Where to start? SIMPLY THE BEST CD I’VE EVER HEARD. My review-actually no one person’s review–will do justice to I&W, so don’t wait for some ultimately persuasive words to click on the “Buy” button–just do it, IMMEDIATELY. You’ll thank me later.
I hate reviews that are put in general terms, so here are a ton of specifics:
For those who appreciate variant musical styles, this CD should be a no-brainer for your collection. The more complex charts will probably not appeal to a mainstream demographic, although some tracks (Pull Me Under, Another Day, Wait for Sleep) will catch the average listener’s attention with their riveting melodies. But no CD in the last decade–or perhaps ever–can touch Images & Words for its complete musicianship and epic-style storytelling. Dream Theater manages to fuse balladic lyrics and melodies with searing riffs and unusual technical complexity. Rare is the band that pulls off such a cacophony of stylistic nonconformity and makes it work. In Images & Words, DT not only makes it work, but makes it enjoyable to listen to.
Each song is a bit different than the other, and they run the gamut of categories from a short vocal soliloquy accompanied by only a piano background (Wait for Sleep) to an 11 1/2 minute documentary (Learning to Live) tackling the topic of being infected with AIDS (released in 1992 when AIDS still scared the hell out of people). Most of the songs contain at least some passages in which the band is showing off its chops, but again DT showcases its talent without reducing the songs’ artistic value. For example, “Under a Glass Moon” is an in-your-face technical machismo-fest that retains logical musical progressions. “Surrounded” teases the listener with multiple time changes, but the seamless beauty of the music is uncompromised (not to mention intellectually stimulating religious undertones in its fantasy-world lyrics). And “Metropolis Part I” challenges both the musical and cerebral faculties of the audience by previewing a story about one man’s discovery of a past life through hypnotic regression. Think of it as a “Prologue” to “Act I” of an intellectual rock musical. What makes “Metropolis” even more impressive is how the tone of the music adjusts to match the widely changing 1st-person moods and 3rd-person perceptions of the story’s characters. It is brilliant work, continued in my 2nd-favorite of DT’s studio releases (behind only Images & Words), titled “Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory.” In this album, the entire CD comprises 9 scenes from Acts I and II of the Metropolis “musical.” Stunning and definitely worth buying, but I digress.
Why do I specifically enjoy this music so much? As the son of two music teachers who had classically refined musical tastes, I was exposed to a lot of opera and symphonic music while growing up. Oversaturation of the classics set in at an early age, yet through so much exposure I developed a mature appreciation for the fundamentals of musical technique. After experimenting with the Styx-Chicago-Journey-Supertramp-Kansas-Triumph genre and some hair metal in high school, my favorite bands emerged as Rush and Queensryche. These bands of course balance melodic hooks and technically difficult accompaniment very well, and bring meaningful lyrics into the mix. I enjoyed some harder rock in brief moments, but the likes of Pantera and pre-”Sandman” Metallica were a little too heavy for me at the time.
When I was first introduced to Dream Theater through my college roommate’s Images & Words CD, I instantly knew it was the perfect unique mix of my life’s worth of musical tastes. I must have spun this CD literally thousands of times over the last 10 years–for the first year I played it 3 to 5 times a day, back to back, sometimes skipping class to master the lyrics or reverse engineer the time changes and syncopation. Impossible! Hypnotic! ADDICTIVE.
If this were almost any other band, I would say that the almost-too-self-indulgent vocals of James LaBrie are supported by some of the world’s best chops on instruments. But Mike Portnoy on drums, John Petrucci on guitar, and Kevin Moore on keyboards all have lead roles in the musicality of the CD. While individualistic, these parts combine with a tour-de-force of power that somehow works extremely well together. John Myung’s bass part usually lends a supportive role rather than a leading presence, but his musicianship and technical mastery of the instrument are phenomenal as well.
LaBrie is an exceptionally strong vocalist, and his part-time bravado / part-time pussycat approach probably would not have matched as well with the style of any other band I can think of. Each band member deserves a significant bio, but rather than having me take apart each of his tendencies in this meaningless text, one truly must experience the blend of talent in person to understand. SO BUY THE CD! After you’ve become hooked, check out some of DT’s other work. They are a band who have achieved a significant hard-core international fan base by doing things THEIR way, maintaining their dignity by avoiding the common and sticking to what makes them unique. No sellouts in this group!
The bottom line? After spinning the CD a few times to get through the technical facade, the listener finds himself interactively engaged with the music, craving a deeper understanding of the lyrics, wanting to decipher the difficult musical passages, and trying to imagine himself as a character in the dramatic scenes that are playing out. Yes, the “images and words” brought forth by this music transports the imaginative listener to a “dream theater.” Like the near-perfect details in these songs, the names of the CD and the band were not chosen by accident.