Starting out as the in-house prog guy at Metal Invader, I thought I’d talk about the discography of one of the most important bands to come out of this genre. Love them or hate them, progressive metal as we know it wouldn’t exist without them. They innovated, inspired countells bands that followed in teir footsteps, and considering their upcoming show at Gazi Music Hall with Animals as Leaders and Jason Richardson, here’s a completely objective and indisputable Best to Worst from their 30 year tenure as prog’s giants.
- Images and Words (1992)
To no one’s surprise, the album that really started it all. To many, of the most influential records in progressive metal music, their second album came almost from nowhere, combining influences from classic 70s prog rock bands such as Rush and King Crimson with the glam / power-tinged vocals of new member James LaBrie. Imbued with a unique dose of intricacy, it introduced us to many of the classic features of the band, such as epic-length compositions, drawn out, complicated instumental segments, and a young lineup full of energy and ready to conquer the (micro)world they were addressing.
- Metropolis Pt.2: Scenes From a Memory (1999)
This extensive in scope and concept album, with the contributions of fresh face Jordan Rudess proved to be one of the band’s most ambitiously successful endeavors. It includes some of their most sophisticated compositions, shaped by copious experimentation (i.e. ragtime breakdowns, spoken word theatrical sections, and even … inappropriate sounds as part of the narrative). Perpetuating the 70s influence with a single-concept record, the lyrics are narrated from multiple storytelling prespectives at different time periods, revealing a story of murder, love and reincarnation. The union of this tale with the successive unforgettable musical ideas that it gave us, made the album a standout monument on the pedestal of the genre.
- Train of Thought (2003)
One of their heaviest and most straightforward albums, Train of Thought has proven to us once and for all that not making a single mistake is a way to do everything right. Trying to write a series of compositions to increase their appeal to concert audiences with heavier riffs and fancier standout moments, they produced one of the finest metal LPs ever heard. Being at the peak of their reputation, they felt comfortable entertaining themselves in the direction they chose to take and writing some of the most memorable songs of their career in the process. In addition, John Petrucci gave the guitar players in his audience some of the most terrifying moments in their discography, such as the solo in Stream of Consciousness and the finale of This Dying Soul.
- Awake (1994)
The followup to Images and Words just demonstrated with the unwavering prowess that Dream Theater came here to stay. We’re seeing the band having gotten a couple of tours and some high chart performance on their resume write a worthy successor, and there was simply nothing missing. With gritty riffs like The Mirror and Lie, prog anthems such as Erotomania and introverted, intellectual tracks such as Voices and Space-Dye Vest the band once again crafted an unforgettable LP. In particular Kevin Moore stands out as a composer on this record, having written some of the most interesting keyboard parts in his career as a member of the band.
- Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002)
One of their least accessible, but also most gratifying albums. Once again we see them returning to the concept album format, with two distinct, emotionally loaded concepts: an initial section on themes of everyday hardship and following that, the collosal 42-minute title track exploring mental illness in its various facets. The album has some of the most grand in length and scope tracks in the band discography, including the flagship The Glass Prison. For the most part it doen’t include any more single “hits”, but as we already know, Dream Theater fans never really hesitate to spend about one and a half hours of their life to go through a record as a singular experience, and if there is one album that deserves it, it’s this one.
- Systematic Chaos (2007)
An LP rife with inventive tracks, including multiple singles that fans hold near and dear to their hhearts, that walk the line between catchy and fringe-sounding. At a time when the band had enjoyed continued success on the radio and wide acceptance by critics, they gave us a number of their most popular tracks yet, such as Forsaken, The Dark Eternal Night and Constant Motion. Nevertheless, with the second half of the record not maintaining the same energy and freshness that made the first so memorable, we caught Dream Theater red-handed formatting a CD in a chart-friendly “strong opening-long tail” structure.
- A Change of Seasons (1995)
Whether you consider it an album or not, I thought it appropriate to include it only because of the position it holds in the band’s career. In a crucial period after their first three albums and having received the love of the audience and the press, Dream Theater fearlessly turn over a bold EP consisting of a seven-part 23-minute piece as a single track on the recording (as opposed to SDoIT that came 7 years later) and a series of covers. This rhapsody of a track, despite being the inception for most prog metal memes you’ll see on social media pages,was met -unsurpsrisingly- with adoration from their fans. Once again praise was sung for the compostional choices the band made as well as the instrumental and stylistic fluctuations heard throughout the track.
- Octavarium (2005)
On this record we see Dream Theater mostly dropping the heavy sound of their previous releases (though not entirely), and writing cooler, more modern tracks – borrowing in obvious ways elements from contemporary hard rock and alternative groups of the early 00s. Having said that, most songs, though comprised of strong organic parts and decent choruses, were mostly forgettable. A bold contest to that claim can be seen in the title track, although despite its record-length runtime and the complicated concept, even it did not manage to have a noteworthy musical impact. Yet, at this point, the band is still only losing to their past selves.
- Black Clouds and Silver Linings (2009)
Even though it’s just 6 tracks long, the album lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes, continuing the two-decade-long tradition Dream Theater maintain in writing huge songs and albums. It was a balanced effort with a solid chart performance, but was characterized by alternations of strong moments – such as the beginning of A Nightmare to Remember and the compositionally exceptional The Count of Tuscany – with boring or simply painful moments (I’m looking at you Mike Portnoy’s “growl” vocals and ten-minutes-too-long The Best of Times). Although it gave off a positive note, given its bursts of mediocrity in conjunction with Portnoy’s departure, it is for many of us the last really good Dream Theater record.
