't imagine any other band coming up with.
Even the album's nod to their metal heritage is an enjoyable ride. First single "The Enemy Inside" is a hard-hitting number that still manages to dig in on enough hooks to be more than a metal-by-numbers reminder that Dream Theater is plenty capable of being heavy.
Where the album runs into a problem is with it's desire to be epic. "False Awakening Suite" is a fine instrumental introduction to the record, but doesn't need to be followed up with another instrumental two songs later. That song, "Enigma Machine", is like most instrumentals; superfluous. The song doesn't move in any particular direction, and is one of those things much more fun for the people playing it than those who are listening.
But the worst offender is the closing twenty minute epic, "Illumination Theory". The song borrows the format of their own "The Count Of Tuscany", which is what ultimately dooms it. "Illumination Theory" is a fine song on it's own, though unnecessarily long, but when viewed against "The Count Of Tuscany", it's failings become more evident. Essentially two separate songs book-ending a mellow instrumental passage, neither half of the song is as good as their previous epic. "The Count Of Tuscany" had a metal half with a strong chorus, and then a gorgeous acoustic flourish at the end that tied up the story perfectly. "Illumination Theory", on the other hand, has two rather standard metal songs on either end, neither of which stands up with the best material on the album. The vision was there, but I'm not sure enough thought was given as to how to ensure the pieces could best bring it to life.
"Dream Theater" isn't "A Dramatic Turn Of Events", but it's still a really good Dream Theater album. Their comfort being themselves since the departure of Mike Portnoy is evident, and has the band headed in the right direction. "Dream Theater" is really good, and I'm sure I would think it even better if it wasn't for the fact that I'm still being blown away by how good its predecessor is. Dream Theater still rules progressive metal, and this album shows why.