2007 marked a transition for Dream Theater. They escaped the confines of their Warner music label over to one of metal's biggest labels, Roadrunner Records (of course, the beautiful irony is that Roadrunner was bought out by Warner in the beginning of 2007, though this all happened after the plan to switch labels). Would a change in record labels lead to a change in direction for one of progressive metal's best known bands? Systematic Chaos would be the album to answer that question.
And the answer is yes, unfortunately.
Admittedly, the changes are subtle, and could easily be overlooked. First and most immediately noticeable was the decision to break the track "In the Presence of Enemies" into two tracks. This effectively halts the momentum of the song and takes what could have been a 25 minute epic into two lesser, somewhat confusing and disjointed tracks. Another major change on the album is thematic in nature.
It is this second that is most disappointing.
Dream Theater's lyrics have often run the gamut, ranging from thoughtful and somewhat introspective, to political, to religious. There have even been moments of fantasy (such as the concept of Metropolis part II). But when it comes to their music, Dream Theater has always presented themselves as very serious artists. And this serious attitude is, ultimately, what damns Systematic Chaos.
Metal music has never been above dark, fantasy lyrics. Yet the bands that pull it off best are those who are obviously putting on a show. Symphony X has always had lyrics that border on the ridiculous. Swords, sorcery, knights and dragons are all part and parcel of any Symphony X album. It works, though, because you can tell it is a conscious effort to make their music larger than life, to separate it from reality and use it to create a moment or two of fantasy for the listener. On Systematic Chaos, however, everything comes across so earnest, so serious, that it becomes impossible to just ignore the lyrical abortion that the album is. Tackling fantasy themes with the restraint, tact, and style of a libidinous teenager, each track is cringe inducing trial to suffer through.
Musically, the album has some very strong moments, with some of Dream Theater's heaviest, most crushing guitar riffs recorded. As is expected, the music has many technical elements and is very skillfully played. Yet it is time someone remind the band that more notes does not excellent music make. Finally, Jordan Rudess again proves that he is, quite possibly, the worst thing to happen to Dream Theater. A technically talented keyboardist, he feeds into the "flurry of notes as mental onanism" mindset that has become a weakness of Dream Theater albums since Awake. That, coupled with his atrocious choices in sound effects (really, who thinks that a rag-time piano solo fits in the middle of near death metal guitar riffs?) creates an enormous barrier to the music of Systematic Chaos being enjoyable.
Tracks to catch: "Constant Motion" is a decent single, that works to showcase much of what Dream Theater has become. "The Dark Eternal Night" tries to be interesting (though the horrifyingly bad lyrics and aforementioned rag-time piano completely ruin this track for me). "In The Presence of Enemies" wants to be a big, epic song, though it is neutered by being split into two smaller tracks.
Systematic Chaos is for completists, those who just have to have everything by a band they love. And there is actually quite a bit to potentially love in this album. However, the good is so outweighed by the bad that I just can't forgive it. Lyrically it is painful. Musically, it has some very strong moments which are overwhelmed by self-indulgent instrumental wankery that lacks all style and tact. Chalk this up as one of my biggest disappointments of 2007.