Album review: Dream Theater – Images and Words

A taxidermy of dead music so well-done you’ll almost forget it’s dead.

Genre: Neo-progressive rock/metal
Country: United States
Release date: July 7, 1992 (reissued 2013)
Label: Atco (reissued on vinyl by Music on Vinyl)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: MOVLP780

James LaBrie – vocals
John Petrucci – guitars
John Myung – bass
Kevin Moore – keyboards
Mike Portnoy – drums
Jay Beckenstein – soprano saxophone (track 2)


Pull Me Under



Another Day



Take the Time






Metropolis Part I: The Miracle and the Sleeper



Under a Glass Moon



Wait For Sleep



Learning to Live


Total running time:


Hauntological is a philosophical term coined by Jacques Derrida, as part of his impenetrably abstruse theory on art that also gave us deconstruction, that has become increasingly common among cultural critics. The full meaning of the term, like pretty much anything involving postmodernism, is very complicated, obtuse, and obnoxiously French, but in essence the hauntological is how decisions, ideas, fashions, and events from previous eras still affect the world today. It is especially useful in culture studies and cultural criticism as the neoliberal era we live in today is saturated with old ideas, old styles, and old traditions that enjoy an extended life-in-death as their successors are strangled in the crib whenever they threaten to disrupt culture industry revenue streams. Nostalgia is now practically the air we breathe, and everything old becomes “new” again, and again, and again. In this regard Images and Words is probably one of the most hauntological records ever made.

Dream Theater were by no means the first progressive metal band; the two genres had something of a connection from their very inception, with long, meandering songs and flashy displays of instrumental prowess having been staples of heavy metal songwriting since the 1970s. The idea of “prog metal” proper first found its expression in the mid-’80s with American power metal bands like Fates Warning, Queensryche, and Crimson Glory using the musical vocabulary of metal to try to pick up where the old progressive bands left off. However, these bands never had a chance of escaping the underground as ultimately their music was too stylized, too esoteric, and too restrictive—when all your music is built out of heavily distorted, palm-muted guitar riffs, all your music starts to sound a bit alike. If, say, the Beatles’ psychedelic output towards the end of their career represented musical stem cells, capable of giving rise to all sorts of different types of music, Fates Warning’s music was like a tissue of hyper-specialized neurons, capable of only growing more cells like themselves, if they can reproduce at all. Accordingly, the first wave of prog metal burned through its store of fresh ideas very quickly and bands of the style were either retooling to a different one or splitting up altogether by 1990. Dream Theater’s own debut When Dream and Day Unite was in this style, and one of the best, and last, representatives of it.

Meanwhile over in Europe, the “neo-progressive rock” scene had taken off, spearheaded by the British scene of bands like Marillion, IQ, and Pendragon had no new ideas at all, but repackaged old ones. While American prog metal of the time was interested in using the sound of metal to continue the original project of prog rock, neo-prog instead used the sound of prog rock to do…nothing really, just make music that reminded people weary of punk and new wave of older music they enjoyed. Neo-prog, too, was a largely underground phenomenon (though Marillion enjoyed a moderate level of commercial success by watering the style down even further until, by the time of Misplaced Childhood, it really was just a superficial aesthetic draped over ‘80s arena rock), alienating the mainstream with their deliberate unfashionability and many old prog veterans with its simplicity. But neo-prog, itself a hauntological genre that recycled the sound and appearance of prog rock cargo cult-style, was far more enduring and productive precisely because it was hauntological. Being the living dead, it could not die again, and as long as anyone remembers Close to the Edge and Nursery Cryme, music that “sounds like” such albums will keep being made.

Dream Theater’s masterstroke, which launched the second wave of prog metal into eternal life-in-death (and launched themselves into a long and lucrative career), was to take the nearly-dead American prog/power metal, as well as the similarly moribund jazz fusion, and turn them too into aesthetics, stylistic paints for the neo-prog palette, and bind the whole thing together with playing so intricate, so tight, and so ostentatiously difficult that nobody could not notice how good they were. If a classic album could be represented as a checklist of features like you’d see on the box of an old computer game, Images and Words would be the classic of classics because it has everything—long songs with multiple sections, obtuse mystical lyrics, guitar solos, keyboard solos, bass solos, spacey atmospheres, crunchy metal riffs, Lisztian piano lines, funky syncopation, you name it. What Images and Words doesn’t have, unfortunately, is a vision of what all these elements are actually for. It’s ultimately an album of appearances, progressive kitsch.

