Dream Theater – A View From the Top of the World (Album Review)

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The title of Dream Theater’s most recent studio album has proven premonitory. Although the album was released in 2019, we have certainly experienced some Distance Over Time in these two brief yet interminable years. It is a different world in which we awaken, and the gentlemen of Dream Theater are not insulated from it. With any luck, their powers of premonition will carry forward to their new and optimistically titled album, “A View From the Top of the World.” Although keyboard wizard (sometimes literally) Jordan Rudess and guitar virtuoso supreme John Petrucci had just finished Liquid Tension Experiment 3 with Messieurs Levin and Portnoy, they retained sufficient creative juices to keep the momentum and return to the very same studio and deliver a fresh Dream Theater record.

The band lineup thankfully remains intact since the previous record and tour. Rudess and Petrucci are rejoined by the soft-spoken six-string bass slinger John Myung, and gameshow-genie champion Mike Mangini enclosed within his titanic drum kit. The only member unable to participate in the studio personally was vocalist James LaBrie, barred from international travel during the endemic by our benevolent dictators. Thankfully, in this day and age, technology allows comprehensive video and chat collaboration for the writing process, along with file sharing, although for the final high-fidelity digital recordings, LaBrie was able to make it to the US to do his sessions onsite in the studio, so the tracks did not need to get laid down in Canada. Pretty good, eh?

Standing in the record store, looking at the back of the jacket, glancing over the track times, one may think this is the usual garden-variety DT offering (with the obvious exception of works like Scenes and Astonishing). There are a handful of tracks ranging from six to ten minutes, followed by a twenty-minute juggernaut beast. More or less similar to” Octavarium,” without hearing anything. However, the band made some conscious efforts to “Breaking All Illusions,” and shaking off some of the conventions and preconceptions. “When we got together for this album, there were no rules; let’s just see what happens. We are not trying to write certain types of songs like we did with ‘Distance Over Time,’ where we were consciously trying to write Dream Theater music in a more concise package. It was a fun experiment. The first few songs we wrote for this album were very long, progressive, and heavy; they were ‘The Alien’ and ‘Sleeping Giant.’ After we had done that, we switched gears as we got it out of our system; let’s do something different. There were a couple of things that I wanted to do on this album that was a bit of a different. One was to write a giant epic, and the other was to write a major key,” John Petrucci explained to Robert Cavuoto at Sonic Perspectives.

So, let’s get to the album itself. Upon hitting “play,” the listener is immediately ambushed by an instrumental fury that’s actually a little bit like “Hypersonic,” the opening track of LTE3. You get about one second of Mangini drum roll before being attacked by the entire band at high tempo. In 17/8 time, no less. Hey, why not. Some people bake, some people golf. Some people write face-melting progressive metal in time signatures which require math degrees. Most of those people are members of Dream Theater. The first track is called “The Alien,” and it is pretty otherworldly. Before even a minute has passed, the song goes from a barrage of complexity, to a grunting chugging angry metal-face kind of thing, back into some complex grooves, back to chugging, and back to grooves, before the clouds part, and the ray of sunshine known as John Petrucci’s neck pickup glowingly delivers a gentle, medium-gain solo of soulful vibrato. When the lead guitar concludes, James LaBrie steps up to a microphone, dripping wet with effects, to deliver verses about interstellar travel and human efforts at extraterrestrial exploration. It’s surprising a short little three-syllable word like “Alien” can make for a decent chorus, but it does. After a couple verse-chorus segments, Petrucci leads the way into an interesting and complex lead section, making good use of all four instruments, even some creative tom fills from Mangini. Even once things seem to settle a little bit into almost a fusion jam, Petrucci’s playing remains ear-pleasing, with just the right balance of gain and sweetness. Jordan then gets a chance to deliver a section of his usual chops in what is more or less his “standard” keyboard tone, although there is a section where he shifts into a sort of far-out chorused pitch-modulated sound which is kind of fun for the whole space and aliens theme. It seems that the song is about human beings being the aliens when we are the ones doing the exploring, which is an interesting twist.

The second track, “Answering the Call,” while perhaps not the most noteworthy track of the album, does have some great riffs and cool drumming. It seems to mostly be 4/4, so it’s a little more accessible for toe-tapping, or pretending you are Neil Peart with your pens at your desk, or whatever you might be into. The JP/Jordan solo tradeoffs are pretty sick, but at this point, we kind of expect it. Is that wrong? The band does seem to have put in some overtime on the third track, “Invisible Monster,” a song focused on inner demons, hang-ups, phobias, depression, and all the invisible monsters people wrestle with, even though the rest of us cannot see them. To some extent, it almost dovetails with thematic elements of Portnoy’s 12-Step Suite. Musically, it is a nice track, in that coincidentally it seems to channel some of the key and chord changes from some of the best music from the same period as the 12-Step Suite. Just to name a couple, it bears some resemblance to “Forsaken” as well as elements of “In The Presence of Enemies.” The JP guitar lead that takes us out of the choruses is melodic and catchy, memorable like Adrian Smith parts of old. What makes this track nice is that it is accessible and easy to be drawn into, while still having enough technical nuggets to keep it stimulating for hardcore DT fans who generally go for that.

