If there is one artist near to the Sonic Perspectives readership wheelhouse, requiring little if any introduction, it would be prog-metal reigning monarchs Dream Theater, complete with Majesty. Since 1989’s impressively ambitious debut, and 1992’s landmark Images and Words, Dream Theater’s rise to prog and metal stardom has been not only meteoric, but permanent as well. After thirty years and thirteen albums (now fourteen), and huge tour attendance, this is no passing fad. It could only perhaps be compared to Rush, in that despite never quite breaking into the platinum and radio stratosphere, the band enjoys a rabid and devoted fan following.
However, much like a rising rocket, Dream Theater has jettisoned sections in stages, and unfortunately fan support along the way. In speaking with most Dream Theater fans, past or present, many allude to some stage of the rocket where they got left behind. For the most hardcore DT hipsters, the loss of the Kevin Moore engine at low atmosphere was all it took to write off the band. For others, it may have been losing Derek Sherinian, however, one can also argue that for every fan dismayed at the loss of Kevin or Derek, the acquisition of Liquid Tension Wunderkind Jordan Rudess breathed new fan enthusiasm into the band. Things were soaring quite well until the Portnoy rocket section became detached without warning, almost bringing down the whole craft. A Mangini retrofit was installed in record time, and definitely saved the band, but not without a permanent stigma with some of the most hardcore fans.
Today, the band is working on patching some leaks leftover from The Astonishing, 2016’s controversial double-disc concept album. Though there were a great many things to like about The Astonishing, it was highly divisive among the fans and received mixed critical reception. However, few can argue that it was not a brave and daring effort to do something boldly, a noteworthy attempt to steer away from the beaten path. Perhaps in direct response to this sentiment, Dream Theater are treating us to something a bit more “back to basics:” the fifteenth studio offering appropriately entitled Distance Over Time. Aside from ostensibly being a reference to the band’s progress and longevity, the title could also refer to the band going a distance from busy life, for an extended time, sequestering themselves to a country farmhouse recording studio for almost half a year, a bit like how Peter Gabriel did his masterpiece So album.
The first track, “Untethered Angel,” speaks philosophically to the many souls among us who lack the courage and conviction to chase after unrealized dreams. Structurally, the song is a bit more like something one may expect to find on Train of Thought or Systematic Chaos. It wastes little time after a chorused clean Petrucci intro before getting right down to business with the crushing riffs, which thankfully have well-mixed drums. Hello Mister Mangini! The verse and chorus structure are standard-issue twenty first century Dream Theater fare. Thankfully the instrumental meltdown in the middle takes a moment to take us back to something a bit like meeting our past life Victoria in 1928, which is not unwelcome. Even the sludgy instrumental outro after the final chorus bears some resemblance to the final riffs of “Finally Free” (Open your eyes, Nicholas).
The next track, “Paralyzed,” comes in with a simple bare-bones single note distortion riff, but as drums, keys, bass, and eventually vocals are layered in, the song begins to coalesce and take shape, with some lovely chord work by Petrucci. Also, extra credit for the parts where LaBrie’s vocals are adequately isolated to a clean simple cut through the mix. It is becoming too often, including this album, to hear a digital chorus of what sounds like layers of LaBrie. While he may not have the power and range he did in 1992, he still has it adequately that he does not need to be hidden behind cute production tricks. Petrucci is allowed to shine with a lovely solo on this song, which although short, it’s tailored exactly right for this song.
Track three, “Into the Light” is interesting in that it spends the first three to four minutes just feeling like much any other contemporary Dream Theater rocker, but then the song gets quiet… nylon string guitar ushers the listener along serenely for a moment, like the last minute of Iron Maiden’s “The Prophecy.” Then the neck pickup on Petrucci’s Majesty guitar comes to life, with some beautiful melodic leads, and then layers of leads come together like something from Metallica’s “Orion,” before Magini’s infamous snare conducts us to the Jordan Rudess Amusement Park of crazy keyboards, which are mainly some very welcome old-school Hammond sounds. James LaBrie comes in one last time before Petrucci just goes completely ape on not only some serious rhythm shredding, but some alternate open-note lead picking straight out of the Best of JP Playbook.
While “Barstool Warrior,” with its pedestrian lyrics and composition may not make the DT Hall of Fame, the song serves as a vehicle for some of the very best Petrucci leads on the album. It remains unknown whether JP has some sort of secret selector switch on his EBMM guitars that lets him choose between shred and sweet, but he has an incredible gift for knowing exactly when to use it. Feel free to skip to 4:30 into this song, and your ears will be treated to a “How-To” lesson on what lead guitar should sound like.
The fifth track is called “Room 137,” but we still like to call it “Higher Ground,” by Red Hot Chili Peppers. In fairness, there are some cool grooves and riffs to be found in the song, and in some ways it hearkens back to Awake, including some trippy psychedelic affected vocals right out of Strawberry Fields era Beatlemania (it also marks the first time Mangini contributed lyrics to a Dream Theater song). The song also features some creative excursions from JP into blues lead guitar, channeling some of that inner Steve Morse he always has yearning to break free. While this song is mostly straightforward, in the following track, “S2N,” presumably “Signal to Noise,” we are treated to more of a ferocious instrumental interplay between Petrucci, Rudess, Myung, and Mangini. One can almost imagine a spotlight pivoting from one to the next as they kick it up a notch and shine for a bit. However, it is not just indulgent solos, since they seem to also play off each other as well as musicians who live, tour, and write together for years can.
