ON TUESDAY, MAY 10, Long Island, New York's most ridiculous progressive metal band, Dream Theater, brings its latest work to Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The Astonishing is a two-hour-and-10-minute concept album (or rock opera, or whatever the fuck) that tells the story of a dystopian future—and redemption through the power of music. Pilfering unabashedly from works like Rush's 2112, Kevin Bacon's Footloose, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, God's the Bible, and Disney movies of recent vintage, it's basically one long power ballad stitched together by some blippy-bloop science-fiction noises, quadruple kick drums, and sterile musicianship. It is, indeed, astonishing.
Four Mercury music writers of varied musical backgrounds and tastes convened to listen to all 130 minutes of The Astonishing together; they have provided us with the running commentary excerpted below, to run alongside Dream Theater's own preposterous libretto. (Plot synopses are excerpted from the album's hilariously thorough Wikipedia page.)
"Descent of the NOMACs"/"Dystopian Overture": "In 2285, the northeastern region of the United States has turned into a dystopia ruled by the oppressive Great Northern Empire of the Americas. The only resemblance to entertainment that exists is the electronic noise of the Noise Machines (NOMACs). The empire is ruled by Emperor Nafaryus, Empress Arabelle, Crown Prince Daryus, and Princess Faythe."
CIARA: Does NOMAC mean they are pro-Windows?
NED: This sounds like the haunted castle level of a video game.
MORGAN: Welcome to the machine.
NED: This plot sounds like King's Quest IV. The bad guy's name is "Nafaryus"!
MORGAN: You can really hear those four kick drums.
NED: Imagine being the 52-year-old dude who bought this album at Best Buy on the day it came out. Right now this is the best drive home ever.
"The Gift of Music": "In a distant village called Ravenskill, a man named Gabriel possesses the natural ability to make music and sing."
CIARA: In the Bible, Gabriel is an angelic messenger. Symbolism!
MORGAN: Is this song in 7/4?
ARIS: There's gonna be tons of odd time signatures throughout.
Gabriel sings, "People just don't have the time for music anymore." The room LOLs.
CIARA: How do people dance to this?
ARIS: People who listen to this aren't interested in dancing.
CIARA: How would you know which beat to fist-pump to, even?
NED: This production is so pristine, I feel like I'm INSIDE Pro Tools right now.
MORGAN: Barnes & Noble is currently selling The Astonishing four-LP set for $123.49.
NED: Is this song from Godspell?
MORGAN: This sounds like that Randy Newman song in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear jumps off the second story and realizes he can't actually fly.
"A Better Life": "Gabriel has an older brother, Commander Arhys of the Ravenskill Rebel Militia, who has a son, Xander, with his deceased wife, Evangeline."
ARIS: Would you consider them to be a modern Rush? Odd time signatures, sweeping concepts...
NED: I'm sure they are huuuuge Rush fans. And this story is basically 2112.
ARIS: They also sound a little like an Italian symphonic power metal band called Rhapsody, but way worse.
NED: Rhapsody... by way of Billy Joel.
"Lord Nafaryus": "Nafaryus hears a rumor about Gabriel being the savior of the people. He and his family travel to Ravenskill to see him for themselves."
NED: This is totally the Pontius Pilate song from Jesus Christ Superstar. You can tell Lord Nafaryus is evil because his song has lots of sweet evil guitar runs.
MORGAN: I'm getting a Styx vibe. Also, the first two Queen records.
ARIS: I feel like if they distilled this down a bit it wouldn't be as ridiculous. The scope is just insane and we're only on track six.
NED: I predict that Gabriel and Lord Nafaryus are not going to see eye to eye.
"A Savior in the Square"/"When Your Time Has Come": "In the Ravenskill town square, Gabriel is performing for the people when the royal family shows up. He continues playing at the emperor's request, nearly bringing them all to tears."
CIARA: Did he just sing, "I will treat them all to sonic ecstasy"?
ARIS: The kick drum sounds so triggered.
NED: Which one? There are four.
MORGAN: This is like super early Freddie Mercury. Like those acoustic songs on Sheer Heart Attack. Which sucks because that stuff is great.
NED: This keyboard part is a little Genesis-ish.
ARIS: They're prog-rock pirates, man!
NED: I bet Gabriel is blond and has a sweet surfer tan.
