Video games have been permanently ingrained into culture. I’m sure everyone can recite the first seven notes from Nintendo’s 1985 Super Mario Bros. or can remember the creepy yet hastily descending “doots” from Space Invaders.
While those songs are certainly memorable, I personally do not consider them to be “great.” What defines great? That’s a matter of personal preference. Do not let me tell you what to enjoy. However, this is my personal list of the Best Video Game Songs – NOT soundtracks – that I could come up with. In no particular order:
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Hyrule Field Main Theme (Nintendo 64 – 1998)
There’s two games that “blew me away” when it came to their open world. One game was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion when you leave the prison (you folks know what I’m talking about). But the first game that really impressed me was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. One reason was because I had never played a video game like it before. The other reason was because of the incredible theme that accompanied the first appearance of this “open world.” The field of Hyrule was my playground, filled with places to explore and had danger afoot. The music manages to encapsulate the feelings of wonder and excitement of exploring.
Mega Man 4 – Dive Man (NES – 1991)
With such a wide arrangement of Mega Man games to choose from, why Dive Man’s stage? Dive Man’s underwater level hits a few points home: the low bass tones emphasize the deep water within the level. The lead MIDI has a bit of a strange ring to it when it peaks, suggesting to me the villainy behind the level. The song also builds up and builds down both flawlessly and seamlessly. I could hear the song play for hours and not expect an “ending” per se, from it. It’s one of the few Mega Man songs that will pop into my head from time to time and really make me want to hop back onto my NES and lose an hour in the game.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert – Hell March (PC – 1996)
Some people may say Metallica was their first encounter with heavy metal music. But if you lived in a shell like I did, you either first heard it from Doom or Command & Conquer: Red Alert. The Hell March is a literal staple in video gaming. The sluggish, hefty bass riff leads the charge (or march) with a steady 4/4 drum beat and distorted guitars. Verses, while mostly simple chugging riffs, evoke thoughts of the battles between a Mammoth Tank vs. a Tesla Coil, or attack dogs mauling down an enemy spy. The theme was updated in both sequels of the game, but there’s a simplistic nostalgia from the original theme that cannot be replicated.
Homeworld – The Beginning and the End (PC – 1999)
Homeworld is widely regarded as having one of the greatest soundtracks for a video game. As one of the first songs in the game, The Beginning and the End, brings me sheer bliss. This real-time space strategy game introduced a full X, Y, and Z axis to gaming – a feat for its time. Composer Paul Ruskay managed to create a brilliant track to get the user familiar with the gameplay mechanics. The peaceful song not only keeps the player cool during the tutorial, but also establishes the true vastness the game brought – you’re in space after all! This song has been on repeat at my home for years as its calming effects are trance-like. It is hands-down one of my favourite songs ever.
Stardew Valley – A Flicker in the Deep (PC, Switch, PS4, Android – 2016)
It’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s my favourite song the soundtrack has to offer. In its wide variety of moods, from seasonal themes, to battles, A Flicker in the Deep brings a sort of joy which I feel isn’t captured in any other song in the game. While it may be one of the shortest songs on my list, it’s certainly one of the most impactful ones.
Pokemon Red/Blue – Viridian City (Game Boy – 1998 US)
If there’s one song that always stood out for me, it’s the Viridian City theme from the original Pokemon games. Why? It kind of has a double meaning: at first, you enter Viridian City to get started on your journey. It’s the first major place you visit and get a feel for the game. It’s your established “base” until you make your way to the next city. However, Viridian City is also your LAST city in the game. You beat Team Rocket there and you make your way to the Pokemon League. The music, somehow, is nostalgic even while you’re in the game for the first time. It’s the first song to see you off, and the last song to see you go. With it’s peaks and relatively calming presence, it’s always cheering for you.
Terminal Velocity – Ymir Theme (PC – 1995)
3D Realms, folks. The original Duke Nukem, Blake Stone, Wacky Wheels, and more came from this company. Yet most people haven’t heard of the 3D flight simulation shooter, Terminal Velocity – which is okay! Let me bring you up to speed: you’re a ship and you shoot things. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Ymir’s Theme, from level one, somehow made the gameplay feel a lot more epic than it actually was. With the heavy synth rising and falling over the industrial beats, you ended up listening to the loop multiple times in the level as you struggled to find where to go. To this day, the synths will make their appearance into my mind and I’ll just want to drop everything and shoot some tanks.
FTL: Faster Than Light – Milky Way (PC – 2012)
Whether you’re battling the rebels or making your next jump through space, FTL’s music is all something to awe over. However, Milky Way has a very calming, yet action-packed feel to it. The revving arpeggios from the beginning of the song continue throughout and end up becoming the background as lead instruments take over. The song is eerily simplistic, but rich with depth and lots of layers. A beautiful song.
Left 4 Dead – Tank Theme (PC, Xbox 360 – 2008)
I’ve spent many hours (days, even) playing L4D (Hi, Cherish and Andrew!) While it’s a short theme, you don’t even need to see the Tank coming to feel a sense of dread. The music does it for you. Operatic and booming, the Tank theme from Left 4 Dead, a “zombie” shooting game, absolutely strikes fear into the players. The main reason being: no one knows where the Tank, a super-strong Hulk-like “zombie,” is coming from. Valve built L4D as a game with no real “script,” meaning things don’t happen in an order – everything is randomized. A Tank can appear wherever. As such, it’s the music which really triggers the anxiety in the player – beginning you let the player fear what they cannot see.
Silent Hill – Silent Hill Theme (PlayStation – 1999)
Can anyone name me a song that’s both creepier and beautiful at the same time? I don’t think I need to say much about this one. It’s a classic. With traditional instrumentation and 90s synth, it’s an absolute wonder.
Resident Evil 4 – Echo in the Night (GameCube – 2005)
I may be biased, but Resident Evil 4 my favourite game in the series (I know, right? Please don’t fight me on it). As the game got drearier and darker, this theme played and wow. What a treat. The eerie, echoing howl right off the bat. The moody, dark tones in the background. Is that talking in the background or are my ears playing tricks on me? It’s an incredibly sinister song that is riddled with atmosphere.
Kirby’s Dream Land – Green Greens (Game Boy – 1992)
Kirby, man. What a guy (thing?) The song, Green Greens from the first stage is somehow playful, yet action-packed. It features a memorable lead that has an interesting twinge with it – enough to make it unique and stand out from other songs in the game.
Doom – At Doom’s Gate (PC – 1993)
Doom. Level One. You already know the song. Forget the Metallica influence. What can be said about At Doom’s Gate that hasn’t already been said? It perfectly captures the intensity, violence, gore, and speed which Doom is known for. A great heavy metal thrill ride, the loop of the song doesn’t feel exhausting nor does it begin to sound boring. As long as there’s bad guys to shoot, give me hell.
Portal – Still Alive (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 – 2007)
The end theme to Portal, the triumphant and hilarious song both wraps up the game and teases a future. It’s a painfully simplistic song, but it’s the lyrics and singing which certainly makes it standout – and original.
Katamari Damacy – Katamari on the Rocks (PS2 – 2004)
If someone were to ask me “What’s Katamari about?” I’d tell them, “You roll stuff up” and then play this track and walk away. That’s because I feel this song perfectly summarizes the enjoyment and amazement of the game. A joyful theme, it has enough strange in it to intrigue the listener to want to play. Great instrumentation, percussion, and singing, the song – and the soundtrack – puts a smile on my face. “La la la la la Katamari Damacy.”
Gunstar Heroes – Opening Theme (SEGA – 1993)
A triumphant opening to an arcade classic. Gunstar Heroes’ opening theme quickly fades into a grandiose anthem. With the spinning logo, the amount of sheer excitement one feels before pressing “start” cannot be ignored. The rest of the game’s music is great too, but the intro certainly takes the cake.
The crushing bass groove, technological babble in the background, and screeching metal throughout makes this song both original and powerful. When matched with the hefty bass sounds from the attacks in the game, it almost feels as if it’s part of the action. While this beast of a game was memorable for being a challenge for a lot of kids, I’m certain this song is memorable for the riffs within it.
Sable Theme (PC – TBD)
There’s not much to be said yet about Sable. It’s an adventure game which is heavily influenced by the artist Mœbius. The song, Glider, is an original song written by Japanese Breakfast for the trailer. While there’s still no release date for the game, the song seems to at least capture the feeling of it.
Fallout 3 – Bob Crosby and the Bobcats – Way Back Home (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 – 2008, Bob Crosby – 1951)
While technically not a song from a game, the folks at Bethesda wanted to really make this post-apocalyptic world feel apocalyptic. How so? Digital music didn’t survive the nuclear fallout, only vinyl did. Crosby’s song somehow, ironically, manages to summarize the Fallout game perfectly.
I asked my brother what he felt were some of the best songs. He gave me this from Chrono Cross. Holy smokes, it’s great. The peaceful and calming music picks up after a minute and absolutely rocks. Taking advantage of the PlayStation’s higher audio capability, composer Yasunori Mitsuda knocks it out of the park. What a treat.
And that’s it!
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Did I miss a game? Is there something I should reconsider? Let me know in the comments below, or follow me on social media.
As 2019 comes to a close, I decided to go back and think about what really impressed me over the last ten years. There was so much new music this decade, one may think it was difficult to come up with a list.
You know what? It was!
On average, I listen to about 50 new albums every year. Times that by a decade and holy smokes – that’s a lot of music!
Initially I had started this list with thirty albums that really impressed me. However, I felt that was a bit too long. Cutting down to twenty was surprisingly easy. It was the painstaking task of sorting the top twenty which really took time.
I only put one album from 2019 in my list as I felt most of the albums released this year are still too “fresh” for me to make a decent judgement call on. You’ll notice what I mean when you see songs that were #1 from 20XX suddenly not holding their own – or even on the list at all!
Albums that are labelled “DNR” means they “Did Not Rank.” This may mean they were in my Honorable Mentions from that year, or maybe missed getting recognized entirely!
This all instrumental double album from these psychedelic English prog rockers is some of their best work in their over thirty year career. Grooving, atmospheric, and just downright fun – it’s definitely their most accessible album for all listeners.
While not all #1 albums can make it to #1 again, in 2015, Riverside’s LF&tTM hit me in the right spot at the right time. Still melancholic, this prog rock album is most peaceful when listened to in the right mood.
