Now (gulp) 15 albums in, even the words “veterans” doesn’t quite do Dream Theater proper justice; they’re just that well-established as prog-metal royalty. From early masterworks like 1992’s Images And Words and 1994’s Awake, to vast conceptual pieces à la 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory, you could easily argue the mainstays blazed their trail long ago.
Their rabid following doesn’t seem to have waned since, however – even after creative flops like 2016’s overblown and banal The Astonishing. That said, many acknowledge it’s been some time since they were at the peak of their considerable songwriting powers.
The COVID-19 pandemic afforded every artist the opportunity to hunker down and write a record, but an outfit this prolific doesn’t need an excuse to crank out fresh material. Boasting seven tracks spanning 70 minutes, A View From The Top Of The World isn’t for the casual listener, either (not that Dream Theater attract many of those). It offers extended, virtuoso instrumental passages, soaring vocals, moments fit for crowd interaction, and a cover of Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’. Okay, one of those is a lie.
It all feels so effortless, in so many ways. As expected, the musicianship is first-rate, as guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess gel with ease and exchange all manner of fleet-fingered solos. Petrucci also freshly wields an eight-string axe on ‘Awaken The Master’, a track bustling with heavy, groovy riffs. Bassist John Myung helps provide an impenetrable foundation while weaving in impressive runs, and while some will never accept him as a successor to founding drummer Mike Portnoy, Mike Mangini fills the role with class. Vocalist James LaBrie infuses his usual spirit and enthusiasm, too, of course. Although some of the melodies don’t quite pack enough punch, it’s not for his lack of effort to elevate them.
Time signature-baiting opener ‘The Alien’ offers plenty of ingredients fans crave – it’s fast-paced in spots, technically proficient and deeply melodic. It doesn’t offer any real surprises, but it certainly gets the job done. That’s a sentiment you could apply to much of the record, too – exceptionally well-played, with real attention to detail, albeit with precious little that diehards haven’t encountered before. Note ‘Invisible Monster’, a respectable enough mid-tempo cut with a key message about the effects of anxiety that’s, to borrow a phrase from Lars Ulrich, musically rather “stock” for Dream Theater.
Meanwhile, Rush-influenced ‘Transcending Time’ is a worthy addition to the group’s more accessible, AOR-infused efforts. The 20-minute, multi-sectioned title track closes the LP in typically grandiose fashion, bridging orchestral flourishes, a flair for the dramatic and a mixture of emotional and blinding soloing from Petrucci. The band’s previous epics have been akin to watching a Jackie Chan film from the ’80s – they do all the work, yet somehow you walk away feeling exhausted. This one’s no different, and while Dream Theater have certainly crafted superior songs of this nature, this one largely hits the mark.
To expect a career-defining release at this stage from Dream Theater would be churlish. That said, fans should rightfully expect something inspired to invest their time (if not money) in, and there are times here when it feels like the band, even one as collectively talented as this, are on autopilot. Conversely, there are also flashes of greatness. A View From The Top Of The World seems unlikely to top too many lists of devotees’ favourite Dream Theater records, but as a latter-day effort from this polarising metal act, it ticks most boxes.
A View From The Top Of The World is out now via Sony
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