Okay, now after listening to the full album, my excitement is even greater than before. This album flies, they really feel like they're into this one. A few things really stuck out:
1) they really let Manginni off the chain with this one. He's much more prominent in the mix, unlike the last album. The drums are nice and hot, just like they were with Portnoy. And he really puts in his own soul to this one... Like when I saw him with Vai about 14 years ago. Lots of tasteful tom work, creative instrument usage, he guy is a true master.
2) Myung is finally coming out of his shell! There is some great bass on this album, and now it's thick and ballsy... Almost reminding me of how the guys sounded with Tony Levin! He's finally using a bit of amp coloration (I wouldn't quite call it fuzz or distortion), but it sounds thick and juicy, words I would never use to describe Myung's playing in the past.
The final epic is easily the best 18min+ track they've done since ACOS. I used to think they'd be good at doing ultra long tunes, but when they finally got around to doing them, I was surprised that I always found them to be fairly weak, or really obviously 5-7 tunes strung together (Six degrees). This one has some nice meat on the bones. I found myself thinking of Deep Purple at times, LaBrie actually sounds pretty good! Even the orchestral interlude, though maybe a little long, wasn't as sacarine and "Disney-esque" as they've been in the past.
I believe that what makes this album successful is that I really think the guys were trying to be themselves this time. Playing with influences is fine, but on a lot of their recent albums I got the feeling that they were trying to force a particular image of themselves on people that really wasn't true. Metal (if you call DT that) often walks that line, often being fairly down-to-earth consummate musicians being cathartic and releasing their inner aggression. For the past 5 or so albums, it just sounded like an obvious act to me. And sort of like Iron Maiden finally saying that they didn't care if they were metal or not, it seem Dream Theater has also decided to stop trying to be, and just be.