I have a long history with musical theater.
The first musical I acted in was called Kidsville U.S.A. I was in the first grade, and I played Mayor Arthur Apple. It took place in a town where all the parents disappeared, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. They decided to select the mayor alphabetically, of course. Then they all ate as much candy as they wanted and got sick. There were songs, there was dancing. It was awesome.
I’ve been in or worked on many musicals since then, despite a less-than-amazing singing voice, and have always been a fan of the art form. I saw Phantom of the Opera twice in Boston, like you do when you’re young and don’t know any better, but my experience working on a college production of Into the Woods ignited a Sondheim fascination that hasn’t died out.
Our local historic theater, the Paramount, has as its flagship a Broadway series that has brought top-notch Chicago actors and musicians to the suburbs, and I’ve enjoyed every one of those I’ve seen. Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon are more modern favorites, and yes, what I’ve heard of Hamilton knocked me out. All that said, I clearly wouldn’t call myself an expert, or even an aficionado. But I definitely like musicals, and know the format well enough to enjoy it when it’s being homaged or mocked.
I also have a long history with progressive rock. Ever since I started dissecting music and figuring out how it all fits together, I’ve been fascinated by long songs with complicated passages. I think my gateway drug was Genesis, who, even in the later Phil Collins years, never stopped writing 10-minute songs with tricky structures. That led to old Genesis, and Yes, and (thanks to the prodding of a cranky music columnist named Seth Berner) to Gentle Giant. That led to the mighty Marillion, one of my favorite bands on earth.
Of course, I’ve always liked the louder side of prog as well. You don’t even have to stretch the definition of “progressive” to consider Master of Puppets a prog album, and I’ve loved that thing for almost 30 years. Iron Maiden remains a favorite, even now – their album covers drew me in, but their penchant for lengthy, complex opuses made me stick around. I’ve been a prog-metal fan for my entire adult life, from Pain of Salvation to Fates Warning to Between the Buried and Me to Opeth to Tourniquet to Coheed and Cambria. And of course, the big dog on the scene, Dream Theater.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t know how much overlap there is between the prog-metal and Broadway musical audiences. So when I listen to Dream Theater’s latest effort, The Astonishing, I find myself wondering who – besides me, of course – will enjoy it.
The Astonishing is completely ridiculous. It’s a 130-minute musical spread over 34 tracks, telling the story of a futuristic kingdom that is saved by the power of music. It is 2112 or Kilroy Was Here extended to endurance-test lengths, with wailing guitars and cheeseball ballads. It is basically a prog-rock Les Miserables with flying robots, and while at times you hope that the band is approaching this tongue in cheek, the overall tone is very, very serious. Which, of course, makes it even more ridiculous. It’s taken me a long time to decide if I even like it, and I’m still not 100 percent sure.
One thing you have to admire is the band’s chutzpah. They did not half-ass this thing in any way. They even hired an orchestra and a choir to give it that extra push into epic silliness. There are eight characters and a narrator, and singer James LaBrie plays them all, affecting different voices. Evil Emperor Nafaryus gets his sneering metal snarl, while the princess Faythe gets an airy falsetto. He pulls it off, but it’s just one more example of how completely the band committed to this idea.
The Astonishing was the brainchild of guitarist John Petrucci, who wrote all the lyrics and co-wrote all the music with keyboardist Jordan Rudess. Petrucci used to be one-half of the artistic push and pull of Dream Theater, but with drummer Mike Portnoy’s departure a few years ago, he’s stepped into the role of creative director. (New drummer Mike Mangini is very good, but not the creative force Portnoy was.) This is his big coming-out party, his first solo conceptual piece, and while there’s plenty here I expect Portnoy would have argued against, Petrucci obviously gave this thing his all. I have to respect that.
But I’m still not sure if I like it. Let me tell you about the story, because the fact that you cannot divorce the music from the book is the album’s biggest stumbling block, and yet its most defining characteristic.
So. The Astonishing takes place in 2285, in the Great Northern Empire of the Americas. It is a land ruled by the aforementioned Emperor Nafaryus, and overseen by the NOMACS, flying robots that make the only music allowed by law: a whirring, computerized noise. Nafaryus gets word of two brothers, Arhys and Gabriel, the latter of whom has rediscovered real music, and is using it to draw people to the revolution his brother is leading. Nafaryus brings his son Daryus and his daughter Faythe to the town where the brothers live, to see this “chosen one” for himself. (Yes, it’s cheesy enough that there is a “chosen one.”)
