In 2016, prog metal progenitors Dream Theater issued the 130-minute conceptual opus The Astonishing, which all but left metal behind to pursue a classic prog direction. Widely acclaimed by mainstream rock media, it proved divisive among fans and the metal press. Whether they admit it or not, DT took note. When it was time to record for new label Inside Out, they collectively decamped to a rural spot and lived together for the four months it took to write and record Distance Over Time. Ultimately, they took full measure of their history together and made a nearly complete U-turn, heading (mostly) back to basics for an injection of inspiration and renewed force.
First single and opener "Untethered Angel" is classic Dream Theater, offering an abominably heavy riff from bassist John Myung and guitarist John Petrucci. James LaBrie's clean vocals soar above Jordan Rudess' driving organ and synth and Mike Mangini's thundering double kick drums. It's replete with time and tempo changes. "Paralyzed," despite its 4:17 length, is a riotous crunch-and-crush jam with roiling snare and tom-tom thud; the unhinged grooves from Myung and Petrucci, along with Rudess' piano, add ballast and drama for LaBrie, and he delivers the lyrics with characteristic commitment and remarkable range. "Fall Into the Light" with its bell-like cymbals and crashing snares provides a backdrop for seriously heavy shredding, offering two of Petrucci's finest solos. Musically, "Barstool Warrior" and "Out of Reach" could have been part of The Astonishing (though they wouldn't fit its subject matter). Their hooky prog ranges from anthemic rock djent to ELP-esque keyboard runs to Peter Gabriel/Steve Hackett-era Genesis -- which all entwine and add an expansive dimension to Distance Over Time. "At Wit's End" is a creative peak that illustrates the band's preference for leaving the heaviest hitters near the album's end. It delivers a kaleidoscopic range of prog metal tenets with frenetic polyrhythms, screaming guitar and keyboard solos, chugging bass, and emotive, soulful vocal refrains. The eight-and-half-minute "Pale Blue Dot" is another. Using Carl Sagan's phrase for describing earth from space, it commences with an ambient sci-fi intro that balances intense heaviness, knotty, time-stretching progressions, near-symphonic bombast, a taut hook, a foreboding chorus, and killer solos from Petrucci and Rudess that aggressively engage counterpoint. Vintage-era Deep Purple were a big influence on Dream Theater. The bonus track "Viper King" is a charged yet radio-friendly tribute to the Ritchie Blackmore/Jon Lord/Ian Gillan era, with its punched-up hard/prog rock swing showcasing insane collisions of organ, with unhinged guitar and bass exchanges prodded by maniacal drumming in supporting a loping cinematic chorus. Dream Theater reaffirm their identity on Distance Over Time, displaying a collective hunger, abundant energy, creativity, and musical (re)discovery. This set should erase the schism between fans and win the band a whole slew of new ones.