Dream Theater – Systematic Chaos

By Mike Schlabovits

Well here it is….Dream Theater’s long awaited follow-up to Octavarium. Will it live up to the hype from the various forums and websites? I was very anxious to find out.

Before I begin, I must preface this review stating that I would consider myself an old-school progressive rock and metal fan. I know times have changed, bands and music as a whole cannot realistically live in the past, so to speak. I was around way back in the day when Watchtower, Helstar, Fates Warning and other forefathers of the progressive metal genre were laying the foundation for the genre we know today. Dream Theater would be considered by most fans as the band that put progressive metal on the map. With that in mind, I will admit that on the whole, Dream Theater hasn’t been at the top of my listening stack probably since what I think is their last really great album, Scenes From a Memory. Since that time I think that while the band has taken on a heavier sound, and perhaps many will say they are simply evolving with the trendier and heavier/noisier/detuned sounds of the American metal scene, that perhaps they’ve lost those really catchy melodies and memorable songs of days past. Honestly I don’t think there are more than a small handful of songs since SFAM that really was a memorable one for me. A few were quite good, but nothing monumental as far as I’m concerned. Not to say that they’ve lost their sense of melody or song writing, that’s not true at all. I guess it’s just a slightly different direction or path that I haven’t been too crazy about.

Call me old-fashioned, but I normally like more standard guitar tunings, melodic vocals and catchy choruses along with the shredding progressive goodness that DT has always been known for. I know, I know….Petrucci was using 7 string guitars going way back to Awake and probably even earlier, but I feel like his tone has changed, at least when he explores the world of non-standard 6 or even 7 string guitar tunings. It’s just not that really hard, thick and meaty distortion that tracks like “Lie” or “The Mirror” featured, but more of a fuzzy, loose, flabby detuned distortion which just rubs me the wrong way.

Before getting a promo copy of the CD I had heard two songs via streams on the Internet: “Constant Motion” and “The Dark Eternal Night”. The former was the first song, and to put it mildly, I was not digging it at all. For my tastes, I am not into near-cookie monster-like vocals accompanied by that flabby, fuzzy distortion tone that Petrucci has adopted the last several years that I had mentioned previously. Why the recent trend in Dream Theater albums to have James Labrie screaming, errr, singing with a distortion effect applied to his voice I have no idea. “Constant Motion” is another example of what I would almost cringe to call “Nu Metal” but perhaps “Progressive Nu Metal” as it does have an interesting tempo and some hints of trademark DT goodness. “The Dark Eternal Night” borders along the same territory, yet I found out of the two I liked this one more.

The very first track on the CD surprised me as it starts off with a progressive shred fest that goes on for more than half the song. I was beginning to think it was an instrumental until James Labrie finally comes in after their instrumental meltdown to take the track in a slightly different direction. After a few more listens I grew to really like this track. The first track and last track on the album are divided into parts 1 and 2. Of the two, I think I prefer part 1 a little more, although part 2 comes across to me as a little more complex and “epic” since it goes from soft and quiet to frenzied, heavy and even very psychedelic at times thanks to Jordan’s crazy synth work.

Beyond that, I found “Repentance”, while a very deep song (this song is a part of Mike Portnoy’s ongoing series of songs documenting his recovery from alcohol abuse and the 12 steps of AA) at times it nearly put me to sleep. I think this is probably the most plodding and down-tempo song that DT has ever recorded. I cannot say I dislike this song…it is just very different from most songs the guys have ever done. Sad it is to say this tune does nothing for me and I’ve given it several listens and I practically fall asleep each time. It is very introspective and dare I say quiet and serene to a point. I am sure some people will scoff at me when they hear it and offer up that it is a very solemn, serious and heartfelt track. I guess that may be true but if it doesn’t move me, it doesn’t move me…and I wasn’t moving at all to this one.

The remaining 5 songs on the album are actually very enjoyable. The two shortest tracks on the album, “Forsaken” and “Prophets of War”, while probably geared more towards mainstream radio airplay since there are virtually no progressive shredding meltdowns and each track clocks in at or just under 6 minutes, contain choruses and riffs that actually get stuck in your head for a period of time and may actually be my favorites of the whole lot…funny since I usually prefer the over 10 minute “epic” pieces that have been the hallmark of Dream Theater’s entire catalog. These two tracks are catchy, rife with simple yet really cool riffs from Mr. Petrucci and some great vocal work from Mr. Labrie. Of course every Dream Theater album has at least a couple such tracks and for good reason. It seems to me that DT has really become masterful at writing these shorter, radio-friendly tracks.

At the other end of the spectrum, the two longest tracks on the CD, “The Ministry of Lost Souls” and “In the Presence of Enemies, pt. 2” are studies in the contrasting evolution Dream Theater has experienced over its over 20 year career. I will go out on a limb here and say that “The Ministry of Lost Souls” is the best song on the album. This song actually sounds like it could have been included on Scenes From a Memory and would have not been out of place in the least. This song has everything a long-time Dream Theater fan could ask for…a memorable chorus, great melody, interesting time changes, some progressive instrumental loveliness and other patented Dream Theater goodness thrown in for good measure.

Systematic Chaos is an amalgamation, as I would say the last several Dream Theater CDs have been, of old school and new school progressive metal. If you like the fuzzy, detuned, noisy sounds of American Nu Metal but also have that pension for odd time signatures, shredding guitars, amazing keyboards and touching vocal melodies, this may be the album for you. Jordan Rudess, as always, is a monster on the keys. I found that Jordan has been mixing up his synth sounds a little more for this album and I thought that there was a spacey, almost trippy quality to some of his parts during a few tracks. John Petrucci, while I am not a huge fan of his tone on some of the more detuned and fuzzily distorted tracks, always shines as he is a master of the fret board. Mike Portnoy, is, well, Mike Portnoy. Enough said there. John Myung? Unfortunately the mix on this album doesn’t really lend well to hearing his talents. And Kevin James Labrie…well, when he’s not screaming and shouting through a distortion effect, he sounds better than ever. By now I would have thought his voice would be nearing that point where he can’t hit certain notes or perhaps even sounds a touch strained, but that is not the case at all. His vocals sound full, harmonious and emotional.

I could go on and on, dig into each track, analyze each segment of a guitar solo, a keyboard solo, a drum fill and on and on but I don’t have the time and readers surely don’t have the patience for such silliness. Would I recommend this CD? I can honestly say that DT hasn’t broken any new ground with this album. There are no tracks on this CD that are the magnitude of “A Change of Seasons” or “Metropolis Part 1”, but that may be by design. I guess it really depends on how open-minded you are. New fans to the band should definitely pick up this album. If you have the last several Dream Theater CDs, you’ve probably heard a lot of this before, just arranged a little differently and with different lyrics. Die hard fans will most certainly pick this album up for obvious reasons. In my estimation, Systematic Chaos offers 3 tracks I could completely do without, 2 radio-friendly catchy tracks that are fun to listen to and sing along to and 3 really excellent, more epic tracks. While it’s certainly not my favorite DT album, if I had to pick between this release and Falling Into Infinity or Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, I’d go with this one. I’d take Images and Words, When Dream and Day Unite, Awake or Scenes From a Memory in a heartbeat over this one. I guess for me this album would be in the middle of the pack….if you are a long-time Dream Theater fan and have and are familiar with their entire collection, perhaps this clarifies things a little. I think most fans would agree that DT has picked up right where they left off with what they’ve accomplished on Train of Thought and Octavarium.

Hey, opinions are like bungholes…everyone has them and that’s my bunghole!