Not everything needs to be metal, y’know. The first album on this list which eluded getting ranked before. When one removes the obvious pop-fueled “singles” from the album, what is left is an incredible mix of musicianship and production. Fake Nudes is a relaxing joy to listen to.
One of the bleakest albums on the list, Bell Witch’s funeral doom album stretches over an hour and twenty minutes. Foreboding and crushing in darkness, Mirror Reaper is something I play for introspection rather than entertainment.
One of a few albums that originally had not ranked before, Torture turned around on me. Impacting, aggressive, intense, great production – all these things and more is why I’ve listened to Torture more than any other Cannibal Corpse album this decade.
Salt is still an album that weirds me out – I still haven’t heard anything like it before. With the strangest of production, composition, and sounds, I feel Khôrada will keep me interested for years to come.
FEAR has grown on me a lot over the few years it has been out. I spin it regularly and each time I feel something truly historic and beautiful about it. Marillion created an album which continues to give. It’s a wonderful album.
In your face and direct, Retrogore ranks high for being self aware and ridiculously good death metal. It’s fast, brutal, and something I spin regularly for having a good time. It has easily became my favourite album of theirs.
An emotional thrill ride, Our Raw Heart delivers with the slow burns of intensity. It’s still one of the most beautiful doom metal albums I’ve ever heard, and most certainly their best sounding release this decade.
A modern-day epic, Pleiades’ Dust is a monument to songwriting. As the song/album ebbs and flows, one can really pick out the instrumentation and true “orchestral” beauty that Gorguts puts into their music.
Bringing me chills by the end of it, Terminal Redux may be one of the best thrash albums I’ve ever heard. With a great story to boot, Vektor knocked it out of the park with such an impactful piece of art.
Initially getting beat out by Rivierside in 2015, Steven Wilson now jumps ahead of the pack. The metaphorical lyrics, the subtle musical moments and technical prowess – Hand. Cannot. Erase. is truly one of the best concept albums of the decade.
This Agalloch album is VERY closely contended with my #1 and 2. I’ve been going back and forth for a couple of weeks debating and choosing one over the other. Alas, I had to decide. But first: Marrow of the Spirit, I believe is the best Agalloch album. Not The Mantle and not Pale Folklore. Don’t @ me. Marrow of the Spirit has something rustic, intense, and intrinsically beautiful lingering among all of the chaos.
Anathema’s Weather Systems may be one of the most beautiful, yet surprisingly sad albums to have ever graced this planet. Musically, it’s genius. Lyrically, it’s poetic and sincere. Weather Systems is a triumph for both the mind and ears.
From the incredible album cover created by the late and great H.R. Giger, Eparistera Daimones encapsulates all I love in the heavy metal genre. From start to finish, this album absolutely dominates the listener and refuses to let them breathe. Its lyrical content is brutally honest and the music properly reflects that. Songs like Abyss Within My Soul are heavy in both sound and content. My Pain is hypnotically ethereal yet devastating at the same time. It being the segue into the nineteen minute epic, The Prolonging, is absolute genius.
I debated putting both Triptykon albums in my list. It may seem like both albums in my list here are the same: but they’re most certainly not. Eparistera Daimones, coming out of the ashes of Celtic Frost, has a unique quality and sincerity about it. There’s purposeful cracks in the armor. There’s noticeable pain, bleakness, anger, and darkness. I really cannot stress the honesty of this album enough. It’s a masterpiece and work of art wrapped around in doom, aggression, terror, atmosphere, and chaos. The album is non-apologetic for what it is and proudly wears its wounds.
For those reasons and a ton more, is why Eparistera Daimones is truly one of the greatest albums of the decade.
Questions, concerns, thoughts? Did I miss something? Let me know! And let’s see what the next decade will bring us! If you’d like, you can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram!
I don’t recall how I came across this album, but I’m glad I did. This neo-classical prog rock band mends a fine line between being a Marillion clone with some, what I’d call Rush influences, to create a transcendental album that stood out among other prog bands this year. While arguably there’s nothing “new” brought to the table, A Tower of Clocks manages to do everything right. The first few tracks build the album up to something wonderful as it ebbs and flows through various feelings throughout. A solid album from a band that’s now going to be on my radar.
Check out the single for “Justified”:
14. Evergrey – The Atlantic
Evergrey are starting to remind me a lot like Amorphis: staying familiar with an evolving sound. While The Atlantic comes across like a traditional prog-power album, there’s still the ever-looming feeling of despair through Tom Englund’s voice and the bands defeating sound, and sometimes heart-breaking lyrics. However, uplifting moments are found such as with the song End of Silence – which still arguably still sounds bleak. Then there’s songs like Weightless where it really showcases some of the band’s metal prowess – the song building to a powerful booming climax near the end. I was super pleased with how The Atlantic turned out and as always, can’t wait to see what else Evergrey have up their sleeve.
Check out the video for “A Silent Arc”:
13. Exhumed – Horror
In 2016, Aborted released the album Retrogore. As the Aborted title suggested, the album was a throwback to older (1980s) horror films. In 2019, Exhumed’s Horror, while not directly associated to particular horror films, is yet another death/grind album with a shtick towards “retro” horror (as the album cover suggests). It’s fast, dirty, and a a schlock-fest of brutality. The fifteen song album is just shy of thirty minutes with most songs under the two-minute mark, leaving them to be easily digested and not over stay their welcome. They’re good “done-in-one” songs that are quick and to the point. The whole album is just a slaughter. It’s fantastic.
Listen to the full album here:
12. Possessed – Revelations of Oblivion
It only took 33 years, but Possessed is back. And damn, it’s great. This death/thrash album is a huge surprise to hear this year. In fact, it sounds as if the band never went anywhere. The soundscape, production, and tones feel straight out of the 80s with pounding aggression in the drums, heft in the rhythm, and an amazing wail with the guitars. Lead singer/songwriter Jeff Becerra writes intelligently with lyrics that feel honest but still radical. An absolute treat for 2019. I hope this is the start of something bigger.
Check out the single, “No More Room in Hell”:
11. Murg – Strävan
The third album of this Swedish black metal band is one of two black metal albums that really blew me away this year. It’s intense at times, but also falls back into somber feelings. The album fluctuates naturally between the two dichotomies which offers the listener breathing room for reflection. The production, on the other hand, has what I love about the genre: it’s dark and feels homemade. Yet there’s obviously quality and an ear behind the studio to give the album the sounds it’s offering. As with most outstanding black metal albums for me, these riffs gave chills.
Check out the awesome single, “Renhet”:
10. Ed Wynne – Shimmer into Nature
The debut solo album from Ozric Tentacles main song writer – Ed Wynne puts together an infectious groovy album with all the fixings of what makes me love his music: brilliant bass licks, incredible soundscapes, and brilliant rises and falls. Shimmer into Nature effectively does what it says, bringing psychedelic tones, synth, and atmosphere to the fray – all with a tremendously calming effect. A terribly underrated musician, this album is quite frankly, absolutely beautiful.
Listen to “Shim”:
9. Darkthrone – Old Star
Every time Darkthrone releases an album, I feel bad for everyone else. The band evolves so much, I never know what to expect. However, the quality of their output has been nothing short of incredible. As such, here is yet another Darkthrone album on my Top 15 list. This crusty, thrashy, doom album is stunning. It has gentle (and some not-so-subtle) nods to classic heavy metal bands and eras, influenced from the decades of the 70s and 80s. The songs on the album feel simple, but come with great care. The single (and my favourite track), “The Hardship of the Scots,” is a great anthem, while songs like “The Key is Inside the Wall” and “I Muffle Your Inner Choir” come with a certain rock n’ roll elements that keep your head pounding throughout. Truly another great album by this great band.
Listen to the wonderful “The Hardship of the Scots”:
8. Masvidal – Mythical
Paul Masvidal is no stranger to prog or heavy metal. After all, he’s the front man and lead songwriter to the legendary band Cynic. But this solo project? This is something different and certainly may be an acquired taste. Mythical, the first of three albums, well, let me just quote the album: “Each song on [the album] uses ‘Isochronic Tones’ designed by Dr. Stephane Pigeon, creator of the Brian Eno-celebrated website MyNoise. The tones are a groundbreaking type of sound therapy for increasing serotonin, alleviating depression and stress, improving focus, and aiding in restful sleep.” – And Masvidal does just that – and lyrically, well, it’s beautiful poetry.
Listen to the whole album here:
7. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
A late-release fpr 2019, Blood Incantation’s Hidden History of the Human Race absolutely knocked it out of the park. The four-song album covers a vast array of death metal styles – from Morbid Angel to Death to Gorguts, then with spacial tones to the likes of Kyuss and Hawkwind. This album delivers the goods with the pulse-pounding first tracks, Slave Species of the Gods and The Giza Power Planet, followed by the two more melodic songs Inner Paths (to Outer Space), and the 18-minute epic, Awakening From The Dream Of Existence To The Multidimensional Nature Of Our Reality (Mirror Of The Soul). While four songs may not seem like much to divulge in with an album, I can guarantee Blood Incantation makes every moment count, and ultimately, brings about one of the most unique, awesome, and most of all – refreshing – albums I’ve heard in recent memory.
Check out the video for “Slave Species of the Gods”:
6. Bent Knee – You Know What They Mean
The year was 2017, and Bent Knee’s “Land Animal” made the third spot on my Top 15 List that year. I feel bad they’re not higher this year, but holy smokes, You Know What They Mean absolutely blows Land Animal out of the water and then some. This album is both a natural evolution for the band, yet is something completely different. It’s heavy, melancholic, moody, rough, loud, subtle, and so many other adjectives I could continue with. There’s a lot of brilliance in this album and I’m so very excited to watch this band explode. Bent Knee will become a household name, not only in the world of progressive music, but beyond. Mark my words, You Know What They Mean has the fixings of bringing Bent Knee to the world.
Watch the video for “Hold Me In”:
5. Wilderun – Veil of Imagination
Opeth and Symphony X had a child and it’s living in Boston. Part of me says “This album shouldn’t be on here because it’s just a clone.” The other part says, “My god, these guys do what Opeth and Symphony X did, but better.” There’s a healthy balance between metal and orchestra. There’s a lack in repetition/recurring riffs, keeping these long songs fresh. It is also very ethereal in many aspects in the production. Readers, I absolutely was taken back by this album. It was as if I was teleported back into 2001/2002 when Opeth’s Blackwater Park and Symphony X’s The Odyssey was released. In fact, if you amalgamate those two specific albums, I’m confident you’ll have Veil of Imagination. It’s certainly fair to bring these strong comparisons to the fold because Wilderun takes the best of both albums and makes it into something new, yet familiar. It’s a hauntingly beautiful, powerful album.