That is not to say it’s not entertaining, because Images and Words is a brilliantly crafted piece of entertainment. Each song lasts exactly as long as required to flesh out its ideas without going overboard like the Rudess/Portnoy era albums and teems with earworm melodies just waiting to lodge themselves into your cerebral cortex. Every aspect of the production except for things deliberately ruined by David Prater (more on him later) sounds good. James LaBrie is at the absolute zenith of his powers, with one of the most stunningly beautiful voices the rock world has ever heard. Every musician in the band is the best except for all the others, and the balance of power among them, although not as perfect as on When Dream and Day Unite, still leaves space for the keyboards and bass to leave an impression without abandoning all subtlety, and it’s mixture of retrograde and contemporary aesthetics will have something to satisfy ‘70s kids, ‘80s kids, and ‘90s kids alike. Indeed, Images and Words is almost certainly the best post-Images and Words prog metal album ever made (including all future Dream Theater albums), the only one you’ll ever really need, because it got nearly everything right.

Perhaps another key to Dream Theater’s success is their choice of influences—there’s much less of the British bands in their sound than in Marillion or the like, but instead a distinctly North American sound that heavily borrows from Kansas and Rush as well as their own metal forebears. This is especially noticeable in guitarist John Petrucci, who intersperses his crunchy riffs, shredding solos, and (quite tasteful) acoustic sections with the sort of kind-of-melodic, kind-of-heavy hard rock riffs that were everywhere in albums like Song for America and 2112. His style has become so bound up in theirs in modern consciousness that even bands that directly profess their love of Rush tend to sound like Rush as interpreted by Dream Theater. Another strand of influence is proggy jazz fusion like Klaus Doldinger’s Passport and the Pat Metheny Group, though unfortunately Dream Theater are more conservative with odd intervals and dissonances than those two groups were and don’t use this aspect of their sound to the fullest. It would also disappear almost entirely after this album as Dream Theater found/were railroaded into “their sound” that every subsequent album would follow starting with Awake in 1994; the diversity in styles, tones, and moods on this album exceeds any other they’ve ever put out.

The only thing that takes longer than our setlists is our hair.

Every discussion of Dream Theater eventually has to deal with the cornerstone of Dream Theater’s reputation both for good and ill—the notorious “wankery”. It is useless to contest this charge because it’s only reflective of greater problems with rock music’s discourse surrounding and relationship to musicians. The “rock star” is deliberately self-contradictory, as all deities are; the mystery of the rock star, like that of the Trinity, is designed not to make sense. The rock star is at once egomaniacal and self-effacing, talented (even if said star isn’t, some talent will be manufactured in-studio to keep up appearances) but never in a way that shows disciplined work (as I described in my review of King Crimon’s Red), obligated to write “confessional” and “personal” songs that adhere to soap-operatic formulae and a rigidly patriarchal vision of love that alienates men, subjugates women, and eliminates the possibility of queerness. Like other religious mysteries, believing in the rock star despite its patent incoherence requires one to suspend critical thought, making one’s cultivation as a fan to be targeted with demographic-appropriate products go much more easily. Only once you have accepted the framework of modern music fandom does the feud between “rockists” and “poptimists” make sense—to a materialist way of looking at things, genre-abiding rockers and manufactured pop starlets seem far more alike than different—characters following industry-standard tropes to create industry-standard music that fits within the system of target audiences, demographics, and marketing strategies that have been imposed on the public. If Dream Theater are wankers, it’s because the rules of rock music turn every instrument into a cock.

Not that Dream Theater themselves aren’t a part of that; far from it. There are no innocents under late capitalism, the business of survival is an endless series of grudging sell-outs that you can’t refuse, and you can hear the compromise sneaking in even as they see their full ambitions as a band realized for the first time. The dense, sometimes bracingly astringent harmonies heard on their 1989 debut When Dream and Day Unite have been radically simplified and made much more consonant. I have a collection of demos for this album put out by Mike Portnoy’s private imprint before he left the band and from the rough 1989-1990 versions through the label audition and then studio run-throughs, you can hear the music being streamlined steadily, with complex chords having the most piquant notes removed, counterpoint sometimes being reduced to unisons (bombastic but empty unisons would gradually proliferate to the point of absurdity on later albums), and adventurous bass lines being shoved down towards the root or drowned out altogether. You can also hear Portnoy, Petrucci, and LaBrie, the musicians whose personalities and proclivities were most compatible with the rock star archetype, becoming louder and more prominent at the expense of Moore and Myung, who provided the classic Dream Theater lineup with much of its subtlety and moments of calm. Kevin Moore especially never took to the role very well, and the experience of the major-label music business and its pressures and demands was more than he could bear—his lyrical output in Awake is mostly about his alienation and impending psychological collapse, and after that album was finished he abruptly left the band, shut most of his friends and associates (including everyone and everything related to Dream Theater) out of his life, and he remains a recluse to this day. He was the most gifted musician the band ever had, not just in virtuosity but his musical insight and compositional skill, but he was eccentric, a real nonconformist in a world of punk rock subgenres named for their official genre uniforms and made-in-Babylon Bob Marley T-shirts, and was crushed for it and dumped in a bottomless mass grave with countless tens of thousands of other talented musicians who couldn’t or wouldn’t play the game.

