October 23, 2021

Are Dream Theater still capable of balancing skill and technique with memorable melodies and direct lyrics?

Unbelievably, it’s now been more than a decade since the surprising, dramatic exit of Dream Theater drummer and founding member Mike Portnoy and the subsequent replacement in Mike Mangini (seriously, where is the time going?). Soon we will be able to fit the entire Beatles recording career into that space of time… twice. While any one fan is quick to point out their take on the band’s music then and now, a solid consensus on the different eras remains elusive. As with any longtime band with such fervent fans, some will only like ‘the old stuff’, some will prefer the newer directions, while others will like it all no matter what. It’s tough to take a step on the internet without stumbling upon a Dream Theater opinion, and each of these contingents appear to think they are the overwhelming majority. So what does a (hopefully) objective listener do when preparing to review the newest effort? Well, he goes through the huge catalogue and devotes serious listening time in the hopes of drawing a clear conclusion as to where this band is at in 2021, more than three decades removed from their debut.

A View From The Top Of The World arrives as the band’s fifteenth studio album, and its fifth consecutive with this lineup. It’s a further development of the style that made up 2019’s Distance Over Time, both albums more well-rounded contrasts to the airier and polarizing double sci-fi concept record The Astonishing in 2016. By and large, Dream Theater have been fairly cognizant over the years of what their most rabid fans truly love to hear from them, and missteps such as The Astonishing or the slick commercial songwriting aid of Desmond Child – if indeed you consider those ‘missteps’ – have been few and far between. As the reigning heavyweight champions of progressive metal, the core of their sound has always been dazzling and complex playing, heavy doses of ass-kicking riffage, and indulgent instrumental sections. But they are at their best when they temper these attributes with strong melodies and relatable lyrics. And therein lies the struggle, not just for Dream Theater but for the myriad bands they’ve inspired over the last thirty years; can they effectively balance the skill and technique that the musos demand with more memorable melodies and direct lyrics that will pull in listeners unconcerned with technical proficiency? That’s a tall order for a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t band like this one.

One wonders how much caffeine is consumed at DT writing sessions…

A View From The Top Of The World does a fairly good job of balancing these qualities, but not as thoroughly as some of the gems of their catalogue have (I tend to think of Awake and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence as being near-perfect blends of everything the band does best). I don’t need to tell you that the individual performances here are, as always, astounding (if they hadn’t been, that would have been the first topic addressed), and one can only wonder how much caffeine is consumed at the DT writing and recording sessions to allow these not-so-spring-chickens to play circles around men half their age. But how successful are they at infusing these new pieces with more delicate moments, or simpler melodies, or those John Petrucci guitar solos that are less on the blistering end and more on the soaring end of the spectrum… the kind that actually make the listener’s whole body move with each crying note? The short answer is: reasonably successful.

Advance single The Alien opens the album with typically dizzying playing that borders on chaotic, but with a fairly standard verse-chorus structure nestled among the crushing bedlam. James LaBrie, who pens the first two of these seven tracks, is actually a decent lyricist (I’ve always particularly liked his Blind Faith, a song which never gets the credit I feel it’s due), but his volume of contributions over the years has been inconsistent. And like chief writer Petrucci, he occasionally takes the lazy road in pursuit of basic rhymes (“Heading set for the stars… some are near, some are far”). Clichéd approaches like this can cause a bit of an eye roll, but he turns in some strong lines as well, as he does on the driving and melodic follow-up track Answering The Call.

Invisible Monster was the second pre-release track and I assume was chosen because of how closely it follows the conventional DT blueprint while having a likable chorus. It almost feels like the band purposely took a risk in putting these middling tracks out early and holding back the best stuff for the full album listen, because while they are good, they aren’t great. But greatness is to come…

The midway ‘mini-epic’ Sleeping Giant acts as something of a turning point, signaling a shift from the more routine DT fare to the more absorbing and inspired. Much of the piece teeters between ‘Heard it before’ and ‘Wow, that’s awesome!’ But even the bits that fall more into the former category are fairly engaging. With the album’s strengths found primarily in its second half, it doesn’t have the same cohesiveness that Distance Over Time had. But its high points are… well, higher than on that one. Either way, from here on in, View really picks up steam.

The triumphant title track is the best in over 10 years…

The boys give a nod to heroes Rush – not their first by a long shot – in the upbeat, major key Transcending Time, a joyful and energetic track that even dares to approach radio potential… yeah right, who am I kidding? Jordan Rudess (curiously on the back-burner overall in comparison to prior albums) is given a chance to employ numerous rosy keyboard textures with his usual flair, and Petrucci throws in an absolutely blazing solo. This is a cracking little tune, and in the absence of any kind of ballad on this album, it’s an effective mood changer from the surrounding heavyweight pieces.

The chunky and commanding Awaken The Master is almost my favourite of these new tracks, with all five members at the top of their game. LaBrie delivers a terrific performance complete with thick and tasteful vocal harmonies. Petrucci shifts seamlessly between badass riffs and fluid leads. And Mangini is simply outstanding on this entire album, lifting these pieces with a more immersive quality than in the past. His parts are properly woven into this music from the ground up, rather than the somewhat colder feel of his first couple of albums with the band, when it almost felt like the drum parts were disembodied from the music. I’ve personally been slow to warm to his playing, despite readily acknowledging his obvious incredible skill. But he has finally won me over with this album. I’m sorry it took so long, Mike, but better late than never. My fingertips have yet to regain the feeling they lost in table-drumming to this killer piece. But the best is saved for last…

Photo: Rayon Richards

The triumphant title track is a stellar return to the epic-length pieces of the past, the first of this scope since the (typically prog-metal titled) Illumination Theory on 2013’s Dream Theater. But where that composition begins incredibly strong, the final third eventually descends into the kind of swaying, syrupy, lighter-waving stadium fluff that causes me to lament the song’s length. A View From The Top Of The World has no such issue, never overstaying its welcome, and is in my mind the best track they’ve produced in at least the last ten years. The arrangement flows beautifully without ever sounding stitched together (a common problem with epics), the verses are catchy and memorable, the riffs are varied and grooving, there’s a compelling cinematic quality to the whole piece, and yes, Petrucci gets in some of that soaring playing I mentioned earlier. And thankfully no swelling, ‘cathartic’ climax. Despite its runtime, this was one I took great pleasure in instantly revisiting, and then again… and again.

Ultimately, I don’t think there is a lot here that’s particularly unexpected from a creative or stylistic standpoint. After all, there are only so many sonic departures a band can make and still hang on to its fan base. But what Dream Theater do, they do exceptionally well, and this lands as the album I’ve been wanting them to make for a long time. Add to all this the excellent mix from Andy Sneap and you’ve got the best sounding DT release in years (yes, you can actually hear John Myung! And the album is all the better for it.) After the awkwardness of their upheaval a decade ago, they have really found their footing these last couple of years, and if anyone felt they lost their position at the top of the heap, well, rest assured they’ve reclaimed it now. If each of the last few albums was a rock on which to climb higher, they can now safely stop and admire the scenery from their current vantage point. A view from the top of the world indeed.