A review of the massive The Astonishing concept album and the second concept album from the band written by guitarist John Petrucci.
A run time of 2 hours making this one of their longest albums. I would have reviewed it sooner but since its release in January 2016 I have needed all these years to let the story sink in. I think at the time I wasn’t quite ready to embrace all of this album. Only a few years ago did I start to listen to select songs from the album again. But ultimately the album is amazing, and I mean that.
It’s full of an incredibly inspiring story about music. It has its own cast of characters and fictional places. It has some amazing songs and singing, which I have yet to find anywhere else. The reason I appreciate it all now so much is because of the story and how beautifully the songs fit with the plot. 2 of the songs, ‘The walking shadow’ and ‘my last farewell’ although slightly sad, are really great songs. ‘A new beginning’ and ‘our new world’ really highlighting the bands musical talents. This is a softer album, but nonetheless powerful. I am not sure whether you need to listen more than once, but I needed to to understand many aspects.
You have to listen from start to finish to follow the story although I selected songs to listen to which I believed could also be in order and you would not be able to tell. This is a rock opera not to miss. It has all the elements of fantasy, both light and dark that you could want. It is musical equivalent to the Lord of the Rings. The main cast of characters from The Astonishing are :
- Nafaryus: Emperor of Great Northern Empire of the Americas.
- Arabelle: Empress and wife of Nafaryus.
- Daryus: Crown Prince. Son of Nafaryus and Arabelle.
- Faythe: Princess. Daughter of Nafaryus and Arabelle. Love of Gabriel.
- Gabriel: Musician from Ravenskill and brother of Arhys. Love of Faythe.
- Arhys: Brother of Gabriel, commander of Ravenskill Rebel Militia, father of Xander, husband of deceased Evangeline.
- Evangeline: deceased wife of Arhys.
- Xander: Son of Arhys and Evangeline.
The story is set some time in the considerable future. James Labrie deserves a lot of credit as the vocals on this album are particularly strong, not only throughout, has he managed to capture the ‘voices’of the characters, but he has portrayed them as human, whilst giving an amazing performance. It took real courage to develop this album, so you deserve the credit, Dream Theater.
The below is extracted from wikipedia:
In 2285, the northeastern region of the United States has turned into a dystopia ruled by the oppressive Great Northern Empire of the Americas. The only resemblance to entertainment that exists is the electronic noise of the Noise Machines (NOMACS). The empire is ruled by Emperor Nafaryus, Empress Arabelle, Crown Prince Daryus, and Princess Faythe. In a distant village called Ravenskill, a man named Gabriel possesses the natural ability to make music and sing (“The Gift of Music”). He has an older brother, Commander Arhys of the Ravenskill Rebel Militia, who has a son, Xander, with his deceased wife, Evangeline (“A Better Life”).
Nafaryus hears a rumor about Gabriel being the savior of the people. He and his family travel to Ravenskill to see him for themselves (“Lord Nafaryus”). In the Ravenskill town square, Gabriel is performing for the people when the royal family shows up. He continues playing at the emperor’s request (“A Savior in the Square”), nearly bringing them all to tears (“When Your Time Has Come”). As he plays, Faythe remembers how she found a music player when she was a child and kept it a secret all her life, and as she and Gabriel stare at each other and fall in love (“Act of Faythe”). Nafaryus, though briefly moved by Gabriel’s song, sees him as a threat to his rule and gives the people of the town three days to deliver their savior to him or he will destroy the town (“Three Days”). Arhys hides his brother and refuses to give him up (“Brother, Can You Hear Me?”).
Back at the Emperor’s palace, Faythe decides that she must see Gabriel again. Disguising herself, she begins to travel back to Ravenskill. Arabelle, knowing about her daughter’s intentions, instructs Daryus to follow and protect her. Daryus feels he has always been overlooked by his father in favor of his sister, so he travels to the town with his own intentions (“A Life Left Behind”). Faythe arrives in the town and finds Xander, who trusts her and leads her to his father Arhys. Faythe convinces Arhys that she can help, so he brings her to Gabriel’s hideout. Gabriel and Faythe embrace, and she tells him that she believes she can convince her father to give up his hunt for Gabriel (“Ravenskill”). Gabriel tells her that if he could just meet with the Emperor, he could inspire him to restore peace to the land using his gift of music (“Chosen”).
Meanwhile, Daryus finds Arhys’ home and takes Xander captive. Daryus promises he will guarantee the safety and wealth of Xander in return for Arhys bringing Gabriel to him. Daryus does this hoping that it will gain him respect from his father (“A Tempting Offer”). Arhys is forced to agree to the deal, remembering a promise he made to Evangeline to protect their son (“The X Aspect”). Faythe travels back to her father’s palace and learns that her music player once belonged to her father. After a while, Nafaryus bows to the pleas of his daughter (“A New Beginning”) and agrees to meet with Gabriel at an abandoned amphitheater called Heaven’s Cove (“The Road to Revolution”).
