Artist: Dream Theater
Album Title: A View From The Top Of The World
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 22 October 2021
This review is a big deal for me. I fully understand the esteem and reverence with which Dream Theater are held by their enormous fanbase. As a progressive metal fan above almost all other genres and subgenres of heavy music, I wholeheartedly get the importance of the band credited by many as the one of, if not THE, creators of progressive metal. But I have seen forums and social media reactions following both positive and negative reviews of their albums. I’ve also gone on record to say that I have grown a little fatigued with the American quintet over the last few years. It has absolutely nothing to do with the saga of the drum kit, and the replacement of Mike Portnoy with Mike Mangini. If anything, it has more to do with my apathy towards the vocal performances of James LaBrie, alongside a personal feeling that the songwriting has not always lived up to the band’s lofty standards.
Regardless of all these contributing factors and concerns, I have finally decided to offer my thoughts of the fifteenth Dream Theater album, entitled ‘A View From The Top Of The World’. Here goes…I’m actually thoroughly impressed and have quite possibly rediscovered my admiration for a band that had, for me at least, fallen by the wayside over the last decade or so.
But why am I so impressed by ‘A View From The Top Of The World’? At first, I couldn’t quite articulate my reasons but, with repeated listens aplenty, I believe I’m in a better position to tackle this most important of questions. The fact is, this is the first album for a long time that feels like it contains some genuine magic. Dream Theater have always been able to impress listeners with their technical abilities, and at other times, they’ve been able to delight us with some strong melodies. They have also dabbled with heavier and softer material, not to mention the progressive metal staple that’s the concept album. But on ‘A View From The Top Of The World’, it genuinely feels like Dream Theater have, concept disc aside, managed to pull it all together into their most cohesive and engaging record for quite some time. It’s heavy, it’s melodic, it’s technical and it’s sophisticated. At least, that’s what I think when I listen to this record. And, despite the long run-time at around 70 minutes – which, to maintain my consistency is too long – I honestly don’t feel like I want to lie down in a darkened room afterwards. Instead, I actually find myself drawn towards another listen. And that hasn’t happened since 2011’s ‘A Dramatic Turn Of Events’. And even then, I was only drawn back to selected songs, not the entire disc.
Before delving into the music itself, I feel I have to mention the artwork and the production for this album. The cover artwork is stunning; it is classic prog imagery but Hugh Syme has created something beautiful, quirky, and compelling. In terms of the production, there’s little that can be said other than ‘wow’. It is a beautifully clear and authoritative sound, nicely balanced, with excellent separation between the instruments. It allows the heavy parts to punch hard, whilst giving space for the softer parts to work their charms without any loss of intensity of drama; credit therefore must go to Petrucci alongside engineer James “Jimmy T” Meslin as well as Andy Sneap who mixed and mastered the record, for making this album sound so good.
But as the saying goes, ‘you can’t polish a turd’, so it is really great to be able to report that the music is not a giant dollop of faeces. Instead, it is rather marvellous.
The flurry of urgent riffing, emphatic drumming, and bold synth work ushers in ‘The Alien’ in breathtaking fashion. No slow build-up or acclimatising intro here; it’s full-on progressive metal attack from the first second. Those that know me, will know that I’m not qualified to discuss the tempos, time signatures, or the techniques employed, instead preferring to focus on how the music sounds and makes me feel. On that score, it’s a heady beginning, demonstrating a palpable hunger and desire from each corner of the band. And yes, it is a technical affair that leaves the less musically educated standing open-mouthed in admiration. From there, the composition slows to allow a melodic lead guitar solo to provide the much-needed hook upon which Dream Theater guarantee repeat visits. When James LaBrie enters, he sounds as good as he has ever done, leading the band through the labyrinthine track with style and confidence. There’s just enough melody within the song to keep my attention, whilst there’s the ubiquitous extended instrumental sequences that allow guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung, drummer Mike Mangini, and keyboardist Jordan Rudess to each have their moment in the spotlight. However, unlike previous records, I find the histrionics rather engaging, rather than distracting from my overall enjoyment.
To underline their metal credentials, ‘Answering The Call’ begins with a heavy guitar chord that’s allowed to resonate whilst surrounded by a cool drum beat and futuristic synth effects. The ensuing riff is heavy and groovy, with a proper metal crunch to it, which I really like. It isn’t long before the melody seeps in, but those downtuned, meaty riffs are never far from the surface. I really like the orchestration created by Rudess that adds a depth to the song that counterpoints the heaviness expertly, whilst there are some strong melodic strains that run throughout the song, only getting stronger with repeated listens. I’m a sucker for a good tom roll and Mangini obliges several times much to my delight, as does Petrucci with his well-crafted lead solos, a good blend of technical endeavour and proper melody.
