Seven songs, 69 minutes long; keyboards, guitar solos, drums and bass played like you never thought was possible; vocals on only half the album; music that is very definitely heavy metal. If this sounds like the musical equivalent of sliding naked down a razor blade into a vat of salt then look away now for this is Dream Theater. Welcome to their world.
Dream Theater are one of the biggest cult bands around. For 14 years they’ve made a living out of being some of the most proficient rock musicians ever to grace a stage. Yet, as we well know, writing great music is about far more than technical ability. If this were not the case, then Lennon and McCartney, who barely knew the difference between a crotchet and a quaver, would not have become the most famous songwriting duo ever. Similarly, Nirvana‘s Kurt Cobain, God rest his soul, whose “simple” chord changes still have some snobbish muso guitarists turning their noses up, might never have become the musical figurehead for a generation.
To Dream Theater’s credit, whilst resolutely sticking to their progressive metal ideals, they seem to understand that there is a balance to be struck between actually writing songs and, to put it bluntly, showing off.
When they get this balance right, Train Of Thought, their sixth or seventh studio album (depending on how you classify a past five-track EP that was nearly an hour long!), fair steams along the tracks. Opener As I Am, for instance, is refreshingly straightforward, full of hair-shaking, thrashy guitar riffs that recall Metallica at their historical finest, while James LaBrie belts out defiant words to their critics: “Don’t tell me what’s in, (don’t) tell me how to write.”
In the past, I always thought that LaBrie’s vocals were the weakest link in Dream Theater’s chainmail, not because the guy can’t sing, but because he had a tendency to stray into an operatic wail that grated at times. Thankfully, on this album, he’s never sounded better, particularly when mixing gentle, smooth vocals with crazy, distorted patterns as on This Dying Soul.
The three tracks following As I Am do move the fulcrum away from the vocals, back towards the instrumentation. However, undisputed guitar genius, John Petrucci’s Eastern-flavoured squalling in This Dying Soul; the haunting tone of Endless Sacrifice; and the angry, muscular riffing and unbelievable drumming of Mike Portnoy and bass-playing of John Myung in Honor Thy Father; all ensure that the time between vocal passages does pass by surprisingly quickly. And that’s not to mention the fact that the choruses in said songs are truly memorable ones.
After the 11-minute heavy metal pieces, the three-minute Vacant is a bit of a shock, featuring just piano, bass, cello and vocals, and proving that great musicians can and should be able to turn their hand to any style of music.
Alas, this is followed by an 11-minute instrumental where Petrucci’s guitar(s) and Jordan Rudess’s keyboards take it in turns, and sometimes vie for supremacy, while the bass even leads the line at one point. If this all sounds horribly overblown, then final track In The Name Of God takes things one step further with some serious guitar-widdling, the unwelcome return of LaBrie’s wail and a big piano finale.
The last two tracks on Train Of Thought show that Dream Theater don’t get the balance right all of the time, at least not if you’re not a fan of Joe Satriani and his ilk. However, as in the past, they’ve managed to stop themselves disappearing up their own behinds enough to make the rest of the opus a pleasure to listen to.
If you’re into prog rock and have a taste for the heavy, then you should Rush out to buy this. Even if this is not the case, you could do a lot worse.