Upon hearing Dream Theater’s 1994 release, Awake for the first time, one word came to mind: Bizarre. Yes, Awake, was my first “taste” of Dream Theater, and I was hit with something that I had not come across in my musical journey prior to discovering them. It was indeed a bizarre trip, but bizarre in the most intriguing way.
I must admit, until recently, I was not familiar with Dream Theater. Me being a lover of music, however, and always being on the “look-out” for a new band to “obsess” over, I decided to do my research. After hearing this band’s name roll off the tongues of a few, I decided to scope the vast world of the internet to find out some information. What I found were several web sites devoted to the band and a huge cult following. It was then and there that I decided to see for myself what all of fuss was about. I decided to start with Awake, the highly acclaimed disc that was considered by many to be their “breakthrough” album.
Dream Theater was born sometime around 1985 with guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy forming the nucleus of the band. They were later joined by keyboardist Kevin Moore (who would later be replaced by Derek Sherinian after this recording), and then connected with vocalist James LaBrie (after a revolving door of vocalists had breezed through prior to his entrance).
Awake is Dream Theater’s third release, following 1992’s Images and Words and 1989’s When Dream and Day Unite (with a Mr. Charlie Dominici being responsible for the vocal duties during that time). Regardless of my ignorance regarding Dream Theater’s two previous efforts, I thought it was never too late to give a band a go — especially one that had as much talent and uniqueness as Dream Theater possessed. You know that old cliché: First impressions are important (though they should not be), and if that be the case, then Awake was a good choice to start with.
Not a typical 80s band, Dream Theater came in after the wave of that era, releasing most of their material in the 90s. Sure, they have the long locks (minus the glam), but their sound proves to be both unique and exciting. They’re what I would consider a “thinker’s band”, as the lyrical prose is complex and the instrumentation is even more heterogeneous and intricate. It takes more than one listen to catch all the different instrumentation that is going on, and it takes just as long to get the gist of the lyrical content. This reviewer, for the first time in her life, had to pull apart lyrics like she was diagramming sentences. Their songs could mean different things to different people. Judging by what I’ve read over the internet, some are at a loss for the meaning of a song, while others are looking into a more mythical meaning, while still others see it simpler than that. A first-time journey through the very deepest corners of the Dream Theater Galaxy is very bizarre, but fascinating and surprisingly refreshing, indeed. Most certainly they’re more of a progressive rock band than anything else, forcing many to compare their sound to early Rush. Their hauntingly hard-edged epics are truly new waters this reviewer has never treaded until now.
6:00: A great way to kick open an album, this songs starts with heavy guitars, raging keyboards and ponderous drum beats. This song is fast, but harmonious, with enough guitar licks (including a cool wah-wah guitar solo three quarters of the way through the song) and synthesizers to keep the true rocker at heart happy. There’s some sample inserts in here from the film, “The Dead,” though it escapes me what it has to do with the song, but I’m still learning about these guys. This song is the first initial impression of Dream Theater, and from this song, I have concluded that the band is tight and seamless in their playing. Drummer Mike Portney and bassist John Myung are on target with their rhythms, keyboardist Kevin Moore is fierce, guitarist John Petrucci is a true gem in all senses of the word, and vocalist Jamie LaBrie has a broad vocal range and depth, commanding you to sit up and listen. While the guys in Dream Theater write the musical part of the songs collectively, they take turns penning the tunes, and this almost six minute opus is from the brain of Kevin Moore. This song is deduced to be about Moore’s decision with wanting to leave the band. In a broader sense, I think it’s about putting your dream on hold to make a “real living”, and then it being too late to do what it is you wanted to do in the first place. It’s the idea of lost dreams, and the message is to not let it slip away while you still have a grasp on it: “He’s in the parking lot and he’s just sitting in his car. It’s nine o’clock but he can’t get out. He lights a cigarette and turns the music down, but just can’t seem to shake that sound. Once I thought I’d get over, but it’s too late for me now. I’ve got bases to cover.” “But don’t cut your losses too soon, `cause you’ll only be cutting your throat. And answer a call while you still hear at all, `cause nobody will if you won’t.”
