Subtlety and economy aren't words that typically come to mind when pondering a new Dream Theater album, much less one that arrives in the form of a double-disc epic with 34 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours. Yet counterintuitively, those qualities help the veteran prog-metal quintet's 13th album, The Astonishing, live up to its title. The band's customary pyrotechnic chops, machine-tooled precision and soaring anthems are all present and accounted for. But here, those elements are pressed into service as cinematography for a fantastical yarn.
Prog, of course, has a wooly history of indulgent, excessive conceptual epics, from vintage song cycles like Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans and Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway via Rush and Iron Maiden to latter-day arrivals from Coheed and Cambria, Mastodon, and Muse. The Astonishing, though, is different: an honest-to-God rock opera, complete with a cast of characters, a fantastical plot, animated trailers and a teeming raft of ancillary maps and legends.
Bandleader and guitarist John Petrucci's storyline, set in a distant future, concerns the Ravenskill Rebel Militia rising up against the Great Northern Empire and its tyrannical overlord, Nefaryus. (Petrucci's tongue presumably was crammed deep into his cheek there.) Music, naturally, is the power that prompts hero Gabriel to come into his own, leading the charge against the Empire and its insidious synth-fart Noise Machines. Don't strain for an allegory pitching battle between prog and EDM; instead, think "2112," with Ayn Rand pushed aside in favor of George R.R. Martin, World of Warcraft and Jesus Christ Superstar.
However flamboyant or corny the exercise might seem, the players to their credit commit to it fully, while also littering the sonic landscape with chopsy flourishes to reassure the faithful. Enacting all eight characters, vocalist James LaBrie gives a tour de force performance, the specter of Dennis DeYoung circa Paradise Theater and Kilroy Was Here hovering like a Jedi mentor. The sort of stylistic wanderlust and cinematic grandeur that Dream Theater unfurled across a 22-minute span in "Illumination Theory" (from 2013's Dream Theater) gets compressed here into brief, dense passages, which set the stage for grand rock arias you easily could imagine Sarah Brightman or Josh Groban coveting ("The Gift of Music," "Act of Faythe," "Hymn of a Thousand Voices").
It's all enriched by David Campbell's lush orchestrations, reminiscent of vintage Bob Ezrin (he of Pink Floyd's The Wall as well as Kiss's Destroyer – and, yes, Music from 'The Elder'), and scrupulously captured by engineer Richard Chycki. The results won't please every Dream Theater partisan, nor will they convert the skeptical. But it would take a hard heart to deny Petrucci, co-composer and keyboardist Jordan Rudess and their mates credit for the boldness of their aspirations and the assurance with which they achieve them.