1. In the Presence Of Enemies-Part I 2. Forsaken 3. Constant Motion 4. The Dark Eternal Night
5. Repentance 6. Prophets Of War 7. The Ministy Of Lost Souls 8. In the Presence Of Enemies-Part II
Label: Roadrunner Records / Release date: June, 2007
Before we begin, let's state right now what all of us are very well aware of already - the fact that Dream Theater is the most talented band on Earth and its surrounding planets. Does that fact change with this latest release? Of course not. There isn't anyone out there with even a tiny bit of music sense that would deny this band its talent. The questions that lie with any Dream Theater release are: 1) Do the songs have consistent structure and melody? and 2) Can it possibly be any better than their previous work? Well, I could end this review right now and save the carpal tunnel episode for another day by just saying "Yes," but this is one I need to tell you about.
Just when you thought this band had possibly reached its peak they release this jaw-dropper. This is an album I can easily say is their best album to date. With their two previous releases, "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence" and "Octavarium," I thought the band had finally tapped out all of their best songwriting capabilities. Sure, the instrumentation is unmatched on those discs, but I thought the actual "song" had suffered a bit. All of the time changes, soloing, and other flashy displays of extraordinary talent can sometimes detract from the songs, making them difficult to listen to on a casual basis. "Systematic Chaos" takes the usual high degree of talent and fits it all into perfectly structured song suitcases. These aren't small three minute packages, don't misinterpret what I'm saying here. The band sticks to the progressive stereotype with most songs well over the six minute mark, but each of them has a beginning, middle, and end, and best of all, they each have a hook.
The album launches with "In The Presence of Enemies, Pt.1," which is a 9-minute song that begins with a 5-minute instrumental run. This thing is just amazing. You'll get a chill down your spine as the keyboards of Jordan Rudess give the song a galactic feel, the drums of Mike Portnoy keep your feet moving, and the guitar of John Petrucci makes you question if this can all really be happening. As the album flows into the very Queensryche-ish "Forsaken," the disc presents its shortest and most structured track. This is a catchy one that still has everything you love about Dream Theater sewn into it. Moving on to "Constant Motion," the band gives us a different kind of look. Sounding similar to Metallica's "The Shortest Straw," this is a road that the band has not walked in any previous efforts, but they strut their stuff just wonderfully here. Even with Petrucci and Rudess solos that put all others to shame, the real highlight of this song is the staccato shouting that caps off the hook-laden refrain. Keeping with the "road never traveled" revelation, the disc moves into "The Dark Eternal Night," a song that plays out as a tattoo on the bicep of this killing machine. What song do you know that can have thrashing double bass drumming, a ragtime keyboard segment, and an "art rock" guitar spot in it, and still stay structured and effective? This is a song that only Dream Theater could pull off, and pull it off they have indeed.
Next up is a more traditional type of Dream Theater composition. With a running time of 10:43, "Repentance" is a mystifying, Pink Floyd-ish kind of atmospheric work that is interesting, but ultimately ends up being a "Wall" (pun intended) in an otherwise consistently paced album. I think if the song was 4 or 5 minutes, it might not be quite the barrier; but, after all the background mumbling and the choir voices "ahh-ing" for the last five minutes, this one wears out its welcome. But the band steps right back into the overall flow of the album with great wonderment. "Prophets of War" is an excellent song that finds singer James LaBrie exploring his voice a bit more than usual, and in turn he gives off sparse hints of a hidden Freddie Mercury. All of this leads to a couple of songs that cap off a wonderful musical journey. Just shy of 15 minutes, "The Ministry of Lost Souls" is an epic song that is emotionally charged lyrically as well as instrumentally. Being a power ballad complete with an orchestral arrangement for the first 7:30, the song takes on a completely different personality for the last half. The intense jam that ensues, and slowly tapers back into the refrain that was established in the first half, ends up enhancing the song rather than depleting its effectiveness. This is what great progressive rock songwriting is all about. And, as the album closes with yet another lengthy song ("In The Presence of Enemies Pt.2" being the most lengthy at a whopping 16:38), we hear another great example of brilliance in progressive rock songwriting. This just might be the heaviest of any Dream Theater tracks too. With lyrics pertaining to a "dark master," and growling metal shouts of "war," "fear," and "death," the blazing fast double bass kick drums are just the cherry on top of this perfectly executed musical assault.
Yes, I'm a huge fan of this band, but I found some of the more recent work to be difficult to access and very scattered in its presentation of any sort of song structure. "Systematic Chaos" has brought back all of the best elements of this incredible band. These are great songs with astonishing solos built into them, not astonishing solos with a song deeply hidden somewhere inside. I find it surprising to say this, but this is the best Dream Theater album yet.