It’s no secret that yours truly is a diehard Dream Theater fan. (I suppose it’s somewhat of a secret seeing as I’ve only mentioned the New York-based band once on this site in the last four years.) I have attended three concerts — one in Atlanta in 2005, one in Cleveland, OH in 2007 and one in Asheville, NC (of all places) in 2010. That is precisely nowhere near as many as I would have liked to have attended so far, considering the band has released two new albums since my last trip. Despite feeling I haven’t gone to enough of them, these are without a doubt among the best experiences of my life. You want an immersive concert experience? Go to a DT show.
I regularly steer new listeners of this very niched band — so named after a now-demolished movie theater in Monterey, California — to their live performances if I learn those listeners are on the fence about them. This is a band that demonstrates profound, technical musicianship in the studio but to bear witness to this spectacle is something else entirely. I also tell these people they should take lead singer James LaBrie’s vocal approach with a grain of salt (this is the hurdle a great many people have unsuccessfully cleared when popping in one of their albums for the first time). The guy has a distinctive, powerful and often goofy operatic singing style. It took me several albums to decide if I liked him or not. Now, I can’t imagine the band without the Canuck.
On November 2, the band had hinted through their Twitter a new album was on its way. About time! It’s been more than two years since their last effort, the longest turn-around time between releases following their split with Elektra Records in 1999. Since joining their current label Roadrunner for their first self-produced concept album, the commercially and critically acclaimed ‘Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory,’ founding members Mike Portnoy (drummer) — who departed in 2010 and was replaced by the equally talented Mike Mangini — and John Petrucci (guitars) have ensured their fans will have something to look forward to at the end of every tour, which for the most part have consumed an entire calendar year.
They then hibernate in their favorite New York recording studio to jam and eventually turn that session into a beautifully orchestrated and produced symphony of notes, harmonies, face-melting solos, and high-concept lyrical content, the likes of which have more often than not ended up in international metal magazines’ year-end lists of the greatest stuff you’ll hear all year (it is with some hesitation that I clarify: I refer more to the music than the lyrics; DT doesn’t necessarily hang their hat on their lyrics, even if this aspect isn’t by any means a weakness).
Yeah, someone here is biased. I know that. I’m fully aware that my publicizing — and premature celebrating — of the upcoming album is predicated by my long-standing relationship with the band. Time and again, however, I’ve been shown that lofty expectations be damned; the new album will always find its place somewhere in the greater story that is Dream Theater. The 2016 release, their 13th, bears the official title ‘The Astonishing.’ Leaps out of chair, fist-pumps and pulverizes knuckles on ceiling fan on accident. Music is tough love. \m/ \m/
In light of the exciting news, I’d like to attempt to back-up some of my verbal diarrhea with some factual tidbits. Well, not necessarily ‘factual’ in the strictest sense of the word; more like evidence that this is a band well worth listening to even as the members enter their late 50’s (keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who joined on the aforementioned ‘Metropolis’ album, is the oldest at 58) and despite the fact this will probably forever be the Biggest Band You’ve Never Heard Of. Below you’ll find an arrangement of their discography that I’ve prioritized based on my preferences.
It should go without saying that you shouldn’t take this as an ordering of their most popular or their most commercially viable releases or anything like that. This is my attempt to highlight their prolificness, in case anyone needs a head start on where to go — and trust me, if you like what you hear at first, there is A LOT to get into. It can be a little overwhelming. I’ll include the track I’d recommend starting with on each album, and which album I think best defines this ever-changing band. Bear in mind this is a group that has been influenced by everything from Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne; from pop to blues. If you dig deep enough you’ll find references to John Lennon’s poetry and tips of the hat to Yes’ early etchings of the progressive rock scene. DT is quite literally in a category all their own. One reason I love them and can’t wait to see what they will have come up with next year.