Caught In A Web: Wicked, and I mean WICKED, keyboards layer this song. I could almost see a big black widow weaving her web of suffocation, capturing her victim while it struggles to get out alive. In the middle of this song, it goes on a tangent of grooving, jamming guitars and drum beats, continuing the fast-paced speed the album seems to be heading towards. A LaBrie and Petrucci collaboration on lyric-writing, this song is creepy-sounding and fast, with LaBrie’s vocals accenting less on his high vocal abilities (which he displayed on 6:00) to a more gruff determination. The interpretation of this song is a person being repressed by society. You live the way you’re suppose to, biting your tongue, holding things in, until you burst at the seams and explode: “I can’t hold on any longer. These feelings keep growing stronger. Echoes that deafen the mind will bury my voice in their wake.” “Try to push me `round the world some more and make me live in fear. I bear all that I am made of now, attractive I don’t care. `Cause even when I danced with life, no one was there to share.” “Caught in a web, removed from the world. Hanging by a thread, spinnig the lies devised in my head.”
Innocence Faded: Those who like melody and radio-friendly songs with a twist will like this song. This one is more on the slower side, with pretty keyboards and melodious guitars. LaBrie starts by singing in a hushed tone, hitting the high notes once the song gets to the chorus. A very pretty song penned by John Petrucci, the lyrical content of this song is full of philosophical prose. I’ve come to notice that Petrucci, in particular, can get pretty deep and complex when writing lyrics. I understand this to mean several things, but the basic concept I get from it is it’s about humanity and the way it’s become. People are cold and calculating, untrusting, disbelieving, and easily persuaded. “Animation breathes a cloudless mind. Fascination leaves the doubting blind. Until the circle breaks and wisdom lies ahead; the faithful live awake and the rest remain misled.” “Callow and vain, fixed like a fossil — shrouding pain. Passionless stage, distant like brothers, wearing apathetic displays. Sharing flesh like envy in cages; condescending — not intending to end.” “Innocence faded, the mirror falls behind you. Trinity jaded, I break down walls to find you.”
Erotomania: This is a fast and furious instrumental that is clips of different songs from this album, as well as some songs from their earlier albums. It goes from grunge to pretty, switching time changes like people change their underwear. It’s a cut and paste song of different parts of their other songs and it is the first “part” of a three-part section called A Mind Beside Itself, proceeding into the next two following numbers.
Voices: Eerie and haunting, this song will send chills up and down your spine. Chock-full of nails-down-a-blackboard synthesizers, stealthily moving guitars, and impressive vocal calisthenics by LaBrie, this songs starts out slow, creeping up behind you. Then — BOO!! — it attacks you and your heart is racing as it carries you away to unknown lands. There’s even creepier voice sampling inserted in here by rap artist Prix-mo, who’s reading from the book, “Cultural Revolution”. Unlike the ever-evasive dialogue in 6:00, the dialogue in this song provides clues to what this song is about (A major clue here about the song: “I don’t wanna be here, `cause of my suffering, `cause of my illness. Only love is worth having, only love is what matters, loving every people on equal terms.”.). Penned by the ever thought-provoking Mr. Petrucci, it takes awhile to grasp at the meaning of this song. There’s religious symbolism in this (as, I’ve found out later, is true with a bulk of the lyrics that Petrucci is responsible for), and a lot of symbolism in general. So, I had to do a bit of research on this one, and take closer listen to it. The general idea seems to be about Schizophrenia. All I can say is — simply fascinating. “Voices protecting me — Good behavior brings the Savior to his knees. Voices rejecting me — Others steal your thoughts, they’re not confined to your own mind.” “I’m lying here in bed, swear my skin is inside out. Just another Sunday morning. Seen my diary on the newsstand, seems we’ve lost the truth to quicksand. It’s a shame no one is praying, `cause these voices in my head keep saying . . . `Love, just don’t stare. Reveal the Word when you’re suppose to’.” “Maybe I’m just Cassandra fleeting, twentieth century Icon bleeding. Willing to risk Salvation, to escape from isolation.”
