Dream Theater - Images and Words (1992)
Before the Theatrics
As is probably pretty common among metal listeners, Images and Words and Dream Theater in general is an immensely important band that guided the Progressive Metal scene for many, many years. Dream Theater dominated my old Ipod with Octavarium, Change of Seasons, and Metropolis Pt. 2 with those introductory albums eventually giving way to Train of Thought, Systematic Chaos, and Dramatic Turn of Events. I was enthralled with the idea of amazing musicians playing music that obviously sounded technically difficult. It was no longer about catchy classic rock riffs or singalong pop songs, it was about creating music that showed off how creative and impressive a band can sound, and that forged my initial love for Progressive Metal of all kinds. Images and Words may not have been the first Progressive Metal album, but it was one of the first to really gain the street cred that allowed Dream Theater to spread their influence to many, many other bands and people.
After listening to so much modern Dream Theater going back to Images and Words fully for the first time was a serious treat. This 1992 Dream Theater is more bare bones and straightforward than their later content but it's far from watered down; it represents a simpler time in their career before they felt the need to go extremely theatrical with their compositions. Although Images and Words has three pretty forgettable power ballads with "Another Day", "Surrounded", and "Wait For Sleep", the other 40 minutes of the album are well produced and mixed classic Dream Theater that are accessible but impressive. LaBrie is thankfully pushed down far enough into the mix that he blends into the band's sound rather than cutting through it and each instrument gets its own spotlight on all of the extended tracks, especially in "Metropolis, Pt. 1". Images and Words stays true to being a legitimate Metal album with crunchy chugs and memorable riffs in "Pull Me Under" and "Metropolis, Pt. 1" while still inserting their signature time signature changes, syncopated rhythms, and notable but slightly out of place solos. Each member of the band is obviously very skilled which is what makes Dream Theater so exciting to listen to.
However, after all this time and hundreds of albums and bands later, Dream Theater have definitely lost their charm for me. Years ago I would have probably given this album full marks, but Progressive Metal is a genre that is only as impressive as the listener's knowledge if the band's goal is simply to thrill the listener through solos and complex rhythms. Of course I thought that Dream Theater was the craziest band on the planet because they were the only Progressive Metal band I listened to at the time besides Tool. Now that I've broadened my horizons Images and Words is still a great album with some of the most iconic Progressive Metal songs ever created, but it doesn't blow my mind anymore. "Pull Me Under", "Metropolis Pt. 1", and "Under a Glass Moon" are still some of my favorite tracks that showcase how Heavy Metal can be augmented through simple but effective use of music theory and creative rhythms, but Dream Theater's flaws of song structure, transitions, and the obviously questionable vocals really shine through even at the beginning of their career. These flaws will be multiplied as their career goes on and even though I still enjoy these earlier releases it's hard to say that this holds a candle to some of my other Progressive Metal favorites.
It was back in 2003 that I was looking in a Virgin Megastore (remember those?) with the noble intention of investing my money in a band I'd never heard before. These were before the days when YouTube and streaming were so easily accessible. When we had to take risks with our money to try out new artists. I had stumbled across an album by a band I'd only heard of in name, but that risk was about to pay off; Dream Theater.
Being a 16-year-old heavy metal fan at the time, raised on a healthy diet of groups such as Megadeth, Metallica, Kiss and Rammstein, my initial thoughts were, quite simply; “this album sucks”. However, one thing piqued my interest, and it should come as no surprise that it was the amazingly heavy intro to the opening track, ‘Pull Me Under’.
As I heard more and more, the album grew on me. All these random traits of progressive music were becoming clearer. Odd time signatures, long, complex arrangements, the eclectic mixture of styles, keyboards (a heavy metal no-no), the creative lyrics and massive instrumental sections... It all started to make sense. To this day, 'Images and Words' not only introduced me to a new style of music, but a whole new way of looking at music.
So what makes it so great?
'Images and Words' is an album that defined a genre. Without Dream Theater, progressive metal might never have become what it did. Coming at a time when the genre was in its infancy, Dream Theater had that intangible X-factor that bands like Fates Warning, Queensryche, and even a group like Rush, were all missing at that point.
There's a perfect combination of everything on this album. There's metal songs, there's ballads, there's funky songs and there's jazzy songs too. The musicianship came at a time when there weren't many bands displaying such incredible technical prowess, at least in the mainstream anyway. Every song is perfectly crafted, with interesting musical passages and mind-boggling lyrics. 'Pull Me Under', 'Take the Time', 'Learning to Live' and the monstrous epic 'Metropolis Pt. 1; The Miracle and the Sleeper' are all staples in prog metal history.
This is the record that put Dream Theater on the map, and defined all progressive metal bands/albums for years to come. Every fan of the genre needs this in their collection, immediately. And I'm sure most old-school progressive rock fans will at least appreciate the importance this album had on prog music as a whole. Undeniably my favourite album of all time, 'Images and Words' is better than perfect.
When people think of progressive metal, one of the first names that most people think of is Dream Theater. And that should come as no surprise. During the 1990s when prog metal was becoming prominent, Dream Theater were at the front of the revolution. Countless numbers of imitators have tried to copy Dream Theater's sound over the years; most of which failed. And it also doesn't help matters that Dream Theater are still around today, making very similar music as well.
I mentioned previously in my review for the bands most recent album, Distance Over Time that I have had a very difficult relationship with this group. This is lead by the fact that, being the prototypical progressive metal band, it's very difficult to find any originality from them in the modern day. Certainly a respectable band, but hardly memorable.
