Pros: The hard-hitting approach results in strong compositions and some awesome solos and drum fills; good lyrics overall.
Cons: Some harsh language, and a few songs that perhaps include too many different musical passages.
I'm really starting to love these Dream Theater guys. While I can't say that I'm familiar enough with the progressive metal band's work to call myself a "true fan", due to having only heard their two most recent studio albums and none of their classic material, I can definitely say that my ears and my brain have been tickled by what I've heard so far. I think I mentioned in my review of their previous double album, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, that the way I delighted in their excessiveness must have signaled the fact that I was a diehard prog rocker in another lifetime. Of course, since I don't believe in other lifetimes, I guess the time for that other life is fast approaching me here in the present. Whatever the case, I've found a lot to love about their comparatively more streamlined 2003 release, Train of Thought.
As I've wandered around on the Internet looking for reviews of this newest album by fans who actually know what they're talking about, I've seen a lot of complaints. Chief among those complaints would seem to be that Dream Theater has basically remade the long lost Metallica album. Now I don't know about all that, given that I would vaguely recognize about three Metallica songs if given a pop quiz on the history of metal, but I can definitely see that the influences aren't as widely spread across the map here as they were on Six Degrees. Sooner or later, many rock bands with the tendency to experiment seem to build up a desire to just say "Screw it!" and turn out a fierce, balls-to-the-wall slab of headbang-inducing madness. (Whoever came up with the phrase "balls-to-the-wall", anyway? That would make playing a guitar rather difficult, not to mention it would hurt.) With the exception of one song, this seem to be Dream Theater's return to (or first shot at) such an approach. But it's not like they ceased to be progressive. I mean, the CD has 7 songs, for crying out loud. I don't know about you, but when a CD with less than 10 songs hits the market, that generally means it's either an EP, or the songs are really frickin' long. That would make the band either a prog rock band, a techno band, a jazz band, a jam band, or perhaps just an extremely unimaginative praise & worship group who repeats their choruses 50 times. If you know anything about progressive rock songs, they don't tend to follow the same chord progression or rhythm for their entire duration. Part of the fun is listening as one section morphs into another (or abruptly transitions, as is often true in this case), and seeing where the main theme pops up or how the players go about filling the spaces in between the lyrics of the actual "song". It often feels like you're getting three songs in one. And when the group is determined to take on a harder edge, you can bet that'll involve some real (head)bang for your buck.
And therein lies the difficulty. This thing is going to sound rather harsh to the casual listener - perhaps even to the casual Dream Theater fan (if there is such a thing). I know it was an exhausting listen for me at first. Sure, I've heard heavier albums (Chevelle comes to mind), but most of the songs tend to let go of their stranglehold on the listener after five minutes max. If you're used to moodier pieces that go off in different directions sound-wise, then you may find yourself wondering what happened to this group's keyboard player on numerous occasions. But part of the trick is that Dream Theater is revisiting an era where keyboards and electric guitars were pretty good at sounding like each other. Thus, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise when it's tough to tell where guitarists John Petrucci ends and keyboardist Jordan Rudess begins. Bass player John Myung feels lost in the mix at times, too. The more "open" approach of some songs on their last album gave him more of a chance to break through, I guess, but that's a common difficulty for bass players. For the most part, this album is about the triple threat of Petrucci, the very operatic lead singer James LaBrie, and kick-butt drummer Mike Portnoy. They slam through this album like there's no tomorrow, and after having had a chance to get used to their tricks, I've come to love it for that very reason. You see, there's mindless headbanging, and then there's headbanging to unorthodox rhythms that are impossible to keep up with, and songs with intelligent lyrics. It's headbanging for nerds. You got a problem with that?
Of course, not everything is perfect within the dense musical labyrinth. I don't know if Dream Theater is one of those bands that is meticulous about theming most of their albums, but the very title Train of Thought should probably clue you in that this is not a singular story being told through interconnected songs. Out of the 7 songs, only 6 have lyrics, and one of those is practically a brief interlude to give the listener a breather. So we've got 5 full songs to work with. All of them are satisfyingly self-contained, and musically speaking, they flow together quite well, but there's not a great revelation that you'll be left with at the end of the album, like you were supposed to be when everything was tied together at the end of the second disc of Six Degrees. Each song feels like a bit of a change of subject - but then, this is generally better than hearing your average pop/rock band churn out 12 songs about the same thing that become impossible to distinguish from one another. Be warned, though, that these songs are a bit harsher in their lyrical approach. While the band doesn't swear gratuitously just for the sake of proving they can get away with it, the big 'F' does show up a few times, along with a few other choice terms. It's not enough to warrant a Parental Advisory label, but since I get the idea that Dream Theater has used these words sparingly in the past, I thought it worthwhile to caution existing fans.
