Album review: Dream Theater – Awake

Genre: Progressive metal
Country: United States
Release date: October 4, 1994 (reissued 2013)
Label: EastWest (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
Prix-mo – voiceover (track 5)





Caught in a Web



Innocence Faded









The Silent Man 



The Mirror 






Lifting Shadows Off a Dream 






Space-Dye Vest 


Total running time:


“You have twenty years to make your first album, and six months to make your second” is a common truism among rock musicians, but I first heard it from a member of Dream Theater in the DVD audio commentary for one of their early live videos. Once you have made it, you must make it again, and again, and preferably bigger every time, and the question of what “it” is changes from a question to an answer—your sound, a singular, definitive musical aesthetic that can be identified by almost anyone in a few seconds, yet is supposed to be broad enough to be the aesthetic packaging an entire lifetime of music is sold in. The first album or EP that makes a mainstream breakthrough is the product of years of relatively self-directed creativity; the second is a “follow-up” to something already finished and irrevocable. A band that cannot create, market, and stick to a memorable sound usually dies a slow death no matter how good its music is—the system has no idea how to sell it.

Dream Theater were lucky enough to have had two chances at an amateur “first album”. When Dream and Day Unite, released in 1989 but drawing on songs written as early as 1985, was a beautiful failure, an album full of wonderful, inventive songs that were wrapped up in an aesthetic so disastrously unfashionable that it went down commercially like the Hindenburg despite rave critical reviews. Their second, hugely successful attempt Images and Words, despite its glossy (some might say plastic) major label production, still consisted of songs that were written in spare time years earlier and slowly refined according to no particular schedule, soaking in years of the band members’ experience as members of society. But once “Pull Me Under” ended up on MTV and Images and Words raked in golds and platinums overseas, “Pull Me Under” and its crunchy groove riffs was now their sound. Images and Words had one song that sounded like “Pull Me Under”; now Atlantic Records wanted a lot of songs like “Pull Me Under” and wanted them on their schedule.

Though Images and Words, as I discussed in my earlier review of that album, was largely a derivative work, it had a refreshingly broad range of influences to derive from, everything from Stravinsky to Stormtroopers of Death, and full of unconventional, unexpected twists on familiar rock and metal forms, spreading a pinch of this and a dash of that around according to the band members’ own idiosyncratic aesthetics. Awake, however, takes the “Rushtallica” sound of “Pull Me Under” and runs with it for almost every song, creating the prototype for every heavy Dream Theater composition to follow. Awake jettisons much of what was exotic and striking about the first two albums, replacing it mostly with big stompy groove metal riffs, of the sort that have been their mainstay ever since. And when the riffs aren’t clunking away and filling the whole soundstage, Mike Portnoy is drawing attention to himself with an endless barrage of tricky flourishes and beautiful devices. Aside from “The Silent Man”, “Lifting Shadows Off a Dream”, and “Space-Dye Vest”, Awake is one crunchfest after another with hardly any letup or room for the subtleties that were much of the reason people invented progressive rock in the first place. There was also an undercurrent of naïve camp in earlier Dream Theater works, undercutting their macho self-seriousness a bit with melodies and sounds (those ‘80s synthesizer pads!) that some metalheads find “cheesy”, but added texture, variety, and richness and levels of human emotion beyond the ones that the band thinks would flatter them. What little of that is left is buried under so many layers of guitar as to be largely inconsequential, and instead come the dreary minor-heavy harmonies and black leather jackets and music video for “Lie” where they stand around in a filthy warehouse by the Hudson River, trying desperately to look “street” rather than the bourgeois Long Island kids they really were.

Doubling down on heaviness, of course, put even more stress on singer James LaBrie, whose voice on Awake still strong, clear, and lacking the nasal tone of later albums (indeed, he often seems to push his voice towards the back of his mouth to make it sound darker and deeper), but noticeably less supple and flexible than on Images and Words, and whereas the loud belting was once the most dramatic of a range of timbres he could produce, now he uses it almost all the time when he’s not in ballad mode, or else a very harsh rasp he picked up on tour that does manage to sound aggressive and even a bit threatening, but dulls the “ring” of harmonics that gave his high-end so much power, so his clean voice usually sounds bigger and more impressive than his raspy voice. “Innocence Faded” shows this mild decline most markedly, especially in the chorus where what would likely be a fairly smooth delivery on the previous album sounds almost as much like shouting as singing in the highest notes.

For all its questionable mixing decisions and heinous electronic drum triggers, Images and Words’ mix had a real warmth to it, the same sort of lush, almost capital-R Romantic wrap-yourself-in-a-blanket-of-harmony feeling that drew a lot of people into the old prog rock and the classical music all the prog bands got their best ideas from, but Awake, by contrast, feels as cold as an autopsy room, mechanical-sounding multitracked guitars seeming to tower like massive icebergs over the listener. The drums, especially the snare, are recorded with both reverb and heavy compression to make them pop and boom explosively, accomplishing the same dynamic murder as David Prater’s triggers from the previous album through more “organic” means. The reverb on the drums clashes with the rest of the instruments, which have been recorded as dry as the Atacama Desert. LaBrie couldn’t sing over this racket with subtlety even if he wanted to, and even less space is left for the keys and bass in the mix as even more of the frequency range—a very scarce resource on a metal record—is given over to the “important” instruments. Once more, the vinyl seems to recover a bit of dynamic range the old CD version lacked, but not much. Dream Theater’s entire dynamic range, on Awake, is bulldozed so flat in the quest to sound “heavy” that even the ballads are swamped with blown-out guitar distortion, drum reverb, or James LaBrie pushing his voice to redline and beyond. The demos of this album sound much better than the final mix; it’s almost criminal how much money was spent to make Awake sound so awful.

