Dream Theater – The Alien (single): Progressive Review

The Alien by Dream Theater is the first single off the new album A View From The Top Of The World slated for release later this year on October 22. The song is live on all digital platforms since August 13 2021 and here, in what I call a progressive review, I’ll be journaling about my listens of this nearly 10 minutes epic by my all-time favourite band.

After the quite decent Distance Over Time (2019), I am once again keeping my expectations low. I just hope that the new album will add another 2-3 memorable songs to my personal collection, and that it will keep cringey moments to the absolute bare minimum. That would be a great scenario, actually. So, let’s hope the Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings will not be in full effect on A View From The Top Of The World.

Here we go with the opening single, The Alien.

Listen 1

  • System: iPhone, loudspeaker
  • Source: Spotify

“Why on Earth through an iPhone’s loudspeaker?”, you may ask. Apart from the fact that I did not have my earbuds at hand when Spotify notified me the single was live and I wanted to listen straight away, why not? I believe the smartphone’s loudspeaker has the ability to highlight merits and flaws of a song. If I manage to listen to the end the first time, then we may be up to something. In fact, here the production and mixing are quite good! Better than most previous records. What about the song itself?

…Meh. Very technical, but where is the melody? Where is the feeling? Where is the epicness? Why did they choose this one as the opening single? To show off Mangini’s skills? Too long and not catchy enough as a single. Almost not catchy at all, in fact. But that’s not even the main problem here. All the while I have been thinking that it is a collage of technical instrumental parts and not a real songwriting effort. It seems to be made of recycled or cut parts of old albums (Systematic Chaos and Octavarium in particular), plus there is no real narrative crescendo.

The sections follow each other without connections, no theme is taken up and developed and the guitar solos start a bit at random. Also the first guitar solo sounds a lot like Barstool Warrior, kind of out of place here. The vocal melodies are maybe “interesting”, but by no means catchy. For a single, this is really off putting. LaBrie’s performance is not bad at all, but it is a pity for the usual abuse of filters on his beautiful studio voice. The song improves in the second part, after the 4:40 minute mark, and the ending is pleasant enough to leave me with a good taste in my mouth to want to listen to it again. Just not today, though…

Listen 2

  • System: PC with USB DAC, tube headphone amp, Beyerdynamics DT880/600ohm
  • Source: Spotify

The feeling of deja-vu due to riffs and moods similar to things already heard on In The Presence Of Enemies Pt.1 and Sacrified Sons continues to be strong and, frankly, annoying. The mere juxtaposition of the instrumental parts is striking and I cannot help but feel that the compositional style of the Petrucci/Rudess duo in this case seems strongly influenced by the approach of the latest LTE3. It all sounds to me as if the song was written for LT3 and the vocals have been added almost as an afterthought. I seriously hope this trend is not maintained in the rest of the album.

I begin to make some sort of sense of the vocal melodies. I think the chorus reminds me of certain solutions of the self titled record of 2013, which winked at 80’s prog sound (Rush above all). Which is why I didn’t particularly love it apart from a couple of great songs (above all the first and Illumination Theory), even though I do not mean it’s a bad album per se.

I confirm that the second half of the piece is better as it is more “organic” (there is at least a theme that is reprised and developed). In the last couple of minutes, finally, a convincing pathos is reached. Petrucci’s playing is entertaining and enthralling. Couldn’t that happen before? I’m still disappointed, but still the song grows on me and the desire to put it back on is there. We’ll see!

Listen 3

  • System: PC with USB DAC, tube headphone amp, Beyerdynamics DT880/600ohm
  • Source: Spotify

I’m reading on social media about people getting to 100 listens in a couple of days. Wow, you guys have some time on your hands! It also means you’re enjoying the song, which I’m really happy about. In the 4 days since its release, I’ve only listened to it 3 times. Do you think that says a lot about what I think about The Alien? Well, yes and no. Undoubtedly, it didn’t wow me, it didn’t make me fall in love with it, it didn’t trigger that craving to put it back on as soon as it was over.

Yes, The Alien turned my nose up at it a bit right away, but it didn’t disgust after all. The curiosity to keep listening to it is there. Maybe because it’s by my Dream Theater, or maybe because it has something interesting to say and I want to find out. The ending, for example, I liked it a lot. The last 2 minutes are an instant, genuine treat; at the moment, the only reason I’d go back and listen to this song if it weren’t by Dream Theater. What comes before that continues to leave me perplexed, with its mixture of disappointing, already heard stuff and new but rather uninspired (or badly inspired) material.

I am really enjoying the production and mixing by Andy Sneap, definitly a step up from previous records. Just a minor gripe is I would have preferred the keyboards a bit more in evidence, they are too far back in the mix most of the time. On the other hand, on second thought, maybe Sneap did the right thing: the choice of keyboard sounds is in my opinion questionable (and it wouldn’t be the first time, dear Rudess). Modern sounds (but not “new”) and “old” sounds (in every sense) alternate without apparent logic. Sometimes that damned distorted synth that sounds to me like a clogged hi-tech sink comes back to accompany Petrucci’s claustrophobic riffs.

The hammond comes back often, and apart from the fact that a vintage sound on this track doesn’t sound like the most fitting choice to me, I would have preferred Rudess to use the Continuum. Unfortunately, he stopped using it a long time ago and in my opinion it’s a great pity. Ever since he first introduced it on an album (Octavarium, if I remember correctly) and in live performances on some old pieces (in Just Let Me Breathe it was spectacular, for example) I’ve hoped over and over again for its massive use. Instead, it fell almost immediately into oblivion.

