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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Dream Theater

Systematic Chaos

Review by Julie Knispel

Dream Theater really needs no introduction. As perhaps the foremost and best-known proponent of progressive metal, they have forged a more than 20-year career. Following on from a long-term contract with Warner/Atlantic/Atco/Elektra/East-West (basically, the entire family of Warner rock labels), the band switched to major independent Roadrunner Records (ironically now a part of the Warner family of record labels) for their ninth full length album, Systematic Chaos.

Dream Theater have a history of packing as much music on a release as possible, and Systematic Chaos follows that history to a T. At nearly 79 minutes in length, the album is longer than many double albums from progressive music’s past. What this means to the listener is that dedication is required to get through the surfeit of musical gifts the band has provided. It also means that a wide range of styles, albeit all generally connected to progressive metal in one way or another, is explored. While recent releases have seen Dream Theater more blatantly paying homage to their influences, those influences are generally more completely subsumed in the band’s sound, rather than sticking out as heavily on those past albums.

In the final analysis, Systematic Chaos is typical Dream Theater. With a label behind them that is willing to work for the band, rather than rely on the core fan base to sell to, it will likely find them new fans without much risk of losing their existing fan base; they have not radically reworked their style and material. At nearly 79 minutes, it can be an exhausting listen, yet one which offers rewards to the patient long time fan or new listener.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
In The Presence of Enemies Part 1
Systematic Chaos is bookended by “In The Presence of Enemies,” a 2-part, 6-movement epic clocking in at nearly 26 minutes. John Petrucci’s lyrics draw heavily from Korean manhwa series Priest, a graphic novel telling the tale of Ivan Isaacs, a fallen priest who sold his soul to the devil Belial for the power to fight evil. The song features some of the band’s most impressive playing to date, holding the listener’s interest through its extended length (try listening to both tracks back to back). This first part ends with a quick fade into ambient wind noises, bearing comparison to the effects that would be used to join the two halves of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” also separated for their album release.
Forsaken
Dream Theater’s current fascination with fantasy lyrics carries on in “Forsaken,” a solid and catchy 5-minute rocker relating the tale of a nocturnal visit from a female vampire. James LaBrie’s vocals are excellent here, and despite the lyrical content, this is a song I could easily see getting massive airplay on the radio. Catchy, upbeat, and most of all concise, it may well be one of the band’s most complete short form songs.
Constant Motion
“Constant Motion” is the second shortest track on the album, and was released as the advance single to radio. A fairly sprightly rocker, it is in some ways the spiritual descendant from 2005’s “Panic Attack,” with Portnoy’s lyrics relating his constant need to keep working and moving, whether it’s touring, side projects, official bootlegs, or whatever. A solid, if unspectacular, track, “Constant Motion” is a fairly generic Dream Theater rocker.
The Dark Eternal Night
“The Dark Eternal Night” completes the collection of fantasy based songs, with Petrucci’s lyrics presenting a story of ancient evil from “beyond all time,” come back to life to exact revenge on a town. This song is one of the heaviest tracks in the band’s lengthy curriculum vitae, with riffs heavily reminiscent of Pantera, blast beats, and heavy distorted vocals from Mike Portnoy. It’s an interesting experiment, to be sure, yet feels somewhat forced to this listener. If there’s a single song on this release that I will end up skipping at some point, it’s likely to be this one.
Repentance
The highlight of Systematic Chaos for this reviewer is the 10+ minute “Repentance,” the fourth track in drummer Mike Portnoy’s saga taking the listener step by step through the 12 steps of addiction recovery and AA. Where the previous three tracks were fairly heavy, metallic tracks, “Repentance” shows the band in Pink Floyd/acoustic Opeth territory, with Myung’s pulsing bass and chorused guitars from Petrucci winding around a gentle piano line from Jordan Rudess. Detailing the 8th and 9th steps of recovery (“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all” and “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”), this is Dream Theater at perhaps their most atypical. As such, it stands out from the rest of the album. Additionally, it features a bevy of guests, each taking the opportunity to ask forgiveness for things they have done. Guesting on this track are Corey Taylor (Slipknot/Stone Sour), Chris Jericho (WWE wrestler), Steve Hogarth (Marillion), Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth), Steve Vai, Jon Anderson (Yes), David Ellefson (Megadeth), Joe Satriani, Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Neal Morse (Spocks Beard) and Daniel Gildenlow (Pain of Salvation). The song also features the debut of the Memotron, a digital version of the classic Mellotron, adding classic string and wind samples through the extended outro.
Prophets of War
James LaBrie contributes lyrics to “Prophets of War,” marking the third time the band has examined the lyrical concepts of religion and war. Where 2004’s “In the Name of God” found fault with religious extremism in all forms, and 2005’s “Sacrificed Sons” paid homage to the victims of terrorism everywhere, “Prophets of War” acts as a thinly veiled political broadside on the reasons for war. “Are we profiting from war,” the song asks. The doesn’t offer any answers, and while that may seem somewhat of a cop-out, it does offer food for thought, and perhaps will motivate listeners to take a deeper look at what is going on around them.
The Ministry of Lost Souls
“The Ministry of Lost Souls” begins the journey leading to the end of Systematic Chaos (and leads into the second half of “In The Presence of Enemies,” which closes the album proper). It opens with orchestrated string synths and keyboards, creating an epic feel and sound. For the most part this is a mid-tempo heavy ballad, filled to the brim with the USPA (United States Prog Association) recommended daily allowance of varied synth/keyboard tones, gentle, pastoral guitar and intricate musical interplay. Along with the epic “In The Presence Of Enemies,” this composition may well enter the pantheon of Dream Theater classics in the near future.
In The Presence of Enemies Part 2
Systematic Chaos “ends where it began,” so to speak, with the second half of this epic composition. Part 2 (which closes out the album) opens with atmospheric wind noises and some wonderful, if understated, bass playing from John Myung, along with quietly plaintive vocals from LaBrie. The band plays the track with no pretense, building tension gradually and leading a build-up similar in feel to Octavarium, which closed out Dream Theater’s 2005 release of the same name. Powerful on its own, the track takes on a whole new life for the listener with a bit of skill and a willingness to paste the two halves together; the song deserves to be heard as a single 25 minute opus. Epic, heavily orchestrated and symphonic, “In The Presence of Enemies” may be the band’s most consistent long-form song to date.
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