The nuance of earlier Dream Theater had been blasted out (with one exception, to be mentioned later) by the time they recorded Awake; the mid-’90s were when metal was well on its way to becoming the IN YOUR FACE!!! holographic-Spawn-cover caricature that it is today, and Dream Theater were caught up in the churn just like everybody else, and forced to adapt to the new reality or die. All the riffs are louder and chunkier, all the vocals are shriekier and shoutier, the drumming fillier and flammier, the time signature changes more deliberately jarring, the formerly alluded-to conservative Christian themes now made literal, every gesture done as broadly as possible. Being the obsessive that I was, I collected a whole bunch of concert bootlegs (there are a great many, and the band at least used to tacitly encourage the practice) from the Images and Words tour and the concerts from the Images and Words tour showed this transformation unfolding almost week by week. The old Dream Theater, like the ‘70s prog rock before it, was music less about “rocking” in the physical sense (indeed, the legacy of blues-rock seemed to weigh on the original proggers like the proverbial mariner’s albatross) than music you could sit down to and contemplate almost in the same way you might listen to classical music. Awake is having none of that; it churns with incessant kinetic energy meant to get live crowds headbanging and deliver that satisfying adrenaline rush (and paycheck) to the performers, now professional working musicians in our competitive society with all the material interests that implies. Their former labor of love was now a labor in the more conventional sense; one might even say it had been alienated from them. There was no question of whether or not to sell out; selling is how professionals stay alive.

The sessions for Awake were, infamously among Dream Theater fans, when Kevin Moore cracked, abruptly left the band, and disappeared from public life, only occasionally releasing esoteric electronic soundtracks that had nothing to do with rock or metal. His lyrics on “6:00”, “Lie”, and “Space-Dye Vest” are by far the best on the album, and so directly express his disgust for what Dream Theater was becoming and the machinery of the culture industry closing in on him that I am surprised they made it to the final version of the album. The cynical streak exhibited in lyrics from the previous two albums has hardened almost into total despair, and at least for me, carry an emotional weight and intensity matched by no Dream Theater lyrics before or since, stating baldly things that might have otherwise been concealed behind sweetening imagery or Christian metaphor, the message burning so hot that it can no longer be contained by the aesthetic. Moore also wrote most of the music for the album bookends “6:00” and “Space-Dye Vest”, which, probably not coincidentally, are the best on the album and among the best in the band’s entire career. On the rest of the album, he is mostly felt as an absence, mostly providing atmospheric backdrops for music largely written and directed by Petrucci and Portnoy while staying far away from the spotlight. The old band dynamic from the previous albums, slightly weakened on Images and Words, is broken altogether on Awake.

With the band’s more sensitive and eclectic side so badly compromised, John Petrucci’s mostly groove metal-based riffwork must carry almost the entire album, and while Petrucci’s forte has rarely been riffs, on Awake he does indeed deliver the goods on rhythm as well as lead guitar…usually (more on the exception later). Metallica and Pantera are commonly noted influences on Dream Theater’s riffs from Awake onward (and Metallica’s …And Justice for All would be a well John Petrucci would repeatedly draw from when he was otherwise out of ideas on later Dream Theater albums), but the groove album whose rhythm style I see the most of in Awake is Meshuggah’s Contradictions Collapse from 1991. The riffs here are much less violent and uncompromising than on Meshuggah’s debut, but the use of rapid, syncopated seven-string hammering on “Caught in a Web” and “The Mirror” are definitely out of the early Meshuggah playbook; the famous trudging main riff of the latter even has an original on “Abnegating Cecity” from Contradictions Collapse. While not particularly original, Petrucci’s chug riffs have more hits than misses on Awake, and contain almost all of his best riffs that are not in When Dream and Day Unite.

Petrucci’s solos suffer from the same exaggeration and lack of dynamics as the rest of the album, every single note he plays screaming with Painkiller shrillness (and by the end of this album’s 75-minute, double-LP run, his tone occasionally inspires me to take a more literal sort of painkiller), and many of his classical devices have disappeared in favor of traditional blues licks. His blues solos are not as much of a caricature as Dimebag Darrell’s, but the material he’s working with was old and used-up in the 1980s when Stevie Ray Vaughan played with it, and the corpse of electric blues only got smellier in the intervening decade-plus between Texas Flood and Awake. On “Scarred” he ends up in a blooze-off with Kevin Moore and loses, despite Moore not even playing guitar and having to make do with a plastic-fantastic synth preset on his keyboard. When he sticks to his strengths—perpetual-motion high-wire acts with notes flying by almost faster than the mind can process them—he is still on point, with the callback to “The Mirror” at the end of “Lie” being the highlight among his solos on this album.