This is the first Dream Theater album to feature the talents of James LaBrie, and while I am perpetually frustrated by the propensity of groups with seriously impressive musicianship to hire singers who are amateur at best, Dream Theater thankfully picked someone who can use his voice with the same ability that the other members can play their instruments. Only his voice, mind you—he had and probably still has little experience with playing instruments and writing music, but say what you want about his high-pitched, stentorian wail, there is no one who can do that wail like he once could, and many have tried. He had the raw force of a power metal singer like Geoff Tate with most of the grace and flexibility of a trained theater singer, and not only could he hit ridiculously high notes, he could actually control his voice in that range, producing actual melodies in the nuts-in-a-vise register rather than just shrieking. It was a physically demanding and destructive way of singing that probably cost him his voice in the long run (the authorized biography mentions him taking cortisone shots in the neck during the Images and Words tour to relieve the pain in his throat and get through shows instead of heeding his body’s warning to stop what he’s doing right now and get some rest), but what he managed to accomplish with his voice in the few years he still had all of it is truly amazing, especially “Surrounded”, where he uses all of his tonal and dynamic range to slowly ratchet the drama in his singing up in sync with the gradual crescendo of the music, culminating in a magnificently over-the-top climax that almost seamlessly transitions back to the soft singing that started it. I do, however, have a couple of problems with his singing technique in soft sections—he likes to sing “off the voice”, using a lot more breath than necessary and muddying his timbre, and he inhales right in front of the mic, producing an audible gasp at the beginning of each phrase that can be quite distracting in the beginning of “Surrounded” or “Another Day” where little else is going on. These quirks may be “emotional” to some audiences, but they aren’t actual expressions of emotion but signifiers that emotion is supposed to be there somewhere, and therefore useless.

Sonically, Images and Words is a tremendous improvement over When Dream and Day Unite (though considering how shoddy that recording was, that wasn’t exactly a big achievement) but severely damaged by producer David Prater, a lifelong industry man best known for producing mediocre ‘80s hard rock bands and just about the worst sort of guy you could hire to produce a Dream Theater album. Nearly every decision Prater made was wrong, starting with the decision to leave the then-18 minute epic “A Change of Seasons” (much better than the 23-minute extended version on the A Change of Seasons EP, in my opinion) off the album to accommodate the original single-LP version of this album that ended up only being sold in significant numbers in Korea. Most infamously, Prater forced Mike Portnoy to record all the drums on this album with bizarre sampled kick and snare sounds that might have worked for Firehouse or other garbage cock rock bands that Prater was used to working with, but severely damages the dynamics of this album by making every single hit Portnoy makes sound like it’s being done with the maximum possible force. Some of the quieter sections of this album, what should have been quieter sections, anyway, are almost completely destroyed by the racket made by the drum triggers. But who needs dynamics anyway? Atlantic and their man had the marketing data and thought they knew what was best for all music, so what Prater wanted, Prater got, the musicians be damned. That said, the Music on Vinyl rerelease does its best to fix up the mess Prater left behind, bringing the bass forward a bit (but not enough) and cleaning up some of the excess reverb and guitar fuzz to let previously almost inaudible parts be heard a bit better. It’s not a massive improvement, but it helps.

