After the semi-tepid reaction to Dream Theater's rambling double concept album The Astonishing back in 2016, the band gets back to basics with their latest release Distance Over Time, also their first for SONY imprint InsideOut Records. Now on their fourth release with drummer Mike Mangini, Dream Theater seem focused on a more song-based approach here, even dialing up the 'metal' so to speak, and have delivered their strongest album in years.
Though not quite on the level of 2003's Train of Thought, there are some pretty heavy tunes here on Distance Over Time, and while the bands penchant for complex, jaw dropping musical gymnastics is still present, it's toned down a bit, allowing for the riffs, rhythms, and vocals to take precedence. "Untethered Angel" kicks things off in fine fashion, a barely over 6-minute rocker with some dark chords courtesy of John Petrucci and menacing vocals from James LaBrie, some brief but dazzling guitar & synth solos, and plenty of hooks. Speaking of hooks, the more atmospheric "Paralyzed" is a pretty catchy but dark number, Jordan Rudess laying down some lush keyboards and allowing for Petrucci's blistering lead work to have some space to roam, with Mangini and John Myung pumping out some heavy grooves. "Fall Into the Light" is the first of the albums heavier tunes, a snarling metal thumper with some pure headbanging moments, Mangini really driving this energetic track, while "Barstool Warrior" is pure prog-rock, engaging synth/guitar lines leading up to some turbulent riffing and bright symphonic textures, a real joy that will remind some of Yes as well as Dream Theater's earliest releases. LaBrie is fantastic on this one.
Grinding metal riffs kick in for the start of "Room 137", a lurid tale of death and the afterlife, another of Distance Over Time's meatier tracks, a real heavy song loaded with groove and some vocal passages that will remind of The Beatles. Those wanting to hear more of Myung will find him high in the mix on this one, and Petrucci once again delivers a stunning solo. The bassist again makes his presence known on "S2N", a tune about the perils of social media and the overload of news, as punishing riffs and acrobatic rhythms collide for a blazing musical party, LaBrie lending all sorts of vocal styles to what is one of the strongest tracks here. The string of absolute stunners continue with "At Wit's End", the longest cut here at 9:20, and this one is melodic & progressive Dream Theater at their best, intricate riffing from Petrucci and Rudess' backdrop of synths floating over rock solid rhythms and LaBrie's soaring vocals, the chorus instantly memorable, something we grew to expect from this band but they haven't always delivered in recent years. "Out of Reach" calms things down a bit, Rudess' gentle piano and James' touching vocal providing for some tranquility within the inferno that is the rest of the album, John eventually dropping in a tasty little solo, making this a memorable little ballad on an album packed with fireworks. A very pleasing song. "Pale Blue Dot" is another mini-epic, though short by Dream Theater's standards, ethereal keys giving way to bombastic riffs and acrobatic, proggy synths, the band almost dialing in a sort of 'metallic ELP' sound which really works. Plenty of musical brilliance here, and the guitar crunch is serious, easily making this another album highlight. The CD digipack contains a bonus track in the form of "Viper King", a heavy metal monster that is almost like Pantera gone prog, lethal Petrucci 7 string riffing, synths, massive grooves, and a wailing LaBrie all collide for a hell of a good ride.
Distance Over Time, for me anyway, ranks high among the Mangini era releases, and might be Dream Theater's best album since Octavarium, though A Dramatic Turn of Events and Dream Theater were also quite strong. James LaBrie is singing better than ever, John Myung is uncovered in the mix, Petrucci magnificent as always, Mangini is blazing, and Rudess is his ever completely capable self. More importantly, after the fairly unmemorable and bloated concept album The Astonishing (the only truly weak album in their catalog in my opinion), the band are back with an album full of shorter, more direct songs that bring the emphasis back on the memorable hooks and melodies. Match that up with their still formidable musical chops and you have a recipe for success.
1) Untethered Angel
3) Fall Into the Light
4) Barstool Warrior
5) Room 137
7) At Wit's End
8) Out of Reach
9) Pale Blue Dot
10) Viper King (bonus track)