A little to the other technical side is “Sleeping Giant,” a ten-minute behemoth chock-full of little goodies. The track opens up with Petrucci riffing hard by himself, with some jarring stops, first in the left channel, then the right channel, and then stereo before being joined by the band in the riff. It is worth appreciating for a moment how clean JP can be live and in the studio. We’re not talking acoustic or low-gain, just his flawless execution. Granted, there is almost certainly a noise gate rack component helping hush the signal when he palm mutes expired chords, but still, there is zero slop to be heard. No left hand sliding, no pick noise, no anything except a really gnarly series of chords. Of course, as usual, we are spoiled from expecting such things from one of the top players on the planet. Once the whole band is joining into the fun, Jordan goes all Jon Lord / Kevin Moore, bringing out some of those gnarly “Perfect Strangers” Hammond tones which are so immortal to classic metal. According to the band, the song focuses on classical notions of “Know Thyself,” in the sense that there exists a fire and fury of varying size within every individual, called “Thumos” by the Greeks, and the song asserts that one can live best by understanding and harnessing this force, calling upon it when necessary, but keeping it leashed so one does not succumb to mindless raging evil. We are once again treated to Petrucci’s sweet, sweet neck Dimarzio pickup in the middle for some heavenly medium gain melodic leads, before he digs back into that gnarly bridge pickup for some technical tradeoffs with Jordan, who decides to channel his upright saloon piano sound we enjoyed on occasion on the “Scenes” album.

“A View From The Top Of The World” Album Artwork

Of course, it is impossible to talk about the following track, “Transcending Time” (and distance?) without mentioning its major key structure. It is something the band wanted to tackle (and why not?) because it can be challenging to write major without sounding poppy or overly cheerful. In this case, the band managed to walk the line, because it sounds more like middle-era Rush, something like “Spirit of Radio,” which is perfectly acceptable. Mangini gets to dabble in some less “metal” drumming patterns, Jordan gets to dabble in some keyboard parts which are perhaps a little less sinister and just a bit more hopeful, and JP gets to strum out some big uplifting chords. Just when it seems like it may not be the most technically intense track of the last few years (and in fairness, it still probably isn’t) there is still a very interesting jam after the middle of the track, once again keeping it safely on the side of not being a throwaway filler-pop track.

If “Transcending Time” was any kind of palate-cleansing sorbet, then “Awaken the Master” gets us right back into a bacon-wrapped filet Pitmaster Petrucci himself would approve. In some ways, the writing almost hearkens back to “Awake,” with staggered riffing, and ethereal synth keys swirling throughout, and the occasional faux-Hammond organ. Around six minutes in, the track gets doomy and sludgy as hell, melting down like ice cream on a piping hot brownie. Even when the pace picks up and the drumming gets a bit frantic, there’s still a 7-string or drop-tuned-like-crazy chugga thing happening. JP and Rudess trade off some sweet lead parts. In fact, Petrucci’s leads on this one are arguably some of his best on the album.