Aside from the generically cringey early ‘90s sentimental ballad “Another Day” (featuring noodler Jay Beckenstein playing the sort of insipid sax solos that gave the sax a bad name in rock music—some syrupy major-key melodies, a bunch of showy scale runs, and very little else), every song on this album is at least good. The opener “Pull Me Under” was written on very short notice after Atlantic cut their original planned opener, the excellent “Don’t Look Past Me”, and rarely for a song written to fill a void left by suits meddling with an album, it’s actually even better than the song it replaced! It might lack the multiple intertwining vocal lines and overall complexity of its predecessor (later released on a fanclub CD in 1999), but even if it’s “just” an elaboration on a traditional verse-chorus song structure riding mostly on 4/4 groove metal riffs, it’s got the best hooks the band have ever written and lyrics (from the pen of Kevin Moore) that avoid the sentimentalism that far too often infects Dream Theater lyrics. “Another Day” was originally intended to be the lead single and “Pull Me Under” was largely an afterthought with a half-assed video, but in a rare display of independent decision-making, the listening public overwhelmingly favored “Pull Me Under”, sending it to #10 on the MTV singles chart while “Another Day” with its label support and slickly produced but borderline unwatchable video sank into oblivion.

However, for people serious about prog, the real chef d’oeuvre is not the much-ballyhooed “Metropolis” (it’s fun and has one of the most jaw-dropping instrumental workouts in their entire catalog, but feels very disjointed, with said instrumental workout consisting of several disconnected sections with no segues to smooth anything out) but “Learning to Live” For once, the guitars mostly take a back seat, and while this can technically be called a verse-chorus song because the first and second “verses” are musically related and there is an obvious refrain section whose lyrics include the song’s title, it heavily obfuscates this structure by applying very classical techniques of thematic transformation to it. The vast majority of the material is foreshadowed by the first thirty seconds or so of the song, but it’s manipulated, extended, reshuffled, re-harmonized, and traded among the different instruments so much and so well that it still holds secrets and surprises even after dozens of listens. If only the lyrics were as good as the music though—at first glance, John Myung’s words seem like a mushily spiritual inspirational narrative of the sort many prog rock bands have written (and for years I thought it was, to my horror when I learned the truth), but it’s not actually about learning to accept yourself and find “inner peace within my life”, which is a perfectly harmless if somewhat banal message. No, it’s actually, by the band’s own admission, about AIDS, a topic nobody in the band had any business addressing, especially in the early 1990s when people even in rich countries were dying in huge numbers of a disease that was then a death sentence. A fatal disease is not an inspiration to the healthy. It is not some karmic punishment for valuing “love” over “life” as the lyrics seem to imply, and to treat it this way is cruel and reactionary. And if it weren’t bad enough, the opening lines also quote Ayn Rand, a woman whose philosophy of egocentrism and domination is exactly the opposite of learning to live peacefully, happily, wisely, and well. As with most of Dream Theater’s other flaws, this would get worse over time—the sort of jaundiced thinking that produced these lyrics is all over albums like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and The Astonishing in even more virulent forms.

Two years ago, I would have given this album 99%, the highest rating I would ever consider giving to anything. It was an absolutely formative album in discovering my own music tastes and opened the door to entire worlds of music that I never would have found otherwise, but with its sentimental value out of the equation, it has become increasingly obvious that not only is this album flawed, it carries all of the flaws that would turn the band into a parody of itself in the 2000s. The devourment of the arrangements by grotesquely multitracked guitars and overblown drums (later, at least, Portnoy’s own overblown drum sounds) started here. The goopy, glurgy pop-Christian moralism and exploitation of the outcast and suffering for dubiously inspirational stories started here. James LaBrie’s terrible voice in later albums came from unhealthy choices he made while singing this music. But the biggest problem is that aside from the pop-Christian spiritual milieu described previously, Dream Theater don’t really have anything to say with their music. Despite the reputation for “pocketbook fantasy” (which is really more of a heavy metal thing), most of the prominent prog rock bands were very conscious of making their music about something. Albums like The Power and the Glory, Selling England by the Pound, H to He Who Am The Only One, Tarkus, Animals, The Wall, Thick as a Brick, and others explored philosophy, social criticism, real science fiction grounded in scientific ideas, mysticism, human relationships, and other complex subjects in greater depth than most pop music ever attempted. Even Yes lyrics meant something really profound to Jon Anderson, even if he is too spaced-out to adequately explain what that something actually is. But Dream Theater’s more concerned with the appearance of being highbrow, with empty metaphors and stock religious imagery with no message behind them. Even Fates Warning’s nakedly pocketbook-fantasy lyrics had some deeper meaning that the fantastic images were used as a vehicle to express. Images and Words is not really interested in expressing much of anything, except being complicated and pretty. Both of those things are nice, but do they make a truly great album?

I think not.

Rating: 85%

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