I never find it easy to review Dream Theater. Everyone knows what they sound like already and all the obvious things to say are givens. This is heavy prog, performed by people with insane technical ability. The songs are generally long, the seven on offer here ranging from six and a half minutes to a breath over twenty, and they're intricate and mesmerising, which means that albums are really long as well, always over an hour and often seventy minutes and beyond. And I can hear you all say, "Well, duh!" This is the audio porn of choice for many metal musicians, regardless of what instrument they play.
What a Dream Theater review usually comes down to for me is a personal call as to whether I liked it or not. This one I did a lot. The last one, Distance Over Time, not so much, though it did mix it up a lot more than usual, going for, as the title suggested, ground covered rather than how long that process took. It lasted under an hour and the songs were generally short, none of them reaching ten minutes, without any extended breaks for the musicians to showcase their abilities. It didn't work particularly well for me and I wonder if I was overly generous with my 6/10 rating. Given that this album is back to business as usual, maybe it didn't work particularly well for the band either.
And I certainly appreciated this return to long and intricate songs with long and intricate passages of instrumental virtuosity. What's telling for me this time out is that, while the various musicians enjoy indulging themselves, the songs manage to retain some catchiness and that's crucial for this band. It has to be said that Pull Me Under succeeded so well because it did all the instrumental acrobatics the band are known for while being fundamentally catchy to a mainstream audience. That's a neat trick if you can manage it and even Dream Theater struggled to manage it again. This album is a reasonable effort on that front throughout and it's all the better for it.
The closest to a Pull Me Under here is Invisible Monster, not quite the shortest track at six and a half minutes exactly but only Transcending Time is shorter and even then only by six seconds. The chorus is obviously a chorus and its hook is pretty good. Even better is the keyboard section early in the second half that leads into a guitar solo. Sleeping Giant and Awaken the Master are closer to the ten minute mark but they're both as catchy as they are adventurous and indulgent, the former finding a Zeppelin riff and a Purple vibe for the first couple of minutes, neither of which I really was expecting from this band. All these songs feel good but they also feel right, even with their instrumental parts. Nothing feels too long, not even the twenty minute title track, which is an epic indeed.
Transcending Time feels playful and vibrant, as if the musicians had built a framework together for it but jammed through it anyway, to keep the feel fresh. These logical contradictions apply throughout. Awaken the Master feels particularly aggressive, with some driving drums early on, but thoughtful as well, especially with its keyboards. It's as close as I've heard Dream Theater approach a Liquid Tension Experiment showcase in a long time, but it's equally effective in its slower sections. There's also some of that in the opener, The Alien, which doesn't sustain it as well but is a highlight nonetheless.
I began my review of Distance Over Time by stating that "I've never been the world's biggest Dream Theater fan", even though I have massive respect for their talents and achievements. Nothing on that 2019 album changed that opinion because it mostly left me dry. This one, on the other hand, may well convert me. It's exactly the sort of thing I want from a band like this and I enjoyed it immensely, more so than I can remember doing before. Never mind how great each individual musician is; that can be taken for granted with Dream Theater. This is a fun album, one to enjoy immediately and one to dive into with abandon to explore what they're actually doing. I like that.