It is actually what was supposed to be his magnum opus and Awake’s prog centerpiece, the three-song “A Mind Beside Itself” suite occupying the entire B side of the vinyl version, that proves to be Petrucci’s weakest contribution to Awake. The instrumental “Erotomania” and suite centerpiece “Voices” are a prophecy of the creative desert Petrucci would enter around 2000—plodding, shapeless riffoids seemingly built from the time signature up with corporate indifference, with Petrucci’s guitar more dominant than ever before, and precious little texture from the other musicians to flesh out his harmonically muddled clunking. The lyrics are a spiritual shaggy dog narrative where a horny teenaged John Petrucci walks right up to the edge of realizing how his childhood Catholic upbringing is warping and perverting his sexuality, only for him to turn around at the last moment and go back to his earlier blind acceptance of inherited dogma. But now he’s a “witness to redemption”, leading to the Pencian religious narcissism of “The Silent Man”, where Petrucci (through a breathy and overwrought James LaBrie vocal) tells you all about how he’s found balance in Jesus, over some incredibly basic pop-country strumming with a sentimental cello overdub, like a ballad by Creed or some other plastic Christian rock band playing at artsiness.

However, the best songs on the album, unlike those on subsequent albums without Kevin Moore, still rise to the level of the best of their earlier works. Opener “6:00” has a particularly clever use of Dream Theater’s customary time signature changes, delivering what seems like a strange, off-kilter 4/4 rocker that is actually in two time signatures, with every second measure adding a fifth beat and making it sound almost like the music is stumbling and immediately picking itself back up, lurching sort of like the trick rhythm (which took away a beat rather than adding one) in Pink Floyd’s “Money”. Mike Portnoy thrashes and bashes and throws in little flourishes all over the place but never once loses the beat, “catching” the “stumble” and bringing it into the next measure seamlessly every time. “The Mirror” is one of the best straight groove metal songs ever written, constantly developing its pattern of seven-string hammering with new rhythms and new harmonies to keep it sounding fresh instead of succumbing to Pantera-like stagnation. A shame the moody, tense middle section where the heavy guitars drop out, like the otherwise excellent power ballad “Lifting Shadows Off a Dream” that comes a bit later, gets its finer details sanded off for the sake of making everything louder and heavier; it added an extra dimension to the demo versions of both tracks, which exploited dynamic buildups to twist the listener’s emotions.

Perhaps it is fitting that “Space-Dye Vest”, as the closer to both Awake and the “classic” Dream Theater lineup, stands out through the almost total negation of the bombastic spiritual triumphalism of “Scarred”. Almost wholly the work of Kevin Moore, “Space-Dye Vest” strips away every vestige of the typical Dream Theater aesthetic, and gets as close to “raw” as Dream Theater ever got or ever will. There is no ornamentation or flamboyance or “just because” here; just the dirge-like procession of Moore’s piano over layers of abrasive electronics to evoke the horror of the song’s protagonist, trapped in an antiseptic commercial nightmare of signs without meaning, his view of life so mediated by images that he cannot relate to women at all except through advertising, and abandons his real relationships for a fetishistic attraction to a catalog model. Not just every note but every silence is pregnant with layers of meaning, even the way Moore plays slightly behind the tempo in the especially spartan middle of the song. Even James LaBrie’s singing eschews all hints of mannerism, being delivered in a cold but vulnerable voice with hints of seething hostility coursing just below the surface, a masterfully nuanced and realistic performance for a singer normally more inclined to quite literally shout his feelings at you. The frigid mechanical crunch of Awake’s production finally has music it works with instead of against, plunging the listener into a frigid sea of emotional death. After 68 minutes of posturing, “Space-Dye Vest” is unsentimental, brutally honest, and the most thoughtful and progressive piece of music this supposedly thoughtful prog band has ever produced.

Awake might have been more fashionable than the shamelessly dorky Images and Words, yet it failed to sell on the same level, selling about 600,000 copies in its first two years compared to over one million of its predecessor. As the Atlantic Records juggernaut now considered Dream Theater, having been once a million-seller out of nowhere, to be responsible for delivering million-sellers again and again, this was enough for Awake to be declared a commercial failure and for the label to take an extremely heavy hand on the two succeeding releases with Derek Sherinian on keyboards, leading to awkward, commercial-but-not-commercial-enough music that destroyed much of Dream Theater’s original fanbase, which they would have to more or less rebuild anew with a new lineup and sound. Artistically, while Awake was a compromised work, it still represents some of the most interesting and vital heavy music of the early ‘90s, in the years when metal needed every half-listenable album it could get, and its best moments grasp onto the genuine insight and sophistication that Images and Words could only play at. It is an album of amazing peaks and embarrassing troughs, and while Images and Words is overall probably a better album, it is Awake that is the more interesting, both in where it succeeded and where it failed. And I, in the end, can’t help but still love it despite everything.

Rating: 85%

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *