Non Dream Theater Fan Warning
Too long a review, if not interested, please skip.
I finally got hold of Systematic Chaos, a couple of months after the release of the album. Went for the Special Edition DVD, after checking out comments from viewers, and Mr. Mike himself. To start with, a very strong and powerful album, more leaning on the commercial side of music. Technical proficiency of the band is still beyond a question. Each one has brought in what he has been capable of, and they have performed well as a band.
This is probably the first album in which most of the songs (except Prophets of War) are written about fictious characters. Dream Theater has always written music that I could associate to, and I missed that in this album. Nevertheless, great music, different lyrics. If you don’t listen to Dream Theater, I’d suggest you stop reading right here.
Here goes the analysis of songs:
1. In The Presence Of Enemies Part 1 a.k.a The Pumpkin King : The song is a very powerful album starter – It’s aggressive, and sets the mood for the rest of the album. Weird notes on the keyboard follow right after the intro, kind of like the Frank Zappa section in “Beyond this Life”. Petrucci then kicks in with a great solo, having similar feel of the one in Liquid Tension Experiment’s When The Water Breaks. At 4:15, everything slows down. Muted guitar tones start with the theme of the song. At 4:24, the same sequences is repeated, with a clean guitar patch. At 4:34, Mike’s snare starts to rattle. At 4:43, subtle, barely audible, but definite hum of Myung’s bass gives the feeling of the main riff to come. As the subtle riff nears to completion, you get a taste of it with Petrucci and Rudess kicking at full throttle. And at that stage, I get goosebumps, every time I hear it. All right, it’s now five minutes, and where the hell is James?? Aha, there he is, at around 5:15. Excellent accompaniment by Jordan – Just listen to the keyboard when James sings “Redemption”. He has used some killer patches on this one – cool space age sounds – and a synthesizer growl – similar to the one used by Geddy Lee of Rush fame on “Tom Sawyer” (Moving Pictures). For all you who claim to have heard the rest of the album, On the DVD, Jordan gets a helping hand, since there’s only a few things that he can operate with two hands. Someone’s hand thursts in, and rolls the mod wheel on the analog synth. I have one question – How did you get past this song? It’s a killer!! Seriously, this has been one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from DT.
2. Forsaken a.k.a Song #6 a.k.a. Jetlag : Don’t know why, but sounds a lot like an Evanescense number. If the guitar solo was absent, this could very well have been a Evanesence song. Evenascense has pretty much the only band that starts off their songs similar to this one – With a piano intro, and then heavy riffs. The song is about someone being visited by a vampire and being shown wonderful things, without the realization that the blood is being sucked out. Whatever! This is expected to be made into a video, and released as a single sometime later. The track also has potential to be a radio hit – though not as good as the track that got them their previous radio popularity – Pull Me Under.
3. Constant Motion a.k.a. Song #2 a.k.a. Korma Chameleon : The first
free single of the album. To be very truthful, I wasn’t exactly blown away by this one. I felt DT had more in them than an ordinary track that sounded like any heavy metal band could have performed it. If you don’t know what Dream Theater tracks are like, you should listen to A Mind Beside Itself (Erotomania, to be specific) or A Change of Seasons, or Octavarium. Over time, and listening to it a few times, I started to actually like the track. Heavy riffs, good solos. The song is based on Mike Portnoy’s state of mind, and how he needs to constantly think of new things for the band to do – That, he said in an interview. Oh yeah, Jordan’s lead ROCKS!! His first crazy solo in the album is on the third track. (One can’t count the solo in In the Presence of Enemies. It’s not a solo, by Jordan’s standards) Superb solo.
4. The Dark Eternal Night a.k.a Song #5 a.k.a N.A.D.S. : It’s about a powerful monster. Roadrunner Records released the video (in-studio take) of this song sometime back. First thoughts – Heavy. Distorted vocals, “heavy” tone, awesome rhythm sections, great solos – This song’s got it all! I heard this a few times, and felt something was different in this song. Something, but I was unable to put my finger on it. Now what could be? Towards the end of the song, it’s a Fade out. God!! Dream Theater doing a fade out on one of their songs? I seriously can’t recollect the last time I heard a fade out on a DT song. The riff goes hard and heavy, and it fades out! Weird… Anyway, I read somewhere that one of the tracks in this album was a Pantera influence. If this is not it, I don’t know which one it is. Probably the heaviest in the album. A cool ragtime section in the middle. The promo video showed Myung using a 5 string bass, and comically collapsing at the end of the song. The end of the song is probably the best part. Jordan also demos his Dirty Organ (the one on the Roland Fantom! Don’t get any ideas) on this song. Part of the album name was picked up from this song – Chaos. I still don’t know why the ending riff was not cut out. It was totally unecessary, as it only goes into a fade out. Jordans solo at the end of The Dark Eternal night was improvised.
5. Repentance : Mike continues his AA saga in this one. A soft number, starting off just like “This Dying Soul”. On an interview, I saw Mike Portnoy talking about the writing of this song – He’d sent out an eMail to a few artists and asked them to say anything – Apologies, things that they have repented, anything. The true meaning of the chants would probably be known only to them. A lot of other celebrities (mentioned below) have chanted a few words in the middle. Surprising, since the previous AA saga songs – The Glass Prision, This Dying Soul, The Root of All Evil were some of the heavies songs that have been written! Right from the start, the main theme of “This Dying Soul” is obvious. Interesting twist to the story – A softer one after two heavy songs. I am waiting for the next one to come.
List of musicians who have spoken (You can get this from the Bonus DVD, when they show the list of artists and their vocal tracks, just about to be mixed)
* Corey Taylor
* Joe Satriani
* Steve Vai
* Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree / Blackfield)
* Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)
* Jon Anderson
* David Ellefson
* Daniel Gildenlöw
* Steve Hogarth
* Chris Jericho
* Neal Morse
Some of the words are really touching. And most of them offer out their apologies for things that they have been repenting.
Mike’s had mentioned on the DVD that when they’re done with AA suite of songs, he doesn’t want a 60 minute list of songs that will exhaust them. They need a breather somewhere between, and this is the song that will give them that. My inference – When the AA suite is done, they will play it in entirety – LIVE! Yay!
6. Prophets of War a.k.a Song #3 a.k.a Carpet Babies : Fifty Dream Theater fans were used in the recording of this song. Has a Muse like feel to the song – The intro, and when James starts to sing – “It burns me down..” and the clearly audible intake of air – Trademark Muse! Nevertheless, a good one. Surprisingly, no solos on this one. James shows off his vocal ability to sing beautifully in lower octaves. I’m still not sure if James meant to write and sing – “Are we profiting from war” or “Are we propheting from war”. The DVD has James doing a different kind of vocals.
7. Ministry of Lost Souls a.k.a. Song #4 a.k.a. Shindler’s Lisp : A nice number, starts of as a soulful ballad, and progresses into heavier pattern. Surprise surprise – Another fade out! Wow! Years together, no fade outs, and now, two fade outs in one album! It’s kind of for me to digest fade outs, since I grew on “Pull Me Under”. Love that song, especially the abrupt ending. Well, let’s see how they close it when performing live. Should be interesting.
8. In The Precence Of Enemies Part 2 : Song starts off with atmospheric noises. And then comes Jordan, with a weirdly modified piano patch. Sounds awesome! Enter James, and the song gets going. At 6:23, I started to sing the lyrics to “The Glass Prison” (6:16, Restoration – “Run – Fast from the wreckage of the past..”). Well, not exactly similar, but sort of sounds like it. Jordan does an amazing job on this track. Although no spotlight solos except for the ending, his accompaniment has re-defined the term. The final section, where Jordan kicks in with the Moog (I saw that on the DVD), has a weird similarity to the finish of Octavarium, just before John Petrucci starts his solo – like the modular solo, string section, and how it slowly gives away. The song ends off on a weird chord, just like in “In The Name of God”, except for the piano striking the final chord.
Some trivia that I gathered on “In The Presence of Enemies” -
1. Awesome album started – I’d rate this as the best album started I’ve heard so far.
2. Good finishing song.
3. Dream Theater did not want the first song to be a 25 minute epic, since getting over that to the next song can become difficult.
4. Didn’t want to close off the album with a 25 minute song, since they did that with “Octavarium”.
5. Obvious choice was to split the song – However, the song will be played continuously when performing live.
6. Nice idea to start and end the album with one song. Kind of like Fates Warning’s Disconnected album, where the title track was split into two – the two sections opened and closed the album.
7. This song was code named “The Pumpkin King”, and was the one that Mike Portnoy had shown around in the studio.
It’s nice to hear John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy doing a lot of vocals. Both of them have good voice. I first heard John Petrucci when he backed up James on “A Mind Beside Itself”, Live Scenes from New York. I would really like to hear him more. I’m guessing that the vocals with the VP-550 was done by Jordan, which makes it nicer to see 3 of the 4 people on instruments doing backup vocals. Well, John Myung – ?? He hardly talks. Expecting him to sing would be too much.
