REVIEW: DREAM THEATER, SYSTEMATIC CHAOS
There should be a five-listen rule invoked whilst reviewing Dream Theater albums. At first listen of Systematic Chaos, I was slightly underwhelmed by the lack of anything truly spectacular, but after several complete, dedicated listens the complexities of the disc have revealed themselves in very rewarding ways. While Systematic Chaos likely won’t join the pantheon of five-star Dream Theater albums, it is most certainly a solid effort that is a fine addition to the Dream Theater discography.
That Systematic Chaos is Dream Theater’s first release on Roadrunner Records after finishing a 7 album deal with Elektra/Atlantic is pretty much irrelevant; the band has been doing things their own way and producing their own material for a long while now, though they should certainly benefit from Roadrunner’s fine-tuned metal marketing machine. “In the Presence of Enemies, Pt. 1” starts things off in typical Dream Theater fashion, which is to say that more than five minutes pass before singer James LaBrie even opens his mouth. Each member, save bassist John “the silent man” Myung, has his moment in the spotlight before the band lays low for LaBrie to do his thing, which in this case is an uncharacteristicly catchy chorus beneath John Petrucci’s growling dual-rectified rhythm guitar.
Disappointed fans who lamented the toned down aggression of Octavarium will be happy to know that Dream Theater haven’t abandoned their heavy past on Systematic Chaos. The band isn’t afraid to get dirty, as in the pseudo-thrash riffing of “Constant Motion” or the 7-string head-banger “The Dark Eternal Night,” one of the album’s highlights. Though Systematic Chaos at times certainly showcases Dream Theater’s heavier elements, fans hoping for a return to the uber-heavy form of Train of Thought won’t get the amps-to-11 satisfaction of that album. Though I appreciate Dream Theater for their heaviness as much as I do their incredibly wide dynamic, I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind trading in one of this album’s slower songs for a heavier number. “Ministry of Lost Souls,” for instance, is to me a by-the-book, stock Dream Theater ballad. Even the pretty cool instrumental masturbatory session in the middle itself seems to be plucked straight from a shelf of stock Dream Theater instrumental sections.
One of the albums strongest tracks on the album is “Forsaken,” a mid-tempo number that clocks in at a measly 5:35, the blink of an eye by Dream Theater standards. Relatively straight forward in both structure and rhythm (i.e. the band opts not to play in 148/57 time), the band’s keen sense of melody and arrangement carry the song. A subtle but haunting descending keyboard riff courtesy of Jordan Rudess serves as the perfect counterpoint for LaBrie’s soaring vocal.
Dream Theater have never been shy about referencing bands both new old that have influenced them. One of the most remarkable things, in fact, is that the band have proven remarkably adept at keeping a pulse on the current scene, unlike most successful musicians. The swirling keyboards and dance beat of “Prophets of War” obviously pay tribute to Muse, a band that almost certainly would be caught with their pants down intentionally referencing Dream Theater more than once or twice. Dream Theater even references their own past work, adapting a vocal line from Train of Thought‘s “This Dying Soul” to a new use in “Repentance: VII. Regret / IX. Restitution.”
Canadian-born James LaBrie seems to have taken in stride recent criticism that his voice sounds outdated; LaBrie rarely oversings this time around. Instead of summoning the spirit of fellow countryman and admitted influence Geddy Lee (Rush), LaBrie is able to lay back a bit without sacrificing his superb vocal ability. Drummer Mike Portnoy seems to have stepped up as well, providing stronger vocals than ever before and supplying more of them; these are the gruffest, yet best sounding backups that Portnoy has done to date. Lyrically I’m afraid I haven’t paid much attention here, but not to fear as I’m sure 95% of Dream Theater fans don’t really care either (sorry James — you’re still a good singer!).
Systematic Chaos is chock full of what Dream Theater fans have come to know and love. In “Constant Motion” the band effortlessly glides in and out of time signatures that are sure to keep Chinese guitar players on YouTube locked up in their bedrooms practicing for months. Odd time signatures come into play pretty much everywhere as could be expected, and right there beneath them is Portnoy keeping perfect time without making it all seem like a maelstrom of noise. There is shred-a-plenty from John Petrucci as well as the keyboard acrobatics Jordan Rudess has made his trademark; and, as they are so wont to do, they often shred together in perfect unison on their respective instruments. Systematic Chaos doesn’t match the conceptual ambition of Scenes from a Memory (or even Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence), nor does it match the heaviness of Train of Thought. But unlike Octavarium it doesn’t get bogged down by a lack of focus; rather it’s a pretty good mix of what makes Dream Theater Dream theater, and it represents a snapshot of where the band is right now.
(three and a half out of five horns)