Check out “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl”:
4. Mgła – Age of Excuse
My favourite black metal album of the year, Mgła’s Age of Excuse is stunning. I remember spinning it the first time around while reading. During the track, Age of Excuse III, I paused the album and went “Holy shit, these guitars are riiiiiiiiiiiipping.” I hadn’t been that excited from a black metal album in a long while. But that’s not all! The drums. Oh goodness, the drumming on this album. Age of Excuse II features some extraordinary play with the toms, snare, and various cymbals. But that’s not all! The vocals. The gloom and despair in the voice. The lyrics. The dread and finality of it all. Sure, this album is technically one song at 42 minutes – but it’s such a trip. Give it a listen and learn why Age of Excuse got to be where it is on my list.
Give the full album a listen to:
3. Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance
Had I not seen these guys open for Pig Destroyer earlier this year, I may not have heard this album at all. Tomb Mold’s Planetary Clairvoyance is hands-down my favourite straight-up death metal album of the year. This Toronto-based band knocked it out of the park with this 38-minute album, featuring some of the best guitar riffs I’ve heard this year. In fact, the way everything is pieced together, you can tell Tomb Mold took their time when writing these songs. Most songs only contain a handful of riffs, yet the band manages to leave nothing stale. Somehow the riffs become elevated the more the band repeats them. It’s intriguing stuff. From the opening track to the end, there’s literally something memorable from each song. The title track has some of the dirtiest riffing by the end of the song. It’s just a headbangers delight. I love this album.
Listen to the track “Infinite Resurrection” here:
2. Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect
I don’t even know what to call this one: death metal, crust punk, progressive, sludge, thrash, black, grind, hardcore – whatever it is, it’s an absolute blast to indulge. This second album by the Chicago natives has everything I want in my metal and then some. Songs like Avolition are lengthy and provide a wide gamut of offerings for music listeners – easily one of the greatest songs I’ve heard this year. House of Anhedonia has such an incredible ending and juicy riffs that I keep coming back for more. In fact, with absolutely punishing tracks made with excellent composition, lyrics, and production, easily makes Immortal Bird’s release one of my favourite albums of the year.
Listen to the song, “Vestigial Warnings,” that within seconds had won me over:
1. Devin Townsend – Empath
Devin Townsend has outdone himself. I absolutely adored this album. Throughout its journey, Empath features highs and lows, exceptional musicianship, chaos and beauty, and incredible emotion. I could go on to describe what Empath is. So let me just focus on why it’s my album of the year.
Leaving the Devin Townsend Project and going solo, this dynamic album features a plethora of interesting and daunting ideas that come together so wonderfully. From the intriguing Castaway/Genesis introduction to the playful Sprite, the Disney-inspired Why?, and the epic Singularity, each song on the album has its own bit of flair to make it stand-out, yet still be part of one cohesive unit.
The songs are some of Devin’s most challenging, not only as a musician, but sonically as well. The “wall of sound” that comes along with Empath is incredible. In fact, the production on the album arguably may be its only fault as to how “perfect” everything seems to be. Musicians like Chad Kroeger (Nickelback), Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering), and Frank Zappa alums, Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, and Morgan Ågren, as well as a fully-utilized women’s choir, come together to help bring Empath a life which is truly unique and an absolute wonder to behold.
Part of me wants to dig through every single song and explain its purpose, why they are the way they are, and really delve into the complexities of the production and songwriting process. But that’s not what this review is for. I should only tell you that there were many wonderful moments that made me cry (and still do if it gets me right). This is an album you all should sit back and experience for yourselves. Grab your headphones, some hot chocolate, sit back, and relax. (The 5.1 audio mix is coming out soon which I’m absolutely thrilled for).
Without a doubt, Devin Townsend’s Empath will stick with me for the rest of my life. It is easily one of the most memorable albums I have ever graced upon my ears.
Check out the “overture” of the album, “Genesis”:
Then listen to the Disney-inspired metal song, “Why?”:
Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
Ares Kingdom – By the Light of Their Destruction
Overkill – The Wings of War
Cerebral Rot – Odious Descent into Decay
Torche – Admission
Borknagar – True North
Rotting Christ – The Heretics
Nebula – Holy Shit
Abbath – Outstrider
Ulver – Drone Activity
Tool – Fear Inoculum
Flying Colors – Third Degree
Amon Amarth – Beserker
Blind Guardian – Legacy of the Dark Lands
Questions? Comments? Agree? Disagree? What have you? If you’d like, you can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram!
Well, yes! For everyone, Tool’s back and going to be better than ever! Heck, Tool is so big, they’ve still been selling out arenas based on their back catalogue. That’s a big deal, no?
Before I divulge you all in my opinion of Fear Inoculum, let me first give you my history with Tool. (My blog, my rules, y’know?)
The Band that Started it All
If it wasn’t obvious from my previous posts of my favourite albums, I love both heavy metal and progressive rock. The way I got into music was a bit on my own. I got into Stone Temple Pilots when I picked up the bass guitar and was blown away (and still am) by their bassist, Robert DeLeo. From the hard rock of STP, I fell into Tool. To age me, Lateralus came out when I was in high school – grade ten. I hadn’t heard bass like the intro to Tool’s Schism before and had to learn more. Tool was on the radio and I definitely took the plunge.
Tool became my go-to band for two to three years. They were THE band that introduced me to heavy metal. I understood Metallica existed, I got Black Sabbath, but Tool was just so relevant to me at the time. I was a starting musician wanting to learn more. I certainly wasn’t going to find bass from Metallica, and definitely not from “going back” to older songs (boy, was I ever naive). Tool had what I was looking for, and I dove in hard.
I was very arrogant with my knowledge of Tool. Not only did I think they were the best band, but I made sure others knew. I remember specifically saying how Danny Carey was a better drummer than Neil Peart because he used less drums than Neil and could sound “bigger.” I know! I cringed while writing that, let alone re-reading it. But I was young and impressionable. It’s what I felt. I went out and bought Tool t-shirts and blasted their albums on my CD walkman I wore on the bus. I made sure it was extra loud so others on the bus could hear how great the music was. Yes, I was one of those kids.
Embarrassment aside, Tool ultimately helped me learn about even heavier music. I went from Tool to Opeth, to Carcass, and the rest is history. I will always argue that Tool is a gateway band into something heavier.
However, I really dug into the Tool philosophy. I went onto the website regularly and read up on all of the beliefs of the band or what the songs were about. I wasn’t just a fan of the band, I was a believer. I connected to Tool on a much more deeper level than anyone else I knew could have. I mean, they were talking about philosophy to someone who was 15 years old. How couldn’t I get addicted to them? They were so much more than just a band.
I finally scored tickets to see them live with my dad.
The Tipping Point
It was August of 2002, and Tool performed at Copps Coliseum (in Hamilton, Ontario) with Mike Patton’s (from Faith No More) Tomahawk opening.
I was really excited to go. I wore my Tool “pill” shirt and joined the masses at Copps to enjoy what was most certainly going to be the show of the year. I had already been spoiled with seeing bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, and Linkin Park before. Surely Tool was going to give them a run for their money.
The show started and Tomahawk began their performance. About halfway through, the audience started to boo. I mean literally shouting “BOOOOO” at them. Stuff started getting thrown on stage. By the end of Tomahawk’s set, it felt like half of the arena was booing them off. I remember turning to my dad and asking him why people were booing. He didn’t know either. The only thing we could think of was that they just weren’t Tool.
Tomahawk put on a great performance and show. I wasn’t into their music at the time (and certainly hadn’t heard of them up until that point), but they most definitely weren’t worthy of getting booed off the stage. In fact, Mike Patton said about the tour,
Compared to the studio, Tomahawk’s live presentation pulls no punches. ‘It is probably a little bit nastier and a little more poke-you-in-the-eye vibe,’ says Patton. ‘When you are in a situation like this, it is very easy for the people to sit back, eat their popcorn and cotton candy, and ignore you. We’re trying to combat that.’
As a Tool fan, I was embarrassed. I felt that Tool certainly would have said something about disrespecting Tomahawk when they came on stage. Spoiler: they didn’t even mention or thank Tomahawk for performing.
Tomahawk left the stage. Twenty minutes later, the stage went dark. A chugging, familiar bass line began. Tool opened with their big single, Sober. I got chills, and so did the thousands of people around me. You could tell the mood had changed. When the lights flicked on, I could see the band on the stage; them all just standing there. . . . . . vocalist Maynard Keenan with his back to the audience, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor standing motionless, and Danny Carey rocking out – the only one who seemed to have any energy to the show. What was going on?
It wasn’t to be a metal show, it was to be an experience, I thought to myself, suddenly feeling a bit underwhelmed, trying to justify what I was witnessing. Sober ended. The Grudge began, followed by Stinkfist. Solid songs, but really lacked dynamics from the band. In fact, look for yourself. I found the whole show. Enjoy.
Tool was performing, but I really couldn’t get into it. But the audience was. They were screaming their heads off to every song. I mean, I knew the songs too, but Tool really wasn’t reaching me during their show. Despite reading the philosophy and digging into the band, I felt left out. And I’m not sure exactly when it clicked that night, but I looked out to the audience and saw everyone with their t-shirts on. “Tool” it said. I was with them. I looked back to the stage and saw Maynard, his back turned to us, and the band not really giving much “oomph” to their performance.
It hit me as I realized the clever double entendre marketing-style the band had been using. We were the literal “tool” and also a literal paycheque to the band. By all means, yes, that’s the music business – but I felt Tool was trying to be so devious in hiding it and I just “woke up.” It was that night, watching the band I loved play live, that the philosophy they tried to teach through their music kind of melted away – and I felt like I saw Tool for the sellouts they were.
