Originally written by Ian Dreilinger.
If you’ve enjoyed Dream Theater’s music during any of their previous phases, on any of their past albums, you were probably as dismayed as I was upon hearing the leadoff single As I Am from the new album Train of Thought. Fortunately, the meager radio edit isn’t an indication of what the song is really like, and is by no means an indication of what the entire album is like. In most ways, this album marks a good step forward for the band, something a band deemed progressive should always be doing.
The first thing I noticed about Train of Thought is that the influence of other bands is much more apparent here than ever before. The first song, As I Am, brings to mind Black Album era Metallica in some small ways and surprisingly it’s not exactly a bad thing. A recurring lead guitar melody in This Dying Soul sounds remarkably like something Iron Maiden would play and it fits very well. I think this branching out shows a less pretentious or overbearing side of Dream Theater than we’ve seen before. The downside of this is that they’ve also drawn influence from nu-metal in a few cases. The use of high pitched guitar harmonics and chunky simplistic riffing appears occasionally, and, on the song Honor Thy Father, James LaBrie actually raps for about 15 seconds. Mind you, I’m using the word rap loosely, but that’s definitely what they were going for. It’s saved by the fact that it’s so comical that you can’t hate it and the fact that the music surrounding that short part is good enough to balance it out.
One thing that Dream Theater has always been strong at is giving each of their songs a distinct personality. Many bands are incapable of setting apart individual songs on their albums without going out of their way to play a different style of music altogether, but that problem hasn’t ever plagued Dream Theater. Even though they flow very well together, each song has its own memorable qualities making for easy identification of what’s being played. Thankfully, that important quality continues here, but it seems to be slightly less so. It’s no huge problem; with each new listen every song’s personality shines through more and more. I foresee the songs becoming as memorable as some of Dream Theater’s greats.
In many ways Train of Thought continues where Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence left off, but in other ways, it’s a big departure. The songs are of epic proportion, seven tracks span nearly 70 minutes. Excluding the short (and thus far forgettable) Vacant, that’s an average running time of 11 minutes, not something to be taken lightly if the content isn’t strong enough. But, it is indeed strong enough. Though long, the songs aren’t hard to listen to. They go by much faster than their lengths would lead you to believe. A change from their past records is that, while the leads are still breathtakingly technical, the songs at their cores are more concise. That’s not to say they’re not still more difficult that most people would be able to play. They are. But it seems that they’ve begun to appreciate that everything doesn’t have to be mind-blowingly showy at all times.
Aside from the still slightly bland opener that’s reminiscent of Metallica and the short Vacant that tries too hard to be Wait for Sleep and doesn’t measure up, all of the songs here are very good. Favorites thus far have been the second track, This Dying Soul, and the instrumental Steam of Consciousness. This Dying Soul features epic and gorgeous melodies, great and cohesive contrast between fast and slow moments, and, oddly enough, a reprise of sorts borrowing a heavy part directly from The Glass Prison (if the similarity was unintentional, I’d be amazed; it’s uncanny). Stream of Consciousness is probably as close to classic Dream Theater to be found here. The melodies, especially as they’re done by Jordan Rudess on keyboards, are very reminiscent of the band during the Images and Words era. And that’s a damn good thing.
Rounding the album out are three other songs. Endless Sacrifice, which starts a bit slow and features a bit too much in the way of nu-metal sounding harmonics, has some of the best soloing of the album on all instruments, beginning at about five minutes into the song and going all the way to just past the nine minute mark. The spectacular musical prowess therein more than makes up for the slightly lacking moments during the rest of the song. The soon to be infamous “rap” moment is within the song Honor Thy Father. At its core it’s got a heavy and groovy feel to it, bringing to mind what would happen if latter day Anthrax were to go prog. Over the course of just over ten minutes it covers a lot of ground and as for the rapping, you’ll have forgotten it as soon as it’s over. Album closer In The Name of God is the albums longest at over fourteen minutes and is majestic and heavy, completely without anything worthy of complaints, but not yet memorable enough to become a favorite of mine. Possibly it’s the relatively slow pace that keeps it from fully realizing its potential, but it’s still very good and it has my favorite guitar solo nearing the ten minute mark. Not to mention the keyboard/guitar interplay following it that puts Children of Bodom and the like to shame.
To be honest, after I heard As I Am on the radio recently, I was expecting a downright bad album from Dream Theater, something I feel they’ve never done before (not even on the slightly too accessible Falling Into Infinity). Maybe it’s how much better this is than what I was expecting that makes me like it so much, or maybe it’s another solid album from a solid band. Sure, the former is possible, but something tells me the latter is the case.