Past material has not been shy about confronting trauma and mental anguish, most notably the Six Degrees Suite, and on this album, Mister Mullmuzzler himself James LaBrie brings us a song about the cycle of stress and damage inherent in women victimized by abuse. The song, “At Wit’s End,” runs the full spectrum of DT, from breathy piano chord ballad to blistering technical attack right out of Scenes from a Memory. Over the course of the ten-minute semi-epic, the male character of the story assures the woman that together they can make it through anything, and they can conquer her past trauma. An interesting device is how the song seems to end with a fade-out a couple minutes before the end, but a ghostly version of the outro jam seems to haunt back into focus before disappearing. Perhaps it is a symbolic allusion to PTSD and its tendency to invoke ghosts of the past. We will need to ask the band about that in future interviews.
The album ends with a bang. Well, perhaps not the big bang, but a “Pale Blue Dot.” Not of the Sound of Contact variety, but the Carl Sagan variety, namely, Planet Earth. This bombastic nine-minute closer is a moment of philosophical reflection of man’s role and place on this third rock from the sun. The song begins with what would seem to be radio chatter and oxygen, presumably from some spacecraft looking down upon earth, hopefully without the need to jettison any more Dream Theater members. The song immediately launches into an all-cannons broadside, opening with a salvo of everyone but LaBrie flying out of the speakers like a stabbed rat. Mangini playing like he is on fire, and the other three evidently trying to put him out by playing just as hard. When the vocals come in for verses, the song really does not chill out very much, and just seems to be chomping at the bit waiting for LaBrie to leave the stage to everyone can get to showing us what they can do. And they do. The instru-mental-insanity that follows is the stuff of Octavarium or a live Ytse Jam medley. While Portnoy’s writing fingerprint is only made more evident in the albums following his departure, there can be little argument that as a drummer, Mike Mangini is the real deal, and puts down the intense time signatures and beats with the 3 J’s as well as anyone conceivably ever could.
Although this is technically the end of the album proper, some issued copies of the album will feature the bonus track, “Viper King.” The song is decidedly un-Dream Theater, in fact, it comes across like one of the live covers after A Change of Seasons. That being said, if the band was trying to do something in the Deep Purple / Rainbow / Thin Lizzy vein of things, this is very cool indeed. Jordan summoned his darkest most evil Hammond tone yet, and the closest approximation to mind would be Ayreon’s Universal Migrator Pt 2, which was largely a suite of high energy metal grooves built around Hammond B3 tones. The band really seems to have a lot of fun on this one, and kudos for including it.
Before this album was even finished, we had DT fans doing their usual Simpsons Comic Book Guy routine, predicting “Worst, album, ever.” Naturally we also have fans who love everything DT ever puts out, and you know what, bless those fans. Music needs more of that, now more than ever. With all that being said, the goal here is something resembling objectivity, so what’s the real scoop? Well, there are weaker DT albums, and there are definitely stronger albums. The real enemy of Dream Theater remains Dream Theater, for setting the bar to Olympic pole-vaulting heights, and then setting the expectations for fans and us in the press to somehow meet or exceed that. It may not be realistic to expect that. Jim Clark won more Formula 1 and 2 races than any driver in history, and yet no one expected it. Tom Brady has a higher statistical probability of playing in an AFC playoff than most people do of making it to work on time. Hank Aaron hit a hell of a lot of home runs, but no one expected it on every hit. Well, even if this album is not a home run, it’s still damned good baseball, especially compared to most of what’s out there. Unfortunately, we have seen so much interesting innovation in the last year, from acts like Southern Empire, Haken, Seventh Wonder, Avantasia, and others, that it would be nice to see the band doing something new, and perhaps that is where we fall short here. This album is Dream Theater in top fighting form, and yet, it still lacks anything truly new or different. Compared to almost any other music, it’s absolutely brilliant. Compared to Dream Theater‘s body of work, it’s just very good.
Released By: InsideOut Music
Release Date: February 22nd, 2019
Genre: Progressive Metal
- James LaBrie / Vocals
- John Petrucci / Guitars
- John Myung / Bass
- Jordan Rudess / Keyboards
- Mike Mangini / Drums
“Distance Over Time” Track-Listing:
- Untethered Angel
- Fall into the Light
- Barstool Warrior
- Room 137
- At Wit’s End
- Out of Reach
- Pale Blue Dot
- Viper King (Bonus Track)
As Prog Metal albums go, it is hard to ever really go wrong with Dream Theater, the reigning world heavyweight champions. After the mixed press the band received after the Astonishing, it is understandable why the band released a somewhat more traditional DT album. However, if they want to keep that heavyweight title, they may need to reach way down deep, and go Eye of the Tiger with Apollo Creed to find something new and exciting for the next album. However, just because the band played it somewhat safe with this album is no reason to think it’s anything less than a definitive return to what they have done best for decades