Let’s face it: Being a prog rock band in 2016 requires a very specific amount of fearlessness, where taking yourself and your music seriously may compromise how seriously others may take you. If you’re willing to create a two-LP prog concept album inspired by popular sci-fi franchises like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and The Hunger Games, then you better be willing to put everything you’ve got into it. (Read: ridiculous character names, fictional locations, a goddamn symphony.) Anything less simply wouldn’t do. Boston prog rock mainstays Dream Theater realize this, and going into writing his band’s 13th album, guitar virtuoso John Petrucci asked a question that would spark an entirely new world: “What would happen if with all the advances in technology that music [became] all artificial?” The result is The Astonishing, an album that opens with what sounds like whirring machines descending upon dystopia. What comes next is about what you’d expect; whether that’s good or bad is up to how much you’re willing to buy into the story.
And what a story it is, too. Dream Theater have fiercely dedicated themselves to telling Petrucci’s story. The album’s lyrics come in 31 pages, in screenplay format, to help guide listeners through the sprawling dystopia that is The Great Northern Empire of the Americas. Led by Lord Nafaryus (not a typo) in the year 2258, The Great Northern Empire is a land in which neither democracy nor man-made music exists — but for the purposes of this review, we’re more worried about the music. All music is made by machines called NOMACS, and yes, they are featured several times throughout the album, and with their obvious Oneohtrix Point Never influences, future music doesn’t sound too bad.
Let’s return to the Empire where, naturally, there is a rebellion rising out of a town called Ravenskill, where brothers Arhys and Gabriel lead the fight to inspire the masses against Lord Nafaryus (whose evil is never clearly defined, just assumed after the face value of his name). As Arhys heads the rebel militia, Gabriel uses his innate gift of making music to lead the fight as The Chosen One. He even falls in love with the Emperor’s daughter, Faythe (again, not a typo), to boot. The story goes on from here and introduces jealous brothers, compassionate mothers, small children, and a heavenly choir of thousands to counter for a few murders here and there. It’s encouraged to keep a lyric sheet handy for the first listen or two of The Astonishing in order to follow along.
Without a lyric sheet, though, or a link to the band’s website (where characters and maps are still in the process of being introduced), listeners can still very much enjoy the music. And despite the massive story, it is Dream Theater after all, so the music is taken just as seriously as the tale of Gabriel and Faythe. The album was a joint composition, with Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess working with famed composer David Campbell, who arranged the orchestra and choral sections (of which there are oh so many). The band’s technical proficiency is made clear from the get-go on “Dystopian Overture”, where Petrucci and Rudess melodically guide bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Mangini through progressive time and mood shifts so that listeners can begin to fully understand what they’re about to get themselves into.
Unfortunately, though, even with the musicianship present, on a concept album this size, the story takes precedence and is often a distraction from what Petrucci & co. are doing behind singer James LaBrie’s vocals. There’s also a serious amount of cheese that you’ll have to forgive to enjoy this album. LaBrie performs vocals for all the characters, including women, children, and at one point, even the ensemble as a whole. There’s plenty of melodrama and intrigue to compete with all the Hunger Games-inspired teen dystopian movies being released today. And, in the spirit of classic Disney movies, the coolest parts of the album are all centered around the villains.
The Astonishing is an absolutely unique experience. Even at two hours, it demands your full attention. The band promises elaborate animations for their upcoming live shows, as well as the possibility of books and maybe even movies. You might want to laugh at points, because a good deal of it is very silly, but somewhere within the second half, you’ll become just a little invested. By the grand finale, you might even feel inspired.
Essential Tracks: “Dystopian Overture”