- When Dream and Day Unite
DT’s debut is often forgotten and stowed away at the back of the fans’ minds, as many of the tracks, although original and interesting, retain a primitive flavor in terms of composition. Additionaly, vocalist Charlie Dominici in his only appearance on a Dream Theater record, though capable technically didn’t really enhance the tracks in any way with his performance. Of course, gems can still be found in it, such as the legendary Ytse Jam, which to this day is occasionally a part of their setlist. Thinking a little about it, and listening back to this album, we can see the young artists in their early days loking for their unique voice and testing their musical limits. All in all it’s a mostly a pleasant foreshadowing of what was to follow.
- Falling Into Infinity (1997)
Famous for the difficulties concerning its release due to tensions between the record label and the band, in a 1997 when labels were still expecting rock bands to move units and sell out arenas. Given the cuts in the length and number of tracks, the changes imposed in the compositions and the general discomfort the band faced until it was recorded, the album was widely considered to be a weak effort, full of melodramatic ballads and reprehensibly boring writing in the heavier parts, undeserving of the reputation of the band who wrote Images and Words and Awake. If you have to listen to it, look for the bootlegged version, which is pretty much the album’s “director’s cut”, with all tracks intact and at the correct length.
- Distance Over Time (2019)
For the band’s most recent offering and given the upcoming show, a few more words are in order. This was an unexpectedly pleasant album, that shows Dream Theater in renewed glory and willing to come out of their dark post-Portnoy bout. The lack of cuts that give off the same originality we were used to in the good ole’ times (look at me, already feeling like a gezzer in my tender 22 years of age), make placing it higher on the list out of the question. But as Theater had mostly lost the air of an active band still contributing to the scene and seemingly content with the status of veterans who have nothing to prove, their sudden return with tracks such as Pale Blue Dot and At Wit’s End left us speechless.
Writing to the new record, Dream Theater told us “we know who we are and what we’ve done for the prog world” by referencing older material that brings pleasant recollections from 90s and early 00s prog, without the staleness that plagued their previous 2-3 LPs. Of course, there were also musical nods to contemporary names of the scene that indicated the band’s awareness of modern trends. The track Barstool Warrior desrves a special mention here, featuring an intro that brought a nostalgic smile to our faces.
13. A Dramatic Turn of Events (2011)
Portnoy left. And now? All is woe. With John Petrucci taking over the composer’s reins, even going as far as to write most drum parts for new recruit Mike Mangini, they gave us “just another Dream Theater record”. Although it featured some strong moments, like the track Outcry, our heroes mostly decided to play it safe, recycling old ideas and feigning experimentation with no real flavor to speak of. At this point they also introduced us to the idea of the Throwaway Dream Theater Song with the On the Backs of Angels, a tune with all the features of a single by the band, without any of the soul.
14. Dream Theater (2013)
One of the most unremarkable offerings in the band’s multi-album discography. Despite the sincere respect they continued to inspire to those who listened to them throughout their career, this album carried with it the obvious marks of fatigue the band had accumulated, channelling the creative drought that followed Black Clouds and Silver Linings. Dream Theater released “Dream Theater” and in doing so became the most capable Dream Theater cover band (drinking game idea: take a shot each time I say Dream Theater in this paragraph). Listen to this record if you crave 9 throwaway Dream Theater songs as described before. Or even better – don’t. All the pieces are in their right place but nothing feels like it fits with this one.
- The Astonishing (2016)
“Astonishingly Bad” read a review that caought my eye when this album was first released. Unfortunately, with a couple of listens I quickly found myself in agreement. The main reason it was so easy for me to to start writing this list with Images and Words at the top and The Astonishing at the bottom is of course very specific. The incredible amount of packaging and promotion this album got before its release made it even harder to swallow just how bad the record was compared to what we expected.
“Twice the pride, double the fall,” said the Count, and in art this idea is crucial to the public’s image for every work an artist produces. A double album with 34 tracks and 130 minutes of runtime, an ambitious single story with multiple characters in dystopian setting written by Petrucci, a YA novelization, a mobile game and (I assume) a merch line ranging from hats to underwear just made the fans hope the shilling was at least worth it.
Unfortunately out of 34 songs, not even one was remotely memorable, the story resembled bad Hunger Games fanfiction at best and all the material felt sterile and boring despite LaBrie’s best efforts which was – admittedly – the best part of this record. If the self-titled was disappointment, The Astonishing was a dissapontment wrapped in gift paper and so it rightly conquered the bottom of both our hearts and this list.
It’s hard to write these kinds of articles, especially since they have to end with the most negative comments one has to offer about a band that is so important to its fans. The personal love the writer has for this band, as well as the importance of contribution to the progressive metal scene, are undisputable. These kids from Long Island that started a band three decades ago playing a genre that hardly even had a name yet, have now left their indelible mark in the history of music and we could not be more grateful about it. So today, looking back at their many year long discography – with its ups and downs – and considering the importance of the bands achievments we can not hide our impatience for their show on Tuesday …