Dream Theater - Train of Thought (2003)
I can be a strange fucking creature at times. I mean I was a huge fan of Boston-based progressive metal legends Dream Theater from the moment I first heard their 1992 sophomore album “Images & Words” & there was a time in the late 90’s/early 2000’s when they were right up there with my favourite bands. So why in the actual fuck has it taken me this long to check out their 2003 seventh album “Train Of Thought”? Well, I guess it has something to do with the fact that I became completely obsessed with electronic music around the turn of the century & tended to focus all of my attention on my new obsession until I returned to metal a decade later. Since that time, I’d suggest that the generally middling reviews of Dream Theater’s later works have never really encouraged me to investigate them for fear of disappointment although I did check them out their live shows in both 2008 & 2014 & have always really enjoyed myself.
There’s been a lot of talk about “Train Of Thought” online & it’s reputation as one of Dream Theater’s most divisive albums was certainly well known to me before giving it my first spin. Many people claim that it saw the band trying to tap into the nu metal craze that was the flavour of the week at the time while others suggest that it was simply an attempt to make a classic metal record after getting great crowd responses to their cover performances of Iron Maiden & Metallica albums as well as their heavier original material on the preceding tours. Some say that the album lacks the ambition of past works due to the consistent focus on a heavier sound too & even suggest that some of the artistic license the band have taken has simply fallen in a jumbled heap. Then you have those fans with a slightly heavier taste in metal who claim this as one of Dream Theater’s best works so I really did go into the album having made a very conscious decision to keep an open mind & develop my own opinion.
The first thing I’ll say about “Train Of Thought” is that I can understand where ALL of those assessments are coming from. Dream Theater’s fan base is one of the most passionate & devoted you’ll find so it was almost inevitable that even the slightest change in direction would trigger some fairly extreme responses & whether they’re valid or not is really up the individual to decide. One thing that can’t be disputed though is that “Train Of Thought” was the band’s heaviest release to the time. John Petrucci makes full use of the lower register on his 7-string guitar & utilizes a bottom-heavy tone that you’d be more likely to expect from an alternative metal band than a progressive one. To capitalize on that, the band have given their heavier side an increased focus & you’ll get significantly less of the introspective atmospheric parts & poppier sections that perpetuated their past classics. This will no doubt please some metalheads & I probably fall into that category as I’ve always wondered what Dream Theater could accomplish if they simply tossed aside their shackles & went for broke. Unfortunately for your less open-minded fans though, there are a few sections that draw on nu metal for inspiration & those are generally the parts of the album that appeal to me the least however that only amounts to a riff or two here & there which isn’t out of line with Dream Theater’s history of toying with different subgenres, often within the context of the same track. The same could be said of the Metallica influence actually as there are some pretty blatant instrumental & vocal homages to them here, particularly their classic late 80’s period. I actually don’t think the band have even tried to disguise these parts as they’re so just so similar. To be fair, I’m not sure James LaBrie was up to a dirtier & more aggressive Hetfield style delivery though to tell you the truth.
But these moments are simply included to create interest in an otherwise very engaging & professional Dream Theater outing in my opinion. Despite what some people may have you think, “Train Of Thought” doesn’t really sound all that different to the Dream Theater of old. Mike Portnoy’s incredible drumming is as potent as ever with the unified rhythmic complexity being pulled off in a nonchalant fashion that thumbs its nose at the prog metal pretenders while the lead trade-offs between guitarist John Petrucci (my all-time favourite axe-man) & keyboardist Jordan Rudess are utterly ridiculous so there’s plenty here for the prog crowd as well as the metal one. So why isn’t “Train Of Thought” regarded as being in the same class as the classic Dream Theater releases of the 1990’s then? Well for me personally it’s about lack of genuinely anthemic vocal hooks. James LaBrie’s performance is certainly serviceable. In fact, he performs the role admirably however I can’t shake the feeling that he’s working within constraints these days & doesn’t explore his higher register unless there’s no alternative. This results in many of these long epics (there’s just seven tracks across the 69 minute run time) showing great promise but lacking the knock-out punch that would see you singing along with them in your head for the rest of the day like a “Pull Me Under” or “Take The Time”. You certainly enjoy them all while you’re listening to them & it’s hard to fault any of these tracks as this is a very consistent tracklisting but you have to wait until lengthy closer “In The Name of God” to reach the sort of heights you’ve become accustomed to from a top tier Dream Theater record. I actually feel like “In The Name Of God” is a magnificent piece of work that sits comfortably alongside the band’s best work but here it serves the additional task of reminding me that, while the rest of the tracklisting offered me some particularly solid progressive metal, it also fell a little short of what the band are capable of as song-writers. There certainly weren’t as many killer harmonized vocal hooks to dig their teeth in. Has the increased focus on the heavier aspects in their sound contributed to this? Perhaps but the closer certainly proves that the right balance can be achieved with that format.
So, the moral of the story here is that “Train Of Thought” is a rock-solid progressive metal outing that should well & truly satisfy both the prog & metal audiences if they can overlook the occasional inclusion of a simpler nu metal riff or laclustre attempt at more aggressive vocals. These moments are certainly the exception rather than the rule & have been overstated by many reviewers over the years. The rest of the album offers some chunky progressive metal performed by the very best in the business & if that’s not enough to float your boat then I feel that you’re hard to please.
For fans of Fates Warning, Haken & Pain Of Salvation.