And holy moly, before you guys start: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was in my personal experience that Tool had betrayed me. That I was literally just a tool for them to get my money. Their “experience” didn’t work on me. Did I go home and throw out all of my Tool albums? Heck no, they’re still on my CD shelf. The band still wrote great music. It’s just that I felt that what they did to not just me, but to their audiences – it wasn’t just a band. Tool hit me like a musical version of Scientology. A religion of music, based around their philosophies and beliefs. “Experience our deeper music this way. If you don’t get it, then too bad – you don’t get Tool and we didn’t want you anyway.”
Only I did. They were my favourite band. But I slowly waned off of them as I got into other heavy music. For the remainder of my high school years, I picked up Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, Kyuss, Savatage, Blind Guardian, Opeth, Carcass, and Kreator. I found those bands to be a breath of fresh air than the “mindset” I needed to be in with Tool. These other bands were just as, if not more complicated technically as Tool, and evoked more feelings rather than trying to have the listener “find the hidden message.” It was nice to find a way out.
In 2006, Tool’s next album, 10,000 Days was released and was not too shabby. It wasn’t anything spectacular in my eyes. It was a nice mix between Ænema and Lateralus (I literally had the muscle memory to remember how to make “Æ.” I’m laughing to myself right now). But it was still something familiar in the “overarching” feel of Tool. “Either you get it or you don’t.”
Somehow between 2006 and 2019, Tool continued to perform arena shows that were completely sold out. They coasted on the strength of their back catalogue as it kept paying the bills. Despite not releasing anything for thirteen years, Tool would continue to tour without new music. On one hand, that’s fantastic to get oneself to that kind of staying power. On the other hand, and me being the jaded Tool fan, I felt they were continuing to milk the rest of their fans. The indoctrinated Tool fan would not dare miss a show because Tool was so much more than a performance.
It should go without saying that this review is heavily biased based on everything I’ve written above. Save for Undertow, I have not listened to a Tool album since 10,000 Days was released. I have not listened to Ænema, Lateralus, and Opiate since I OD’ed on them back in high school. I am most definitely in need for a re-listen, but I feel I should be fully transparent with this review. Why?
I had six people message me their thoughts on the album, some positive and negative. In case you don’t follow me on Instagram, (which you should!), I post about albums I listen to all of the time. While six isn’t a big number, I’ve never had anyone give me as much feedback or begin a in-depth discussion about an album like with Tool’s newest.
Tool hit me like a musical version of Scientology. A religion of music, based around their philosophies and beliefs.
Fans of Tool are at the ready to defend. Non-Tool fans are on the attack. I’m a scorned ex-lover of Tool that still appreciates music and am eager to hear what the band has to offer. It’s getting glowing reviews across the board. But where do I stand?
My Review of Fear Inoculum
Even after thirteen years, Tool’s newest album still carries with it both their fanbase and their sound. Fear Inoculum sonically feels like a continuation from 10,000 Days with a bit more technological play to it. Lots of samples, both in the background and with Danny Carey’s Middle Eastern drum performance, add a lot of intrigue that wasn’t necessarily as focused upon in previous Tool albums.
Unlike previous Tool albums, however, I felt Fear Inoculum had a hard time moving forward. For the first six tracks, everything felt blurred together. Certainly different grooves stood out in different songs – such as the riffing/groove around 8:30 in Invincible and the Schism-sounding grooves around 4:00 in Pneuma. Yet the variety of music felt lacking. When I heard the single/first song on the album, I had hoped the album would change from there. Unfortunately the song seemed to set the pace for the rest of the album.
Although it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; just after a long wait, I had hoped for more variety in Fear Inoculum like with previous albums. Fortunately the final three songs, Culling Voices, Chocolate Chip Trip (CCT), and 7empest, made up for what I felt the rest of the album faltered on.
Culling Voices was really intriguing, finally letting Maynard shine in an album where I felt he played a significantly diminished role in. It was also a slower paced song compared to the rest of the album. However, that pace wasn’t bogged down by the same sort of poly-rhythmic riffing Tool is known for. The lack of Tool being Tool was a pleasant surprise.
With CCT, I cannot help but compare Tool to Blink 182. Without drummer Travis Barker, Blink 182 would not be nearly as powerful as they are. Danny Carey with Tool is the same. Fear Inoculum’s most exciting moments were because of Carey. CCT lets Carey shine and really smacks home the Tool feel with the absolutely unnerving atmosphere he’s performing alongside with.
When 7empest kicks in, we get to the meat and potatoes of the album: the band is hitting hard and man, it’s a hefty Tool song. I could see why it was put on as the last track. All four band members are firing on all cylinders. Maynard’s getting his attitude, Adam Jones is ripping solos, Justin Chancellor is gluing the band, and Danny Carey’s doing what he does best. High school me is totally digging the song. Unfortunately for me, the final track arrived about 65 minutes too late for me.
As the album concluded though, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed as I had awaited for something to really pop-out and surprise me. There really weren’t any major headbanging moments that I found myself rocking out to or even just bobbing my head along with. In fact, I found myself sort of trailing in and out of paying attention. If anything, the album would make for good, moody background noise.
My initial feeling was the whole album reminded me of the last three songs off of Lateralus: Disposition, Reflection, and Triad. Rhythmic grooves, lots o’ reverb, and not much else to them. Aside from the three songs I mentioned above, I cannot say that Fear Inoculum is going to be making a top album list for me. While Fear Inoculum had its moments, I have to confess they’re pretty forgettable.
Production-wise, I’m a bit at odds. The album sounds like it’s straight from the early 2000s, while other moments and songs sound like they’re from an audio interface plugin with default samples. It’s strong, yet playful. It’s an interesting dichotomy for a high-level band, and something I’m actually not familiar with (or why) they would have approached recording an album this way. It’s a good kind of strange, though.
While it had some heft in some songs, Fear Inoculum is easily the least-metal Tool album in their catalogue. Is that a problem? Not at all. For me, however, it made for a bit of a lackluster release. It wasn’t a bad album, but it wasn’t a great album either. But will it impress the Tool fan? Absolutely. Because it has to. It’s Tool.
With me, however, I’d give it a solid 6/10.
Well there you have it! If you managed to get through all of this, good on you. I have always felt like sharing my experience and feelings about the band but never really had a relevant time to do so. Thirteen years later, here we are.
So who did I upset? Who agrees? Questions, comments, or concerns? Let’s have ’em! If you’d like, you can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram!
This Swiss band’s second release, Ungfell’s black/folk metal blend is raw and unfiltered. With a ripping bass lines and fearful screams, this album comes out to be one of the better black metal albums I’ve heard this year. While moments may seem chaotic, the band does feature peaceful – if not even tranquil, melodic moments – which made for an album that really stands out.
Legends. When Judas Priest released Redeemer of Souls in 2014, I considered it to be their best album since Painkiller. While Firepower cannot be compared to it, it is one helluva beastly album. The riffs are crisp, songwriting strong, and Halford just rips it. Their song Flame Thrower stands out as one of the neatest songs on the album – giving me throwbacks to Sad Wings of Destiny days (I know, right?) While the album may not be the strongest in the Priest catalog, it certainly is a powerhouse not to be reckoned with against other albums in 2018.
See the music video to “Spectre”:
13. Amorphis – Queen of Time
Amorphis rarely can do any wrong. With Queen of Time, the band shows yet again that they are one of the greatest modern metal bands. Queen of Time is actually a great representation of where the band has gone over the past decade. If anything, it showcases how strong the band is with their storytelling without making it feel like the same song after song, album after album (lookin’ at you, Amon Amarth). Queen of Time is quite simply a testament to the ever-evolving Amorphis musicianship.
Check out the video to “Amongst Stars” here:
12. Torture Rack – Malefic Humiliation
I can hear Anakin Skywalker saying, “Now THIS is death metal!” The brutality from this American band reminds me of recent releases from newer death metal bands such as Rude and Outre-Tombe. Given that this is only the second album from Torture Rack, it feels like they’re seasoned veterans of the genre. With pounding songs like “Mace Face” and annihilating riffs like in “Lurking in the Undercroft,” this album makes me excited to hear what else this band has to offer.
New Wave of British Heavy Metal at its finest. Their third album since their return in 2013, Cruel Magic just crushes. Never missing a beat or sounding tired. Vocalist Brian Ross dominates and arguably is the highlight of the album with his very powerful range. Right off the bat, the first track, “Into the Mouth of Eternity” sets the pace for the rest of the unrelenting album, making Cruel Magic’s release one of the highlights of this year.
Whenever The Tangent releases something, you have to stop and give it a listen because there’s always something musically going on that’ll stick with you. Leader Andy Tillison groups together like-minded musicians for a blissful mix of different genres: blending and fusing into one another seamlessly. From jazz fusion, prog rock, funk, alternative, and much more, each song stands out on its own yet still ties together on the album. It’s dramatic, powerful, and makes for one incredible audio experience.
Watch the lyric video for “The Adulthood Lie” here:
9. Sear Bliss – Letters from the Edge
Experimental would be an understatement. After a six year hiatus, the Hungarian black metal outfit return with yet another strange, yet familiar album. It’s grand in its scope and feels triumphant throughout. It’s hard to really put a pin on why I really enjoy this album because there’s a lot offered. I’d recommend you give it a listen for yourself.
The third band on my list with their second album! Outre-Tombe from Quebec arguably outdid themselves after their 2015 debut (which surely would’ve made my Top 15 had I heard it in time). Nécrovortex is classic death metal that’s fast, demanding, pounding, and brilliantly crafted. While the production is a lot cleaner than traditional death metal usually sounds, it doesn’t take away from the overall feel of the album – making for one of the best sounding traditional death metal albums this year.
Yet another second release, these Canadian metal heads offer an exquisite and sometimes gut-wrenching take on blackened doom metal. With parts often feeling greatly inspired by the late David Gold and Woods of Ypres, Altars of Grief come at you with eight well-thought out and crushing songs that really make me miss the halcyon days of their Canadian counterpart. I can’t get enough of this album.
Guys, it’s Ihsahn. Since I’ve started doing my Top 15s, he’s always been mentioned. While Arktis was a bit of a letdown, Ámr comes back and wipes the slate clean. Boldly starting the album with electric-sounding keyboards, the album unfolds into constrained progressive chaos. It’s haunting and powerful. Unlike previous albums, however, Ámr is probably one of Ihsahn’s most “straight-forward” sounding albums with songs not ever veering into too far extremes. It sounds like a safe, but in reality, it’s anything but.
