Dream Theater: Systematic Chaos

[14 June 2007]

By Andrew Blackie

In this world where there is nothing… Something is suddenly breaking through the monotony… Something unknown… Breaking you apart from your mysterious emptiness… It is the sound of systematic chaos unfurling, when everything and nought are united.

Imagine, if you can, how pretentious it would be if the new Dream Theater album bore an advertisement along the lines of that. Yet, somehow, it would make sense: years into their career and now only one release away from the 10-album milestone, their hip factor is bigger than ever. And that’s because there’s a somewhat disturbing notion among the general consensus right now that tapping into any artsy musical mindjob and ‘getting it’ is ‘cool’. It helps that the Boston-backed, Canadian-fronted quintet deliver cryptic monoliths and bombast in spades, while their musicianship is often hailed as world class. They are talented, no denying it, and don’t they know it; drummer Mike Portnoy himself once admitted, “We’re all about solos and epic songs.” But just how do you find fuel to the fire to keep up with such daunting virtuoso status on a regular basis (timely studio output every two years or so)?

Let’s put it straight. The answer is that Systematic Chaos isn’t it. Full of long-winded songs and flabby arrangements, the disc suffocates of toohtlessness and sheer boredom. In truth, this may be the logical conclusion to Dream Theater’s back catalog, coming after 2003’s Train of Thought and 2005’s Octavarium; spread as they were with indulgences across the board, and showing they weren’t above aping –—sorry, paying tribute—to some of their favorite bands: Rush, Metallica, U2. But after all, they were good albums which valued variety.

There is not a single outstanding track on Chaos, nor does it hold up particularly well as a whole, feeling joyless and synthetic. There’s nothing essentially wrong with progressive music, but by its own ideals, it has to fit, be logical, add something to the music, etc., and with recent high-profile releases from Porcupine Tree, Iron Maiden, even Therion, its becoming all too clear for these elder statesman that it’s not enough to wank off your instrument anymore and pass it off as interesting. Systematic Chaos is full of pointless rambling and oddities that don’t seem to make any sense: Long minutes of ‘jamming’ that go nowhere. Spoken word passages, presumably because their singer James LaBrie couldn’t be bothered to sing. Jordan Rudess’s shrill, obnoxious keyboards that sound like R2-D2 from Star Wars. Superfluous voice clips to drag out “Repentance”. “Repentance” itself.

Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci’s pseudo-philosophical / religious lyrics are pathetic. Compare the poetry of 1992’s “Pull Me Under” (‘written by Kevin Moore):

This world is spinning around me
This world is spinning without me,
Every day sends the future to past
Every breath leads me one less to my last

to this album’s first single, “Constant Motion”:

Travelling through both space and time
Out of body, out of mind
Out of control, my wheels in constant motion
Spinning round and round it goes…

Only Dream Theater could rewrite the nursery rhyme “The Wheels on the Bus” but in a state of space-time limbo.

Or the icky, overwrought power ballad “Forsaken”, in which LaBrie reaches his absolute whiniest (is this really the man once considered to replace Bruce Dickinson in Iron Maiden?):

Forsaken
I have come for you tonight
Awaken
Look in my eyes and take my hand
Give yourself up to me.

Or the eye-rolling “In the Presence of Enemies”, which repeats the phrase “dark master” a staggering 12 times and bookends the album in Parts 1 and 2 because it’s so overall protracted and uninspiring, to the effect of making everything in between seem irrelevant and unimportant. Or LaBrie’s own little home-written baby “Prophets of War”, finding a hook in the lame-beyond-belief pun: “Are we profiting from war?” Get it; prophets, prophet…ing? Genius!

Putting Systematic Chaos up against Dream Theater’s previous works might seem a tad unjust; however the band blatantly invite comparisons by replicating… themselves. That’s right, the band now have such a large and formidable artistic index that they’re allowed to look back on themselves for inspiration! It happens here without fail during “Repentance”, part of Mike Portnoy’s infamous alcoholism suite, the concept being to write a bunch of self-pitying songs on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program. Are the group really so strapped for ideas that they have to keep bringing up the story of an addiction one of their number had at least five years ago now to take up space on four albums? Even Layne Staley would frown upon them for that. Unlike “The Root of All Evil”, the previous entry in the, erm, pentalogy which opened Octavarium with soaring candor and energy, “Repentance” is a shapeless throwaway of ten minutes.

It doesn’t stop there. “The Dark Eternal Night” is likely the worst cut these prog-metal aficionados have ever recorded, a juvenile fantasy about a “monster from long, long ago… that comes and haunts a town”, featuring blunt seven-string guitar buzzsaw attacks and DOUBLE-BASS DRUMMING YEAH! The vocals are distorted and processed beyond recognition into a growl to boost their power, but if they want to create the death metal effect, they should learn to do it properly. How embarrassing it is to see Dream Theater stoop as low as a wall of sound to create an impression. And right from the outset on “The Ministry of Lost Souls”, you know nothing’s going to save it from its bloated sense of self-importance, and it’s so predictable you already know just how it’s going to end.

Sure, Dream Theater’s legions of fans will praise them for not conforming to trends and unashamedly showing off their skills, as they always have and probably always will, no matter how long-winded or lifeless their idols get. The problem is, a subjective listen of Systematic Chaos reveals just how inherently flawed it is. It is a work by a band pompous, smug, and calculated, a mere travesty of their original selves, even if they are cooler than ever before.

Petrucci now even enjoys musing on redemption… “I saw a white light / Shining there before me” is the first line of the disc. Maybe so, fella, but let’s not forget Jesus once said: “What good is it if a man gains the world, yet forfeits his soul?” At least they’re not stingy about including extras; the special edition of this CD comes with a 90-minute documentary on how the music was made. Let’s just hope it’s more interesting than listening to the music.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dream-theater-systematic-chaos/