Long (very, very long) story short, Gabriel falls in love with Faythe, Nafaryus threatens to destroy the rebels and the innocent people hiding them, Arhys makes a deal to betray his brother, and all the major players meet at a place called Heaven’s Cove for a violent denouement. The whole thing follows the structure of musicals to the letter, including the big, triumphant ending that brings the whole ensemble to the stage. Of course, music saves the day, the dead live again, Nafaryus sees the evil of his ways, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Are you still on board? Because yes, that’s all really, really silly, and if you’re looking for a deeper meaning, it is only that music, as a wise man once said, is the best. In a way, it does remind me of Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, except that Zappa was always up front about how inane the whole concept was, taking the piss out of it at every opportunity. Petrucci, on the other hand, is completely earnest – he obviously thinks this story is important, its message profound. He pens verses like this: “In this fleeting life we can sometimes lose our way, but night is always darkest just before the new day.” And he means them, and LaBrie sings them without laughing.
The lyrics on The Astonishing are awful by any measure other than Broadway musicals. If you’re familiar with shows like Miss Saigon and Rent, you won’t find any of this any more egregious. These songs – the longest of which is barely seven minutes – are pure Broadway. There are numbers that serve as exposition, and numbers that are clearly intended as breakaway pop hits (“Chosen,” “Begin Again”), and an overture at the top of Act One and an entr’acte at the start of Act Two. The whole thing is over-the-top theatrical, and meant for the stage.
In fact, the moments when this sounds like Dream Theater feel the most out of place. Not counting the overture, you have to wait until track 19, “A New Beginning,” for one of the band’s trademark instrumental workouts, and it comes off as obligatory, like throwing a bone to the hardcore prog-metal fans. I much prefer when they work their musical prowess into the format they’ve chosen. “A Life Left Behind” is a wonder, as expansive a song as DT has ever written, with a sinister twist at the end. “Lord Nafaryus” and “Three Days” are complicated pieces that move the story forward, guitars wailing the whole time.
Like any good musical, the first act sets up the situation and the second act builds on it, racing toward resolution. The music in Act Two is superior, I think, because it’s able to call on themes we know and associate with certain characters. The most effective moment concerns the surprise death of one of the characters, and if you’re even a bit invested in this story by that point, it will work on you. Even before that, though, the band takes some nice chances with the spooky “Heaven’s Cove,” and the climax of the second act is a rousing pop song called “Our New World” that is the catchiest thing here. The title track ends things by bringing back several recurring themes and wrapping them up into a crescendo. The final moments are screaming for an ovation.
With all that, The Astonishing is an exhausting listen, perhaps too much work for what you get out of it. I’ve heard it four times through, and I’m still not sure what I think. So much work went into this, and yet, with all that labor, the end result is still so cheesy. If Petrucci was aiming for an accurate homage of most big musicals, he nailed it. That doesn’t necessarily make for the best Dream Theater album, and songs like “Chosen,” while similar to pop hits like “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, are riddled with clichés. (“But I can’t climb this mountain without you…”)
That’s why I’m wondering who the audience for this mammoth undertaking is. Dream Theater’s fanbase probably won’t quite grasp what they’re doing – how perfectly “Brother Can You Hear Me” apes Les Miserables, for instance – and musical theater fans probably won’t be drawn to a 130-minute prog-metal album. They’re trying to bridge an interesting divide here, and I can see their usual fans crying out for long solos and progressive instrumental sections, and getting this. That’s one reason I admire the band for jumping into this thing with both feet.
Another reason, though, is that Dream Theater has been in a rut for a long time, churning out the same 20-minute epics and blistering solos, and they needed to shake themselves up. The Astonishing absolutely does that. The last time the band made a concept album, they delivered Scenes from a Memory, one of their very best. While The Astonishing may not rank up there with that masterpiece, it certainly breaks their samey-sounding streak, and gets them back in the game. They sound more alive, more committed here than they have in ages, even if what they’re committing to is a strange sci-fi story about the magical power of music.
The Astonishing, then, is an impressive deep dive into a form of music Dream Theater have never explored, with enough high points to deserve praise and enough cheesy moments to earn derision. I still don’t quite know what I think of it, both as a musical and as an album, but there’s no doubt the band poured everything they have into this, and if the end result is a revitalized Dream Theater, then it will have been worth it.
As a side note, while the story is, in the main, capably told in song, some aspects of it will need some further explanation. The band has provided that here. It’s recommended reading if you plan to take this ride.
Next week, Bloc Party and two new discoveries. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.