Watch the music video for “Arcana Imperii” here:
5. Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II)
This is a beautiful album. At just under two hours, this double-album features some of the most natural and inspiring music I have ever heard. Crossing multiple genres: country, black metal, bluegrass, folk rock, and more, Panopticon’s release is nothing short of incredible. There’s so much to offer on this album that I really struggle to find a favourite moment or song. Everything is just that good. Broken up into two larger movements, the music obviously contrasts one another – yet it all flows seamlessly together.
Damn, this is a dirty album. Right from the first track “Obsolith,” you can just feel the mud spill from the opening bass lines as it slowly trudges you into the droning chorus. The Polish outfit Spaceslug delivers one of the best sludgy doom/stoner metal albums I’ve heard in a while. While sometimes melodic, the band ebbs and flows with the groove: weighing heavier down and gradually building back up. It’s easy to become immersed with the infectious tone and groove. In fact, think I’ve got a bit of the spaceslug in me.
I never would have picked up the bass guitar if it wasn’t for Stone Temple Pilots. This band essentially started me on the musical journey I’m on today. Bias aside, I can’t believe the band put out this album. Much like Amorphis’ release, I feel like STP’s newest is a culmination of everything the band has ever done into one album. I feel hints of No. 4 with “Roll Me Under,” the simplistic beauty of Tiny Music with “Thought She’d Be Mine,” and serenity from Shangri-La Dee Da in “The Art of Letting Go.” But the songs are so much more than “throwbacks” of the past. With new singer, Jeff Gutt, there’s a new breath of fresh air in this band and I can’t wait to see where it takes them.
Listen to the single “Meadow”:
2. Khôrada – Salt
After the demise of Agalloch and Giant Squid comes Khôrada: bone-chillingly powerful music, and as their Bandcamp states, “At once atmospheric, aggressive and apocalyptic, the album’s emotion is driven by the band members’ view of today’s world.” And holy moly, does it ever. From the incredible layered textures from vocalist Aaron John Gregory and the emotional ferocity of Don Anderson’s guitar, this album, in my eyes, opened me up to new standards not only in song writing, but in album production as well. It’s well worth your listen as I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this before.
Listen to the haunting song “Ossify” here:
1. YOB – Our Raw Heart
Upon first listen, I had a gut feeling that this was going to be my Album of the Year. And yet after months since its release, the album’s still unsurpassed. The American doom metal band’s eighth studio album, Our Raw Heart, wins me over with the most emotional roller coaster ride of the year. Much like my top album from last year, YOB’s album was also inspired by a health issue – this time from lead guitarist/singer/songwriter Mike Scheidt.
Ironically, this may be one of the most uplifting doom metal albums I have ever heard. Each track builds and releases in powerful ways that are vastly different from one another. Yet all of that doesn’t matter as the album both feels and flows as one cohesive piece.
The first track “Ablaze” pulls the listener into a trance which slowly builds up and releases into the emotional chorus. Feeding into the next song, “The Screen” – heavy chugging riffing with growls which subtly reveal the pain behind.
Additional highlights come from the 16-minute “Beauty in Falling Leaves” where you can just hear the raw agony in Scheidt’s voice. It’s absolutely stunning. In the same subject, the guitar tones on this album are simply outstanding and compliment the vocals in some of the most powerful ways. For case-in-point, the title track wraps up the album with a slow burn of inspiration, beauty, and elevation.
Our Raw Heart seems to showcase the chaos in the world, yet it still manages to stop you; telling you to take a breath, and to really see the beauty in falling leaves. With that juxtaposition, Our Raw Heart easily takes the top spot as my Album of the Year.
Listen to my Album of Year:
Ulthar – Cosmovore
The Sea Within – The Sea Within
Riverside – Vale of Tears
Kamelot – The Shadow Theory
Pig Destroyer – Head Cage
Chris Caffery – The Jester’s Court
Ails – The Unraveling
Sleep – The Sciences
Augury – Illusive Golden Age
Vreid – Lifehunger
Summoning – With Doom We Come
Portal – Ion
Questions? Comments? Agree? Disagree? What have you?
2016 saw the release of The Astonishing, Dream Theater’s very ambitious concept album with a dystopian future and movie-like soundtrack. However, while appreciated by critics, the album was divisive by fans. The Astonishing was a mix of rock, progressive, folk, metal, and classical. It featured everything one would expect from Dream Theater – yet some fans of the band struggled to wrap their head around the double-disc, two-plus hour extravaganza of an album, with guitarist John Petrucci stating,
I understand that stylistically, it might not be every Dream Theater fan’s cup of tea.
Some people think it’s one of our greatest works, and some people, it’s not something that they’re into. As a standalone album, it’s a soundtrack to a larger piece – to a live show, a novel, a movie, whatever – and sometimes, that’s hard to absorb in that big of a chunk, given there’s over two hours of music.
I felt the same way. I disliked the album and obviously everyone is allowed to have their own opinion about it. Yet once the announcement of their newest album struck, I couldn’t help but think what was Dream Theater’s last great album? I reflected on the concerts I’ve been to and the albums they’ve released and stopped at what I felt was the logical answer: 2003’s Train of Thought. And here’s why:
Disclaimer: I am a huge Dream Theater fan. I have met the band on a few occasions, I own all of their albums, was registered to the Voices UK fanclub for a short while, own some rare releases, and have seen them perform live twelve times. I have covered the band’s songs with my own (now extinct) bands, and have just about followed every single side project each of the members have been involved in. I also like to think I have a relatively broad selection of musical tastes, from progressive bands like Anathema to extreme metal bands like Triptykon and regular rock bands like Stone Temple Pilots. While obviously everything I’ll be saying is all my bias opinion, I feel like I have some credence to what I have to say based on all of the things above. So here we go!
Favourite track: Honor Thy Father
Least favourite track: Endless Sacrifice
After their incredible run of releases (yes, even including Falling Into Infinity), I feel that Dream Theater’s peak in terms of song writing was Train of Thought. It’s definitely a bold statement to say, but I’ll try to back myself up here: each song had a purpose and a flow within the album. It was (mostly) to-the-point and showcased the band’s first real foray back into heavy metal since their 1994 album Awake. Obviously they’ve had some pretty heavy songs since 1994, but nothing was as straight-forward and massive in its progressive metal scope as Train of Thought was.
The single, As I Am, was the least-progressive song on the album yet still packed an incredible punch. It was catchy, easy to sing along to, and featured one of Petrucci’s meltingly fast solos. The next two songs, This Dying Soul and Endless Sacrifice, were even more heavier than As I Am, setting the tone for the remainder of the album.
This Dying Soul begins with drummer Mike Portnoy blitzing through some double kicks that walloped over the listeners head – something no Dream Theater song had done up until that point. Even at its more melodic points, such as the chorus, the song has a purpose. James LaBrie essentially sings through the whole song, save for the first and last two minutes. Everything else in the song was part of the song and not really filler or padding – which is super important to note – as it will be an ongoing point I’ll be making when I begin to tackle the rest of the albums.
Endless Sacrifice is my least favourite song as it really strikes me as Dream Theater trying to grasp with a metalcore influence – which is not who the band is. The chorus features pinched harmonics, a slower tempo, and a that damn guitar tone. Yeesh. It sounds like its geared towards a younger audience. And from 4:50 on, it’s just mediocre filler – instrumentation that does nothing to help the song as a whole. At 10 minutes, we hear LaBrie singing the chorus again and it’s super-yawn filled. The chorus is catchy, but I feel it’s the worst song on the album – which isn’t a bad thing because they do end up writing what I think to be their worst songs on later later albums. And I know I’m in the minority when it comes to Endless Sacrifice anyway, so don’t get too upset.
Post Endless Sacrifice, comes my favourite track, Honor Thy Father, which is not only what I think is the heaviest song on the album, but their strongest lyrically. I could gush for hours over this song. The intensity of the music completely match the emotion of the lyrics and what both LaBrie and Portnoy want to convey. It’s an honest song and I believe the band gives it the attention it deserved when creating it.
The mournful Vacant, instrumental Stream of Consciousness, and climactic In the Name of God, all feature strong song-writing ability, including Portnoy’s clever use of Morse Code in the last song.
Each song on Train of Thought is written with a story and a purpose (save for whatever the hell is wrong with Endless Sacrifice). The band took what metal influences they had in previous albums and went gung-ho with this album. There is no excessive noodling with instrumentals in songs. In fact, the band seemed to control their restraint of showcasing technicality and getting lost in what’s “cool”. There’s little padding (which I’ll get into later) and the songs, I feel, are more impactful because of it. Train of Thought was Dream Theater’s best selling album since 1997s Falling Into Infinity. Train of Thought was concise, powerful, and could be considered as one of their stronger releases from progressive rock fans. It was a bold decision for the band to take on, and one which – in my opinion – they’ve struggled to do since. And I don’t mean that they have struggled to make a metal album – I’m saying the band hasn’t released an album that has been as impacting or has made as big of a statement as Train of Thought has. The song writing choices, track listing, and creativity, in my opinion have yet to be replicated.
Favourite track: Panic Attack
Least favourite track: I Walk Beside You
Octavarium or 8VM for you DT fans out there, was an exciting release. It featured their first 15+ minute-long song since 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and 1995’s A Change of Seasons. Following the dramatic change and success from Train of Thought, I felt a certain kind of heavy expectation from the band. It’s kind of natural to have those expectations from bands anyway – even from forever changing ones like Dream Theater. I’m sure when Scenes From a Memory was released, some expected a little bit of Falling Into Infinity. Either way, the album began very promising. The Root of All Evil opens the album and continues Mike Portnoy’s twelve step suite. It’s heavy, in your face, and is a natural extension of what the previous album presented.
Then bam! The Answer Lies Within, These Walls, and I Walk Beside you are the next three songs. They’re pretty straight-forward rock songs, but they’re short on the progressive and even shorter on metal. In fact, I Walk Beside You could easily have been a U2 B-side that the label said was too lame for the band. The three songs not only were unimpressive, but completely shattered the incredible power they had built up with Train of Thought. If you were a heavy metal fan who got into Dream Theater with Train of Thought, I could only imagine your disappointment with Octavarium so far.
