Dream Theater is a band known for high levels of technical proficiency, complex compositions often involving odd time signatures, and long anthemic works. All these elements of their music are present in this album, but they serve as tools to tell a fantastical story, complete with a cast of characters. The Astonishing is a true rock opera, and these characteristics help it live up to its title.
The album tells the story (written by guitarist John Petrucci) of an uprising against the tyrannical Lord Nefaryus, set in the distant future, where the only semblance to entertainment is electronic noise generated by NOMACs (noise machines). The hero, Gabriel has “The Gift of Music”, and leads the Ravenskill Rebel Militia against the empire. When Petrucci was writing the story, he intended for it to eventually be adopted for a movie/TV show/video game, and this fact is evident, as there are a number of corny moments. Even so, every member of the band has completely dedicated himself to sell this story, and it does work, despite the fact that it is quite clichéd in parts.
Vocalist James LaBrie had his task cut out for him in this album, as he was required to play eight different characters, and he does this with aplomb. His performance in this album is truly a tour-de-force, as he injects each character with a unique personality with only his voice. The rest of the band are in top form, as has come to be expected from them, playing with utmost precision and skill. The music written by Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess is complemented with orchestration by David Campbell. The choir and orchestra add a whole new level of depth to the music, and are a wonderful addition to the arrangements.
Even though the technical chops (expected in a Dream Theater album) are present from each member of the band, in this album they serve as crutches to tell the story. Every part of the music serves a purpose in moving the story forward. This, in a way, makes the band more accessible to newcomers, and even though the length of the album may put people off, I feel that this will be an easier album to listen to compared to their earlier works.
Telling a story through an album is a pretty daunting task, but Dream Theater have definitely pulled it off with The Astonishing. The story may make you laugh, as it is quite silly at certain points, but after a while, you can’t help but feel invested. The standout on this album is definitely James LaBrie, who might have delivered the best performance of his career on this album. Hardcore Dream Theater fans may not be happy about the relative lack of displays of technical mastery, but that in no way keeps The Astonishing from being a great album.