Dream Theater – Images and Words – The Best Progressive Metal Album Ever

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Classic Metal Hawk sometimes uses the blog to debate some of the existential questions that keep Classic Heavy Metal fans awake at night. Were Black Sabbath the first heavy metal band? Are W.A.S.P. Glam? That kind of thing. Today, there’s no debate. The Hawk hereby nominates the classic Dream Theater album ‘Images and Words’ as the greatest progressive heavy metal album ever. It’s not even controversial.

Non-Negotiable for Classic Heavy Metal

Classic Metal Hawk has a real weakness for top quality musicianship. And that’s not unusual – after all, one of the reasons that a lot of people got an appreciation for Classic Heavy Metal in the first place is that most of these bands really do play their instruments to a high standard. If you look at the UK in the late 1970s, one of the most important points of difference between New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and the punk culture it was competing against was musicianship. You didn’t have to be able to play all that well to start off in a punk band – that wasn’t the point. But for heavy metal acts, it WAS important – in fact probably a non-negotiable component.

The Hawk was too young to experience the NWOBHM vs. Punk debates that happened at the time, but still got into the musicianship of Classic Heavy Metal in a big way even from the first ever Classic Heavy Metal album he ever listened to – Iron Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.‘ The sheer variety and quality of the instruments and vocals was mind blowing. Not that Maiden are renowned as any sort of progressive metal band with the most out-of-this-world playing imaginable. But their line-up of musicians has always stood up to scrutiny compared to their peers and is anyway vastly superior most of the chart music and softer rock the Hawk had been listening to prior to that.

Obviously, we can all have fun comparing musicians. (Hawk note to self – idea for blog article – who’s the GOAT?) But looking at just the guitar players, Maiden’s Dave Murray and Adrian Smith were legends on that album, and still are today.

Discovering Progressive Heavy Metal

However, once Classic Metal Hawk expanded his musical palette, he soon figured out that there were bands out there who were even better, reaching higher standards to what felt like an absurd degree, usually under the banner of Progressive Heavy Metal. The best example of this? Yep, Dream Theater’s ‘Images and Words’, which hit the shelves a few years after Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in 1992, and is surely the high watermark for excellence in writing and playing and playing of the entire Classic Heavy Metal genre.

So not necessarily the best metal album ever. But for progressive metal, absolutely.

There are plenty of competitors, though as always, the boundaries of the progressive heavy metal niche aren’t drawn with great precision. People talk about (e.g.) Queensryche and Fates Warning – but good as both of those bands are, neither can hold a candle to Dream Theater’s playing.

Dream Theater aim for perfection

Let’s dig into ‘Images and Words’, and The Hawk will set out why it’s the best in its niche. It was done that way by design for a start. After all, 3 of Dream Theater’s founding members, John Petrucci (guitar), John Myung (bass) and Mike Portnoy (drums) first met at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. That’s a serious institution, only for seriously committed musicians of high aptitude. Even to gain entry, applicants must pass an interview AND an audition as well as demonstrating a successful academic record. That screening process already weeds out 2 out of every 3 applicants. And even if you get through, you have to come up with some serious dough for the fees (over $70,000 per year as of this writing – no not for the faint hearted.)

The school offers a holistic music program, covering a wide range of music styles, and its alumni have racked up any number of awards – Grammys, Tonys, Saturns, even Oscars. It even has a section of its website dedicated to the long list of awards hauled in by alumni. Students don’t go there to learn an instrument as such – it’s expected they are already very proficient. Rather, they go for a music education in the widest possible sense.

So, when Petrucci, Myung and Portnoy decided to form Dream Theater (or ‘Majesty’ as they started out before another band called Majesty threatened legal action over theft of their name), they already had some fairly lofty musical ambitions, along with a musical education that could support that. They didn’t graduate in the end, instead dropping out to devote all their energy to the band. They felt they had all the education they needed by then.

Singer Search (Take 200)

And you can get some sense of their desired level of perfectionism by looking at the timeline leading up to ‘Images and Words’. The band first formed in 1985, secured a recording contract in 1988 and released their debut album, ‘When Dream and Day Unite’ in 1989. That leaves about a 3-year gap leading up to ‘Images and Words’, most of which was spent looking for the right vocalist. The singer on the first album, Charlie Dominici was subject of deep misgivings by the others – did he have the vocal range and stage presence to allow the band to stretch themselves musically as they wanted? Deciding in the negative, they fired him and kicked off a 2-year search for a new singer. Dream Theater reportedly auditioned and rejected close to 200 potential singers before James LaBrie sent them a demo tape, and after a short audition was hired immediately.

Serious perfectionists, but not only when it came to the singing. On guitars, for example, John Petrucci was famous for his discipline in practising and honing his technique so that he’d be able to explore all the musical ideas he was having. 6 hours per day of practise was routine.

(Classic Metal Hawk always finds it amusing to look at the ‘league table’ of claimed practise hours by top guitarists whilst they were first developing their skills. Here, Petrucci’s 6 daily hours don’t attract too many bragging rights, compared to, say, Zakk Wylde, who would reportedly go as much as 12 hours per day. It really demonstrates the level of dedication that these guys had to show to get them where they are today.)