"Act of Faythe": "As Gabriel plays, Faythe remembers how she found a music player when she was a child and kept it a secret all her life, and as she and Gabriel stare at each other they fall in love."
NED: That is how people fall in love in the future. They just stare at each other.
MORGAN: Apparently the vinyl includes an 18" x 24" double-sided full-color map of the Great Northern Empire of the Americas.
CIARA: I want a board game with that map.
MORGAN: I'm going to get a Faythe stick-and-poke tattoo.
NED: Faythe has pink hair so you know she's young and edgy.
"Three Days": "Nafaryus, though briefly moved by Gabriel's song, sees him as a threat to his rule and gives the people of the town three days to deliver their savior to him or he will destroy the town."
MORGAN: Three days. Just like the Bible.
ARIS: I love concept albums, but this sounds more like the soundtrack to a musical.
CIARA: It's theater, Aris.
In the song, Nafaryus giggles maniacally. The song segues into a Dixieland jazz section.
NED: It wouldn't be a prog-rock masterpiece without some insane laughter from the villain.
CIARA: I feel catatonic. Sensory overload.
MORGAN: That ruled.
NED: THAT SONG BLEW.
"The Hovering Sojourn": more spaceships sounds from the NOMACs. "Brother, Can You Hear Me?": "Arhys hides his brother and refuses to give him up."
ARIS: Uh, paging the Who's Tommy.
NED: Wait, go back. What does the phrase "hovering sojourn" mean?
CIARA: It means the NOMACs hover, Ned.
"A Life Left Behind": "Back at the emperor's palace, Faythe decides she must see Gabriel again. Disguising herself, she begins to travel back to Ravenskill. Arabelle, knowing about her daughter's intentions, instructs Daryus to follow and protect her. Daryus feels he has always been overlooked by his father in favor of his sister, so he travels to the town with his own intentions."
NED: This album is the aural equivalent of a video game cutscene.
ARIS: Way too much cheese, not enough meat.
"Ravenskill": "Faythe arrives in the town and finds Xander, who trusts her and leads her to his father Arhys. Faythe convinces Arhys that she can help, so he brings her to Gabriel's hideout. Gabriel and Faythe embrace, and she tells him that she believes she can get her father to give up his hunt for Gabriel."
NED: There is not enough socioeconomic background in this story. Who are the townspeople? What is their situation? Why are there only eight characters in a two-hour-and-10-minute story?
ARIS: You're right about the production, Ned. It sounds like a supercomputer produced this record.
CIARA: A NOMAC.
ARIS: It's too synthetic to be made by men of flesh.
NED: I'm also hearing a fair amount of Kansas. This album is like "Dust in the Wind" for 130 minutes.
MORGAN: It's crazy how 23rd century America is actually just the Middle Ages.
"Chosen": "Gabriel tells Faythe that if he could just meet with the emperor, he could inspire him to restore peace to the land using his gift of music."
MORGAN: The rocker-to-ballad ratio on this album is really askew.
NED: It's, like, zero to 34.
MORGAN: How many ponytails do you think are in this band?
NED: I'd guess one ponytail and four totally balds.
"A Tempting Offer": "Meanwhile, Daryus finds Arhys' home and takes Xander captive. Daryus promises he will guarantee the safety and health of Xander in return for Arhys bringing Gabriel to him. Daryus does this hoping that it will gain him respect from his father."
"Digital Discord": Another NOMACs interlude.
NED: Why are these on here? Do you think the keyboard player was like, "Hey dudes, let me get some of my noise experiments on the album"?
"The X Aspect": "Arhys is forced to agree to the deal, remembering a promise he made to Evangeline to protect their son."
MORGAN: There's a part of me that admires how earnest this is. I'd listen to this over Mac DeMarco.
NED: They must release so many doves during the live show.
"A New Beginning"/"The Road to Revolution": "Faythe travels back to her father's palace and learns that her music player once belonged to her father." [Huh?—Eds.] "After a while, Nafaryus bows to the pleas of his daughter and agrees to meet with Gabriel at an abandoned amphitheater called Heaven's Cove."
NED: Is this song in, like, 13/9? Super technical.
MORGAN: Dream Theater invented the ninth note.Would you say that The Astonishing is a cautionary tale?
NED: Yes. Caution: Do not listen to this album.
