Dream Theater – Systematic Chaos

I’m digging back for this one. Why? Because I want to have fun and be mean. That simple.

So, here’s the deal. I freaking loved Dream Theater. I mean LOVED this band. I vividly recall hearing “Pull Me Under” from Images and Words on the radio and having an eargasm. It was melodic, heavy, progressive. It was everything I wanted. I tracked the album down and was blown away (minus on moment of saxophone on one track: please refer to previously mentioned inverse sax rule). Metropolis Pt. 1 was mind-bending. I was hooked. Here were the progressive tendencies of Rush, but heavier and more aggressive.

Follow up album, Awake was my most played album my first year of college. Final track, “Space-Dye Vest” remains on of my favorite DT songs of all time. It is weird, out there, but oozes emotion, feeling, and ambience. It has Kevin Moore’s fingerprints all over it. And the pair of “The Mirror” and “Lie” were cranked over and over again in my small dorm room.

Having left the country, and music, for two years, I returned in 1997 to find a new album from the band had dropped. Falling Into Infinity was an interesting album. A different keyboardist led to a different feel, but there was still a lot to like and I continued to love the band. Derek Sherinian was with the band only for this one studio album (and a double live album) and then exited, to be replaced by Jordan Rudess, with whom I was familiar from his collaboration with Mike Portnoy (drummer) and John Petrucci (guitarist) on Liquid Tension Experiment.

As far as I was concerned, Dream Theater was the most stacked progressive band in the world. Add in John Myung on bass, and these guys were formidable (notice, no mention of lead singer James Labrie, yet). Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory followed, and for the next little while, I think it would be fair to say that Dream Theater was my favorite band in the world. 2003 brought us Train of Thought, a somewhat more aggressive, angry and metal album, dialing back the progressive aspects some. However, live follow up Live at Budokan and Octavarium in 2005 restored my faith in my favorite band.

Yet the winds of change were blowing.

In the meantime I had discovered Fates Warning, and was beginning to learn that a song could be truly progressive while still having a flow, a sense of unity and purpose throughout both an album and a song. Progressive music didn’t need to just be A, B, A, B, long musical C bridge with lots of time changes and unnecessary instrumental wankery, followed by B, B and end the song. More could be done with progressive music. Also, Kevin Moore had teamed up with Jim Matheos in 2003 (and continues to do so) to create OSI (and had contributed to two previous Fates albums), and continued to impress, not with his technical abilities as a keyboardist, but rather with his talent for creating atmosphere, tension, and emotion in music.

Emotion in Dream Theater’s music had exited when Kevin left the band after Awake, at least as far as I was concerned. Except for anger. There were some songs after his time that were angry lyrical screeds, but that was about it.

And then it happened.

Dream Theater dropped Systematic Chaos in 2007.

I tried. I tried so hard to like this album. It was heavy, aggressive music. And my musical tastes had been moving that direction over the past few years. This should have been my jam. But the album’s epic track, “In The Presence of Enemies” was weirdly split into two halves, to start and end the album, making the song feel extremely disjointed. Subsequent tracks range from fantastical, to personal, to political. But sadly, are all lyrical abominations that should have been aborted long before they were given life.

Metal can be silly, serious, thoughtful, introspective, emotional. It runs the gamut, as with all music. But there is a serious risk when it takes itself too seriously. And that is what damns Systematic Chaos. It is just so serious, while having ridiculous lyrical themes handled with the tact, restraint and grace of a libidinous teenager. I can’t stand to listen to these songs as the lyrics are just terrible. Couple that with James Labrie’s breathy, weak vocals, and you have songs that simply don’t work.

Dream Theater is a skilled group of musicians. But someone needs to let Jordan Rudess know that sometimes less is more. It really doesn’t matter how many notes he can play if they all sound stupid. He has a penchant for selecting the most idiotic keyboard tones known to metal. I truly have never heard a keyboardist select such awful sounding keyboard tones as he does. He has been a blight on a once great band.

Since Systematic Chaos release, I simply can’t listen to this band anymore. I haven’t been able to listen to a single full album since 2007. And the way the band presents itself as the saviors of progressive metal just turns me off so completely. From my favorite band to one I dismiss entirely and have zero interest in listening to, Dream Theater has experienced the largest fall from musical grace in my opinion of any band I can think of, and I have completely written them off at this point. And it all started with Systematic Chaos and those stupid giant ants on the freeway.

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