Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dream Theater :: Systematic Chaos

Artist :: Dream Theater
Album :: Systematic Chaos
Label :: Roadrunner Records

Play this cut first :: Constant Motion (video below)

In a word :: Edgier

I'll admit it, I'm a bit biased. As a guitar player, and one with a music theory degree, the orchestrated brand of progressive metal that Dream Theater delivers has been a favorite of mine for more than 15 years. And while much of their stuff has been almost a like a rehashing of the previous album, Systematic Chaos is certainly different.

For starters, these cuts tend to be heavier across the board. While they've had a penchant for dropping in these little acoustic bits with bad sax solos in the past, they skip that for the most part. The only real exception is the 15-minute snoozer "The Ministry of Lost Souls". But that's what skip buttons are for.

This time, they get heavier and put more focus on traditional song structures, but in a way that is so much better than they tried on Falling Into Infinity. It's almost as if they decided to try writing more conventional songs than having someone else suggest they do it. There's a little more heart in it this time around. A cut like "Forsaken" could easily get some radio spins and not seem like a sellout at all.

Don't get me wrong, though, there is a ton of powerhouse riffage and musical pyrotechnics. I mean, come on, it's Dream Theater. A cut like "Constant Motion" (video included) is pretty representative of the overall aggression levels on Systematic Chaos.

I'm not sure if the move to Roadrunner Records, a metal powerhouse label, was a bit of a kick in the ass, but these guys seemed like they were out to prove something for the first time since, well probably the first time ever.

One good move was keep singer James Labrie in check. The guy can sing, sure. But his range is in a register that drives a lot of people crazy and is usually more of an obstacle to those who have never heard Dream Theater before than the complex song arrangements are. With this added level of aggression, holding him back a little is one of those instances when less is more. In some cases, they put his voice through a lot of distortion, which also helps.

They also experiment in a few places. For instance, "Repentance" harkens back to "This Dying Soul" from the Train of Thought album. It is another song in this sort of unspoken Alcoholics Anonymous suite that has been weaving itself through albums since Awake. They do some interesting things with guitar processing and extended chord progressions, much like Pink Floyd, with spoken word voice-overs. And the way the final track "In the Presence of Enemies Part II" blows up does my heart good.

It's actually pretty cool to hear them stretch out a little and push the(ir) envelope in a way that just doesn't involve playing faster.

Best cuts on the album :: Constant Motion, The Dark Eternal Night, In the Presence of Enemies Part I.

The bottom line :: With the level of musicianship in this band, they could've gone in any direction and probably pulled it off. Going heavier, however, play to a strength. Their albums have always had some great heavy moments, but putting this album in that realm as a whole was a brilliant move. It doesn't sound forced at all. And this might be the album that wins them some new fans without alienating the old ones.

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