Release: June 7, 2005
Recommendation: I have to send up one flag with this, my immediate go-to: it is, in DT terms, a true ‘epic.’ Clocking in at 24 minutes even, it’s one long listen. But these are some of the fastest-passing 20 minutes you’ll likely hear once you commit past the trance-inducing opening. Built upon the concept of the passage of time and sharing the album’s obsession over the musical application of ‘8’ (octave is an important element here) ‘Octavarium’ is simply a work of art. It is perhaps my all-time favorite song. Possibly because it recalls early Pink Floyd more than anything; is that ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond?’ No, it can’t be. This is a 2005 track. . .
Album: ‘Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From a Memory’
Release: October 26, 1999
Track: ‘Fatal Tragedy [Scene 3]‘
Recommendation: On an album marked by some of the most beautiful and brilliantly constructed progressive music in the last several decades, ‘Fatal Tragedy,’ merely a small part in the bigger picture of a tale about a murder and its consequences on a family and a lover caught in an affair, is one heck of a jam. It may not be the most accessible track on the record but it’s probably the most fun passage. It starts slowly and rather unsuspecting, building rapidly towards an energetic and complex battle between Petrucci’s mind-numbing guitars and Rudess’ keyboard wizardry.
Album: ‘Images and Words’
Release: July 7, 1992
Track: ‘Learning to Live‘
Recommendation: Dream Theater’s most celebrated (and in my book their third greatest achievement, especially considering they were just kids when it was released . . . okay, they were roughly 20 years old) piece boasts eight tracks, each of which are essentially better than the last. It is capped off with this incredibly rich 11-minute romantic flourish with a rare lyrical contribution from bassist John Myung (a.k.a. the guy who never speaks). ‘Learning to Live’ takes some patience to digest but once you’ve opened up to it the song just gets better and better, and it features one of Petrucci’s select Spanish guitar solos. You have to hear it.
Album: ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’
Release: September 12, 2011
Track: ‘Bridges in the Sky‘
Recommendation: ‘Bridges in the Sky’ serves as both a centerpiece for the band’s first album following the departure of long-standing (and founding) member Mike Portnoy as well as the epitome of what DT can do with some classic, hard-hitting riffs. ‘Bridges’ boasts one of the most uplifting and exhilarating lyrical breaks/choruses in DT’s catalogue, providing LaBrie another opportunity to display his vocal range and prove that he’s not all about the excessive wailing and tongue-sticking-out stuff. (Watch him on a DVD or in concert and you’ll see what I mean.) This is a great modern metal tune with some particularly memorable lyrics.
Album: ‘Systematic Chaos’
Release: June 4, 2007
Track: ‘The Dark Eternal Night‘
Recommendation: I might be venturing out into Dream Theater purist territory here but there’s no denying this heavy, morbid track epitomizes the uniqueness of DT’s sound. The ominous, heavily textured guitars and crazy lyrical inflections make ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ one of the most distinctive releases in their catalog. I’d be lying if I said this isn’t something the sickly curious should check out. Listen to that chorus. Listen to that bass line. And then the musical interlude that consumes you after the second refrain. Oh man. What a track.
Album: ‘A Change of Seasons’
Release: September 19, 1995
Track: ‘A Change of Seasons‘
Recommendation: Technically speaking, this is not an official studio release, as this oft-forgotten EP from the mid-90s features only one original work (the title track) amidst a collection of live cover songs, each of which are interesting in their own right. But this sprawling adventure is too good not to recommend. This 23-minute long track encompasses a variety of strong emotions and manages to sneak in a quote or two from the hugely successful drama Dead Poets Society. Lyrically inspirational and featuring one of the more blues-y guitar breaks in recent memory, this utterly progressive epic is a must for DT completionists.
Album: ‘When Dream and Day Unite’
Release: March 6, 1989
Recommendation: Arguably the stand-out track on the debut album from a band that at the time called themselves Majesty, ‘Afterlife’ is an exciting, enchanting pondering of what lies beyond. While clearly lacking in the clean production of later albums — this was the band’s first and only album to fail to produce a subsequent tour — WDADU (which has a hilarious phonetic pronunciation of “what’d I do?!”) represents several hallmark idiosyncrasies that would later endear millions to the band. This track in particular features a wicked guitar solo that leads into one of the best guitar-keyboard unisons I have ever heard. This album also marked the first and only album featuring former singer Charlie Dominici and the first of two collaborations with then-keyboardist Kevin Moore, who has since disassociated himself with the band for reasons unknown.