Assuming none of the above is a big deterrent for you, I think you'll find a lot to love about Train of Thought. I will now attempt to go about describing the individual songs (having only seven would appear to make this task easier than it usually is!) without being as long-winded as, well, Dream Theater. (Wish me luck!)
As I Am
Takin' in the view from the outside
Feeling like the underdog...
The way this album opens up sounds pretty classic to me - slow, brooding guitar riffs building a sense of anticipation, and then the song takes off running. It locks into a fairly catchy groove, sticking with a comfortable 4/4 for most of the song - it's not blisteringly fast, but it's got a kinetic power to it all the same. Keeping things to a brief (!) seven and a half minutes, John Petrucci seems to have purposefully made this song a little more accessible just so that the very people his lyrics are blasting will be more likely to pay attention. As barked out by James LaBrie, these words are the classic rebuttal of the defiant artist: "Don't! Tell me what's in! Tell me how to write! Don't tell me how to win this fight!" On the one hand, he seems to be confident that he's been in this band long enough and he shouldn't have to take orders from some dumb kid or record exec who wants them to sound more "trendy", but then, on the second verse, he starts to sound a little more weary of the pressure when he says, "Swimming against the current, I wish I weren't so f***ed." (It's important to note that the use of the big 'F' here, while a bit harsh, isn't as offensive as it would be to say something like, "F you". It's directed inwardly instead of outwardly.) The band seems to wrestle with the temptation to be more stylistically viable as the song moves forward - a little bit of their usual rhythmic slight of hand slips in here and there, and at one point, Portnoy unleashes a wallop of a drum fill, but then there's a pre-chorus where James seems to be half-heartedly rapping the lyrics. Alright, he's speaking more so than rapping, but I can't help but wonder if it's a nod to the endless rap/rock bands invading the modern music scene. Dream Theater has enjoyed bringing in bits and pieces of modern influences, as evidenced by songs that borrowed from Tool and Radiohead on the last release, so hearing yet another modern influence incorporated here doesn't seem to spoil the band's integrity at all, even if it is a bit strange at first. Overall, this is an excellent song about standing up and being yourself no matter who gripes about it, and you gotta love 'em for including the witty lines "I've been trying to justify you/In the end I will just defy you."
This Dying Soul
Possessive obsessions, selfish, childish games
Vengeful resentments, passing all the blame...
Just as the squealing feedback at the end of "As I Am" cuts off, a pummeling guitar riff and drum roll take over, jarring the listener into a frantic world of hysteria and addiction. Actually, this world will seem familiar to existing DT fans - the song has two parts, labeled "Reflections of Reality (Revisited)" and "Release". The first section, which takes up roughly half the song, alternates between quick, desperate spurts of drums and guitar and a soaring guitar refrain in 3/4 time, mimicking the song's chorus melody. (Apparently a reference to an older DT song from before Six Degrees is being made here, but I can't say which song it would be.) They lyrics, composed by Mike Portnoy, describe a confused individual who seems to be retaliating against the world for a lifetime of abuse. The band flies through several different musical passages here, and James alters his vocal approach to fit the mood, quickly rattling off some of them in a low, growling tone at a few points, which once again could be construed as "rapping" if you're the type who labels any words spoken in rhythm as "rap". James then uses his more typical vocal approach to belt out the desperate chorus - "I want to feel your body breaking/Wanna feel your body breaking, and shaking, and left in the cold/I want to heal your conscience making/A change to fix this dying soul." At one point, we even get a nice little piano interlude from Jordan Rudess that doesn't sound too out of place amidst the heaviness. Somewhere in the middle of it all, though, a crushing rhythm guitar riff breaks in, and the listener is transported into a brief, if somewhat disfigured, reprise of "The Glass Prison", a song about alcohol addiction from Six Degrees. The really strange thing is that, rather than making a clean break between one theme and another, this track seems to meander back and forth between the two songs, as if switching back and forth between two channels. It sounds a bit odd at first, especially when the band mimics a few of the vocal lines from "The Glass Prison" - perhaps they could have tied the different musical themes together more effectively. This reprise, while it offers closure to the tormented, addicted soul, is the weakest point in the song, with the vocals getting downright awkward at times. It just seems weird to have a sinster tone of voice muttering, "With my help, I know you can become one with God and man." Setting aside that brief hiccup, the song quickly redeems itself with an amazing finale. The last two or three minutes of the track are basically Petrucci setting out to prove that he can play really, really fast. Listening to him and Portnoy banging out their insane series of riffs is a lot like being on a spaceship that suddenly goes to warp speed without warning. And just when you think it's done, it gets even faster. Guaranteed to leave the heart pounding and the lips exclaiming "Sheesh!" after its sudden ending, this is one tail-kicker of a song that should not be listened to while driving.
Over the distance, we try to make sense
Of surviving together while living apart...
