Mar 292012

Our fellow metal blogger, Full Metal Attorney, has been keeping his eye on the calendar, and he noticed that yesterday — March 28 — was the 20th anniversary of the release of Images and Words, the second full-length album by Dream Theater and a kind of milestone creation in the genre of prog rock/metal. To commemorate the occasion, he wrote a retrospective about the album. To commemorate his commemoration, I’ve written this post, because I’m curious.

This isn’t the first time I’ve leached off of Full Metal Attorney. I did this once before after he posted a piece about Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power on the 20th anniversary of that album’s release. And, y’know, one good turn deserves another, particularly when the turn means I don’t have to come up with my own ideas.

FMA’s post begins with these words: “[Dream Theater’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.”

I don’t know if it’s true that Metalheads, as a rule, hate Dream Theater, because I don’t talk with anyone about Dream Theater, because I don’t like their music very much and I think discussing them would be boring. So although I must be one of those metalheads to whom FMA was referring, I am still curious about a few things.

FMA accurately sums up my feelings about Dream Theater, which are based on the sample listening I did years ago before I decided that continued listening might turn my brain to porridge. In his words:

“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.”

“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.”

“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 . . .”

On the other hand, FMA finds some redeeming qualities in the music on Images and Words (and in the music of Dream Theater more generally): They have the capability of delivering “awesome riffs, showy solos, and huge hooks that beg you to sing along.” And he rates the Train of Thought album as one that every metalhead should own.

Now I am definitely the wrong person to be grading this band or attempting to find their strengths, because I come to a full stop so fast when I listen to their music that I’ve never given them serious consideration, despite being aware that John Petrucci is widely considered to be a guitar god and that the other instrumental performers are also highly regarded. In my case, it pretty much just comes down to the vocals.

I actually tried listening to a few songs just last week before I knew about the anniversary of Images and Words, because a different band’s music made me think of them, and I wanted to see if my recollection was correct. As it happened, I still have two Dream Theater albums on my iPod (don’t ask me why) — Train of Thought (2003) and Octavarium (2005) — and I made it through one song on the latter and had to stop.

So, here’s what I’m curious about: Do most metalheads really hate Dream Theater? Does anyone who reads NCS really enjoy Dream Theater’s music? And if so, why? And am I just being a narrow-minded prick for not recognizing the music’s strengths because I can’t get past the vocals? And if you know Train of Thought, do you agree that it’s an album every metalhead should own (and yes, it appears I do own it)?  Comments please?

(And by all means, don’t make do with my summarizing of Full Metal Attorney’s post — read it for yourselves here.)



  1. I wouldn’t call myself a HUGE Dream Theater fan but I do really love a couple of their albums. Prog holds kind of a special place for me, it was actually Rush that pulled me out of the dregs of nu metal and made me demand more from my music. From Rush came Dream Theater (and in the other direction In Flames and Lamb of God).

    My first Dream Theater album, conveniently enough, was Images and Words. I pulled it out of a bargain bin for a couple bucks along with Symphony X’s The Divine Wings of Tragedy. And while I enjoyed the shit out of both, I’d say it’s Images and Words that stuck with me.

    Is it cheesy? Oh hell yeah, it’s cheesy. Do the songs get long, meandering, and wanky? Well yeah, it’s prog. Coming from Rush I never really had a problem with LaBrie’s vocals, it’s just something that comes with the prog territory. The album has some great riffs, some excellent solos, and some great vocals. Plus it had enough musical complexity for sixteen year old me to continue looking down my nose at those pop listeners even if I couldn’t tell a 7/8 time signature from a ham sandwich.

    Now, Images and Words isn’t my favorite Dream Theater album. That honor would probably go to one of their two ridiculously up-their-own-ass concept albums, the second disc of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Showing off some of their most varied musicianship and most meaningful lyrics, the forty five minute, seven part suite breaks down mental illness after mental illness with appropriate shifts in style and tone as it goes.