ARIS: Don't mess with the emperor's daughter.
NED: They are called Dream Theater because their music is like a theater. Of dreams. Whoa, now they are playing in straight 4/4 and it is blowing my mind.
MORGAN: This music is like if punk never happened.
CIARA: What does that title even mean? Is that Gabriel's address?
MORGAN: I think we are in the year 2285? Maybe?
"Moment of Betrayal": "Arhys informs Daryus that Gabriel will be at Heaven's Cove that night."
CIARA: Arhys = Judas. Heaven's Cove = Gethsemane. The Christian undertones are pretty hard to deny.
NED: I like how when the characters sing about a moment of betrayal, they use the actual phrase "moment of betrayal."
ARIS: I bet these guys have some sweet endorsement deals.
MORGAN: Like Diet Mountain Dew.
"Heaven's Cove"/"Begin Again": "While the meeting time approached, Faythe decides that she wants to use the power of her royal status to change the world for good."
NED: Ugh, Faythe so is lame.
MORGAN: James LaBrie: modern bard.
ARIS: And now it sounds like a Christmas song.
NED: I hate all music now.
"The Path That Divides": "At the amphitheater, Arhys changes his mind on the deal, and when Daryus shows up, they fight. Daryus overpowers Arhys and kills him, unaware that Xander followed them and saw the whole scene."
NED: Sword fighting! With sound effects! This is the best album ever. I take it all back.
"Machine Chatter": Fucking NOMACs again.
MORGAN: This is like the interrogation scene in Star Wars.
NED: Aargh, what is the point of these?
"The Walking Shadow": "As Xander runs to his father's dead body, Daryus sees the silhouette of someone approaching him. Assuming it to be Gabriel, he attempts to kill him, realizing too late that it is actually Faythe."
ARIS: I bet this album sells like hot cakes in Europe.
NED: [looks online] This album reached #2 in Finland and Hungary. Woah, this album reached #1 in South Korea.
ARIS: What did it do here?
NED: Number 11, if you can believe it.
More sound effects.
NED: Is he eating crackers?
ARIS: Why are they fighting with swords? It's the future. Shouldn't it be lasers?
"My Last Farewell": "Gabriel arrives at the scene and sees his dead brother and the dying Faythe. Covering Xander's ears, he unleashes a scream that causes Daryus to go deaf and that is heard by Nafaryus, Arabelle, and the entire town."
NED: I think if a scream can cause someone to go deaf and be heard by an entire town, putting your hands over a kid's ears isn't going to do much.
CIARA: I want the scream to happen so bad.
After much buildup, Gabriel screams... weakly. It is super lame. Everyone groans.
ARIS: You call that a scream? He sounds like someone who went out to pick up the paper and stepped on a slug.
"Losing Faythe"/"Whispers on the Wind": "Nafaryus and Arabelle arrive and beg Gabriel to use his gift to save Faythe, but Gabriel is unable to sing after screaming so loudly."
MORGAN: This is fucking beautiful.
"Hymn of a Thousand Voices": "The people, attracted by the scream, show up and start singing, giving Gabriel hope. He finds his ability to sing and brings Faythe back to life."
MORGAN: Sounds like Rusted Root.
NED: This song gives me hope. It's a brave new morning in future America! This song makes me want to vote Republican.
MORGAN: Dream Theater's moms must be so proud.
"Our New World": "Nafaryus, realizing what he has done, decides to end the conflict with Gabriel and shuts down the NOMACs for good. Daryus is forgiven for his actions, and Gabriel and Faythe raise Xander as a family."
ARIS: Happy endings are bullshit.
CIARA: I want to rage quit this album.
"Power Down": End of the stupid NOMACs.
MORGAN: Keith Emerson just rolled 180 degrees.
NED: Why were there NOMACs again? I forget what the point of them was.
CIARA: They're floating music machines that uphold new the Great Northern Empire's hegemonic ideals, duhh.
ARIS: What were the empire's hegemonic ideals again?
"Astonishing": "Nafaryus promises to govern the empire as a fair leader in a new world where music is appreciated again."
ARIS: I'm "astonished" we all aren't bleeding from our ears.
NED: It is "astonishing" that this album exists.
CIARA: This is when the crowd pulls out their lighters.
ARIS: ...And lights themselves on fire.
NED: Les Miz was better.