Album: ‘Train of Thought’
Release: November 11, 2003
Track: ‘Stream of Consciousness‘
Recommendation: I have debated inserting this selection as my #1 choice as its distinct lack of vocals makes it a potentially more accessible passage, given singer James LaBrie’s unique singing style, yet I wouldn’t quite feel right doing so on the virtue of specifically excluding one of the core members. Nevertheless, ‘Stream of Consciousness,’ which represents one of several of DT’s instrumental tracks, is absolutely classic. It features exquisitely complex guitars and drums, both in hair-tearing medleys and in isolation; and one of the most recognizable riffs in DT’s catalog. It is available on an album that is more straightforward metal than anything they’ve done and is one of the first songs that got me into the band.
Album: ‘Falling Into Infinity’
Release: September 23, 1997
Track: ‘Trial of Tears‘
Recommendation: The band was going through a particularly difficult patch in their careers at the time of this release. As a band that has largely been defined by their unique sound and bold decision to consistently produce lengthier songs in an era where songs seem to only be getting shorter, DT was facing incredible pressure from the label to put together a more radio-friendly product. The tension was enough to almost end the band completely, but rather than folding they came up with perhaps their most overlooked album. It’s a shame because it features ‘Trial of Tears,’ a gorgeously composed, relatively mellow exercise in aural hypnosis. Penned once again by the quietly prolific John Myung, it’s an exclamation point on a strong album that has perhaps taken far too much criticism.
Album: ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’
Release: January 29, 2002
Recommendation: There are too many choices when it comes to DT’s follow-up to their seminal ‘Scenes From a Memory.’ ‘Six Degrees’ manifests as another concept album, one split over two discs and featuring five lengthier tracks on disc one — each one a build-up to disc two’s “six degrees of inner turbulence,” a nod to the various states of psychological distress and ailments. While I could spend hours nitpicking through the brilliance of the second disc, ultimately what this comes down to is uniqueness. And track #3 on disc one is the epitome of it. Some have made it known that they weren’t overly enamored by DT’s more experimental movement in ‘Misunderstood,’ and even I have to admit the last few minutes of the song remain bizarre to me but it’s the overall piece I’m concerned with. ‘Misunderstood’ is atmospheric and its lyrical content is a highlight. John Petrucci wants to know, “How can I feel abandoned even when the world surrounds me?”
Release: October 4, 1994
Track: ‘Lifting Shadows Off a Dream‘
Recommendation: This is certifiably obscure DT but I love ‘Lifting Shadows Off a Dream.’ Leave it to John Myung to provide dense, mysterious yet ultimately optimistic lyrics. The ninth in an 11-track collection of decidedly heavier songs following 1992’s break-out hit ‘Images and Words,’ this song ultimately falls on the generally more accessible side of the spectrum as it restrains technicality in favor of melody and lyrical content. A perfect example of the band knowing when it’s appropriate to scale back their almost obsessive meticulousness.
Album: ‘Dream Theater’
Release: September 23, 2013
Track: ‘Illumination Theory‘
Recommendation: E-hem. Yes. At 23 minutes, ‘Illumination Theory’ puts the finishing touches on an album marked with a distinctly cinematic motif, with many a riff and refrain echoing the grandeur of movie scores. Just once I’d like for this band to score a movie, and well, I guess the guys have already played with that notion. Here’s one idea of what that might sound like. Though I still don’t fully grasp what the title refers to, suffice it to say the musical content speaks for itself. Sitting pretty in the middle of this gorgeous epic is one of the most extensive orchestral breaks DT has yet featured, leading listeners to believe the song may bow out on a quieter note. But any regular listeners aren’t likely to be fooled so easily. Indeed, Petrucci and friends erupt into a spectacular crescendo down the stretch, and, along with an almost never-better LaBrie at the mic, finish the song and their most recent album off in traditionally dramatic fashion.
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