Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos
With Dali and Ballard intertwined beneath the surface, this visual statement is the album name, a grand heap of Systematic Chaos afforded pictorial representation. Regimented ants, a vibrant muddle of incoherence to the human eye, projected on to civilisation’s own gesture of palpable linearity, the tarmac trails littering the environment, steaming signifiers of mechanical maturity. That is the declaration, control coupled with freneticism, steadiness conjoined to rampant oscillation, ordered certitudes clutched by cyclonic entropy. The turns of phrase spew forth over this overture to the album, already boisterously heralding the opus, full of pre-emptive deductions concerning what tensions could emerge from chaos systematised, or systems perverted by chaos. Yet, is this not merely a metonymic doodle that typifies the band’s entirety, the virtuosic strains of Berklee College of Music epidemically thrust across constellations of modes and scales?
Naturally it is. Hence, this outing, the first progeny to be delivered by Roadrunner Records, makes for a healthy continuation of trails blazed heretofore, swift indentations cut into the fabric of heavy music, from the erratic instrumentality churned out midway through ‘Metropolis’ to ‘Learning to Live’s canonical F Sharp, from the mellifluous legato in ‘Trial of Tears’ to ‘Dance of Eternity’s insatiable appetite for time signature changes. Systematic Chaos arrives on a swell of two decades stimulating awe in the heads of musicians everywhere, but what does it offer that hasn’t already been sampled myriad times? What new majesties can the quintet present that might sanction us to put Awake down for five minutes?
Like its predecessor Octavarium, Dream Theater’s newborn consists of eight songs, filling a single compact disc to capacity with ease. While we do get a lengthy epic in the guise of ‘In The Presence of Enemies’, akin to the aforementioned album’s title track, this one is bifurcated, split into two autonomous tracks, one announcing the beginning of the album, the other beckoning us to a close. The reason for this eccentric scission? As Mike Portnoy points out in the Making Of documentary that accompanies the special edition release, with this song the band found themselves blessed with a perfect opener but remained uneasy about throwing such an elongated composition right at the front of proceedings – too high a mountain to clamber over, or something, was the analogy exuded. Perhaps an unfortunate decision, ‘In The Presence of Enemies’, combined, is clearly the album highlight and would thusly suit realignment into its initial totality (a procedure I’d recommend for all iPod/MP3 doohickey users). However judiciously Portnoy makes his case, I fail to grasp the compelling impetus to place it as track one – although it should be noted that no other song seems like an adequate replacement.
Dissent over track order notwithstanding (maybe this is the eponymous chaos?), ‘Part 1’ inaugurates affairs brimming with casual intensity as a hasty melee of instrumental intricacy segues into glossy melodies as John Petrucci’s veracious bends cascade over Jordan Rudess’ keyboard canvas. With nods to Liquid Tension Experiment curtailed by a breakdown of quietude and the eventual eruption of James Labrie, the song moves on, climaxing with what may be the apogee of the whole album. A section of rising dissonance, chords dropped and decimated, brutalised and juxtaposed, as shifts and spiralling tensions presage the coming beatitude, enfolded with ominous fervour and bonded to a thematic thread of redemption. The crescendo impacts in an orgasmic spasm as an ethereal guitar-keyboard unison gushes forth, palliating the preceding discord in harmonious glory, and bringing the song to a serene terminus.
It’s difficult to surpass that moment of ecstasy and many other tracks fail outright to come close. ‘Forsaken’s crisp rock riffs and spindly guitar histrionics make for a decent song, and it certainly holds potential for radio airplay were its inevitable status as single number two to be granted, yet its longevity is severely under suspicion. Its accessible sheen may end up consigning ‘Forsaken’ to the harsh pastures of album-filler. ‘Constant Motion’, single numero uno, fairs slightly better, with a cavalcade of chunky riffs propelled by Portnoy’s supra-Ulrichian drumming. Soaked in Metallica citations, power chords and truculent displays of palm-muting are the order of the day here. It does indeed accomplish its appellation promise, driven as much by the hoarse vocal front-end as by the rhythm section. Yet, again, it’s hardly ‘Under A Glass Moon’.
‘The Dark Eternal Night’ picks up where songs such as ‘The Glass Prison’ and ‘Honor Thy Father’ left off, that is to say, brandishing pummelling riffs executed with relentless resolve over a persistent ream of bludgeoning attack (and often just as stilted as this sentence). However, as much as portions therein veer on electrifying complexity, with disinterest smote by expeditiously elaborate fret-showmanship, all too often banalities crop up. This is epitomised as the song winds down with the inclusion of the St Anger riff, a piece of music so dull and plodding as to make one wish they had nougat with which to pack their ears. Its binary opposite fades in through the last wisps of a dying seven-string as we are dealt a sudden change of mood. ‘Repentance’ is the latest instalment of the series of songs penned by Portnoy based on his encounters with the AA 12-step program. This sprawling, brooding piece is a splendid deceleration in the overall suite, replacing grinding double-bass with an atmospheric, dreamy soundscape that drifts along over pensive piano.
Despite the glaring criticisms above, the last three songs are each a work of wonder, this triumvirate of eye-watering grace is spectacular enough to redeem every faulty precursor. First item of salvation, lifting us directly from the mires below, is ‘Prophets of War’. It may resume Dream Theater’s zeal for Muse (the opening keyboard arpeggios disquietingly mirror the latter’s ‘Take A Bow’), but the energy permeating every Queen-esque wail and every bouncing techno beat far exceed the shackles of Bellamy and co. The song culminates in a breakdown portal satiated with Portnoy’s rapping angst, which switches, via an acoustic interlude, to a vivacious chorus reinforced by an almost-hallucinatory progression of lustrous riffing.
‘The Ministry of Lost Souls’ begins and ends awash with grandeur. Some murmurs have identified this particular track as the highlight, and while I wouldn’t manoeuvre quite to that stance, it is nonetheless a joyous fifteen minutes. It sweeps from poignant moments where Petrucci whips out some prized gems from his chord catalogue to a heavy middle section that exemplifies the ability of the band to conjure up wholly marvellous passages of instrumental music, imbuing an unfolding continuum of technicality with a quality of interest preserved. Petrucci’s singing guitar, resonating in impassioned colours, concludes matters, orbiting the aural fissures ad infinitum, cycled to stillness.
As already remarked on, ‘In The Presence of Enemies’ is my choice cut from Systematic Chaos. ‘Part 1’ may be a sublime creation, but ‘Part 2’ succeeds in bettering its twin’s elated heights. Loaded with homologies pointing to ‘Octavarium’, from the gradual amplification to the symphonic finale, as well as the explicit subdivision into sovereign segments, this song trundles through a panoply of tones, united by overarching conceptual insignia, with recurring motifs cropping up at certain intervals. The clamorous mid-section, replete with dynamic chants and a throbbing D-string, and the prophesised instrumental break are only two of the many peaks of ‘In The Presence of Enemies Part 2’.
Dream Theater’s latest sonic beast may vacillate slightly in terms of quality, lacking the bite of consistency that used to swallow up whole albums, but it is far from being tarnished with nadirs, swollen in a dearth of monumentality. Failure to attain perfection is one thing, but overall the band have conceived a fantastic album, bursting with triumphant crests of auditory jubilation, whose zeniths are comparable to anything hitherto released.