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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Dream Theater

Dream Theater

Review by Gary Hill

I discovered Dream Theater very early and became a big fan. After a while, though, they seemed to lose some of the magic for me. It’s not that they were bad. It’s just that it sometimes seemed boring to me. Well, this album is certainly not boring. I’d consider it one of their best. Dream Theater is probably better at merging really heavy metal with real progressive rock than any other band. They pull it off with a lot of style on this set. They manage to keep it interesting from start to finish. I highly recommend this disc to all fans of DT. I’d also say that if you like neo-prog with a lot of metal in the mix and haven’t really given Dream Theater a fair shake over the years, this is a great choice to correct that.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
False Awakening Suite

At just a little over two and a half minutes in length this instrumental is the shortest piece here. It’s a real powerhouse, spinning together progressive rock, classical music and metal into a smoking hot jam. It’s a great way to start the set in style.

The Enemy Inside
This starts off very much as a thrash tune. It’s a powerhouse rocker. It gets proggier as it continues, but this song is very metallic. There’s no question about that. The chorus has some great hooks. There is a pretty crazed progressive rock jam mid-track. The vocals on this are classic Dream Theater and the whole tune is a real winner.
The Looking Glass
The opening section of this (which recurs in the song at various points) feels so much like Rush to me. There are other movements here that are trademark Dream Theater, though. Some are harder edged and some are mellower. The vocal arrangement here is powerful, and the guitar solo is particularly melodic.   
Enigma Machine
This instrumental is a real screamer. It starts with some spooky music, but then some serious metal comes in to take over for a while. After that it just keeps reinventing. It’s hard edged, but also very proggy. It reminds me of some of Rush’s old instrumentals, but taken toward the crunchier end of the spectrum and brought into the 21st Century.
The Bigger Picture
I think this is my favorite song of the whole disc. It has everything that is so great about Dream Theater. There are great musical shifts and changes. We get virtuoso instrumental work. It has emotional vocals. The whole thing is just so powerful. It comes in hard edged, but drops to a ballad motif to continue. From there the piece evolves pretty organically. It gets very hard rocking after a time and runs through like that for a while before dropping way back down and then getting reborn. This is just such an amazing piece of music. I can listen to it over and over again. Everything just gels on this.
Behind the Veil
There is a pretty and mellow extended introduction on this that borders on space rock. From there, though, some serious crunch joins. That type of fury gets shifted toward the prog end of the spectrum from there. Then, though, it gives way to a pure metal section. Vocals and keys join, spinning it more to the prog end again. This is another powerhouse tune that’s quite diverse and dynamic. It’s not as effective as “The Bigger Picture” to me, but that’s more about how strong that piece is than it is about any weakness here. This is still a killer tune that’s classic Dream Theater.
Surrender To Reason
While this one doesn’t grab me as much as some of the others, it’s not for any kind of flaw. It’s classic Dream Theater. it’s full shifts and changes. It’s powerful and dramatic and emotional. I love the fast bass line on the mid-track jam. I also love the lyrical reference to the first album. It’s got some incredible moments. It’s just that a couple of the other things stick with me a bit more. It’s still a great song.
Along for the Ride
I suppose in some ways you could call this a power ballad. It certainly starts off with a balladic approach and then gets powered. The song isn’t one of the best, but I love the keyboard solo. It seems to me that it must be a tribute to Keith Emerson because it really sounds like him, right down to the voicing on the keyboard.
Illumination Theory
The epic of the album, this takes up the last 22 plus minutes. It is possibly Dream Theater’s greatest epic song ever. I would argue that the piece would not work without that kind of space. Sometimes the journey is the important thing, less than the destination. Other times, the journey is part of the destination. Such is the case here. This piece seems to be constructed with a lot of thought and care so that each piece is necessary to deliver the message of the composition. It isn’t just jamming for the sake of jamming or extended length for the sake of filling time on an album. This is a treatment where each bit of the construction seems necessary to make the story work. It opens with a powerful section that feels very much like music from an epic film, but delivered with both rock and symphonic elements. After a time, though, it shifts to a full on hard rocking mode to continue. The evolution of the piece continues as this works through a number of shifts and changes. It’s about four minutes in before the vocals ever enter. The lyrics on this seem to have a very Zen element to them, showcasing how one needs to two sides of yin and yang to fully appreciate either end of the equation. For that reason, this extensive journey with varying sounds and textures is necessary to really capture it. The piece continues to showcase that through all kinds of varied themes within that rocking sound. Within a couple minutes they take us through a neo-classical jam that’s a real powerhouse. Then it drops way down to spacey atmospherics from there. In some ways, this makes me think of a similar section of Yes’ “Close to the Edge.” From there, though, it moves into a purely symphonic movement with classical strings turning into a symphony. There are some familiar classical themes as this moves forward. Then it shifts out to a bass driven section before the whole band join and we’re into another hard rocking movement. When it shifts out into a fast paced progressive rock jam after that set of vocals, it definitely seems like something Emerson, Lake and Palmer would do. It gets more of a crunchy edge as they resolve out of that, though. A smoking hot keyboard dominated jam emerges beyond that point and this thing just keeps screaming. As it works to the powerful resolution there are more symphonic elements that emerge. This section is so emotional and potent that it’s amazing. There is a real sense of the symphonic as it reaches its climax. But, don’t shut off the player just yet. After an extended silence, the music returns. A piano dominated mellower coda closes it. Again, it seems completely necessary to really complete the piece.
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