Fortunately, Panic Attack was a welcome relief to hear. Not only was it a strong, heavy song, it also didn’t feature broad instrumentals that pull the listener away from the song – meaning the instrumental choices made sense within the song. No crazy key changes or slow mellow moments. It started in-your-face and stayed that way throughout. The instrumentation remained intact with the intensity the music and never really came off as too proggy; staying within the songs confines making for a quick, albeit seven-minute track that was pounding. It flowed very nicely into the intensity of the Muse-esque song Never Enough. But like the songs before Panic Attack, Never Enough never really broke any standard structure. It was a hard rock song from a progressive metal band.
The second-to-last track, Sacrificed Sons was a slow build into a great proggy jam. The interesting thing, however, is how the lyrics do not follow the music at all – almost as if one or the other was an afterthought. It’s a dramatic song, but really gets lost in what it’s trying to say. Lyrically is sad, but the music from the bass breakdown in the bridge to the end of the song suggest something else entirely.
Speaking of seeming lost, the title track, Octavarium was the 24 minute epic everyone was excited for. And while it was exciting to hear a continuum for the first time, in hindsight, the first four minutes of the song is time I’ll never get back. But you know, the rest of the song holds itself together. It starts slow yet has this natural build to it all the way until the horns at the end. It’s melodic, metal, folk, and really, everything you’d expect from Dream Theater.
Unlike Train of Thought though, Octavarium (the song) is a commitment. And save for the first few minutes of the song, it’s not really what Train of Thought had. It’s playful in its lyrics and instrumentals, but still doesn’t have the kind of brute force the previous album had throughout. Unfortunately, because of the success of this long song, the following two Dream Theater albums continue the pattern of musical filler (AKA padding) which, in my opinion, plagued the band for a while.
Octavarium in my opinion, failed to be an impactful album. It’s sort of all-over the place when it comes to song stylings. Music feels out of place and the two strongest songs (Panic Attack, Octavarium) unfortunately do not hold the album together as a whole. While it was a clever album – especially on how chalked-full of easter eggs it was for musicians – the album was not nearly as definitive as I had wanted. It was literally a hodge-podge of songs strung together by a concept of octaves.
Favourite track: The Dark Eternal Night
Least favourite track: Forsaken
Off of the back of Octavarium, Dream Theater were done with Atlantic Records – a label that had no idea how to promote the band – moving on to a label that did: Roadrunner Records. Featuring a gigantic boost in sales that the band hadn’t seen since 1994, they knew with Roadrunner they had to do something special.
Not only did the band decide to go back to heavier roots with its new label, Dream Theater decided to break up their 25+ minute song, In the Presence of Enemies, to bookend the album. Yikes.
Part one of the song started off with a bang – in your face and nine minutes long. Unfortunately, in my eyes, this is where Dream Theater started to really show signs of confusion. For the first five minutes of the song, the music begins to present themes and do-dads which are barely revisited in part two. Essentially it’s multiple new songs that are strung together with awkward pauses where I’m left saying, “Now the song HAS to start now.” See 2:10, 3:06, and 4:06. When it finally starts, we’re already beyond the halfway point of the song. And shortly after the eight minute mark, the song goes into noodling and wankery that doesn’t help the song. If anything, it starts to begin a transition into a song I’m struggling to commit to. Except, nope. They give me one of the lamest songs in their history, Forsaken.
Outside of its blandness, it’s clearly a song for the masses. I don’t blame the band for creating it. With a new label, it’s understandable to create something like that. Unfortunately, the song is so cliché, I can only skip it every time it comes on. The dramatic change from the first song to the second one was not only disappointing but failed to hold my attention.
Their original single for the album is the third track, Constant Motion. And if you’ve heard Metallica before, you’ve heard this song. And y’know, it’s not a bad song. It’s generic radio-Metallica-like music that, unlike As I Am, really misses some edge. It’s metal, for sure, but it feels safe. It’s a song that doesn’t really expand the bands catalog in terms of “heavy” songs. I’d even go as far as to pair it with the same intensity of Never Enough. It’s a song that’s simply “there.”
The next song song is my favourite only because I feel like I need to have one on this album. The Dark Eternal Night is one helluva metal song. The guitar riff crushes and the drums are intense. This song was definitely something that could’ve sat on Train of Thought. Upon first listen, I wondered if Dream Theater was just holding back on us. When I saw it live the first time during their 2007 tour, I was blown away with how fast bassist John Myung’s fingers were moving during the bridge from the six minute mark-onwards. It’s a powerful song, don’t get me wrong, but between the 3:30-6:00 time frame, there’s a lot of lame musical choices going on. The music is so ho-hum, the band even created a cartoon that plays along with it in order to save the audience. I feel the song, while heavier than Endless Sacrifice, fell into the same footsteps as it. A lot of flash and padding, but no real substance.
Speaking of no substance: what do you call a ten minute track featuring guest speakers? If you said “Repentance,” you’re correct! While The Root of All Evil had some substance to it for the twelve step suite, Repentance, I feel kind of sucked the life from the series. After The Dark Eternal Night, the last thing I want is to be dragged down. It made me wonder, especially when going from track one to track two: who decided the song order on this album? Like Octavarium, the flow seemed lost – and you know – it didn’t get any better.
Prophets of War follows Never Enough’s pattern and continued the strange Muse-style influence from the band. The music doesn’t do anything for me. It builds, descends, builds, descends, and really that’s it. Like the song before it: no substance. And the song after it. . .
Until I started to make this list, I totally forgot The Ministry of Lost Souls existed. I’ve skipped it so many times. At 14 minutes, the song does nothing for the first seven. It eventually goes into some technical wankery, then hits the reset button at 11:19. Like Sacrificed Sons, it’s as if two separate songs were written, thrown together, then slapped on the album. It goes from being a ballad to being metal, then back to being a ballad. Singing only exists during the ballad parts.
And unfortunately, I had to get to this song here to make my bigger point about padding: Much like an author or director, the album needed to have an editor – to cut the fat from the song and to tighten it up. Movies can use establishing shots or dwell on a scene for too long to pad the length of the movie. An editor may catch and fix that. Authors would do it when describing things in great detail that have nothing to do with the overall story of book. You may even remember doing it when trying to make an essay word count go up. Editors would remove that jargon and strengthen the work. What it seems is Dream Theater does it in some of their songs.
And that’s not to say instrumentation or instrumentals in songs are a bad thing. Let’s take a quick look at Trial of Tears from their 1997 release, Falling Into Infinity. The song opens slow and melodic. It goes verse/chorus/verse/chorus, takes an extended bridge, then concludes. One may argue that the intro and bridge is padding. I’d disagree.
Unlike The Ministry of Lost Souls, parts of Octavarium, In the Presence of Enemies (and other songs I’ll get into later), Trial of Tears music makes sense for what the song is. The song starts slow and continues to keep that pattern more-or-less throughout. The first minute establishes the tone, followed by the guitar lead which also establishes the guitar tone. The verse/chorus pattern begins until 5:03 where the bridge begins. The song gets heavy for a brief moment as the song naturally was building up to the release we get at 6:12. The bass groove/guitar solo builds again but keeps within the confines of the song. It’s already established itself as a slow jam from the beginning and continues to do so. By 8:09, the song releases again, changes tempo and its bass groove. Derek Sherinian’s keyboard solo builds up the song again to a third release at 9:53. The song concludes with the chorus and includes tidbits from the intro of the song. Trial of Tears combines its parts naturally. All of the pieces come together to feel like one song. This kind of consistency in their song writing is rarely replicated again and most definitely doesn’t require an editor.
I’ll still revisit padding later.
When we finally hit the final track – a continuation from the first one – it’s slow-paced. Nothing happens for the first two and a half minutes. But fortunately, unlike the previous song, it builds properly and builds reasoning to its madness. The lyrics follow the music and vice-versa. Everything’s good until 13:25 where we see the same ending in the song Octavarium – the epic pause where an instrument is singled out and there’s a slow burn until the song ends. Despite that, it’s a relief to have In The Presence of Enemies Part 2 as it really is a strong conclusion to the album. Unfortunately it’s literally too little too late as the rest of the album suffers from strange song placement and writing choices. While it may have been one of Dream Theater’s most commercially successful albums, it struggles to actually impress me – as a Dream Theater fan and as a music listener – when it comes to strange extensions to songs and other writing decisions that personally do not make sense for me. Unlike Train of Thought, Systematic Chaos misses the mark on strong writing ability and memorable songs.
Favourite track: A Nightmare to Remember
Least favourite track: Wither or The Best of Times
An album that starts off right: Black Clouds & Silver Linings was another album that showed a lot of excitement: another 19+ minute long song and the conclusion of Mike Portnoy’s twelve step suite. How was it all going to piece together? This was also the final album to feature founder and drummer Mike Portnoy.
A Nightmare to Remember, in my opinion, was Dream Theater’s best song since Honor Thy Father. Not only were the lyrics smart (if not corny at times), but the music actually reflected what was being said. At sixteen minutes in length, it was surprising to find a song that finally reflected the songwriting abilities of the band from 2003. Portnoy taking over some vocal duties in the bridge added a nice layer of depth to the song, if not a bit of cringe with one particular “roar.”
The single, A Rite of Passage, much like Constant Motion, felt like another Metallica clone. The bridge felt out of place and thrown into the song just to give it some spice. Unfortunately the spice didn’t stick for either of the albums singles.
The third song and the album’s second single, Wither, will now always have a special meaning for me as my brother demanded it be used as an encore during The Astonishing tour. “I’d take any song as an encore. Even Wither.” It’s slow, drab, and quite frankly, doesn’t match what the rest of the album had to offer.
The Shattered Fortress was the conclusion of a song series Mike Portnoy began with 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence in The Glass Prison. Coming together, The Shatter Fortress featured moments from all of the previous twelve step suite songs. Listening to how the band crafted bits of the previous songs together for one final piece actually made for something really creative. For a follower of the band, it was something exciting to finally get some closure with (as I’m sure it was for Portnoy as well). However, as a fan, that’s what it’s for. If this was your first Dream Theater album, you’d be damned to understand what was going on in the song. However, the band took the best parts of each song and glued them together to make a really interesting piece of music. While A Nightmare to Remember was my favourite song on the album, The Shattered Fortress is the BEST song on the album – the one with the most work put into it – and it shows. Unfortunately, I cannot say the rest of the album followed along. (Then again, one could argue they hadn’t written anything really “new” for The Shattered Fortress at all).