Too bad.

Listen 4

  • System: PC with USB DAC, tube headphone amp, Beyerdynamics DT880/600ohm
  • Source: YouTube

I’m going to go with the official video this time. Nice experience. But by the end of it I just remember that there are a couple 2001: A Space Odyssey style light tunnels in it, and that I thought they had some flaws in the animation as well. I’ll rewatch it for sure to check it out. But for now, if I try to remember what I just watched, for whatever reason (maybe because of the spacey setting) all it comes to mind is images from Devin Townsend‘s Evermore video accompained by its badass main riff. And it’s been months since I last played it. Sorry but I can’t help it, both the music and video for Devin’s song, though not perfect, are far more interesting than The Alien to me. You can’t beat an astronaut kitty, I suppose.

Listen 5

  • System: iPhone, loudspeaker
  • Source: Spotify

About those who have listened to The Alien more than 100 times in two days… Years ago I was definitely a more avid listener, and with much more time at my disposal; I used to wait for new records with great expectations and when they came out I would listen to them over and over again. Not today. The anticipation of a new album is exciting, but no longer spasmodic. I kinda miss that, but I have other priorities. And if a new release, regardless of who the author is and its actual quality, doesn’t resonate with my current state of mind, I have no interest in listening to it. I put it on a waiting list, and it may be weeks, months or even years before its time finally comes.

At certain times, in my listening I’m searching for even I don’t know exactly what. From one day to the next, the music I already know and like no longer attracts me: I need to go on a systematic, spasmodic and even fragmentary search for music that is new to me, not necessarily recent, especially by bands I don’t know, even in genres I don’t usually prefer. Once this thirst for new music is satisfied, at some point I will invariably return to listening to my personal classics as well, hopefully with a few fresh additions.

This is just one of those times when listening to music for me coincides with going to some review sites that I value, and throwing myself headlong into discovery. Staying in theme with Dream Theater, what follow is the very definition of the “systematic chaos” approach. What I do is I go to the excellent Angry Metal Guy website, spot all the reviews that tickle me, open them all in different tabs of the browser, read them one by one, listen to the embeds and immerse myself in the comments of the excellent community that populates this portal. Rinse and repeat with a different portal. For each band I listen to I compile a line in an excel file to remind me to keep track of the genre and whether it struck me or not, so at a later time I can devote quality time just to the material that resonated most with me.

In between discoveries I also hear the call of the Alien, although it doesn’t actually offer me what I’m looking for these days…. Whatever it is. Here we are at the fifth listen, the second on my iPhone’s loudspeaker. It’s not a scenario conducive to analytical song listening, but it’s an interesting test nonetheless. As I said, the smartphone speaker has the ability to highlight to my ears the merits and flaws of a song. I stand by my impression that the voice filters are not the best, they are not necessarily bad, but they detract rather than add to the experience. I would love to hear the original vocal tracks. Anyway, the melodies have started to seem more compelling to me, though nothing really exciting. I’m not thrilled with the drums either, unlike all those guys on social media who are drooling over Mangini’s performance. Technical, impressive, whatever you want, but…. It doesn’t engage me. It doesn’t pull me in, at the worst moments I find it… alienating and at the best an adequate accompaniment. If nothing else, The Alien remains an interesting listen. Never would I have dreamed of doing such a review for On The Backs Of Angels, for example. A faded, dull carbon copy of Pull Me Under, 20 years later? No, thanks…

Listen 6-10

It’s been out for a week now, and The Alien continues to grow slightly on me with each listen, still my concerns remain. The track starts off well but is too darn choppy. There are too many changes. The chuncky riffing is good and I would have preferred that they had kept it as a base on which to build an escalation of intensity. Instead, it’s all chopped up. As soon as one section starts to grab me, poof, everything changes and starts over.

Dear Dream Theater guys, it seems like you do it to me on purpose to take a potentially good song, shred it and mix up the bits to make it more complicated for no real reason. Yet the fanboys are going nuts over The Alien. And they are also ultra-protective, standing up as censors trying to stifle dialogue, drowning under sarcastic replies of a personal nature the comments of those with a different opinion, even those who simply try to discuss the actual qualities of the track.

I wish I was in their mind to see what’s going on. Well, not really! But I’d like to understand if the fanboys perceive the differences, compositionally speaking, between the first 7 1/2 minutes and the last 2. I’d like to understand which part they like best. I’d like to understand if they really believe it when they say that the band has evolved (in the authentic sense of having made progress, of having changed for the better, not just changed) from the beginning to now.

I’m not an Images And Words nostalgic, I’ve found some good in all the records, which are one profoundly different from the other, and I accept that the musicians have changed, for better or worse. It’s obvious that at 50 years old, you don’t have the verve and hunger you had at 25 anymore. It’s that way for every one, not just musicians. But it seems to me really unequivocal that the care and the attention that the guys dedicated to the composition and to the arrangement at the time of the first 3 records is of another planet entirely.

Without going that far back in time, there are some great songs on the last few albums as well. So why make a 9 1/2 minute maxi collage and launch it as a single? How does the band rate this track in light of their pedigree? Did they do this on purpose to please the growing number of loud, narrow-minded, obnoxious fanboys that infest Facebook groups and social media in general? I guess we’ll never know.

Listen 11-…

Coming soon (or not!)…

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