John Myung’s bass is very audible, and heavy. Check out “The Dark Eternal Night”. I guess he must have broken quite a few strings getting the video done. I saw him using a Musicman 5 string bass on the video, which was quite unusual, since he uses his signature series from Yamaha. Towards the end of the song, I also saw him using a pluck! He has dumped his Yamaha signature series for the Musicman 5 string.
James LaBrie, well, what can one say about him? Of late, has been extremely popular in the Progressive Metal scene. Has contributed on several side projects – Areyon’s The Human Equation, The True Symphonic Orchestra (yet to be released), Leonardo – The Absolute Man, Frameshift, his own solo projects, and a few more that I can’t recollect at the moment. I normally get surprised when people complain that he isn’t as great as other members of Dream Theater are. Well, FYI, he’s the one standing there – he’s the frontman, and it’s his voice one hears when we play Dream Theater. He’s done a tremendous job on this album. After his solid performance on “Score”, I’m sure he won’t disappoint when the “Chaos in Motion” tour starts. James did get pissed off during the recording of Forsaken – “Guys, do have any other compliments?” And also during the recording of The Dark Eternal Night – “I can’t maitain this tone throughout” “That’s too much, I’m suffocating”. From what I’ve been reading about the concerts they’ve been doing, James’ performance has been good. He’s finally back in action
John Petrucci has been incredible on this album. I mean, he has so many solo spots, and his riffs sound very strong. Has used this album to effectively show-case his skills. Amazing shredding work on most of the tracks – In The Presence of Enemies (both parts), neat solos on all songs, and awesome rhythm sections. Neat man, neat! If you play the guitar, you ought to check this album out. Worth mentioning that his shredding has been much faster on this album. Check out In The Presence of Enemies. Some of the work has been incredible.
Rudess dependable as ever, delivers tremondous performance on this album. He has used some killer patches this time, and some cool space age sounds. I love them!! He didn’t come up with a trademark solo till track 3, which is kind of surprising. Pretty awesome accompaniment to vocals, great, I mean really great solos. Goes on to prove why he is the best in the business.
Mike Portnoy – well, the powerhouse. Having won “Modern Drummer’s” “Best Drummer” award for 12 years, there is very little to be said about his skill. Well, I guess he payed them off to give the award to someone else this year. The drums sound great! Some complicated beats, rhythms, rolls and fill-ins. Though exceptional, nothing unusual. One kind of starts to expect those from dependable Mike. Mike Portnoy is sitting behind the drum kit, ensuring that everything blends in neatly. By the way, his new kit
Plastic Fantastic Acrylic Monster looks really cool.
And of course, having an interest in keyboards and synths, the special short section. Of late, Jordan’s arsenal has been increasing. The first thing I noticed when I saw Rudess on stage with DT was the ONE Kurzweil K2600, controlling a few racks (Kurzweil K2600 again, Korg Triton), and the Korg Karma Keyboard. Obviously, he uses more equipment in the studio. From what I noticed, he no longer uses his racks, and has transferred all the patches to Korg’s OASYS. But otherwise, has been bringing along more baggage – a monster analog modular from Synthesizer.com (on Score, where he used it in two songs – Afterlife and Octavarium), The Continuum (Raise the Knife, Octavarium), the Industrial Guitars’ Lap Steel Guitar (Octavarium Intro) and of course, his OASYS with the Musicpad Pro. I guess this tour, he would have the Roland VP-550 as well. I also noticed him messing with the Moog, and a Korg Radius on the DVD, so guess that would come with him as well. There have also been videos of Jordan performing a killer solo on a new device – The Axe. Though skillful, I’d hate to see him surrounded with keyboards and equipment, since his simplicity, and complexity – when it came to using the single keyboard he had, controlling various other Rack modules through MIDI, using split sections on a single keyboard (he still does), has been something I’ve and I’ll always admire.
All in all, a killer album. After a few disappointing albums last year (from different bands, that is), it’s great to hear great music! Good work Dream Theater, good work! Keep it coming.
I still remember what Portnoy spoke on the Score Bonus DVD – “We are finishing the 20 year mark, and when most bands are at the end of their career at that stage, we are just beginning to get to the peak of ours.” (Not his exact words, but something like that!) I agree! From the looks of what they’ve done on the last few albums, each new album only gets better and better.
As always it has been with me and Dream Theater, wishing for a concert in India soon.