While The Best of Times was an ode to Portnoy’s late father, the music, to me, feels lacking in any real emotion save for the lyrics. The first three and a half minutes drag and also feel like a high school student just learned arpeggios for the first time. The song continues pretty strongly until the seven minute mark where it dies down and fails to pick itself back up in any really meaningful way. The solo is graceful and epic, but feels terribly detached from the lyrics and the rest of the song.
“Now just wait a minute man!” I hear you shout at me.
The Count of Tuscany continues the band’s terrible trip through making long songs without any real impact outside of saying to fans who don’t know prog, “Dream Theater regularly writes long songs.” To break down The Count of Tuscany is simple: it’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, outro. Counting James LaBrie’s “parts” during this 19:17 long song, he sings for roughly six minutes. The rest is filler. For sure, the ending is beautiful and the verse/chorus bits are intense and really progressive metal. But they’re sandwiched in-between slow melodramatic moments and quiet acoustic bits that really don’t add anything to the story or the song. While it’s nice to extend parts of the song with keyboards or synth for that screechy slow guitar solo, the song isn’t by Pink Floyd and it certainly isn’t Trial of Tears. Slower guitar solo moments like the one in the middle of this song are out of place and arguably unnecessary. An editor to the song would have axed the padding and slow bits. Once again, I found myself wondering what Dream Theater were doing in the song writing process.
With only six songs to show, in my opinion, only two were really powerful and really could stand out – the rest was filler. Showing signs of brilliance, however, is one of the reasons why I stick with Dream Theater. And with the conclusion of Black Clouds & Silver Linings (and a short tour with Iron Maiden), drummer Mike Portnoy announced his departure from the band.
Part of me was saddened by the news. Obviously a pillar to the band, losing Portnoy, I thought, would be a blow to not only their song writing abilities, but their stage presence. With Portnoy’s departure also went the face of the band.
However, the band said they were going to persevere and continue without him. Hiring the legendary drummer Mike Mangini, the band scheduled their next album to be released in 2011.
Favourite track: Breaking All Illusions (sometimes)
Least favourite track: Outcry
Much like Yes had with The Ladder in 1999, I felt that Dream Theater had reached a renaissance period with A Dramatic Turn of Events. When the album was released, I was a bit nervous with what direction it was going to take. My favourite band had a slew of relatively bland albums and one of the band’s primary song writers were gone. The single, On The Backs of Angels, I felt, droned on for far too long and had little zest. What was the rest of the album going to be like?
It actually turned out to be alright. Outside of Outcry, the album was pretty solid. Lost Not Forgotten was probably the second weakest song on the album as, for me, it wasn’t that memorable. The chugging riffs in the verse weren’t anything to write home about and sort of continued the bland theme for the rest of the song. By all means, it’s a song that could have easily been placed on Train of Thought, but it simply didn’t excite me.
However, songs like This is the Life, Far From Heaven, and Beneath the Surface, were all slower, melodic songs that go against anything really “metal” that the band has put out. While I knocked other albums for featuring slower songs, the balance between where these songs are on the album actually make sense. If you consider how Far From Heaven ends and the next song begins, the impact from the riff of Breaking All Illusions will immediately excite. As Breaking All Illusions ends, Beneath the Surface solemnly closes out the album in a way which the band hadn’t done since Space-Dye Vest on Awake.
As for the rest of the songs, Bridges in the Sky is catchy and quite dramatic, however, it follows down the same formula as The Dark Eternal Night. I enjoy the song greatly, but as a song it seems to get lost in the grandiose of itself.
Outcry is the worst song for me because it’s lyrically juvenile and as a song, both its chorus and bridge bother me. There are the odd times Dream Theater blends into Power Metal, and yeah, they do that with this chorus and it feels weird for the band. In fact, it feels rudimentary for them. I know they’re better than this. When the bridge kicks in, all hell breaks loose and the song goes all over the place. It’s strange. Even the song’s conclusion makes little sense. Why the sinister sounding chords?
With Breaking All Illusions, I both love and hate the song. I love it because it reminds me a lot of Learning to Live off of Images & Words. Being written by John Myung may also have something to do with that. However, the song feels like early Dream Theater. Unlike Learning to Live though, Breaking All Illusions suffers a bit from a really extended bridge and – in my opinion – a very uninspiring guitar solo from Petrucci. While uninspired solos aren’t necessarily a bad thing, the solo is a good chunk of the bridge. If the song featured a solo similar to Trial of Tears or at least if the song continued with the same tempo throughout, I’d be tooting a different horn. I feel if the song lost the slow solo and tightened itself up, we’d be set. Alas, it’s still a good song. There’s just times I lose interest from it’s melodic tendencies as its technical triumphs completely overshadow it.
While the album isn’t similar to Train of Thought, given the songs on the album – and how well they’re ordered track by track – I feel the album is similar to the first disc of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. The songs are definitely stronger than previous albums, but are nothing really outstanding (save for the instrumental/choral parts on Breaking All Illusions). While it’s not at all like Train of Thought, I found myself listening to this album more than any previous Dream Theater album. It was more accessible and didn’t force an extremely long song down my throat. I was glad the band broke the long song mold and hoped going forward they’d. . . ah, nevermind.
Favourite track: The Looking Glass
Least favourite track: Illumination Theory
Surprisingly, it’s the first Dream Theater album where I enjoyed the single the most. This album also had a couple of other firsts: the bands first instrumental since Train of Thought, and the first Dream Theater album where I hated the “epic” song the most. I can already hear some of the fans cursing me out. Alas.
The first two tracks, False Awakening Suite and The Enemy Inside flow pretty well together. The Enemy Inside was the first single from the album and I hated it. When it was released I didn’t care for it at all. When it came together on the album as a whole, it took on a different meaning and I began to appreciate it more. Much like Far From Heaven into Breaking All Illusions, False Awakening Suite into The Enemy Inside helped each other out – like how a good album is supposed to.
To put it bluntly, The Enigma Machine: Dream Theater’s first instrumental since Train of Thought failed to impress me. Unlike instrumentals before it, Hell’s Kitchen, Stream of Consciousness, Ytse Jam, Erotomania, and The Dance of Eternity, I felt this one lost some flair. And unlike the other songs, The Enigma Machine is a regular song with a verse/chorus/bridge structure but with soloing over top of it. if you replace the solos with vocals, you’d have a regular song. I’ve heard the band do solos before – hundreds of them. Why couldn’t the instrumental give me something different? Where’s the crazy structures? Where’s the intense time signature changes?It was a disappointment.
The Bigger Picture and Behind the Veil are both songs which I enjoyed initially but felt haven’t aged well. In fact, Behind the Veil was my favourite song when the album first dropped. Especially since The Astonishing was released, The Bigger Picture doesn’t stands out at all and has lost any semblance of originality it had. Behind the Veil’s opening is great, but kind of gets lost in its blandness. The chorus slows the song’s initial excitement down and in hindsight, there wasn’t anything that is very memorable about it.
Surrender to Reason was another song I forgot existed. Lyrically it’s great, but there’s not much else to say about it. It just shows very little variation in song writing.
Along For the Ride is a nice power ballad that makes me wonder if Dream Theater could ever go the Devin Townsend route and release something as bold as Ghost or Casualties of Cool under a different moniker with softer songs. I’d buy it (of course).
But as for a song that shouldn’t be on any album: it would be Illumination Theory. I have no idea what the band was thinking when they wrote this song. It starts off promising. It’s epic, bold, big, and badass. We get James LaBrie singing with broken phrasing – borderline rapping. The song is powerful and intense. Then just after seven minutes, it dies off. We get soundscapes and an orchestra. It’s something that’s pretty but also something that wasn’t expected to be in the song. It’s transitioning is poor and to be honest, the slower parts don’t make a lot of sense in the song.
“Are all songs supposed to have meaning?” the short answer is no, but in a world of progressive music, we applaud the musicians for creating something that takes time to piece together. Something that has meaning or at least sounds good. It’s not that the middle of the song sounds bad – it just sounds out of place. It’s shoe-horned into the song not because of a smooth transition, but because it seems like the band wrote a nice middle part and wanted to put it in somewhere. So why not a long song? Like The Ministry of Lost Souls, having a long song seems cool. But when you remove the padding, it shrinks considerably. And if the padding is removed and the song is still good, you’re set. One learns to do that with experience. Yet Dream Theater is the twelfth studio album by a band that has been around since 1985. What the hell, guys?
After the eleven minute mark of Illumination Theory, we hear some heavy bass, some screaming from LaBrie, then crazy wankery which pads out the song and sounds more detached from the whole picture. In fact, I’d be fine if they cut all of “The Embracing Circle” and “The Pursuit of Truth” parts. The song concludes similar to how Octavarium and The Count of Tuscany did, leaving me yet again uninspired by the song. Structurally, they begin to blend together: long intros, long bridges, epic endings. I know that’s over-simplifying, but you can see a pattern there. For a progressive band, the structure is stale and even at times predictable.
When all is said and done, Dream Theater terribly missed the mark as a strong album. The few stronger songs are unfortunately outweighed by the bloat of the rest. When looking for an impactful album like Train of Thought, I feel as if this one missed the mark. After the surprising A Dramatic Turn of Events I felt let-down by the band. But surely they’d turn it around for the next album!
Favourite track: Our New World
Least favourite track: I literally wouldn’t know where to begin
Don’t worry! I’m not going to go through every track on this album!
We bought it up and were excited. The Gift of Music was a promising track. The concept was intriguing. The challenge the band posed for themselves was huge! While I knocked Illumination Theory for being too stale, the promise of The Astonishing wiped away those fears. Dream Theater were about to release something big and incredible. Thirty-four songs. Over two hours of music. The progressive metal pioneers surely must be channeling their inner Scenes From a Memory – the last concept album they wrote back in 1999 that currently sits at #47 – between Frank Zappa ‘s The Grand Wazoo and Images & Words – as one of the greatest prog albums of all-time.
Then it was released.
Some fans loved it, some fans hated it. As previously mentioned, I didn’t care for it at all. The long ballads, clichéd storytelling, slow instrumentation, and overall unexciting plot, left a lot to be desired. The Gift of Music felt like we had been mislead. Then again, it was really only one of a handful of songs that were actual songs on the album. Everything else felt like a segue or orchestration.
