The price of being the best is having to be the best. For example, the latest album from Dream Theater, “Distance Over Time,” would be a career-defining masterpiece for most metal bands. For Dream Theater, it is just another solid entry in the band’s discography.
The best compete against themselves, and Dream Theater has been synonymous with progressive metal since their 1992 breakthrough album, “Images and Words.” Their music is for fans who love complex, extended, sometimes experimental progressive rock, and also love the sound of a gained-out Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ amplifier. It is a happy, genre-defining mashup—“you got your Rush in my Metallica!” “You got your Metallica in my Rush!”—that has built a loyal following.
“Distance Over Time” is a return to form after 2016’s “The Astonishing,” an extended rock opera composed by guitarist John Petrucci. An homage to Rush’s “2112,” it showcased Dream Theater’s impressive musicianship. It was soaring, grandiose and, like most opera, a bit ridiculous (try to explain the plot of “The Magic Flute” without laughing). Conversely, “Distance Over Time” consists of 10 distinct songs at an average of six minutes each. It is a heavier album that is thematically darker than the fantasy of “The Astonishing,” which never felt very threatening despite its dystopian setting.
Much of the music on “Distance Over Time” features the tight, complex playing that Dream Theater is known for. But there are artfully placed softer passages, and each player is given space to showcase his skills throughout the album, although guitar solos are most featured.
Four tracks stand out on “Distance Over Time.” “Untethered Angel” and “Fall into the Light” are quintessential Dream Theater tracks. These compositions showcase the band’s technical mastery and ability to weave together complex parts and changes.
In contrast, “Out of Reach” is the unexpected gem of the album—a restrained, wistful song that showcases the musical feel and touch of a band known for playing aggressively. The final track, “Viper King,” is a digital download bonus. It is a shame that it was left off the physical album, because it grooves and might be the most fun on this record, even if it is not the most musically impressive.
Dream Theater has always been distinguished by the virtuosity of its members, with Petrucci leading the way. Metal still loves guitar heroes, even if popular music does not, and Petrucci is a guitar player’s guitar hero. His endorsements sell products; he has a signature amp, guitars, pedals, and even picks (the idea of signature guitar picks seems silly to me too, but they are good). The other instrumentalists (John Myung on bass, Jordan Rudess on keyboard, and Mike Mangini on drums) receive less popular acclaim, but are all superlative musicians.
Turning to the vocals, James LaBrie is a good singer, and most of his stylings are well-chosen. However, his ability exacerbates the problem of lyrics that are sometimes generic and clichéd, which has been Dream Theater’s most persistent struggle. The group is a collection of amazing musicians who often seem to have little to say, or, when they do, are not quite sure how to say it. Of course, this problem is not unique to Dream Theater. Good lyricists are always hard to find, but this weakness stands out more in a band that does everything else so well.
In their favor, Dream Theater has always been a mature band. Their lyrics and themes may not always have perfect artistic success, but the group has generally avoided the juvenile shock tactics that have defined too much of the metal scene.
When everything is working, they are one of the best bands in metal. And it can be difficult to predict what will work. There is consensus that Dream Theater’s two best albums are “Images and Words” and their 1999 effort, “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory.” The latter is a concept album telling the story of a murder mystery wrapped in past-life regression hypnotic therapy sessions. It should be a mess, but it came together magnificently.
After those two, there is no real agreement about how their albums should be ranked. I suggest “A Dramatic Turn of Events” and the self-titled “Dream Theater” as the next-best recordings. Opinions will likewise diverge regarding “Distance Over Time,” but I expect it to settle around the middle of the band’s works.
Dream Theater’s latest album continues their project of combining metal with masterful musicianship, and even though it does not quite reach their past peaks, they are still playing as well as anyone. Fans of Dream Theater and progressive metal should add this latest album to their collection. More casual listeners should start with “Images and Words” before working their way through the group’s back catalogue (there are even helpful fan-made flowcharts).
Dream Theater has proven that metal can grow up and produce musical masterpieces. If rock, metal, and guitar heroes are to make a popular comeback, it will be through such efforts.