Motion for ReconsiderationI first heard of Dream Theater from a music student at college. The band's fan base is composed less of metalheads and more of music students and guitar nerds. There's no mystery why that's the case: The band's musicians--who met at Berklee College of Music--are consistently named to be among some of the best in rock music.
So music geeks love them. But Metalheads, as a rule, hate them. Online discussions can be pretty contentious, given the extreme reactions they've inspired. Today is the 20th anniversary of the band's best-known album, Images and Words (March 28, 1992, per some sources, although other sources place it on July 7). I thought it would be a good time to examine the record's merits with as little bias as I can.
I&W begins on the excellent "Pull Me Under," still the band's most successful song. It's fairly heavy considering how commercial it is, and the chorus is pure gold. Examine this song closely, and you'll have the band's formula, a formula they still follow today. The music combines Fates Warning style prog metal with glam metal. They drop the shtick of glam, but sadly they don't manage to avoid the cheese factor. But it's that commercial, glam metal influence that makes the music accessible. Without the hooks, no one would give a damn about Dream Theater, regardless of how good the riffs and solos may be.
They follow "Pull Me Under" with a ballad. "Another Day" features saxophone more befitting of a Kenny G smooth jazz record than something in the "metal" bin. This one brings a major criticism of the band to the forefront: James LaBrie's vocals. If you heard this guy at a karaoke contest, you would think, "Damn, he's pretty good." Heard in the context of a record, it's a different story. His clean vocal delivery unsuccessfully reaches for the highs, and lacks any kind of soul. Ironically, this only weak point in the talent deparment is also the main reason they've been more commercially successful than other prog metal bands. Since he's not that great, you feel like you can sing along. He's a blessing and a curse.
They quickly redeem themselves after the ill-advised ballad. "Take the Time" is another fantastic song with some heavy riffs, flashy solos, and an incredibly catchy chorus. But, after that, they seem bent on destroying themselves with second ballad "Surrounded." Besides the vocal issue, it brings to light another major issue with the band. The keyboard parts have not aged well. "Surrounded" has the worst of the synth problems, but they pop up in a lot of other places as well.
The second half of the record sums up the remainder of the highs and lows of Dream Theater's music. Like much prog, it devolves into wankery, with long, meandering songs and another ballad (which is thankfully not as bad as the other two). There are cool riffs, and cool solos (check "Under a Glass Moon" for the best of both), but no great songwriting and no great hooks.
Images and Words sums up the best and the worst of Dream Theater. They've got a couple of great songs with awesome riffs, showy solos, and huge hooks that beg you to sing along. But they've also got crappy, fondue-dipped ballads and heavy doses of prog wankery.
The Verdict: Both the anti- and pro-Dream Theater camps have seriously overstated the case. Dream Theater have some very good songs. They also have some really shitty songs, and others that probably sounded better twenty years ago but have lost their freshness. I give it 3 out of 5 stars. They belong more to the Guitar World than to the world of Decibel and Terrorizer, but in the end, every metalhead should own at least one of their albums. But that one album should be Train of Thought, not Images and Words.
Buy Images and Words