I've never been the world's biggest Dream Theater fan, though I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for what they've managed to achieve. On the other hand, my youngest son is a big fan. What's weird is that I liked this, their fourteenth studio album, more than he did, and I wonder why.
Some of it might be the different approach that the band took here. This runs under an hour, if you ignore the bonus track, and that hasn't happened since Images and Words in 1992. There are nine tracks, plus that bonus, and none of them reach lengths of double digits, At Wit's End coming closest at 9:20. The majority of these songs run from four to seven minutes, with only a couple of longer length.
Given that Dream Theater are as widely known and renowned today for long and intricate instrumental passages as Yes were back in the seventies, that's so odd as to be almost a change in musical direction. But fear not, die hards, this isn't a rap album or a country album or whatever else rock star midlife crises might generate to everyone's horror. This is still emphatically the Dream Theater you know and love, merely in smaller chunks.
If there's another difference, it's that this plays softer than I recall from previous albums. James LaBrie's voice has always had a softness to it but the band seems to be playing along more than usual this time. There are hard edges to be found, especially during instrumental sections, but they're sanded down for verses and choruses. With the shorter average song length, that affects a lot more material than it would usually, just through the laws of mathematics.
The problem with the softer material isn't that it's soft, it's that it often fades into the background. That's a songwriting flaw, especially with shorter, more condensed songs needing to be catchier. Untethered Angel, the initial single, is mildly catchy after a few listens but it's no earworm. S2N does a little better, but the keyboard runs are catchier than the vocals; that song has some kick in its Voivod-esque verses but loses it with its softer chorus in the style of Rush. However, there's a solid Pink Floyd feel to the second half of At Wit's End that shows that softer doesn't have to be worse.
The point is that I'm used to Dream Theater being in my face. Just because they were much more aggressive as Liquid Tension Experiment doesn't mean that they didn't have a "listen to this" attitude on a regular basis. Any band that strings tough instrumental sections out for twenty minutes at a time has to have that or they'll vanish and Dream Theater have emphatically never vanished.
The best material here still does that, but it doesn't do it too often. Most obvious is the second single, Fall into the Light, which opens rather like old school Metallica but evolves into all sorts of other styles. Room 137, which was written by drummer Mike Mangini for a change, has some brutality to it. At Wit's End is the most obvious track to feature twin runs from keyboards and drums that blister off into the distance.
There is an odd song here, but it isn't a cover even though it seems like it ought to be. That's probably why Viper King is the bonus track here, and the oddness is in its style. It feels like it's an old blues song originally made famous by early Black Sabbath but later translated into prog metal for this album. I dug this a lot, even though it isn't remotely representative of the rest of the album.
It's redundant to suggest that this band are incredible musicians more than willing to demonstrate that they're incredible musicians. While it's always easy to get blissfully lost in their instrumental sections, that's less easy here with the shorter songs. The problem is that the songwriting didn't step up to the plate to compensate. Distance Over Time is an enjoyable album but it's sadly mostly also a forgettable one.