Progressive metal legends DREAM THEATER are out on the road this year, celebrating the 25th anniversary of their best-selling and most popular album, “Images and Words” (1992). Yours truly got the chance to see the show at the Helsinki Ice Hall back in February 2017, which was great, but now that the studio album itself has actually reached the 25-year mark, it’s time to have a look at it in this retrospective review.
After DREAM THEATER‘s debut album, “When Dream and Day Unite” (1989), didn’t exactly set the world on fire, the band was in limbo for a while, writing new material, auditioning singers, and looking for a new record label. Finally in 1991, a tape arrived from Canada and a gentleman called Kevin LaBrie (who would go by the name James LaBrie from then on to avoid confusion with keyboardist Kevin Moore) was chosen as the new vocalist. Soon after that, the band had a deal with Atco Records on their hands. “Images and Words” was released in 1992 at the height of the grunge boom, yet surprisingly enough, opening track “Pull Me Under” became a hit on the radio and MTV. The album itself received acclaim and sold well, going gold in the US.
The aforementioned hit single, “Pull Me Under,” is a great opener and – despite its 8-minute length – is an accessible gateway track that sums up what Dream Theater’s music is about without getting too crazy for the average listener. It includes all the facets of the Dream Theater sound: high-pitched vocals, heavy and rhythmic riffing, and flashy solos and drum fills, but also atmospheric clean guitars and a catchy chorus. “Another Day” is an ’80s-style power ballad with a saxophone solo by guest performer Jay Beckenstein (who was in Spyro Gyra, right?). It may sound a little dated now, but the melodies and John Petrucci’s solo are beautiful, as are the lyrics about his father’s battle with cancer. The inclusion of saxophone also proves that DT weren’t afraid of fusing unusual elements into their sound, which is something they sadly don’t do as much anymore. John Myung’s funky bass and LaBrie‘s almost rap-like delivery in the first verse of “Take the Time” are another example of this bold genre blending. The rest of the tune is more typical prog metal, full of time signature changes and intricate instrumentation, but the instrumental section is fun and compelling, not pointless noodling. The sing-along chorus, Kevin Moore‘s brilliant keyboard solo, and the slightly QUEEN-sounding glorious ending top it all off – man, what a song!
“Surrounded” is another ballad, but it’s more upbeat and synth-driven than “Another Day.” Moore‘s beautiful playing and spiritual lyrics combined with LaBrie‘s lively vocals make this song one of my all-time favorites in the DT discography. “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper” is arguably the most pretentious song title of all time, but according to Petrucci it was a joke and there were no plans for a sequel, at least until the song became a fan-favorite and the fans started asking when they would release Pt. 2 (they did it 7 years later, but that’s another story). “Metropolis” is famous for its crazy instrumental section and, while it’s not one of my favorite songs, I understand its popularity as the musicianship is incredible. By the way, “Metropolis” is one of the playable songs in the Rock Band 4 video game (“Pull Me Under” was available in Guitar Hero World Tour), so if there are still fans of plastic instruments around, they might want to try their hand at it.
“Under a Glass Moon” is the heaviest song on the album with dissonant keyboards, punchy riffage, and thunderous drums by Mike Portnoy, but also has plenty of those Alex Lifeson -influenced guitar arpeggios and chords that I love. The centerpiece of the song is Petrucci‘s solo, which can be found on numerous “top X guitar solos” lists and involves numerous different techniques. “Wait for Sleep” is a total change of pace, including only piano, synth strings, and vocals. You’d think that a 2½-minute piano ballad is the most simple song out there, but even this Moore-penned beautiful little tune includes some time signature shifting that makes it challenging to play. Despite this slight complexity, “Wait for Sleep” is a touching song about mourning the loss of a loved one and searching for answers. “Learning to Live” is the longest song on the album at its 11½-minute length, yet less chaotic than “Metropolis,” which is why it’s aged better for me. LaBrie‘s famous F#5 note in the middle of the song, followed by Petrucci‘s melodic solo is pure heaven – not even the hilarious goat edition can destroy its magic! Myung‘s prominent basslines and thoughtful lyrics, as well as the brilliant “Wait for Sleep” reprise and one of the most tastefully executed and epic fade-out outros I’ve heard, are also moments worth mentioning – a top 5 DREAM THEATER song for sure.
While its successor, the dark and introspective “Awake” (1994), is the pinnacle of DREAM THEATER‘s career to me, “Images and Words” is also a perfect album in my books. Time may not have been kind to the production, but it’s hard to imagine the record without those synth sounds and the triggered drums that Mike Portnoy hates. They’re part of the album’s charm and it’s amazing that a release as layered and polished as this became so big in the grunge era. However, the success was definitely deserved, as the band had worked their asses off for years. All the little musical details are well-thought-out and you can hear that the album was written carefully over a long period of time and not just pushed out over a couple of weeks. Although bands like QUEENSRYCHE and FATES WARNING had made quality prog metal before, and DREAM THEATER had one album under their belt already, “Images and Words” was the real revolution and defined the genre as we know it today. When I hear the words “progressive metal,” this is the first album that pops into my mind – take that as you will!
Written by Wille Karttunen
- Pull Me Under
- Another Day
- Take the Time
- Metropolis pt. I: The Miracle and the Sleeper
- Under a Glass Moon
- Wait for Sleep
- Learning to Live
James Labrie – lead vocals
John Petrucci – lead guitar, backing vocals
Kevin Moore – keyboards
John Myung – bass
Mike Portnoy – drums, percussion, background vocals on “Pull Me Under”