Silent Man: This is the third part to the previous two songs. It’s a simple, enchantingly pretty acoustic number sung well, but what the hell does it mean? People are so digging into this one that I actually came across an interpretation that it was based on Arabian Nights. Well, maybe it very well is. Like I said, I’m just learning about these guys. In the dictionary, if you look up the word, COMPLEX, you will see a picture of this band in there. No kidding . . . So, what do I see this song to mean? Well, again, the ever-elusive Petrucci pens this one as well, and what I interpret it as: I think it has deep religious overtones, and I think it’s about God, or the idea of a higher being. The idea I get from it is this: When something makes sense, God is listening, when something doesn’t, where the hell is He? He’s responsible for peace, harmony, happiness and love, but where is He when tragedy, violence, hate, misery and death strike? Maybe I’m going on a limb here, but it makes some sort of sense, no?: “A question well served, `Is silence like a fever? A voice never heard? Or a message with no receiver?’” “When there is reason, tonight I’m awake. When there’s no answer, arrive the Silent Man. If there is balance, tonight He’s awake. If they have to suffer, there lies the Silent Man.”
The Mirror: Mean and angry on the rhythm section, gaining speed and getting more ferocious with some smoking guitar sections in there by Petrucci, LaBrie sounds almost evil as he harshly hurls words of deceit at you. Penned by Mike Portnoy (who tends to lean on the heavier and meaner side of the emotions), this song is so blatantly about betrayal. There’s more voice dialogue in here, providing more depth and intrigue to the song. What’s even more interesting about this song is the way the betrayal is portrayed. It’s the betrayed and the betrayer going back and forth with their “dialogue” You get taken through the betrayal “act”, to the accusation by the one betrayed. The betrayed then goes through the anger, the hurt, and the mistrust. The betrayer goes through the realization, and then the guilt. The betrayer: “Temptation — Why won’t you leave me alone? Lurking every corner, everywhere I go. Self Control — Don’t turn your back on me now when I need you most. Constant pressure tests my will or my won’t. My self control escapes from me still . .” The betrayed: “Hypocrite — How could you be so cruel and expect my faith in return? Resistance is not as hard as it seems when you close the door. I spent so long trusting in you. I trust you forgot. Just when I thought I believed in you . . .”
Lie: This ghostly, uncanny song chock full of hard-hitting animosity is a continuation of The Mirror. Thick, angry-sounding guitars with a brutish guitar solo, this song was penned by Kevin Moore, and continues with the betrayal theme. Being in a situation much like this myself recently, it throws your anger in all the right places. It’s about that person you trusted, who TOLD you you could trust him/her, and then something happens where you get the knife stabbed in your back. Who of us has never been through this kind of personal hell before?: “Daybreak at the bottom of the lake, it’s a hundred degrees I can’t breathe. And I won’t get out `til I figure it out though I’m weak like I can’t believe. So you tell me `trust me’, I can trust you; just let me show you. But I gotta work it out in a shadow of doubt `cause I don’t know if I know you.”
Lifting Shadows Off A Dream: Soft, lilting, and aesthetic, this song will sweep you away with it’s hypnotic easiness and melodies. LaBrie’s voice sounds like a lullaby in this exquisite tune. Bassist John Myung is responsible for the lyrics of this number, and it is apparently about the spiritual balance of the male/female relationship: “He seems alone and silent, thoughts remain without an answer. Afraid and uninvited, he slowly drifts away.” “Moved by desire and fear, he takes a few steps away. Lifting shadows off a dream once broken. She can turn a drop of water, into an ocean. And she listens openly. He pours his soul into the water, reflecting the mystery. She carries him away and the winds die slowly.”
