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Music Review: Dream Theater’s – Systematic Chaos, Best Album Yet

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The last time I listened to an album repeatedly, I mean twice a day for a stretch of two weeks, began the day I picked up Black Sabbath’s 1973 album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. It became a permanent resident on my turntable and drove my parents crazy. History does repeat itself and for many reasons I could not stop listening to Dream Theater’s most recent release Systematic Chaos. I have long wondered if they could possibly release an album as good as Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence; now I am elated to discover they have surpassed that 2002 release for consistency and overall excellence in production, musicianship, lyrics, and storytelling – this is their best effort to date.

It may have something to do with the fact that last year offered the band their first vacation in 10 years. They were obviously in dire need of a break, and it probably saved them from self-destruction. Additionally, following their emancipation from Atlantic records and a brief stint with Rhino, they have found a home at Roadrunner Records – a label that I would consider a major indie with a very independent attitude and approach. A band of down-to-earth gents like Dream Theater can finally thrive with a label like this and they deserve to. They returned to the studio, reinvigorated, in 2006 and began recording this dazzling session.

I have never had any doubt about this band’s ability to perform with excellence at all positions on stage and in the studio. Incredibly, they feel they have more to prove to themselves and to the world of music, as James LaBrie comments on the 90-minute bonus documentary on the included DVD. LaBrie is the consummate showman and his vocals, as always, are incredibly strong on this release. He reaches deep within himself to bring each character to life on every track, and he makes it all real in your mind’s eye. Then when you see him do it all in a live performance you find yourself falling into his overpowering web of influence. He mentions in the documentary he has not had this much fun since the band recorded their 1994 release Awake; that’s a long time to wait to get that euphoric feeling back – doing what you love in the studio.

Each musician is an undisputed star in his own right, holds a respective position within the band, and contributes to Dream Theater’s quality and uniqueness. John Petrucci (guitar) has made the Ernie Ball six-string, The MusicMan®, his friend over the years. He becomes one with his guitar on this release and his writing has reached another level as well. Jordan Rudess (keyboards) is phenomenal in setting the tone for the rest of the band to jump in and launch into each track in typically grand style. By letting his versatile, classically trained fingers do all the talking, he draws upon his palette of moods to paint extraordinarily rich atmospheres. Moreover, Mike Portnoy (drums) and the reserved John Myung (bass) are arguably the best rhythm section in the universe.

Their positive attitudes shine throughout, even in light of the fact that their music is dark and full of fantasy. The opening track, ”In The Presence Of Enemies”, sets the stage for the entire album by leading in with a long instrumental break that builds into a mountain of music… then LaBrie’s vocals come in – it’s vintage Dream Theater. My favorite track, “Forsaken”, is a story about a woman vampire who visits an unknowing soul during the night and leads him to believe she is taking him to paradise. All the while, his lifeblood is being sucked from his body, renewing her life and making him her possession for eternity. Petrucci plays some very heavy and melodic riffs during the run of the song and LaBrie takes you there scene by scene in a passionate and dramatic fashion.

Every track offers an intriguing story with incredible music driving it along, sometimes at hyperspeed then geared down when necessary so you can visit each setting, and become intimate with each character. It all develops inside your head, and with several listens following along with the words, you suddenly find yourself living each role. This is potent stuff – the kind of music that is impossible to forget.

The Special Edition of Systematic Chaos includes a DVD that features this epic recording in awesome 5.1 surround sound. Once you hear it, nothing else will suffice. You also get an inside look at the recording process via a 90 minute documentary hosted by drummer Mike Portnoy – the man is a riot and a total nut, and I loved his commentary and interaction with fellow band mates. Interviews with all the band members except Myung are interspersed between segments of studio footage.

I could go on ad infinitum about this release, but it is time for you to get your own copy. You can be certain of one thing; this album features some of the best progressive metal you will ever hear – bar none. From one corner of the planet to the next, the Dream Theater machine reigns supreme.

Artist: Dream Theater
Title: Systematic Chaos
Format: Special Edition-Enhanced 5.1 Surround Sound CD/DVD
Genre: Progressive Rock-Metal
Label: Roadrunner Records

1. In The Presence Of Enemies (9:00)
2. Forsaken (5:35)
3. Constant Motion (6:55)
4. The Dark Eternal Night (10:43)
5. Repentance (10:43) 
6. Prophets Of War (6:00)
7. The Ministry Of Lost Souls (14:57)
8. In The Presence Of Enemies- Part II (16:38)

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  • Matt

    I couldn’t agree more with your review. This is easily their strongest release since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, which puts it up there as one of their best, period. Great band. Great sonwriting. It’s always nice to buy an album where you can tell the artists actually give a shit about the quality of their music.