Dream Theater albums have always served as expansions or contrasts to their predecessors (See the heavy-light alternations that dominated their Portnoy eras). Distance Over Time is a rare case of an album that serves as an explicit response to the one before it. There’s no way in hell that the band going back to a heavier sound and the shortest runtime since 1992’s Images and Words didn’t have anything to do with the bloated, ballad-friendly train wreck that became known as The Astonishing for all the wrong reasons. Alas, Dream Theater may be back with an apology letter in hand, but it is accepted with a reluctant sigh.
For the most part, the band dynamic is solid. Guitarist John Petrucci dominates proceedings with his darkest, heaviest tone since Black Clouds & Silver Linings and bassist John Myung provides a prominently murky presence throughout, even getting extended flexes on the alt-tinged “S2N.” Inversely, keyboardist Jordan Rudess puts in one of his most subtle performances with the band and Mike Mangini’s drumming is as busy as ever, though not hitting quite as hard as one would expect with this more aggressive direction. It’s still strong overall, but for the first time since the turnover, I found myself wondering how this material would’ve sounded with Mike Portnoy back behind the kit.
The vocals are predictably as divisive as ever. Thankfully James LaBrie sticks to his mid-range, largely avoiding the wailing that has turned recent gigs into exercises of existential horror, but one can still hear minor touch-ups and effects supporting his voice. It’s serviceable enough, but it comes off as monotonous and strained when the lines being sung aren’t all that catchy or engaging. The worst may be kept at bay, but it still lurks just beneath the surface.
And with that, the songwriting feels rather pedestrian by Dream Theater standards. Much like their 2013 self-titled album, the songs all seem to be in perpetual ‘almost there’ territory. I can appreciate the rhythmically challenging “Room 137” and “S2N” along with the more ambitious scopes on “At Wit’s End” and “Pale Blue Dot,” but none of these tracks go into true noteworthy status. There’s nothing offensively bad and I can even get into “Paralyzed” and “Fall into the Light” with proper digestion, but this shorter runtime shouldn’t feel like an act of mercy.
Overall, Distance Over Time is basically a heavier version of Dream Theater’s 2013 self-titled album. Both efforts are decent in themselves and well-grounded compared to the disaster they bookend but ultimately unimpressive compared to the band’s best. The band isn’t necessarily playing it safe aside from maybe LaBrie, but the atmosphere is very workmanlike overall.
Considering how their last attempt at experimentation went, it’s difficult to tell where the band can go from here. I’m still not clamoring for a Portnoy reunion but rather yearning for the optimistic spirit that made A Dramatic Turn of Events so enjoyable in 2011. This is enjoyable enough and more forgiving fans will love it, but I get the feeling that Dream Theater could be stuck on this plateau for the rest of their career.
“Fall into the Light”
“At Wit’s End”