Scarred: This song begins with a piano melody, and what almost sounds like a violin (or a guitar being plucked by a bow from a violin), starting if off moody and temperamental, but later giving way to some more brow-beating rage. This song has it’s own personality disorder because it shifts from one emotion to another. Some more fretwork of cascading guitar notes are present during the ending part of the song — and it’s quite impressive, I must say. Petrucci is more than good, and the S.O.B knows it and doesn’t mind showing off. This song is the longest epic on the disc, clocking in at a full eleven minutes. Penned by John Petrucci, this seems to be another song full of symbolic poetry and complex emotions. My interpretation of this opus of a tune is that it seems to be projecting the idea of a spiritual/emotional standstill. The message behind it appears to be about leaving your pain behind, not taking stock in differences in opinions, leaving those not worthy of your trust behind, and moving on without regret: “I never bared my emotion, my passion always strong. I never lost my devotion, but somewhere fate went wrong.” “People in prayer for me, everyone there for me. Sometimes I feel I should face this alone. My soul exposed, it calms me to know I won’t” “Blood . . . heal me. Fear . . . change me. Belief will always save me. Blood . . . swearing. Fear . . . staring. Conviction made aware. Give up on misery, turn your back on dissent. Leave their distrust behind, wash your hands of regret.”
Space-dyed Vest: This is the Twightlight Zone, folks. One of the most haunting, poignant songs I have heard in a long time, this one pierced me in the gut. With a sinister-sounding piano and a heavily moody-sounding guitar riff in the background, this song rips at you emotionally. The vocals on this one are distorted and heavy, easily conveying the emotion of gloom. There’s more sampling dialogue in here, from a commentary about O.J. Simpson to a sample from the Conan O’Brien show, to some samples from a Canadian series. Penned by Kevin Moore, this one is about a broken relationship, and again, at this point in my life, it hit me with its mood and words. That feeling of never opening yourself up again, the feeling of losing your soul, your zest, your concentration, because of someone who didn’t have your best interests at heart . . . it only hit too close to home: “Love is an act of blood and I’m bleeding, a pool in the shape of a heart. Beauty projection in the reflection, always the worst way to start.” “Now that’s you’re gone I’m trying to take it, learning to swallow the rage. Found a new girl, I think we can make it, as long as she stays on the page.” “There’s no one to take my blame, if they wanted to. There’s nothing to keep me sane, and it’s all the same to you. There’s nowhere to set my aim, so I’m everywhere. Never come near me again; Do you really think I care?” “And I’ll smile and I’ll learn to pretend, and I’ll never be open again. And I’ll have no more dreams to defend, and I’ll never be open again.”
Whew!! (wiping sweat off brow). In conclusion, Dream Theater is one hell of a band, and Awake is one hell of a piece of art. The musicianship and tightness in the group is mind-boggling (but maybe not so much so, as most of the members went to school for music). They’re all a group of fine musicians, and Moore’s talent will be missed. As a “keysman”, he’s a true stand-out, and as a song-writer, he’s a major contributor. Myung and Portnoy are a kicking rhythm team. The key players on this team, though, are LaBrie and Petrucci. LaBrie (who I read even took opera lessons), has such an incredible vocal range. While some of the more macho, testosterone-driven male fans will complain of LaBrie being on the borderline of “annoying” on occasion, there’s no denying the man has a vocal range that boasts such variety it could only prove to be an asset to this band, as well as ANY band. More bands could get farther if their vocalist had more flexibility. As for John Petrucci . . . what can be said about this man? He’s a multi-talented individual with his songwriting abilities and his fret-work. He’s working his way up the ladder to claim his crown of Guitar God. He’s versatile and dexterous, and seriously a professional.
As a whole, the general public may not be able to take Dream Theater in one sitting. They’re a complex bunch of guys, and their ideas are complex. In this day and age, if you think too hard, your brain hurts, and that is going to make it difficult for Dream Theater to hit the masses. No matter, because they’re already on their way up. Some of us like to think, and if we get a brainache, we just take an aspirin. They are unique and heavy enough, while melodic enough, to be pleasing to many an ear. I know, with my own personal experience, Awake came at just the right time. Some of these songs, and the moods that interweave through-out the disc, are my own moods and emotions (sans the Schizo song, mind you). Dream Theater arrived at just the right time, “Awakening” me. This band is one destined for great things, and I’m glad I’ve gotten the chance to get to know them. Without a doubt, next time we’ll all be “Falling Into Infinity” right behind them.
© Written by Diane Trautweiler on June 13, 1998.