Dream Theater is a band that does not need a long introduction, for those who are deep into the prog-metal scene. Known for their extended epics, majestic musical soundscapes, and having one of the pickiest musical fanbases on the planet, DT is a band that, after 30-plus years, has seemingly done it all. Once a band made up of Berklee drop-outs in 1985, now in 2019, made up of some of the most talented 50-plus year old musicians on Earth, what else is there left to do? I imagine this question was also asked in late 2015, prior to the release of their rather polarizing double-length The Astonishing concept album (an album that I loved, for the record), and a good number were not too pleased with that result. So, for their 14th studio album Distance Over Time, it seems as though the band decided to take a more “back to basics” approach – head to a studio-slash-barn in Monticello, New York, record and write as a band, and when the time was right, unleash quite the prog-metal hook/jab combo to any unsuspecting listeners left wondering if this band still has gas left in the tank.
And they do, in spades.
While The Astonishing was more an exercise in length and grandeur, with 34 total tracks spanning 130 minutes, Distance Over Time is definitely a case of “less is more,” with 9 tracks spanning just under 57 minutes, making it their shortest album since… well, their first album, When Dream & Day Unite. Sure, an album that’s just under an hour can’t really be considered “short” in the more traditional sense, but this is prog-metal we’re talking about. Anything under 60 minutes could be considered as the equivalent of Kids See Ghosts in terms of length. And while The Astonishing saw the band venture off into a more bombastic theatrical direction, if only in the short term, Distance Over Time sees the band returning to a more comfortable form, that of hard-hitting prog-rock with a cutting metal edge to it.
So let’s go track by track on this thing, shall we?
The first track offers a very strong opening round to the listeners, dropping the tuning down to C on “Untethered Angel” with a solid metal approach, combined with some fine shredding from guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, opting for more of a Hammond organ sound than his traditional lead synth sound. “Paralyzed” tunes further down to B-flat and opts for more of an industrial groove to it, with a guitar solo that sounds a tad bit akin to the ending solo in “Racecar” from Periphery, and as a whole, almost sounds like a track from one of vocalist James LaBrie’s solo albums – not a bad thing, either. “Fall Into the Light” sees bassist John Myung penning the lyrics, with the arrangement carrying a strong Metallica influence throughout, even using the “Master of Puppets” structure of heavy verse/chorus-melodic middle break-heavy reprise. And these three tracks serve as a strong opening round to the album, as it progresses further.
“Barstool Warrior” – weird song title aside – delivers more of the “traditional” Dream Theater style of track that the band is known for, with a swooping and majestic melody to lead further into the piece, and lyrically, it serves two stories, one of a middle-aged man down on his luck and a woman looking to escape an abusive relationship, with a positive ending of a better outlook for them both. “Room 137” is one of the biggest surprises of the album, not only that the lyrics are penned by drummer Mike Mangini, with allusions to quantum physics elements, but that this song is SINISTERLY heavy. The main riffs are some of the darkest and sludgiest riffs to come from Petrucci’s amps since “The Dark Eternal Night” off of Systematic Chaos and I’ll be danged if it doesn’t pack a wallop of a punch.
“S2N” (“Signal to Noise”) starts with a rather funky bass riff from Myung, showing off his best bass tone in many an album, and going past the… I’ll just say, interesting voice filters, this track serves as a solid faster-paced DT prog showcase, complete with a chorus that feels a bit reminiscent of “The Looking Glass” off their 2013 self-titled album. But I know you’re not here for that, you’re here for the little Easter egg they snuck into the track. It’s at the 4 minute mark, and you can thank me later for it. Stick around for the excellent Mike Mangini drum fill section and the keyboard solo-fueled outro that gives off some strong “The Mirror” vibes.
And let’s talk about Mike Mangini for a moment. Many a DT fan has spoken up about his drum work and drum sound, and how lacking they may be to their ears, but I believe most will agree that on this album, his drums not only sound great, he also sounds like he’s more than the human drum machine that he was on The Astonishing. In fact, on this album, Mike Mangini feels fully integrated into the band, no longer sticking out for one reason or another. Having him involved in the creative process certainly does wonders, doesn’t it?
“At Wit’s End” serves as one of the two miniature epics on the album, kicking off with a blistering guitar arpeggio section to paint a frantic picture, set to LaBrie’s lyrics of a sufferer of sexual and psychological abuse and the prolonged effects of said abuse. It is a tale of two halves, with the first half of the track being an intense metal-driven set piece, before coming down into a softer and more majestic, and even somber, second half, complete with a soaring solo from Petrucci. Don’t skip when the track fades out, it’ll come back for a neat little extra bit.
“Out Of Reach” is the more down-beat moody piano ballad of the album, accentuated with some equally moody drum grooves from Mangini, with more of a longing feel to the words LaBrie wrote for this song. And speaking of him, many a picky DT fan have given one James LaBrie a handful or two of stuff regarding his not-so-perfect live vocal performance, and you can blame it on the vocal chord injury or older age or too much touring or whatever you want, but when he arrives to cut tracks, James LaBrie certainly delivers, as he does on this album from start to finish.
“Pale Blue Dot” is the second mini-epic on here, and the eclectic and intense closer to the album, inspired by, of all things, the work of Carl Sagan, and kicks off with a booming 19/16 guitar and drum pattern that’ll make you dizzy if you can’t count it right. (That’s 19 sixteenth-notes per measure for any who don’t speak music.) And this track is HEAVY, OH MY GOD. Petrucci’s lyrics are sinister, telling about this floating gaseous orb of a planet we all inhabit, set to some devilishly heavy riffs. And that’s all BEFORE the song goes nutty with its insane interlude that’s one part “Metropolis,” one part “Outcry,” and a few parts of “The Dance of Eternity” and “Octavarium” thrown in for good measure. And it all combines into one of the most frantic DT pieces written in a long time, and what a way to close the album with.
…oh right, there’s a “bonus” track included, “Viper King.” I could go super analytical on this, but I won’t, it’s these guys having fun and channeling their inner Deep Purple to craft some solid rock ’n’ roll, so I won’t be too mean. Although I will say, the blues influence is very strong on this track, perhaps a little too strong for its own good. And it has Petrucci doing a little bit of Joe Satriani-esque shred licks, which is always fun.
I think this is definitely an album many a disillusioned DT fan needed after The Astonishing came and went. With the tracks on Distance Over Time, more of a back-to-basics approach is present, utilizing the four core elements of the band’s music at their highest potential, being the melodic, progressive, pop, and metal elements. You have the soaring melodies, the chugging metal riffs, the prog arrangement, and even a few strong pop hooks thrown in, and when combined… well, you get Dream Theater. And you get an incredibly strong Dream Theater album, as well. Even with a band known for being bombastic and grandiose, even to the point of self-indulgence, this album proves that sometimes, yes, less is more. And at the end of the day, after taking all of this music, there’s really only one thing left to say once finished.
Final Verdict: buy it. Dream Theater may not be for everyone’s musical sensibilities, but for those looking for some finely crafted prog-metal, this album proves that this band still has a lot left in the tank.
Distance Over Time is available from InsideOut Records/Sony Music on CD, vinyl, and digital download, and is available for streaming on Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon Music.