Phew! Some temporary respite from the brutal attack of "This Dying Soul" is offered here with a calm, appreciated guitar intro that lasts throughout the first verse of this drawn-out rock ballad. Don't be fooled - James may sound pretty calm at the moment, and the music may be lovely, if somewhat difficult in its insistence on deviating slightly from its simple rhythm, but you're in for another thrill ride. This seems to be one of those "road songs" that every band has to write - most bands just don't go on with 'em for 11 minutes! Petrucci's lyrics seem to indicate a painful separation from a loved one, perpetuated by his need to keep up "this superficial lie", hence the lonely, detached feel of the verses. It isn't long, though, before the chorus arrives and the guys start to shred again - they're doing it in more of a slow, measured, classic metal style, but it packs a punch all the same. I love the singular high note that Petrucci keeps throwing there in between all of his low-end riffing. Rudess can be heard again during the transition back from chorus to verse, upping the moodiness factor with a brief but effective keyboard solo. But it's after the second chorus when the song starts to go nuts. Petrucci takes off running once again with a menacing, circular riff, like a deranged muscle man spinning around at every angle, punching out the lights of attackers on all sides. Actually, I'm not sure if Petrucci is playing rhythm or lead here, or both, since there are some pretty freaky high-end guitar solos in the midst of it all. This section actually takes up most of the song, giving James ample time for a bathroom break. I suppose Jordan might be getting his two cents worth in there, but if so, he's doing that guitar thing with his keyboards. There's one moment where the guitars suddenly break away and Jordan is left all by himself, inserting a cartoonish interlude of piano and other sounds, as if he were switching the settings on his keyboard every two seconds. It's amusing and completely unexpected. Finally, somewhere around the 9-minute mark, James bursts in again, sounding an awful lot like Petra's John Schlitt as he yelps out the desperate lyrics about wanting to stay connected with this person despite spending most of his life out on the road. This brings the song to another fine finale, modifying the song's main chorus riff into something a little more frentic, until it finally comes crashing down with an indulgent drum fill that you might expect to hear at the end of a live show. Thank you, goodnight! Oh wait, there are still four songs left. My bad.
Honor Thy Father
You pretended I was your own
And even believed that you loved me
But were always threatened by some
Invisible blood line that only you could see...
This might be the most vicious Dream Theater song I've heard so far. If you thought "The Test That Stumped Them All" was something else, then well, this is a different kind of something else. Actually, it's not so much the heaviness that makes this song harsh (though there is that) - it's the venom inherent in the lyrics. Portnoy was clearly p!ssed off when he wrote this one, and in some ways, few targets are easier than deadbeat dads. (Hey, I can relate.) In this case, it's an uncaring stepfather who ends up in his crosshairs. James offers some of his most aggressive vocal work here, in a somewhat similar fashion to his Maynard James Keenan impression from "The Great Debate" - well, heck, this might as well be Dream Theater's very own "Ticks and Leeches", except without the screaming. Instead of that, we get a quietly bitter approach at first, and more spoken parts that twist to fit with the song's jumpy rhythm, and a highly singable chorus of "On and on and on and on it goes!" that culminates in an accusing shout. But my favorite vocal moment would have to be the flurry of guitar and drums that culminates in the forcefully spoken command, "Don't cross the crooked step!" This leads into a very long, and rhythmically complex, interlude of guitar and keyboard over which movie clips are played that depict family members who hate either themselves or each other. This is actually where most of the album's profanity shows up, though it is normal that the chorus changes its wording so that it gets more blunt each time - the line "Have the nerve to blame this mess on me" eventually becomes "Have the balls to blame this sh*t on me." OK, so it's not the healthiest way of dealing with anger, but since I can relate, I can't be too hard on them for that. Portnoy has a valid point when he tells this person that just because he's family doesn't mean that he can treat everybody like crap and still hope to be respected. "Respect is not a one way street."
Hey you, I'm right here
Conscience fading, can't get through...
In a surprising move, this quiet, solemn track was written entirely by James LaBrie. He seems to write the occasional lyric for the band, but to my knowledge, this is the first time he's composed an entire song for the band on his own. What he came up with, while incredibly brief (three minutes is "sneeze and you'll miss it" when placed beside the behemoth rockers on either side of it), is definitely nothing to scoff at - it's a lovely interlude of piano, bass, and cello that describe a man losing his grip on someone who appears to be either dying or losing her interest in him.