Ultimately the album was like a soundtrack to a movie – not something you’d put on in the background – but something you’d have to commit to. And over two hours of an uninteresting story turned me off big time. Look, I enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000. But this? No way. If want to talk about uninspiring storytelling, look no further than the villain named Daryus Nafaryus, second to Lord Nafaryus.
Much like In the Presence of Enemies, the two good songs, The Gift of Music and Our New World, are the bookends to the otherwise bland album. Was it like Train of Thought? Absolutely not. Not even close. However, could be seen as a turning point for the band if they decide to stay on this route. Like Falling into Infinity, I doubt the band will keep on the same track.
But will the new album be something different? Something that stands out like Train of Thought? Off the back of touring Images & Words in its entirety, John Petrucci says,
I think everyone’s on the same page with the type of record this is gonna be. I mean, so far the music is heavy, it’s progressive, it’s melodic, it’s shredding, and it’s also epic. So it has all those elements.
Is there a chance we’ll have something different? I mean, all of those elements listed above could easily be used to describe one of my least favourite songs, Illumination Theory.
Ultimately, however, I’m a Dream Theater fan. I’m going to buy the next album. I’m going to go see them for the thirteenth time in concert. I’m going to continue to critique their music and absorb what they have to offer. It’s what I do and what I enjoy. While no, I don’t feel that the band hasn’t released anything as impactful as 2003’s Train of Thought, I still have hope and desire that they do. While I feel their last great album was from 2003, I’ve seen enough glimmers of hope to get excited again. Will they pull it off, or should we expect to see more padding and technical wankery that doesn’t help the songs at all?
What do YOU think? Was Dream Theater’s last great album Train of Thought or are you more die-hard than me and think it was Awake? Or are you in the boat that The Astonishing was great? Am I wrong with saying things like the band pads out their songs, or that they noodle around too much? Or am I spot-on with my analysis? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on the matter! Whether you’re a fan of the band or not, you’re clearly a fan of music to have read this much. Let’s continue the discussion!
Until next time, keep on Space Truckin’!
UPDATE: April 17th, 2019
Lots have happened since my last post! I have posted this in the Dream Theater forums and have had great discussions over everything. Before I go into Dream Theater’s newest album, I feel I should address my comments above about The Astonishing which I have said on the message boards.
Because of this thread I’ve re-listened to The Astonishing based on the suggestions on what to listen to here.
While I’m not going to go whole-hog about the album, I will concede the point that the album does not really feel like a movie score as so much a theatrical production. While I still dislike the story, I think the reasoning to why I felt it was a score was because … it struggles to be a theatrical production.
I listened to the album on Thursday giving me a few days to think about this. My main idea is that, unlike say, a theatrical play (or let’s take Pain of Salvation’s BE since we’ve brought it up before), there’s little variation in emotion or story from LaBrie. It’s not that he did a bad job at singing – but unlike a production playing out or being performed, I feel like The Astonishing is more narrated. There’s little hints of emotion and conveying of the story through LaBrie and as such, takes me out of the “theatrical production” mindset.
And I’m not ragging on LaBrie. I KNOW he can convey emotion and storytelling properly. See: The Human Equation album, Vacant, Beneath the Surface, A Nightmare to Remember, et al. Either his direction or the material wasn’t good enough for him to tell it properly.
That being said, thematically, the album works. I hear the music less like a soundtrack and more like a production. I still don’t think it’s a great job at it, but if I had given The Astonishing a 3/10, I’d bump it now to a 5/10 (I really haven’t thought about ranking the album out of 10. I’m just giving you folks an idea to what listening to an album again with open ears can do).
Since that’s out of the way, let’s get into the new album:
Favourite track: Pale Blue Dot
Least favourite track: Paralyzed
It’s been a couple months since February’s release of Distance Over Time. I purposefully wanted to give myself a bit of time, as well as seeing the band in concert for the thirteenth time – to really get a grasp on the album; to see that what I was feeling upon my first few spins were still felt months later. Unlike my other reviews above, I’ve had literal years to think about those albums. It wouldn’t have been fair to go with a gut reaction with Distance Over Time – and I’m glad I did.
I can safely say, without hesitation, that while Distance Over Time is not the best Dream Theater album, it is now the last greatest Dream Theater album – triumphing over Train of Thought.
Wild, ain’t it? Let’s discuss!
Initial reactions – and something I still feel – is that the first four songs on the album, Untethered Angel, Paralyzed, Fall Into The Light, and Barstool Warrior, are throwaways. They’re the weakest songs and are, in my opinion, Dream Theater fluff pieces.
I can already hear the moaning begin from some of you as I rip into the singles, but unfortunately, that’s how they feel – like singles. Like Forsaken, Wither, I Walk Beside You – sure Untethered Angel is harder and faster – but it adds nothing to the Dream Theater repertoire. If anything, around the 3:28 mark, I felt a flashback to In The Name of God off of Train of Thought. The song gets a mediocre unison instrumental after the solo (mediocre for DT’s standards) and a slow burn to the end of the song. The chorus tries to be catchy, but ultimately bores the heck out of me.
The album continues to bore with the following track, almost as bad as Forsaken, with Paralyzed. The album reminds me of a cross between Forsaken and the emotions of The Ministry of Lost Souls – both off of 2007’s Systematic Chaos. Was this a B-side that was never released or something? It may not be, yet why do I feel like it is? Or is it just because I’m unbearably bored with the song. It’s a progressive metal ballad with a dreary hook as the chorus. “I’m paralyzed” is sung with mixed emotions that don’t contrast well with the verses. It’s strange.
Speaking of mixed emotions, Fall Into the Light is just that. The opening riff, Mangini’s snare roll, and chugging is rocking. It’s hefty, and right into the chorus, is nothing but powerful. After the chorus, the song deflates and seemingly floats off onto a strange land. It seems like two song ideas pasted together. The transitions are necessarily great and the acoustic bit screams rock ballad. It really should’ve gone into Paralyzed. We have Mangini’s snare pick up as the transition, cue the song starting over with a keyboard solo, and end with Liquid Tension Experiment’s Universal Mind. BAM, that’s the song in a nutshell – and in my opinion – it’s not good enough. It feels safe and bland. Catchy chorus, but LaBrie’s mix is off-putting.
Barstool Warrior reminds me so much of The Looking Glass, it hurts. But I really liked The Looking Glass. Barstool Warrior? Even the name sounds lame. I was hoping when I heard the song live I’d gain a new appreciate for the song. Alas, I still feel like it’s aiming for “waiving hands” moments with the chorus, but it still fails to uplift me – which I feel fairly confident the band was trying to aim for. It’s one big epic outro as one song. It’s not bad, per se, but simply doesn’t have any oomph to really take off.
However, when we finally get into the meat and potatoes of the album, it doesn’t stop it’s greatness, so much so that it surpasses anything else they’ve done since Train of Thought.
Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics to Room 137 are absolutely cringe-worthy – but I feel like the band really begins to get its stride with this song. The pumping drums, the descending guitar riffs, and instrumentals between the chorus and verse – they’re powerful, dirty, and feel like heavy metal. The “fluff” so-to-speak, from the first four tracks are gone (albeit Fall into the Light had moments) and we finally get something powerful. That being said, the second chorus before the guitar solo totally reminds me of The Beatles’ song, Across The Universe. Petrucci’s solo is short and tasteful. It fits in the “theme” of the song and the song’s conclusion hits with just enough punch to transition into my second favourite song of the album.
S2N is friggen great. It’s fast, progressive, metal, and really shows how much the band has tightened up their form. The chorus is epic and features LaBrie showing off some decent vocal techniques. The songs verses aren’t carbon copies of one another and the instrumentation flows naturally throughout the whole song. While the song could be argued as being too “noodley,” I can’t help but disagree. It’s broken up nicely with the choruses and offers enough variation to make a great song. And folks, let’s talk about that bass tone. Some solid stuff in this song.
With At Wit’s End, the song sounds like how it’s titled. It opens with a roaring guitar riff and gets painfully mournful in the chorus – literally at wit’s end. LaBrie’s cries during “Don’t leave me now,” absolutely hits the nail on the head on how to convey emotion. Even as the song transitions into the slower movement in its latter half, his reprising cries of “Don’t leave me now” are absolutely brilliant – especially over that fade out solo which I’d say is my favourite since Take the Time. For a song that slows down for its remaining half, the band seemed to focus more on the feel rather than the technical – and it is absolutely refreshing to hear.
And like A Dramatic Turn of Events, we have a slow song before the epic finale. Out of Reach, like Far From Heaven, Vacant, or Wait for Sleep, becomes with great transitional song into the final bit of the album. It also is yet another showcase of LaBrie’s performance. I hate to keep saying it, but his cries at the end are just wonderful. The song is ripe with emotion and again, another pleasant track on the album.
As final tracks go, and as you may have read above, Dream Theater seems to go into technical wankery – or trail off into silliness with their “atmosphere.” Fortunately Pale Blue Dot takes all of their epic ideas and condenses them. In fact, Pale Blue Dot feels like a huge song from the band, but is under nine minutes! It harkens back to In the Presence of Enemies (which may be why it was on the tour this year?) and keeps the bridge within the thematic elements of the song. What I mean is, while the song is Chorus-Bridge-Chorus, the bridge actually doesn’t trail off into a new song or come out with new themes. Everything performed in the bridge stays within the confides of the song and ultimately makes it stronger. There’s lots of ideas happening within the song and they all seem to get their proper attention. It’s a killer conclusion to the album. I mean, unless you got the bonus edition. . .
Guys, Viper King doesn’t fit on the album, but holy smokes. It’s easily one of the best songs the band has written in over a decade. Because it’s a “bonus track,” I won’t get into it, but hot damn. What a great track.
Like A Dramatic Turn of Events, Distance Over Time is easily accessible and forced the band to tighten up their song lengths. With every song under ten minutes, it is incredible to have such variety in the album. Some minor squabbles with the album include the lack of bass guitar in the mix, and LaBrie’s mix at certain points with huge, unexpected reverb. While I didn’t care for the first four tracks of the album, they were still better than a lot of their late-2000s output. They’re just boring songs (for me), not necessarily bad ones. But like I said, by track five, we’re totally cruising with incredible works. Less wankery and tighter musicianship makes Distance Over Time one of the best albums the band has done.