Anyone who knows me knows I like progressive rock. They know that, on many occasions, I will afford greater latitude to the genre than many other reviewers, praising the display of technical prowess that might be otherwise be dismissed as “wankery.” At times, I might even be more forgiving than the music – at face value – deserves. With that on the table, I ask you…
What is this?
I’ve been at odds with the prog metal band Dream Theater for a few years now. I enjoyed 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events but was left confused and bewildered by the 2013 eponymous release. In my mind, it sounded almost as a parody, displaying all the cliched over-exertion people regularly charge against prog. 2016’s The Astonishing was a rock opera that made the cardinal sin of rock operas: sounding silly. The music was complex, but the storytelling cringeworthy. With 2019’s Distance Over Time, I honestly don’t know what to think. Do I like this? Do I not like this? I lean more toward being okay with it than not, but this is hardly a glowing endorsement.
Needless to say, I had a lot riding on the upcoming album, A View From The Top Of The World. From the title to the album imagery, I thought this might be a return to the territory mapped by A Dramatic Turn…then they dropped the first single, “The Alien.”
What is this?
If anything, we’re back to the tripping-over-each-other clustering so evident on that self-titled record, and if that was it entirely, I’d chalk it up to the band again trying to slam their “none more prog” and “none more metal” reputations against each other, producing spillage. But if you listen to “The Alien” all the way through, you’ll find it is ever more frustrating than that, because there’s a song in there somewhere, perhaps a good one, even.
Yet, like the Oreo cookie deep fried in an encasement of funnel cake dough, then double dipped in chocolate magic shell over that, then encrusted with sprinkles (jimmies?), once you get to the center that is arguably the core of the thing, it is an indistinct glob that doesn’t represent what it had been.
This has been a longstanding issue for the band, as far back as 2005’s Octavarium when the group attempted to streamline their sound to some degree and were accused of selling out and chart-chasing. (Side note: Octavarium has aged very well. It’s something I cannot say about later efforts.) Since then, it seems like they’ve had a chip on their shoulder, and have defensively leaned into showing us a thing or two. As I previously mentioned, sometimes it works. I’ve enjoyed Dream Theater over the years even as I have needed to question if I’m being fair or I’m being fooled.
I’m still looking forward to A View From The Top Of The World, hoping this track is a frenetic purge that gives way to more assured songwriting, but now I have a lot of reservations in mind. And doubt. “The Alien” sounds like the one thing you really don’t want Dream Theater sounding like: needy.
What is this? It’s a mess, that’s what it is.