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Dream Theater | Systematic Chaos | review | metal | Lollipop
Systematic Chaos (Roadrunner)
by Tim Den
It's tough being a Dream Theater fan: I should know, I've been following the band ever since I saw the video premier of "Pull Me Under" over 15 years ago. As soon as fellow music lovers find out you're a Dream Theater fan, they assume you're a tech nerd who wouldn't know soul if it was on the cover of Guitar World. "Those geeks," they say. "All they know how to play are scales and random time signatures." What's my usual response? Eh... "I like them anyway." Why? Because 1) comparatively, I understand that Dream Theater often come across as a mechanized robot to fans of other types of music and 2) that's actually okay with me. I adore artists such as Pavement and Black Flag, as well as feel-based singer/songwriter types like Denison Witmer and Tom Waits. I understand that, compared to them, Dream Theater sometimes come off as flashy, heartless nonsense. But just as I value music that comes from the soul and isn't filtered through theory or compositional analysis, I can appreciate epic prog's meticulous attention to detail and execution. Cuz just as rigid formal music training can deaden a song, so can the brainless "making it up as you go along" method employed by so many hipster indie bands "too cool" to admit that completely sucking at your vocals and instrument really doesn't help matters much. Sometimes - sometimes - there's a happy union between the two worlds (Mock Orange, Ben Folds, Minus The Bear), and though Dream Theater will always kinda sorta rest on the side of geekery, they often get close to balancing things out. And when they do, such as on the classic Images and Words, the results are great songwriting, great playing, and great melodies. If being a fan of the best of both worlds gets me laughed at, then so be it.
After the wannabe heaviness of their last two records (Train of Thought and Octavarium), however, I was pretty sure that the band had finally careened into the deepest basement of Berklee College of Music. No longer were the songs a balancing act, but rather a race to prove that "even Dream Theater can be tough." First of all, no you can't. Aggressive music must come from individuals with aggression at the root of their being - i.e. lifers such as Sick Of It All, Vader, Cro-Mags - not relatively mild-mannered dudes from Long Island who spent more time practicing than on the streets. Please don't try to convince us that you can produce dirty, MEAN, abrasive music. Your strength, as evidenced so many times on the likes of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and even the underrated Falling into Infinity, is melody. Winding, surprising, exploratory melody. And as much as I telepathically pleaded with the band to return to what they do best, the chances of that happening didn't seem likely. It had been years since Six Degrees of Turbulence, after all.
But then along comes Systematic Chaos. At first glance, yes, it's also filled with chest-puffing, fist-pounding gestures of manliness... but behold! There are interesting melodies! And arrangements! And what's this? Even a random Wild West saloon piano solo and Ephel Duath-ish fusion jazz ("The Dark Eternal Night")? Hooray! Finally, it seems as if Dream Theater are relearning the art of balance. Indeed, Systematic Chaos has just as much adrenaline as it does mellowness; dizzying technicality as well as memorable hooks. Certain tracks, specifically "Repentance" and "The Ministry of Lost Souls," also gamble on brooding moodiness that sleeps more than it parties, and to great results. Even the "heavy parts" see the band writing more than just elementary, palm-muted power chords. Check the main riffs of "Constant Motion" and "The Dark Eternal Night." Okay, so the "tough dude" backup vocals and the semi-Among the Living vocal line ("Constant Motion") I can do without, but overall the songs manage to keep your attention with various degrees of groove, flight, churn, and drama. Making it all the way to the end of the last two songs (14+ and 16+ minutes each, natch) might be beyond most of our patience, but the better part of Systematic Chaos is well worth the trip.
Next time I'm pressured to present proof that nerdom can sometimes have heart, I will present Systematic Chaos. Cuz I believe that anyone who's attuned to both the world of feel as well as the world of discipline will hear the harmony within this record.