Systematic Chaos is Dream Theater’s ninth album and their first under Roadrunner Records. The album marked a slight departure from their previous form after keyboardist Jordan Rudess joined the band on 1999’s Metropolis Part 2, as the four albums that precede Systematic Chaos had been concept albums in some sense. Though guitarist John Petrucci and drummer Mike Portnoy had produced every album from Metropolis onward to Portnoy’s departure, I feel that Systematic Chaos marks the beginning of Dream Theater’s weaker catalog in the latter part of their career, as they had possibly gotten a little too comfortable in their own style. Where Train of Thought and Octavarium had artistic restrictions that promoted creative songwriting – Train of Thought being one of their heaviest albums and Octavarium‘s songs proceeding in ascending key order – the seven tracks on Systematic Chaos lack a consistent vision or unifying theme, which some had come to expect from Dream Theater. Individually I feel that most songs off of this album are about average quality for Dream Theater, excluding the 26 minute epic “In the Presence of Enemies.”
Getting into the tracks, the albums starts and finishes with parts one and two of “In the Presence of Enemies,” which is far and away the best this album has to offer. The song is incredibly dynamic, and puts the band’s songwriting chops on full display as they weave their way through a story of a man’s fall from grace and salvation. Though most progressive metal fans enjoy when a band indulges in displays of their technical proficiency, Dream Theater had a good instinct to ease off of the gas for this song, and the instruments compliment each other well. The instrumentals here aren’t too busy and it’s always clear who should be taking the lead between guitar and keyboards. When the vocals are present there’s nothing too crazy elsewhere in the mix to distract from them. The transitions between the sections of this song might be some of Dream Theater’s best, naturally flowing into one another as one riff will fade out into another, or the atmospheric wind and accompanying piano that bridges parts one and two. The melodies in the guitar solos suit the mood of the song brilliantly, and don’t overstay their welcome unlike one of the later tracks, “The Ministry of Lost Souls.” If it wasn’t for how well-produced this song is I would rate this album significantly lower, but its presence elevates the album’s quality substantially.
The second track, “Forsaken,” was one of the two singles released from the album, along with “Constant Motion.” Given that these tracks also had accompanying music videos for the first time since “Hollow Years” off of 1997’s Falling into Infinity, it could be the case that the label pressured Dream Theater into writing songs with a more mainstream metal appeal. Fans of their longer, more complex material may find “Forsaken” to be a bit lacking in progressive metal appeal. While the riffs are definitely heavy, the vocals are high pitched and the guitar solo has some blisteringly fast moments, “Forsaken” leaves a bit to be desired for a Dream Theater song. The final chorus and outro feel like a bit too much repetition, padding what would otherwise be a concise song, and Petrucci’s riff in the second verse isn’t his most creative work.
“Constant Motion,” on the other hand, is a great example of how Dream Theater can simultaneously show off their technical prowess without alienating a casual listener. Every instrument here is firing on all cylinders: the guitars, bass, keyboard, and drums all blitz through a series of incredibly fast, yet catchy riffs, only letting up for a moment during the bridge before the guitar and keyboard solos blast the song back up to full speed. Similarly, the chorus gives the listener some breathing room between the rapid progression of riffs in both verses, and connects the sections of the song well. The only feature that may detract from this song was the decision to include two vocal parts, a unison between singer James LaBrie and drummer Mike Portnoy in the first verse, with them trading lines in the second. “Constant Motion” seems to mark the beginning of Portnoy’s want to include a heavier vocal style in Dream Theater’s work, which can be uncomfortably jarring in some songs; coming to a head in the follow-up to Systematic Chaos, 2009’s Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
“The Dark Eternal Night” treats the listener to some of the heaviest, sludgiest riffs Dream Theater had recorded up to that point, while not being a carbon copy of any of the material off 2003’s Train of Thought. While the instruments undeniably churn out some great parts in this track, the choice to include filters over the vocals to add an artificial growl or heaviness may turn off some listeners. Once again, there are some moments on Systematic Chaos where Dream Theater would explore some new territory, and though we will likely never know how the song sounded without the vocal filters, I still question their inclusion. Being one of the longer cuts off of the album, this song also indulges some of the band’s tendencies to fly off the handle during the instrumental break, and the song loses some of its cohesion during some of the stranger keyboard sections, before returning to the chorus.
The fourth part of an album-spanning suite on the 12 step program, “Repentance” is one of the most quiet songs on any Dream Theater album. Built around a simple repeating guitar lick, the song delivers on its concepts of “regret” and “restitution,” though not in a particularly exciting manner. The guitar work in the verses and solo are definitely the highlight of this track, and would be one of the few reasons I would return to it for another listen. Barring Petrucci’s best efforts to save this song, Portnoy’s 12 step suite seemed to grow weaker with each track on later albums, borrowing more from each other rather than progressing the ideas presented in the program and the songs.
Though I lamented how simple some tracks like “Forsaken” and “Repentance” may be earlier, I think “Prophets of War” is one of the highlights on Systematic Chaos. While on some albums LaBrie’s lyrics are relegated to a short piece with only piano accompaniment, “Prophets of War” is one of his stronger Dream Theater tracks on this album and overall. The song doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but the driving guitar and keyboard parts throughout are simple, yet catchy, and move the song forward smoothly. Nothing about this song is too over-the-top, and the few different pieces that make up the whole combine to form a solid prog-rock track. Though Portnoy’s spoken word section may lose this song some points in my book, it doesn’t detract enough from getting me into the compelling, power-chord driven riffs and melodies.
“The Ministry of Lost Souls” is the longest single cut on the album, since “In the Presence of Enemies” is broken up at the beginning and end of the album, and I often find myself asking “why?” in regards to this album. The song drags on far too long, and likely could have been cut down to a more palatable, less repetitive version if the band was willing to trim some of the fat off of this track. Instead, the only interesting section comes halfway through the song when Dream Theater breaks into their standard instrumental interlude. There’s an interesting drum fill over the toms leading into dueling guitar and keyboard solos, followed by a unison solo, before we’re left to a cheesy final chorus and verse, and then two whole minutes of the same lead guitar part. I could enjoy this track if a significant amount of its repetition was removed or made more interesting, but as it stands the only highlights are few and far between, and the song simply drags on too long.
The production, while lacking in some places concerning artistic direction, was clean and well-rounded for the instruments. Everything is clear enough on the album’s mix, which is necessary when the complex song structures have so many intricate parts. The layering of the instruments was great throughout, though I would always be pleased to hear the bass and keyboards more prominently in the mix. This album’s strongest merit would be its instruments, though LaBrie’s vocal performances are up to par the lyrics were banal at times and Portnoy’s vocal sections detracted from most songs rather than enhancing them.
Overall, Systematic Chaos is a solid addition to Dream Theater’s catalog, though the jumble of songs present are saved by the epic “In the Presence of Enemies.” The technical prowess of Dream Theater is displayed well in some songs, but watered down in some of the more repetitive tracks, which could have been better had they been more concise. Far from their worst album but also quite some distance from their best, Systematic Chaos is worth revisiting for some of its material, and is still a solid introduction to Dream Theater or modern progressive metal.