Next up is ‘Invisible Monster’ which does begin in quiet fashion, offering a momentary respite from the frenetic opening duo of tracks. As the song develops, it becomes clear that it is one of the more instant tracks, one that features the usual Dream Theater flamboyance, but cleverly blended with a strong, melodious chorus, one that just gets more and more powerful the more you listen. At six-and-a-half-minutes, it is the shortest composition so far, but it is no less striking because of it, especially given the pronounced use of light and shade, from quiet sections, to much more ostentatious as the song demands.
By contrast, ‘Sleeping Giant’ is an all-out prog metal behemoth, that provides an eloquent summary of why Dream Theater are so well-loved within the prog metal community. The quintet uses the ten-minute plus runtime to offer listeners a little bit of everything, from insane levels of technicality to strong melodies, to frequent tempo changes and differing dynamics. There is even a moment when Rudess goes all Vaudeville on us, but it’s short-lived with a swift return to the incredibly catchy chorus before we’re seen out courtesy of a thunderous Mangini drum solo.
Depending on your viewpoint and taste, ‘Transcending Time’ will either be a highlight or a song to be forgotten. For me, it’s very much the former, and one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album. Written and performed in the major scale, it shouldn’t work, but this is Dream Theater and, on this form, of course it will work. It’s like a happy, up-beat breath of fresh air but crucially, it benefits from strong performances all round, as well as memorable melodies, accentuated by a revitalised James LaBrie behind the microphone who sounds as animated and on-form as ever. And, as a harsh critic of his in the past, I’m delighted to be able to say that, I can tell you.
‘Awaken The Master’ follows and in an effort to distance itself from the happiness of the song before, it kicks off with a seriously chunky, downtuned riff that chugs away with authority, whilst Mangini and Myung lay down an incessant rhythm upon which Rudess unleashes his full-on ‘odd’ side. And then, when you’re least expecting it, out come the rich piano notes that usher in a deceptively strong melodic section, complete with singing lead solo from Petrucci. The song literally dances from one idea to another, many apparently disparate and markedly different from each other. And yet, they all work, pulled together by a dark but epic chorus of sorts, full of drama, but arguably my favourite melody of them all on this album, especially after several concerted spins. It even seems to fit when Dream Theater explore their doom metal side one minute, then their dramatic film-score side the next; it’s just a cracking track when all is said and done.
In keeping with their modus operandi of albums of the past, Dream Theater then unleash the epic title track as the closing composition on ‘A View From The Top Of The World’. I don’t use the word ‘epic’ lightly either; this piece of music is well over twenty minutes long and it deserves just about every minute of its runtime. Again, I don’t want to get into a detailed blow-by-blow account of all of the techniques used by the musicians because you’d rumble the fact that I’m talking out of my backside within seconds. I am not qualified on that score. But what I feel I am qualified to comment on is the way in which this song takes us on that most cliched of things – a journey. The journey is up-beat, dramatic, atmospheric, epic, and everything in between. There’s a section, where the bass of Myung comes to the fore but is surrounded by some wacky ideas that verge on discordant or jarring at times, whilst there is even a blast of death/black metal drumming from Mangini that lasts for a few fleeting seconds. Then there’s the rich cello sounds that emerge from the darkness, I assume created at the hands of Rudess; they are really beautiful. That said, I’d have loved a little more by way of melody throughout if I’m being completely honest. But this small gripe is set aside in the final third of the song. First, John Petrucci unleashes a couple of solemn but stunning guitar solos, then as the end gets ever closer, the track builds towards the necessary crescendo. And when it hits in the last few minutes, it is every bit as intense and resounding as I’d hoped it might be; dark and oppressive but beautiful, hopeful, and suitably rousing. My only complaint? It doesn’t last long enough, instead descending into an almost doom-laden deconstruction of what went before.
Just when I thought that Dream Theater had ceased to become relevant for me as a true progressive metal fan, they unleash ‘A View From The Top Of The World’, the album that pulls them back from the brink, at least as far as I’m concerned. Not only does the record contain all of the technicality and instrumental dexterity that you want from this supremely talented band, but it has an energy and enthusiasm about it that has arguably been lacking in recent years. I know that every Dream Theater fan has their favourite album and I could never hope to please them all. But when I say that ‘A View From The Top Of The World’ puts forward a very cogent argument to become my new favourite, I honestly mean it. I will let the dust settle of course, and likely reassess at that point. But in the here and now, I am delighted to be able to genuinely and deservedly sing the praises of an album by one of the most important and influential bands that there has ever been within progressive music. ‘A View From The Top Of The World’ is as stunning musically as it is visually, thus creating the full package.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: