You know I’m going to love this one, don’t you? Go absolutely gaga over its pioneering sound, and virtuostic playing and even pretty decent lyrics? Leave adeposit on it? Well, you’re absolutely right. I love this album. Its brilliant. I think its Concorde moment in metal music. It is to Dream Theater what Terminator is to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and what Appetite for Destruction is to GnR. The original, the best and the purest distillation of what I think is the ‘classic’ DT lineup. All this really is all that you need to know about this album. You might as well leave the review right now, unless you want to read my hilariously unbalanced skills of analysis and frankly petty nitpicking in areas.
For those of you who want to read further though, let me say that this is much better in production than the last and at least in terms of resolution and balance between the instruments, much better than most albums after it. Right from the beginning, the maturity is evident, with the presence of vocal harmonies and lyrics which seem to have been written with the song structure in mind. It gives more variety to the otherwise putty-like structures of prog-metal songs, with pieces like ‘Pull me under’ and ‘Another day’ coming to mind. Further maturity is seen in the balance that the whole album lends itself to, with three ballads, all of them fantastic.
The good news about the vocals is that James Labrie sounds brilliant on this record, with the glass-shattering F# in ‘Learning to Live’ standing in particularly high stead. Bad news is, he has never quite been able to match these heights since, as DT has since moved on to heavier music requiring guttural vocals which is quavering soprano can’t quite do justice to.
Kevin Moore (keyboards) is the secret weapon here. He holds the ballads together, solos with Petrucci (guitar) note for note, and lends the correct atmosphere where needed. It’s a landmark keyboard performance that has gone oddly unappreciated as one. The keyboard solos, despite the slightly cheesy lead patches, are amazing and high flying. The wheel manipulation is masterful and extremely musical, especially on Take the Time and Pull me Under. Though not as technically sound as Petrucci, his solos are eminently more listenable, well composed and memorable than Petrucci.
The rest of the band gives great and memorable performances on their respective instruments, with Mike Portnoy’s machine-gun double-bass drumming on Metropolis being a standout. The biggest surprise though, is the lyrics. Though not always decipherable (and annoyingly opaque on the aforementioned Metropolis), Moore, Myung (bass) and Petrucci have penned eminently poetic lyrics that are sometimes surprisingly insightful. My favourite lines? “Better to save the mystery, than surrender to the secret” from Another Day and the whole of “Wait for Sleep”. I wish they always wrote this way.
When it comes to nitpicking, there is precious little that I can point out to other than Moore’s 80’s keyboard patches, Petrucci’s sometimes indecipherable lyrics and the fact that this isn’t an easy album to listen to, in the first go.
If DT are to be remembered, this is the album to be remembered with. They haven’t quite managed anything as its equal for more than 15 years now. Octavarium and Scenes from a Memory came close, but then this will always remain their inarguable best. In my opinion, its value also can be measured in terms of being an example of what DT are best at, and in teaching them what they are doing wrong right now. I haven’t yet heard “Black Clouds and Silver Linings” (their latest album), but if it takes lessons from Images and Words, I know that it will sound very right.