There are very few first-generation progressive rock bands still active today. Groups like Rush and King Crimson may have closed up shop, but the artists and bands that grew up fawning over their legacies are far from lost.
Dream Theater is one such band and made its name in the mid-‘80s with their warm and time signature-bending orchestration and total instrumental virtuosity within the prog-metal scope.
Since their 1989 debut album, “When Dream and Day Unite,” the group has consistently released cult-classic albums such as their 1992 sophomore album, “Images and Words” and their most recent effort, a 2016 retro-futuristic concept album, “The Astonishing.”
Throughout their many lineup changes, there have been many stylistic changes as well. While albums like “Images and Words” stay classically prog metal, each album has a theme often well-articulated through the cover art. This diversity has developed them a devoted fan base, two Grammys and 12 million records sold worldwide.
Even though “The Astonishing” was such a late album in Dream Theater’s extremely prolific career, it matched the energy and creativity of much of their most revered work. Even more surprising was that it was a double album, clocking in at over two hours in length.
To follow up what was essentially its magnum opus, Dream Theater released a new record last Friday, “Distance Over Time.” Featuring drop tunings, blistering guitar solos and more riff-oriented songwriting, it is easily one of the most metal-centric albums the band has produced yet. While past albums have usually given each instrument equal representation, the more guitar-driven structure is welcomed with open arms, as it increases accessibility and listenability and could draw an even larger audience.
As usual, the cover art is representative of the album’s overarching theme. A bionic hand holds a human skull, just as the robotic precision of the instrumentation meets the more organic metal edge.
The first track and the first single from the record, “Untethered Angel,” is a pulsing, burning anthem which gets listeners into the heavier vibe that drenches the album. Longtime vocalist James LaBrie takes the time to make sure the audience understands every high-pitched wail of his, and thus every straight-from-the-heart lyrical choice is given the proper time of day. They cry of a loved one who is too close to the edge, possibly through self-destruction: “Untethered angel/falling to darkness/don't be afraid of letting go/giving up yourself will set you free,” LaBrie hearkens to the strikingly sinister soundscape produced in the verse.
It would be difficult to peg John Petrucci, Dream Theater’s guitarist, as anything but a modern guitar hero. One could compare him to guitar pioneers such as Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen in terms of style and ferocity, and “Distance Over Time” acts as yet another showcase to display his talent.
The track “At Wit’s End” is an absolutely chaotic flurry of Petrucci’s fingers as the time signature changes at every turn. As the longest selection from the album, clocking in at over nine minutes, there is plenty of time for Petrucci to show off his chops. While the leads are smattered with chugging yet quick power chords, around the four-minute mark Petrucci lays down what would otherwise be the guitar solo version of a descent into madness. The runs, bends and tapping are executed with unparalleled, mathematical precision. Rain Man would be proud.
The rest of the band keeps up, and despite the meticulously robotic nature of Dream Theater’s execution, there is life bursting at the seams on “Distance Over Time.”
The track “Pale Blue Dot” is truly alien. Keytarist Jordan Rudess builds the floating atmosphere and then leaps into several bouncing, out-of-this-world solos. It evokes visions of riding through the wastelands of another planet on a trusty steed, chainmail rattling, weapon in hand. The keys work in loving tandem with the guitar to formulate harmonies specific to the adventurous timbre of “Pale Blue Dot.”
Dream Theater has always strived for perfection in its compositions and execution, but it’s never at the expense of the soul. That’s found in their love for their instruments. Every member is a virtuoso, but perfection is impossible. There’s always room for improvement, and that drive to improve has provided the passion and life Dream Theater needs to survive. “Distance Over Time” sees Dream Theater taking a different route to perfection, but the end result is one of the best prog metal albums of the decade.