First principles: if you are going to take inspiration from an older example, it’s best not to choose one that practically destroyed its author(s). The Astonishing is, in part, about a rebellion against the machines that make the music instead of humans, which is similar to the premise of Styx’s Kilroy Was Here where a savior comes to bring back rock and roll from its prohibition in a future age. Like Kilroy, The Astonishing tends to take its cues from musical theater rather than the progressive rock world from which Dream Theater comes and Styx initially came.
(A thought: there’s nothing less rock and roll than a self-defensive storyline about rock and roll needing to be saved from the bad guys.)
That said, you have to give Dream Theater its proper respect for trying something different, rather than once again engaging with their schism between whether they are prog or they are metal, and with how much of each they may be. James LaBrie is up to the challenge of voicing all the characters in this multi-character narrative, employing a forceful tone for the men, a growly voice for the mustache-twirling baddies, and falsetto for the women. The band, as well, is one of the most complex and gifted in music, and the David Campbell orchestration gives the effort a cinematic lift.
But there isn’t anything that grabs the listener and demands repeat listening — a key necessity for any rock opera. Can it be enjoyed in bites or must it be consumed all at once? The Astonishing proves to be a very weighty meal. As was stated, it consists of two CDs of music, broken into Acts 1 and 2 and filling each one to the margins, but in all of this there isn’t that “single-ready” track that is easily extracted for obsessive listening.
Even so, it seems that the band is having fun with the whole thing and is totally in for the absurdist ride. On charitable days, I think the Dream Theater fans will feel the same way. They will not look on it with the same shock and scorn as, say, Judas Priest fans reserve for the bloated Nostradamus concept album. But charity has its limits, and if a DT fan is looking for concepts and narratives, they’re probably going to lean toward the Metropolis cycle or the second disc of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.
At its best, The Astonishing is a noble curiosity that will enliven long road trips or days stuck indoors during prolonged snowstorms. At worst, it is a goofy novelty that does not do violent damage to the band or its fans, but doesn’t really do them any favors either.