I always find it interesting to read the reviews after Dream Theater releases an album. In short, you never get any type of consensus from the fans. If they release a heavier album, half the fans want it to be more orchestral and moody. If they release a melodic album, half the fans want something heavier. If they play too fast, some people want them to slow it down. Playing too slow, on the other hand, causes the speed demons to turn their heads. Too much keyboard - not enough keyboard. Too much Portnoy, too much Petrucci. Not enough Petrucci, not enough Rudess. Bring back Kevin - and on, and on, and on, and on. Honestly, it's tiring.
But, you know what - behind it all is an army of hard core fans (mostly, dare I guess, musicians themselves who, by all measurements are always the harshest critics) who, whether they know it or not, are giving this band the highest form of praise you can ever give: In a word, VIRTUOSITY. These guys can spread themselves across such a wide range of styles that they have, along the way, picked up fans of all shapes, sizes, and musical tastes. So the fact that Dream Theater can never please them all at once is a testament to their artistic range, their musical talent, and, yes, their virtuosity.
Should I tell you about Systematic Chaos? Well, if you haven't guessed it yet, I loved this album. I am a fan of their more melodic works like Scenes From A Memory and the second disc of Six Degrees and, yes, even of the oft slammed Space-Dye Vest. That's not to say that Train of Thought doesn't have a coveted place in my collection. But I just happen to like the "catchier" albums a little more. So where does this one fit? Well, quite honestly, right in the middle. Every song has it's own set of big brass ones. But mixed in between are the signature catchy hooks that made this band so famous. I've seen many comparisons to many of their different albums in the various reviews, but the closest I could come is somewhere between Six Degrees and Octavarium - probably closer to the former than the latter.
I do have a few specific comments regarding the songs:
1. In The Presence Of Enemies Part I is a great opener featuring fast, high-energy riffs and the beginnings of a structured epic. The problem is that it doesn't go anywhere (clearly because it was recorded as one song with the closer). In any case, it's a good enough tease for the album that follows.
2. Forsaken is the catchy single. It is, in my opinion, the most listenable song on the album from the standpoint of wanting to hear it over and over again.
3. Constant Motion is, by far, my least favorite song on the album - mostly because it is a total rip-off of Metallica. They do it well, but this is not at all an original song. Dream Theater falls into this trap every so often, but never so obviously as this, in my opinion.
4. The Dark Eternal Night is a solid song with ripping solos, speedy runs, and dark but decent subject matter (feels a little Iron Maiden in it's story). Not a lot to remember, but definitely a lot to appreciate. My only problem here is with Jordan's "signature" ragtimey piano interlude. Jordan - enough already! I feel like he's trying to make this his trademark and, unfortunately, it's already been taken by Rick Wakeman. I wish he would drop the "piano in the western saloon" bit and break away on his truly original continuum instead.
5. Repentance is good, although too heavily influenced by Pain Of Salvation's "Be" album. I like the narratives, but POS did it just a little better.
6. Prophets Of War is another heavy tune with a great message. Not one of the stand-outs, in my opinion, but a solid contributor.
7. Now we're getting somewhere with Ministry Of Lost Souls. Some nice guitar work in the slower beginning parts, with one of the best vocal melodies toward the end that I have ever heard them build to.
8. And, finally, the rest of the first song. Again, great vocal melodies with an epic feel and an intense conclusion. But the song definitely loses some of its drive by being separated from it's start. Still, the album feels strong and complete with this one finishing it off.
So that's my take, for whatever it's worth. I love the fact that the fans are, yet again, mixed on this one. I hope they never all agree, because it will mean that Dream Theater has fallen into complacency and predictability - and that can never happen. But here's the most important thing - and please listen closely. I have seen a lot of different people who were fans since Awake or even Images. Well, I was a fan since the Majesty days. Truthfully, I followed these guys before they were ever signed and have been a die-hard fan ever since. And one thing I can say for sure is that they have all individually grown as musicians and, more importantly, have done the same as a band over their 20+ year career. These guys work hard at what they do and they are always honing their craft. I don't think we'll ever see them just sit back and take it easy and stop learning their instruments. And that's why their albums always evolve - in some cases even past their fans. But that's a good thing for the music business and, if we can all learn to appreciate it, a good thing for us.
Here's to another 20 years! May the rest of their career be as long as this review...