When I had first heard about The Astonishing in December, I was excited: a concept album, 34 tracks, over 2 hours long, a cast of characters with a map, and a huge backstory.
Then the details trickled in and I started to doubt. The characters look like 90s CGI, like Final Fantasy VIII. Is the villain’s name really Nefaryous?
And then the album dropped this past Friday. So I downloaded it and started listening on my commutes home. And I got lost.
I finished listening to the first act while reading the backstory online. Oh, Gabriel has a brother? They sounded the same to me. I wanted to blame singer, James LaBrie. But how can you really when there are so many characters in this story?
Well, maybe John Petrucci just needs an editor, someone to rein the story in. I mean, Gabriel makes a guy go deaf and brings Faythe (ugh) back to life? Surely someone heard Petrucci pitch this idea and wanted to refine it some.
Dream Theater has always had a bit of cheese in their stories, though, so I turned it back on. As I struggled with finishing my first listen through, I struggled to love the album.
But something in the underlying concept kept me interested. The NOMACS are what pass for music in this world, robots making artificial sounds. The main characters find renewed life and meaning through music; the album asks you to look past the throwaway music culture of today, to find the meaning in the music.
And so I listened to the album again. This time uninterrupted (who has time for that anymore? I happened to find it on an airplane). And it clicked. The story is meant to be taken as a whole. I had wanted a moment like ‘The Spirit Carries On’ where the chorus builds over the course one a single song, but that’s not the point. The melodies build up over the course of the entire album. This isn’t a collection of songs like a normal album, or even a normal concept album. It’s theater, a Broadway musical.
The album is challenging. It requires the listener to be attentive; to sit through the entire thing and really listen. It requires homework to know the backstory; but once you do, you close your eyes and see the characters and the scenes come to life.
It took time (two listens, i.e. 4+ hours), but I now love this album. Yes, at times it can be cheesy, but it’s theater – Dream Theater.