Soundtracks to a bleak future

Dream Theater comprise (from left) Jordan Rudess, John Myung, James LaBrie, Mike Mangini and John Petrucci.
Dream Theater comprise (from left) Jordan Rudess, John Myung, James LaBrie, Mike Mangini and John Petrucci.PHOTO: JIMMY FONTAINE

Dream Theater's and Megadeth's new albums deal with dystopia

Forget about mellowing with age. For American metal stalwarts Dream Theater and Megadeth, the passage of time has only made them produce some of their most musically complex and intricate works to date.

Coincidentally, both their new albums, released within one week of each other last month, deal with dystopia.

Dream Theater made their name as one of rock and metal's most prominent group of virtuosos, but The Astonishing, their 13th release, is the quintet's most ambitious work to date. And that's saying a lot.

It's a double album, but with 34 tracks and spanning more than two hours, the bona fide rock opera is triple the size of a regular full-length release.

Sprawling and convoluted riffs and sections are hardly repeated as the storyline, written by guitarist John Petrucci, unfolds over two acts.

  • PROGRESSIVE METAL

    THE ASTONISHING

    DreamTheater

    Roadrunner

    4.5 stars

  • THRASH METAL

    DYSTOPIA

    Megadeth

    Tradecraft/Universal Music

    3.5 stars

While the plot is a standard Joseph Campbell myth - a saviour, Gabriel, is out to overthrow a corrupt and tyrannical overlord, Emperor Nafaryus - it's the way the music syncs dramatically with the tale's twists and turns that makes for compelling listening.

Soaring rock arias segue into grand piano ballads, while meaty, chugging riffs and rapid, odd-timed double-bass drums drop in unannounced.

Singer James LaBrie takes his cue from Danish rock veteran King Diamond and jumps between various singing voices while narrating the protagonists in the tale.

With full-blown orchestral arrangements by David Campbell, the classical maestro behind the likes of Adele, Beyonce, Michael Jackson - and, incidentally, father to singer-songwriter Beck - The Astonishing is certainly one of the most dramatic and grandiose concept albums in metal to date.

While not exactly as musically labyrinthine as Dream Theater in The Astonishing, Megadeth make a return to the all-out combative and speedy style that harks back to thrash metal's heyday in the mid-1980s and early 1990s with their 15th album, Dystopia.

Main man and metal godfather Dave Mustaine is in no mood to repeat the mediocre radio-friendly ditties that plagued some of the band's last few releases, or to mince words.

Never one to hide his right-wing political leanings, he takes aim at United States President Barack Obama on Lying In State ("opiates for the masses under cloak as hope and change") and ominously warns that "this planet's become one big spinning disaster" (Post American World).

The new additions to the band - American quintet Lamb Of God's Chris Adler on drums and Brazilian metal band Angra's Kiko Loureiro on guitars - add a clinical and polished bombast to the band's sound.

Mustaine, 54, produces his best riffs and songs when he is at his crankiest and the way he sees it, society is still barrelling down to a bleak future and all he can do is provide a soundtrack to the decline.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline 'Soundtracks to a bleak future'. Print Edition | Subscribe