Finally, the juggernaut. The behemoth. The Beast. The title track finale, weighing in at a world heavyweight champion 21 minutes, lets us all know pretty early on that “epic” is a core ingredient of the recipe. After abstract synth bits build briefly, a guitar-and-drum thing that can only be compared to the opening of Diamondhead’s Holst-derived “Am I Evil,” or alternatively the equally Holst-inspired “Divine Wings of Tragedy” from Symphony X. This staccato guitar-drum duet is then coated with keyboards approximating full orchestra, complete with strings and brass, a bit like from the Six Degrees Overture, although feeling more modern after a couple decades of improved Korg innovations. Speaking of keys, one of the coolest moments of the track is when the synth orchestra takes a breather so the riffing guitars can take turns with sweeping harp chords, which makes for a very cool and unique juxtaposition. We are treated to one more sweet JP solo, sounding like it’s in the middle pickup position, with medium-to-high gain on the old Mesa Boogie, and just a little treble rolled off the top so as not to have annoying presence in the mix. Finally, after over three minutes of instrumental buildup, we get LaBrie delivering vocal verses. The track’s topical content focuses on extremes of the human spirit. Where “Sleeping Giant” might have been about a capacity for fury and violence, even in good men, “View from the Top of the World” is more about those individuals who do not really feel like they are living unless they push life to the very extreme, often putting their lives not just at risk, but playing with some very long odds in the process. Rock-climbing, surfing waves of nearly tsunami proportion, motorcycles at triple-digit speeds, that sort of insanity for which human seem to enjoy a healthy monopoly. During the verses and chorus, the instrumentation is groovy and moves the song forward, but it mostly supports LaBrie rather than competing with him, which is good. A little past seven minutes is when the band says “Can we get ridiculous now? OK cool. Let’s do that.” We’re not necessarily saying it’s “Metropolis Pt 1,” or “Dance of Eternity,” but we’re not saying it isn’t either. However, it is important to note the band only warms up for the instrumental blitzkrieg a couple minutes before everything becomes silent, save John Petrucci plucking out the notes of acoustic chords which are someplace between “Diary of a Madman” and “Killer of Giants.” If he is not joined by a cello, he is joined by Jordan Rudess sounding so much like a cello it’s pretty shocking. We get a couple more verses of vocals, each followed by sonically-pleasing Petrucci lead parts. At fourteen minutes, this is when the band is clearly chomping at the bit, waiting to resume dancing with eternity. Driven by interesting time signatures, and some creative stops, we get a Petrucci lead section, a Rudess section, then back to JP, and then back to Rudess, before the whole band shifts into a strange dark section, guided by Rudess on synth organ, before bringing us back to the verse structure. The final two minutes are spent elaborately bringing the hulking creation to a close. While the final track does not quite measure up to “Octavarium,” they have commonality in that there is a healthy blend of the melodic, the vocal, and the instrumentally intense, all in healthy proportion with one another.

While this album may take a few listens to fully sync with some listeners, it largely accomplishes what it set out to do. Where on “Distance Over Time,” where the band felt internal and external pressure to return to something more concise and accessible than the massive opera known as “The Astonishing,” it does indeed feel like while the band may have had a few checklist items to scratch some creative itches, the album came together organically. From the flash and the fury of “The Alien” to the nostalgic Portnoy-era feelings in “Invisible Monster,” to the major key compositional departure of “Transcending Time,” to the traditional DT titan for which the album is named, there is more variety to be found here than on the previous record. It might not be as heavy or technical as other albums, it might not have the ballads of previous records (zero in this case), and it might not be as grand and ambitious as some works, most notably the concept albums. But what it does do is bring a little something for most any Dream Theater fan. While LaBrie gets mixed press in recent years, especially regarding live work, he carries himself capably on this album. All four instrumental musicians remain at the top of their game, and while it’s hard not to think the writing might have benefited from that old Portnoy presence, the writing remains strong and solid. The mix is pleasing to the ears, and we cannot wait to get our hands on a 5.1 home theater surround copy. While the Dream Theater catalog has been somewhat hit-or-miss since “Dramatic Turn,” this album can probably go in the “Wins” column, which is heartening. The band are no longer spring chickens, and while it may be difficult to picture 72 year-old Rudess and Petrucci dueling on stage like Gandalf and Saruman, it is refreshing to see them at the top of their game in the here and the now, “gathering rosebuds while they may.” Definitely check out the videos of the singles, and if you like what you hear, be sure to support the band and pick up this milestone album on October 22 at your preferred store or website.

Released By: Inside Out Music
Release Date: October 22nd, 2021
Genre: Progressive Metal

Musicians:

  • / Bass

“A View From The Top of the World” Track-Listing:

  1. The Alien
  2. Answering The Call
  3. Invisible Monster
  4. Sleeping Giant
  5. Transcending Time
  6. Awaken The Master
  7. A View From The Top Of The World

9.0 Excellent

In our review of the previous Dream Theater album, our only real criticism was that the band was playing it safe, putting out a fairly conservative, concise album, which although very good, did not do anything very brave. This time around, Dream Theater threw away the playbook and went a little more from the heart, just doing whatever they themselves wanted, and it shows. People always do what they do best when they are enjoying themselves, and it is apparent the band had some fun here. With the release of “View from the Top of the World,” Dream Theater have confidently reasserted themselves as the kings of progressive heavy metal. The album has heart, and its genuine nature is apparent in the diverse and creative songwriting found in this record.

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 8.5
  • Production 9
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3 Comments

  1. BS back to you. I’ve listening to DT since I&W. I’ve always liked them because they always wanted to take prog to another place. It didn’t always work (BC&SL, The Astonishing). But this album, IDK…. there is something special about it. Yes it has some elements of their past few records. As the review mentioned, their use of disodent major scales created both a dark and happy feel. And i’ve never heard JP so good on this album. The only complaint I can make is the same one I’ve made since I&W…. their music is generally not accessible to the musical peasants…..and I’m glad!

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