    Unfortunately they started phoning it in. And James LaBrie started rapping. And somewhere in there Dream Theater went to shit.

  2. Nice write-up, and thanks for the plug. From comments so far, it seems I may have overstated the case about how many people hate DT. I should have looked closer at Metal Archives, because there are 19 reviews for an average score of 90%. But there are a few who don’t like it.

    A 25% score review sums it up as “little more than an incohesive combination of power metal, Rush, and pop that allots more room to pop than power metal.” This is the worst score on MA. The second-worst, a score of 73%, says, “It seems to me that Dream Theater is one of those bands that you either love or you hate. Yet, personally, I don’t do either. While I don’t think they’re the greatest band of all time, I don’t their they’re terrible wankers, either.” This one seems to be a very fair assessment, and it’s worth reading itself:

  3. I never could get into DT. Its something I can handle for a while if someone else has it playing because the musicianship is so good, but I’ve never said to myself “I wanna hear Dream Theater now” and I don’t think I will.

  4. I’m going to be even lazier then Islander and just link an A-Z article I did last year on these guys.

    But as an appendix to this I have to say that the last release was not so different from when Portnoy was in the band which leads me to believe he had less influence on the music then perception would have it. Not to mention much like Rush these guys have become boring late in their career. I’m a metalhead and Coffin said it perfectly. When I feel like wanting more from music I will give these guys a spin. And yes Train of Thought is almost universally considered to be the metalhead album in the catalog.

  5. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that “Train Of Thought” is a great album. It’s easily my favorite of theirs. ‘Stream Of Consciousness’ is a fantastic tune, and not just because it’s 11+ minutes of James LaBrie not singing.

    I find that I generally tend to prefer later-era Dream Theater: “Train Of Thought”, “Octavarium”, “Systematic Chaos”… the last album was quite good in spite of Portnoy’s departure/endless whining/repeated subtle pleas for them to let him back in the band.

  6. I think I’m like Islander and have given them a listen or two, but ultimately found them not that interesting.
    But I like DragonForce….I wonder if that’s contradictory.

  7. i don’t like dream theater. i don’t think i’ve ever been able to get through one song.

  8. I have to give a certain amount of respect to DT. For me, they were like a gateway into the world of Prog metal. Before them, I didn’t really consider myself a metalhead because the only bands I really listened to were Metallica, Megadeath, and Pantera (maybe Queensryche but I actually never really considered them metal). Like AC above, I was more interested in Rush and Led Zeppelin at the time.

    When I first heard DT it was like the heavens opening because for the first time I heard the complexity of Rush combined with the heaviness of Metallica (at that time Metallica was beginning to bomb hugely with Load, Reload, etc., so I was looking for a replacement). This eventually led me to Opeth, Devin Townsend, Pain of Salvation, Textures, etc.

    But now-a-days, I still listen to all those bands DT helped me discover, but I’m pretty much completely done with DT. I would say that they are flashy, and the crazy instrumental solos are hard to resist as an immature kid. But once you get some musical sophistication, their music starts to ring hollow.

    I finally cut all ties with them when I saw them perform live (it was their last tour before Portnoy left). That turned out to be one of the most uninspired concerts I’ve ever been to. Everyone appeared bored (not just Portnoy) and so it didn’t surprise me at all when Portnoy announced he was leaving a few months later.

    To be fair though, I don’t think Images and Words is a fair album to review as a metalhead. I agree that something like Train of Thought (or Awake which is the first one I heard, or Metropolis pt. 2 which was probably my favorote) has a much better chance of appealing to metalhead sensibilities.

    • Yeah, I saw them on that tour, opening for Maiden, and it was not a great show they played. I saw them again this past September, and it was the complete opposite. It was one of the best shows I’ve been to.

    • You’ve just provided a reason to respect Dream Theater beyond the pluses that FMA identified: they were a gateway to a path that ultimately led to a range of different (and better) metal. They weren’t my gateway, but I suspect they were to a lot of people.

