Bands with twenty-five-plus years under their belts often have to wrestle with the temptation to become a nostalgia act or to continue pushing the musical envelope which, in turn, carries its own set of risks. For Dream Theater, the past few years have been particularly difficult for the band: with drummer Mike Portnoy leaving in 2010 and filling the role with Mike Mangini, the band has been trying to reconfigure its soul.
The band’s last effort The Astonishing, released in 2016, was a one hundred and thirty-minute epic which was met favorably by the press, but was divisive among long-time fans of the band. Fast-forward three years and a return to form has taken place in the form of Distance Over Time (InsideOut Music).
Throughout the record, it feels like the band made a conscious effort to go back through their catalog, take key elements from each release and refine them to fit within a musically concise structure. Distance Over Time ends up sounding reminiscent of everything Dream Theater has ever done without sounding like they are rehashing ideas.
Being the shortest album the band has put out since 1992’s Images And Words (Atco), the album also bucks another Dream Theater staple with none of the songs exceeding ten minutes. The result is their most concise and articulated record in years.
Lead single ‘Untethered Angel’ starts off the album and encapsulates the general musical direction Dream Theater have been pursuing since 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events (Roadrunner) which was an almost radio-friendly approach to Progressive Metal, a sound that has helped the band sustain commercial success.
‘Paralyzed’ brings back the heaviness from 2003’s Train of Thought, ‘Fall Into The Light’ imagines Metallica had they taken a more progressive path post-Justice and ‘Barstool Warrior’ brings back fond memories of Images And Words with an emphasis on epic choruses and more restrained instrumentation during the verses. ‘Room 137’ is a gritty, heavy, cybernetic number which is also Mangini’s first lyrical venture with the band and he pulls it off very well. Following the same timbre, construction and content as his band-mates, he’s fully integrated into the band on every musical level.
One thing Dream Theater has not changed with Distance Over Time is leaving the heavy-hitters towards the end of the album. ‘At Wit’s End’, ‘Out of Reach’ and ‘Pale Blue Dot’ cover the sonic spectrum of their entire discography in twenty-one minutes. Through these three tracks, the band showcases the very best they have to offer: soaring guitar leads and progressive complexity coupled with emotive composition, goosebump-inducing choruses and most importantly, pristine musicality. It wouldn’t be outlandish to say ‘At Wit’s End’ is one of Dream Theater’s finest works.
A mature acknowledgment of the many elements and sounds that have moulded them over the years, by looking back, Dream Theater has somehow managed to push forward, and Distance Over Time feels like a rebirth and a redefining album.
8 / 10