Dream Theater’s Distance Over Time is the band’s 14th studio album, and the follow-up to the The Astonishing, which in addition to being a double concept album, spawned a mobile game and a tie-in novel, along with an elaborate social media promotional campaign. Distance Over Time is, thankfully, a bit more straightforward than all that. With 9 tracks and clocking in at just under an hour, it contains some of Dream Theater’s best work in years, but it’s also a bit of a mixed bag.
The album starts strongly. “Untethered Angel” opens with a serene clean guitar passage which is quickly usurped by classic Petrucci heavy riffage supported, as always, by John Myung’s bass. Labrie’s vocals enter, and we’re through the first chorus in record time. The main riff returns, this time with Ruddess’s keyboards as punctuation. With the second verse comes a rhythm change and a twist on the guitar riff – mixing things up a bit. The song utilizes a Dream Theater favorite structure – playing the first verse directly into the chorus, but then adding an extended pre-chorus after the second verse. What comes after the second chorus? The instrumental section of course! Ruddess and Petrucci trade solos as the rhythm section builds intensity, ending with a harmony solo, and finally leading back into the chorus.
The second track “Paralyzed” starts off with a solid riff that sounds like a higher energy version of 90s Tool. Again, we’re into the verse shortly, then quickly into the chorus, and back into the main riff. The second time through a soft piano melody runs across chunky guitars, creating a very cool feeling and pulling us further away from Tool territory, and closer to classic Dream Theater. Clocking in at a little over 4 minutes, there’s barely enough room for a guitar solo before the bridge and then the final chorus.
“Fall Into the Light” walks the difficult tightrope of evoking nostalgia for classic Dream Theater while sounding new and fresh. The intro pulls the classic move of the drums shifting under the main riff changing its character as the accent moves, and at first the structure seems similar to “Untethered Angel,” but just when you’re getting comfortable, the rest of the band fades out, and we’re left with John Petrucci doing a more musically literate version of Kirk Hammett on Metallica’s Black Album, building to some powerful guitar harmonies, and back to the verse riff before Ruddess gets a chance to shine with a keyboard solo that moves deftly back into the chorus. The ending of this track is perhaps the highlight of the album with a perfect unison run that feels impossibly long and exactly like something only Dream Theater could pull off.
After the high of “Falling Into the Light” the album starts to lose steam. It’s the second act of the album, if you will, but rather than feeling like a needed breath between powerful moments, tracks like “Barstool Warrior” and “Room 137” just let the wind out of the sails. “Barstool Warrior” opens up sounding like Rush on steroids, but ends up retreading some of the same ground as “The Bigger Picture” off their self-titled album, but without the same emotional impact. And “Room 137” is a bit scattered, with an intro that sounds like Marilyn Manson and filtered vocals that could have come off Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Herein lies the biggest problem with Dream Theater at this stage: They’re a band that tread so much new ground, and that spent their first 15 years defining the genre of progressive metal, and they’ve reached a point where, too often, their material sounds like a second run of an idea that was better the first time. “S2N” is a turn in the right direction, but other than a short section of the middle instrumental where you get some funky bass from John Myung with John Petrucci doing a more fusion-influenced solo over it, it seems like more filler than something fresh.
“At Wit’s End” is a decent track, but it suffers from the same disease I just mentioned: so much of it sounds like something you’ve heard before. The track itself has some strong moments, but the strongest point for me was the surprise reprise of the main theme at the end that’s like a minute of Dream Theater-does-post-rock, and for a moment they prove that they did have some fresh ideas. It’s followed by “Out of Reach” which is a softer sentimental ballad. It strikes me as obligatory in nature: It’s as if the band decided that, according to the laws of album construction, they needed a ballad before the final mind-bending barn burner, and so they created a mathematically calculated ballad to go there.
Did I mention that the album ends with a mind-bending barn burner? “Pale Blue Dot” is everything that Dream Theater fans could have ever asked for: fun and complex, mixed with just the right amount of self-awareness. The lyrics contemplate the place of mankind in the universe in a way that fits perfectly with the insane musicianship and complexity of the accompanying music. Along with the first three tracks, “Pale Blue Dot” would have made an excellent closer to a four song EP; but, alas, there were five other songs in there, too.
As a long time fan of Dream Theater who was introduced to progressive metal in the mid-90s listening to Awake and Images and Words, it is difficult to be objective about Dream Theater. No single band has shaped my musical tastes and my own playing as much as Dream Theater. So there’s a fanboy inside of me that wants to say, “Distance Over Time is a Dream Theater album, therefore it’s perfect and gets a 10/10!” But there’s also the old curmudgeon that says, “Distance Over Time doesn’t live up to Images/Awake/Scenes from a Memory/Six Degrees and therefore it’s terrible!” The truth is somewhere in between. Distance Over Time is a good album, and when Dream Theater is doing the things that they do best, it has moments of greatness, but there are too few of those moments of greatness and too many places where it comes up short.
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