    • Much like you, DT was kind of a gateway band. However, I still enjoy DT’s music, although I don’t love their latest output as much as Images And Words, Awake or Scenes From A Memory (but the covers disc with Black Clouds & Solver Linings could easily stand on its own).

      DT is one of those bands who’s put on a pedestal and used as a measuring stick for good reason, even if some make comparisons to them more than judging whatever band they’re actually talking about on their own merits. Fortunately, not all prog (or that which gets draped with that label) comes from the school of DT; over the years, one can see where Symphony X has had a significant influence on new bands, as well as the earlier pioneers of progresive rock and metal.

      I don’t know if I’ve outgrown DT, but they’re no longer a band that I turn to automatically. I don’t mind James Labrie’s voice, although I will admit that some of DT’s material might sound better with a different voice. It’s a shame that the band and Portnoy had the kind of divorce they did, but hopefully time can help mend some of the damage.

      Only thing I might change about DT is use more Myung written material. Perhaps without Portnoy’s 12 Step Suite, there might be room for the bassist’s songs a little more often.

    • I’m almost in the same place as you are.

      But for me DT is done not because there is better music out there (which is true) , I don’t listen to those guys anymore because I got bored with every release since Octavarium.

      That being said, I still enjoy a lot my “old” DT albums (Awake, Metropolis PII, train of thought,six degrees…)

  9. I’m the biggest Dream Theater fanboy you’ll find. They were the band that got me into metal. I grew up on a mix of Yes, Genesis, Rush, Marillion, and all those wonderful classic prog rock bands as well as some jazzier artists, and the way Dream Theater sounded, combining the classic prog with heavier influences absolutely blew me away.

    I’m not really surprised that most metalheads don’t like DT, because they aren’t all metal, having quite a few songs that are more prog rock than anything.

  10. I’m a huge Dream Theater fan. I’m not sure how old you are, Islander, but I think it’s one of those “you had to be there” bands, as in you had to live through it to appreciate how important and revolutionary this band was at the time — NO ONE was playing music this technical back in in 1992. The same way today’s kids don’t appreciate Pantera, Faith No More, or in some cases even Meshuggah because of all the newer bands that have copped those styles and improved upon them, DT may seem by today’s tech-metal standards.

    Also, this is definitely true: “am I just being a narrow-minded prick for not recognizing the music’s strengths because I can’t get past the vocals.” Yup. So much great musical stuff happening that you’re missing out on.


    • There was a time long before I got into metal when Yes and Rush were two of my favorite bands, and then I went off in other directions (mainly punk) and then eventually came to metal relatively late in my life to date. I missed the advent of Dream Theater and came around to them many years later, and well after I had first become addicted to melodic death metal and early metalcore, and by then I guess my brain had become re-wired. I probably would have a different perspective on them if I had come into metal through a different doorway, having missed out on the original impact of what they were doing.

    • Regarding the whole letting vocals make you miss out on great musical stuff:
      Theoretically, I agree with you, Vince, but practically I just can’t.
      I mean, I think that we SHOULD ignore vocals if the music behind them is superb…but, personally, being a non-musician, the thing that I most listen to is the vocals. So, if they don’t do it for me, it’s pretty hard to enjoy the music, no matter how good it is.

      • I’m a musician, but I still agree. I have that same problem with Spheric Universe Experience. All of the instrumentalists are awesome, but I can barely stand to listen to them just because the vocalist is so bad.

  11. Love Dream Theater. They were the first prog band I got into, opened me up to a wonderful world of music. Albums like Six Degrees, Imaages and Words, Awake, ToT, Scenes from A Memory remain some of my all time favourite albums. The latest album was great as well, Portnoy leaving is the best thing to have happened to the band in a long time.

    I got say though when on earth have DT combined glam elements into heir music? i certainly don’t hear any such thing

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