Stream of Consciousness
If you heard the last track, and your first thought was that it would be strange for Dream Theater to include such a short track and have it mean nothing in conjunction with any of the other songs, then you'll be nicely surprised here. The band has taken James's melody line from "Vacant" and basically run away with it, making it the theme for a stellar jam session. Actually, "jam session" probably isn't the right word, since there's no way five guys would come up with all ten minutes of this spontaneously. I don't care how good you are, you can't keep switching rhythms and musical motifs and expect everyone to somehow keep up. Consider it more of a "composition". It's been said before that metal, especially the more progressive variety, follows a format that is closer in spirit to classic music than it is to pop, often taking a musical theme and varying it over a long period of time, or reprising it in different settings. That's basically what the band does here. They have a few main themes that they crash through like there's no tomorrow, and every player gets his chance to shine - I know I've mentioned that Jordan seems less important on this record, but he definitely makes his presence known here, especially at one point when he breaks in with a really odd, disjointed-sounding melody that only makes sense when the rest of the band fills it in with some sense of rhythm. Even John Myung gets to crawl out of the woodwork and lead the band in a slow, almost jazz-flavored groove, which is eventually overtaken by eerie swoops of keyboard noise that sound like the strings in an old horror movie when someone's about to get jumped by the Boogedy-Man or something. It's a lot to tie together, and it took me a while to warm up to this track, but it's definitely a standout. Heck, pretty much every track on the album is a standout for its own reasons.
In the Name of God
Lies, tools of the devil inside
Written in Holy disguise
Meant to deceive and divide us all...
If you're getting a little tired of the excess at this point, then be warned - the seventh and final track has a gargantuan length of fourteen minutes and fourteen seconds. Child's play for anyone who was able to endure the forty-five-or-so-minute epic from disc two of Six Degrees, but then, that one was broken down into smaller parts. "In the Name of God" seems to want to outdo "Stream of Consciousness" in terms of how many different musical sections it goes barreling through. The difference here is that "In the Name of God" is an actual song - and a biting commentary at that. You can probably guess from the title what it'll be about - if you thought it was a nice fluffy prayer-type song, guess again. It's a song about hypocrisy and atrocity committed by those who claim to believe in God. In some ways, this is another easy target (Dakona covered it nicely last year and U2 has railed against it several times), but if you're going to take it on, you might as well do so with a sinister and creepy mood. That's what Dream Theater does here. While the music sometimes lags in an effort to keep changing things up, the one constant is James LaBrie's continual questioning of how people can justify things like ethnic cleansing and multiple wives in the name of a supposedly just and loving God. If you think he's attacking organized religion, don't worry - I think it's a justifiable attack on those who take their fanaticism a bit too far, to the point where they believe they're being told to do things that really contradict more mainstream versions of their own faiths. I mean, the Crusades certainly didn't mean that Christ condoned murdering anyone who wouldn't convert. And last I checked, I don't think Islam taught people that it was OK to hijack planes and bomb buildings. People do this stuff in the name of their own warped versions of religion, so we have to separate the -isms from the -ists. Anyway, stepping off of my soapbox, this song has a chorus that is absolutely transfixing, swaying back and forth in 3/4 time as the band indicts these perpetrators of violence. There are times when it seems like the band has forgotten about the actual song, but as it reaches its climax and a faint chorus can be heard, singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic in tune with the song's main melody, it's hard not to get chills. It's definitely a feat of composition, even if the song as a whole is mildly flawed. I suspect that some fans will find it to be a bit heavy-handed, but you know, sometimes, it's worth being p!ssed off enough about something that you just have to be straightforward and in-your-face about it. Despite the long running time, I often find myself wanting more once the final song ends in a flourish of piano playing, resolving to a tense note.
And there you have it. Probably not the most cohesive and transfixing experience Dream Theater has ever given listeners, but for my money, it's a worthwhile album to anyone who doesn't mind being pummeled by riffs and rhythms for roughly 70 minutes. They may be conjuring up ghosts of the past more so than looking into the future, but then, I don't think everyone has to be making an entirely new sound to be viable. It's a well-done reconstruction of an older sound with some well-placed updates. And lyrically speaking, it packs a wallop, even if there's an instance or two where I can't fully condone the way things are phrased. I'm willing to forgive that because the overall message here is a good one. Break free from your addictions. Don't become such a workaholic that you're estranged from the ones you love. Don't demand respect from people you're not willing to give respect to. Don't go around assuming that God hates people and therefore you're justified in committing heinous acts against them. And most importantly, don't try to force bands like this to be corporate radio-hit makers. Good lessons for anyone to have injected into their stream of consiousness, eh?
As I Am: $1.50
This Dying Soul $1.50
Endless Sacrifice $2
Honor Thy Father $1.50
Stream of Consciousness $2
In the Name of God $1.50
Adjustment for Unusual Song Lengths: 1.5x
TOTAL: $11.50 x 1.5 = $17.25
CONCLUSION: It's worth paying full price for this bad boy.
James LaBrie: Lead vocals
John Petrucci: Lead guitar, vocals
Mike Portnoy: Drums, percussion, vocals
John Myung: Bass
Jordan Rudess: Keyboards