Arhys informs Daryus that Gabriel will be at Heaven’s Cove that night (“Moment of Betrayal”). While the meeting time approaches (“Heaven’s Cove”), Faythe decides that she wants to use the power of her royal status to change the world for good (“Begin Again”). At the amphitheater, Arhys changes his mind on the deal, and when Daryus shows up, they start a fight. Daryus overpowers Arhys and kills him (“The Path That Divides”), unaware that Xander followed them and saw the whole scene. As Xander runs to his father’s dead body, Daryus sees the silhouette of someone approaching him. Assuming it to be Gabriel, he attempts to kill him, realising too late that it is actually Faythe (“The Walking Shadow”). Gabriel arrives at the scene and sees his dead brother and the dying Faythe. Covering Xander’s ears, he unleashes a scream that causes Daryus to go deaf and that is heard by Nafaryus, Arabelle, and the entire town (“My Last Farewell”).
Nafaryus and Arabelle arrive and beg Gabriel to use his gift to save Faythe (“Losing Faythe”), but Gabriel is unable to sing after screaming so loudly (“Whispers on the Wind”). The people, attracted by the scream, show up and start singing, giving Gabriel hope. He finds his ability to sing and brings Faythe back to life (“Hymn of a Thousand Voices”). Nafaryus, realising what he has done, decides to end the conflict with Gabriel and shuts down the NOMACS for good. Daryus is forgiven for his actions, and Gabriel and Faythe raise Xander as a family (“Our New World”). Nafaryus promises to govern the empire as a fair leader in a new world where music is appreciated again (“Astonishing”).
It can be quite a moving story. The last part where Gabriel saves Faythe rather than Aryhys struck me as strange. Why not bring back his brother, rather than the princess who is the daughter of the bad leader? Why does Gabriel let his love for Faythe come before his love for his brother? Thoughts like this should be allowed and questions should be answered. It’s a very bitter sweet ending. The journey is thoughtful and interesting. There could have been more characters, but it is small enough to remember and yet, enough to make it nice and complicated. If you tried to figure out the story just by listening to the songs, maybe looking at the insert inside the album, you might understand the story… might. You should read the synopsis first to get a grip of this vast album.
Take a good listen to the songs. Such music as ‘a life left behind’ and ‘chosen’ are real great examples of genuine rock music, not only rock music, but more developed sounding music. It has all the elements of soft rock. I’d argue dramatic too. ‘Chosen’ is definitely a ballad. It is also more than that, it’s a love song.
The entire story focuses on using the magic and power of song to save and free the kingdom. We can see that it is also a love story with sad losses and happy endings. The album is considerable different to the original concept album by Dream Theater – ‘Metropolis part 2. Scenes from a memory’, released in 1999. It is lighter in tone, but also seems to be able to be received by more people. It is no doubt a dividing album, splitting the opinion of fans. As a fan myself I originally felt really let down. But it is a good album. I suppose as a band the highlights are there, vocally at least, even if you cannot appreciate the sweeping guitar parts. Drums are not as prominent and neither is bass. Keyboard/piano and guitar are at the forefront of the entire story with the singer. There is a lot of acoustic guitar work and there is the use of instruments that really mix things up. The band utilise bagpipes in the song ‘The X Aspect’. They use the FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague, Pueri Cantores boys choir, and Millennium Choir.
When we approach the end of the album ‘Hymm of a thousand voices’ stands out as being a subtle yet beautiful song about this large group of people being called to use their voices to save someones life. They gather together and light up the dark using Sky lanterns and candles. It’s a good way to bring hope and peace to the land, to introduce once again ‘the gift of music’ that Gabriel was capable of.
As we become aware of what changes have unfolded, ‘Our New World’ stands out as a really enjoyable and moving song about starting to build a new world after the absence of music. Faythe and Gabriel go off together with Xander, and they will start to live out the rest of their days. We have to wait until the very end to hear ‘Astonishing’, which is a good an ending as any. It has been astonishing and an incredibly complicated journey, yet all over so quick… ‘Because of you I live again… now I can be a voice for change’.
Although the Astonishing is something of a dividing concept album, it has many great songs, great music, great story and vocals and aims to be one of the better ‘stories’ in modern music. Remember Pink Floyds The Wall? Yeah, Dream Theater aimed this high, and did very well.
I think you’d be able to listen to this album and feel fairly satisfied at how a lot of it plays out, suprisingly so.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
*It doesn’t quite get 5 stars. We all need to be able to appreciate efforts like this.* Well Done.
Thanks for reading.