So going back and listening to Images and Words gives me the opportunity to see where Dream Theater began and what's changed since their humble beginnings. And not much has changed since 1992; part of the reason why my relationship with Dream Theater has been so convoluted.
That being said, I can still appreciate what this album was able to accomplish. It truly is a trend setter of the most obvious variety. And it would only set the benchmark for what would become the bands superior albums later on in the decade. This album paints its "images through words" and does a wonderful job of connecting these images from one track into the next. Whether that be the use of similar harmonic themes in the ensemble all throughout "Learning to Live" such as the opening riff from "Pull Me Under", the percussion patterns from "Metropolis - Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper", to outright copying the main theme from "Wait For Sleep" and using it as a coda on "Learning To Live". Or perhaps cross referencing other lyrics from previous tracks later on in the albums runtime.
The production on this album has aged like a fine wine. How the band is able to have each instrumental passage sound so crisp and precise; how each instrument is an important member of the collective whole. Even during Petrucci ridiculous solo passages, John Myung's bass lines never become swamped underneath the keyboard harmonies, or Mike Portnoy's percussion.
My least favourite part of the album comes from James LaBrie. I think he is a fantastic singer and one of the best pure vocalists in metal, period. But on this album, he sounds like he is just trying to get his feet wet. As a result, there are a couple of questionable passages where LaBrie's vocals are given a swath of pitch correction. These happen primarily during the extended highs on songs like "Take the Time" and "Learning to Live". The band would eventually iron out these issues on later records, but it was a stylistic decision made by the band at the time, so I do have to point it out.
By today's standards, Dream Theater's Images and Words is, by enlarge, an unoriginal progressive metal album that lacks any unique qualities compared to... everyone else in the genre! But for a time, it was game changing. The fact that you can still hear its influence in progressive metal today is a testament to its longevity. But what I like about this album the most is the planting of the seed. This album could have been good enough if it hadn't included "The Miracle and the Sleeper" with its long form composition and performance. But they did include it. And it formed the basis for what I consider to be Dream Theater's superior records, Scenes From A Memory and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. Images and Words is the lesser of the three grand Dream Theater albums, but one still worth revisiting to see where Dream Theater, and progressive metal in general, got their start.
This is the sole reason why I decided to start my clan challenge quest with The Infinite challenges, because this album is the Infinite January 2020 Feature Release. And even though I would have to largely summarize the review to put into the thread, boy do I have a lot to say about this one!
Images and Words was my favorite progressive metal album in my earlier epic metal taste. It is absolutely perfect with never any failure to deliver. The impeccable music of this album shines far more than most of the other Dream Theater albums. It has everything including emotional vocals, powerful guitar, top-notch bass, awesome drums, and epic keyboards. These guys are all astonishingly talented!
The CD starts off with the band's ultimate hit, "Pull Me Under". Dream Theater's technical power shines through the song. The lyrics do what the title says and PULL YOU UNDER. The guitar solo from John Petrucci is one of the best he's ever done. It's lyrical theme seems to be heavily inspired by Kansas' "Dust in the Wind", yet it is actually based on Shakespeare's Hamlet in the prince's point of view. The song ends abruptly during the outro but I don't care. Still an excellent album opener! Continuing this great metaphorical journey is the beautiful ballad "Another Day". This song doesn't detract from the album despite it being less metal than the others. Those less metal elements include melodic guitar in the emotional intro and the surprising appearance of soprano saxophone. James LaBrie starts showing his higher vocal range. See? This just proves progressive metal isn't always face-blasting heaviness!
I wouldn't call this next track, "Take the Time" the "worst" of the album since the album is still perfect, but it's my least favorite here. The song starts with slow synth and a nice bass line before the rest of the band joins in. More of LaBrie's vocals continuing detract in the first verse, but he still keeps his higher range status. This song is still as perfect as the rest. Soon, that song fades away, surrounded by the next song "Surrounded". Beginning with uplifting piano and LaBrie's softer vocals, I had a feeling that this is another ballad. Then more of the instrumentation comes in with more of Petrucci's melodic guitar in the middle. More high octaves from LaBrie! Once again, that song fades away into another song, the best Dream Theater song ever in the progressive sense, "Metropolis Pt. I: The Miracle and the Sleeper", the prequel to a certain concept album. It is probably the most progressive song in this album. The tambourine that starts the song is a good hint for something so differently amazing. LaBrie continues staying in the upper register. The drums, courtesy of Mike Portnoy, is absolute perfection. The keyboards and guitars have their worth in the progressive interlude section with insane soloing from both Kevin Moore's keyboard and Petrucci's guitar to take your breath away.
After that epic "Metropolis", as if that soloing battle wasn't enough, there's another sweet keyboard/guitar duet starting "Under a Glass Moon", unleashing an amazing aura. It has the best lyrics of the album, and I would say the same thing about the music, but that's already surpassed by the previous track. Petrucci's absolutely amazing blazing speed solo once again takes things to higher levels. "Wait for Sleep" is a beautiful ballad with LaBrie's soft vocals that acts as an interlude before the grand finale. "Learning to Live" is a truly amazing progressive metal epic in every sense, far beyond better the previous album's "Killing Hand". An 11 and a half minute finale where all the band members prove once more their inner progressive prodigy. LaBrie's vocal range rising at the 7-minute mark is incredible!
Almost no subsequent work from Dream Theater can surpass this one, other than "Metropolis"' bigger sequel, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. In fact, no other band can make an album to knock this one off its throne, not even Pagan's Mind. You can never overthrow these Images and Words. This album shall keep its awesome reign!
Favorites: "Pull Me Under", "Metropolis, Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper", "Under a Glass Moon", "Learning to Live"