‘Images and Words’ is born

Here were Dream Theater then, with a strong new singer, and a new recording contract with a bigger label, ready to hit the studio again. The writing style of the band is based around jamming – starting with some riff or chord progression and developing from there. And you can really get a feel for that in the songs of ‘Images and Words’, with so many different ideas blending together – the unusual time signatures, the experimental harmonies, the song structures – all give the feeling of having been grown organically through time spent together just playing around with ideas.

There was plenty of creative tension during the writing and recording process, though much of that seems to have been brought in by the producer David Prater, who would even lock them out of the studio at times. But eventually, the masterpiece came together.

The Songs

If we browse through ‘Images and Words’, the song ‘Pull Me Under’ tends to get the most attention, as the lead single from the album, and the song which, via its extensive play on radio and MTV basically put the band on the map. But just because it’s the most ‘commercial’ offering from the album, that doesn’t make it lightweight in any way. The lyrics pull heavily on the classic Shakespeare play, ‘Hamlet.’ In the play, Hamlet’s father is the King of Denmark, murdered by his own brother Claudius. Claudius then marries Hamlet’s mother and usurps the throne. Informed of these despicable events by his father’s ghost, Hamlet plots revenge, and gradually dissolves into insanity. ‘Pull me Under’ is basically a description of that meltdown, driven by rage, vengeance, and honour:

All that I feel is honor and spite
All I can do is to set it right

The song also includes that infamous guitar lick by John Petrucci which hits 32nd notes for a full measure. That’s 32 individually picked notes per bar in a song that is already up-tempo. That Petrucci can also pull this off live is an astonishing display of technique and a vindication of all those practise hours.

Then there’s the emotive ‘Another Day’, written by Petrucci about his father’s cancer diagnosis.

Or what about ‘Metropolis Part 1 – The Miracle and the Sleeper,’ with its masterful yet abstract story telling pointing to unrequited love. Here’s how Petrucci describes coming up with the idea in an interview with Songfacts.

That’s a weird one, because that one is very arbitrary in the lyrical content. A very long time ago, I was watching some sort of TV show – a documentary or something – I don’t even really remember what the topic was, but it spawned this Miracle and Sleeper character, and I just took it from there. It’s fictional and kind of abstract. I guess that’s the best way of describing it.

John Petrucci

The combination of the characterisation, the story and the soaring melodies (both vocal and instrumental) have made the song a firm favourite with the fans, even though it wasn’t released as a single. Most likely, a single would have had to be cut down in length which wouldn’t work so well for such an epic composition.

The abstract nature of the lyrics has led many fans to speculate as to its real meaning. Is it about Romulus and Remus (with Rome, the city they created as the ‘Metropolis’ in the title)? Is it an Adam and Eve tale? Is it about unrequited love in general? Dream Theater themselves are happy to keep the fans guessing and filling in their own blanks.

Diverse Sampling

We could go on for some time. There’s ‘Wait for Sleep’ with its haunting keyboard / vocal pairing. (Only 2 and a half minutes too – quite the collectors’ item for Dream Theater.)

Or Classic Metal Hawk has a real soft spot for the end section of ‘Take the Time’, with its guitar hook and blistering outro solo. ‘Take the Time’ is another epic composition in different ways. It features samples from Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin'” (“Hold it now”), Frank Zappa’s “Dancin’ Fool” (“Wait a minute”), and Public Enemy’s “Power to the People”, (“Come on”). It also includes a quote from Giuseppe Tornatore’s movie ‘Cinema Paradiso‘: “Ora che ho perso la vista, ci vedo di più”. The band took the English translation of the quote, (“Now that I have lost my sight, I see more”), and paraphrased it as a lyric: “I see clearer now, I’m blind”.

So these aren’t songs that were dashed off quickly. And, considering the complex compositions, it’s surprising how well the album stands as a whole. Well worth an hour of anyone’s time to listen to end to end.

Critical Acclaim

The music critics went pretty wild for ‘Images and Words’ at the time, if you care about that sort of thing. The reception is probably best summed up by this quote from Metal Storm, that the album was “a masterpiece and also a historical album … it brought something totally new to the scene, this famous progressive metal sound that would become Dream Theater’s signature.”

James LaBrie himself calls it the album he’s most proud of, the one that “that established what Dream Theater really is. I think it’s a phenomenal album from beginning to end.”

Obviously, there were critics as well. Some people think the whole thing is a bit too ‘wanky’ and overblown, with an arrogant sense of ‘look how great we are at music’ running through. Or that the whole thing is over-calculated, and not really within the ‘free spirit’ of progressive metal.

Unarguably though, it pushed the boundaries of composition and playing to a whole new level at the time of its release, and for Classic Metal Hawk’s money, it remains one of the best examples of progressive metal there is. How much value you place of that is a matter of personal taste, sure, but it’s one of the classics as far as this blog is concerned. So, having mentioned it as a favourite, let the Hawk play you out with ‘Take the Time’. Don’t forget to listen out for those samples.

Time for all you Progressive Metal afficionados out there – is Images and Words the best, or can you go one better? And for you Progressive metal haters, what gives? Have another listen.

And, obviously share your thoughts in the comments below at the same time. Or send feedback to The Hawk.

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