Dream Theater is one of those bands: You know, the kind that insiders revere while outsiders say, “Dream who?”
For many progressive metal fans, Dream Theater (led by the quintet’s virtuoso guitarist John Petrucci) inhabits a hallowed place in the genre’s pantheon. The band has been pounding out fierce, blazingly fast guitar-oriented rock since 1985, often in the service of intricate-yet-epic songs that unpack existential themes.
But the band’s initial twin influences of Iron Maiden and Rush remain discernable today, both stylistically and lyrically. Like both of those groups, Dream Theater continues to explore big, meaningful themes on its 14th studio album, Distance Over Time.
Album opener “Untethered Angel” begins by critiquing a life built upon narcissism: “You’ve built this world around you, your universe/In spite of best intentions, things could not be worse.” Result? “Misgiving and dismay, nightmares and wasted days.” In the face of such darkness, the band counsels, “Face the fear within you/Wake up from the dead/ … Open your heart, be set free.”
“Paralyzed” likewise confronts someone plagued by anger and addiction, someone too trapped to realize that “viewing life through such a narrow, fractured lens/Will ensure you end up on the losing end.”
“Fall Into the Light” seems to suggest that we have a nearly infinite need for love and hope: “Too much love is not enough for us/I was once too blind to see/Too much hope will never be enough/It’s become so clear to me.” The song also ambiguously instructs, “So turn toward the sun and look into your soul.”
“Barstool Warrior” challenges those who feel trapped to take a risk, to try again to break out from the circumstances that have left them full of shame and blame. One such person is a “barstool warrior/Talking to his gin.” He’s crippled by regret and second-guessing, as the band asks, “Is he doomed to be a man this world forgot?” Another struggler is a woman apparently stuck in physically abusive relationship. In the end, the band suggests that the only way out is being willing to change: “Now I’m cutting the anchor away/ … I’m starting a new life today/Now I see where I belong.”
The cryptic “Room 137” reckons with the inevitability of death, and how to make sense of life given that inescapable fate: “Death is coming/ … What’s the message, am I running out of time?” Though one line perhaps implies that there’s nothing after death (“life nevermore”), most of the song seems to subtly suggest otherwise: “Someone is dying/To know the answer, the key to heaven (137).” (The significance of that number here isn’t explained in the song itself.) We also hear, “Take me to the other side/Show me what I cannot find,” lines that also reinforce the idea that there’s something more.
“S2N” ponders how we “block out the noise” and find an “answer” amid constant bad news. The band resolves that tension in the end by saying, “Our wounds begin to heal/The chatter disappears and message is revealed” (though it’s not really clear what “the message” here actually is).
“At Wits End” strives mightily to offer help to someone who needs it but who doesn’t want to accept another’s aid. In the end, that struggling individual seems to realize how much he or she does need help, pleading repeatedly, “Don’t leave me now.”
“Out of Reach” narrates the story of a man who falls in love (“There’s something about this girl/ … I can barely breathe”) with someone who nonetheless has deep wounds from her past (“Sadness in her smile/Love, it’s been a while”). In the end, her pain is the song’s final focus as we hear the man encourage her, “Although you’re hurting and afraid/You’re stronger than yesterday.”
On “Fall Into the Light,” we hear this spiritually ambiguous line: “There is nothing sacred, only heaven knows.” And among a long litany of earthly catastrophes on “S2N,” we hear, “Fear and race, endless lies/Sex and faith, terrorize.” A struggling person in “At Wits End” is described as being “numb, sedated, intoxicated,” and believing that there is “no way out.” The main character in “Barstool Warrior” is obviously an alcoholic (though the song doesn’t glorify that aspect of his life).
“Pale Blue Dot” imagines looking back on the Earth from outer space, and meanders through all manner of existential questions that such a perspective might provoke. But where most of the introspective songs elsewhere turn a positive corner, this one feels less confident of finding real meaning: “All you will ever know, all life that ever was/All you despise or love, living out their lives/This isolated speck, hurtling through the cosmic dark/Would seem to go astray if we were washed away.” We also hear the question, “But who’s out there to save us from ourselves?” It’s a question the song doesn’t attempt to answer.
Album closer and bonus track “Viper King” is a real outlier compared to the rest of the album. The song seems to be about recklessly pushing a Dodge Viper to its limits: “Venomous by design/Lying idle, buying time/Bore down the clutch, tore up the road/Six hundred horses, genetic code/Lighting speed, the road she bends/Slam down the brakes, losing my a– end.” But it’s only when “pushed to the limit,” we hear, “Nothing to fear, I feel alive/My Viper King.”
Thirty-plus years of putting out thunderous, intricate riffs clearly hasn’t gotten old for Dream Theater. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, guitarist John Petrucci joked, “You’d think we’d be up there all mellow and wind up writing some kind of country album. But it just didn’t work out that way.” Longtime fans of the band will find a familiar fusion of virtuosity and deep thinking.
And more often than not, that thinking trends toward positive outcomes instead of hopeless ones. Talking about the meaning behind the song “Barstool Warrior,” Petrucci said, “I take a Buddhist sort of perspective where I’m saying that everything that you think, that you feel, that you believe in, that you dream of, you can make that your reality. You don’t have to be stuck in these situations. So there’s a bit of a positive twist at the end where the two characters realize that.”
That summary does double duty for this album as a whole, as Dream Theater ponders big questions and mostly suggests that the answers involve holding on to hope (even if what we’re hoping in isn’t completely clear).
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.