If you asked me what is the best album ever in my opinion, now I’d probably tell you something along the lines of “I can’t really pick one, there are so many different kinds of music and there’s no absolute best”. But if you really insisted on wanting a title from me, it would be Images And Words.
Released in 1992, the second album of progressive metal band Dream Theater is a milestone of the genre and it inspired many bands to follow in their footsteps. But if your stereotypical metalhead tried to approach this album they would be surprised to say the least, for it is way more progressive than it is metal. I mean, the heavy riffs are still there, but the context in which they’re placed is so markedly different from your typical metal song (nobody could probably see the cheesy saxophone coming in Another Day, for example) and throughout the album there’s a good deal of pop sensibility. And that’s remarkable, considering that the music in many occasions veers into unconventional time signatures and other weirdness. I was just as surprised as anybody when I couldn’t tap my feet to certain sections but the tune was still catchy nevertheless. And speaking of virtuosity, Dream Theater often get the criticism that they show off their instrumental prowess for the sake of it and at the expense of emotion; and while I totally agree with them when talking about some of their later efforts (I’m looking at you, Scenes From A Memory), it’s definitely not the case here. Every crazy solo has actually something to tell, and it never lingers past its purpose in the song.
I don’t like to talk about albums by going over them track by track, but if this album is so high in my personal chart it’s because it’s one of those no-filler albums, so you won’t regret it I promise!
- Pull Me Under is the only proper hit Dream Theater had, and their most well-known song. And it deserves all of it. The main riff (perfect to headbang on!) strikes you as something that could be in some weird time signature but it’s actually in 4/4: the odd feel is just drummer Mike Portnoy doing all he can to make it weirder, crazy fills and whatnot (that’s something he does all throughout the album, by the way). I especially like the bit right before the vocals kick in: snare and guitar use the same rhythm but the drums come a 16th note earlier. Brace yourself for the ending with the ominous
LatinShakespeare chanting and another surprise I won’t spoil you.
- This is where most listeners go WTF, and for good reason: yeah, Another Day is a cheesy 80s ballad with smooth jazz saxophone. It’s also a good performance by singer James LaBrie, and it gets a little more guitar-heavy in the second half. The solos here are definitely not a soulless display of playing ability.
- Take The Time is one of my favourites. It has the trademark “progressively add instruments” start, it gets straight to the heaviness and then BOOM! DISCO! Although the drums are a little crazier than a straight disco jam, the bass line can’t deny its origin. And LaBrie can’t deny he’s going after Michael Jackson here, just a little more operatic. This whole section would feel at home in Thriller, indeed. Don’t worry, the disco lasts only twelve bars and leaves space to heavier stuff, but before that notice how the section is in 6/4! And the following part of the verse is in 7/4, and the whole song really changes meter and tempo at every frigging section BUT IT’S STILL SO CATCHY! Another thing of note is the use of… sampling, of all things. And I’m not just talking about the snippet from Nuovo Cinema Paradiso coming right before the instrumental section. Right before the vocals first kick in, we get one after the other samples from Kurtis Blow, Frank Zappa and Public Enemy. Metal bands sampling hip hop?!?!?
- Surrounded is another of my favourites. It doesn’t hit as hard as Take The Time, but it’s got some lovely keyboards to compensate. After 80 seconds or so the band kicks in, and with it what I love the most about this song: in the 9/8 sections (told you this album was full of weird meters! It feels like there’s 4.5 beats in a measure) bassist John Myung plays only one note the whole time! It’s basically a pedal bass under a changing chord progression, although he changes octave sometimes to spice it up. Did I mention the beautiful keyboards?
- And here we come to the epic song, Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle And The Sleeper. Another slow start with instruments entering one after the other (the first being one of those ridiculously 90s new age patches) leading into the bulk of the song. Here for the most part weird meter changes are limited to the fills at the end of sections, and the song relies mainly on arrangement to provide interest. But after the second chorus we get this little 5/4 bar acting as sort of a jingle of awesomeness telling us “here it comes the instrumental section”! The same jingle will appear after almost four minutes to announce the end of the section to lead into the epic finale. What happens in between is all the weird meters you could expect, all band members taking turns to the spotlight or sharing it for moments of awesomeness (like the video game music inspired run of guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Kevin Moore after the bass solo). All throughout the section there are little recurring motifs, like the two that separate different solos in the first half and the 6/8 riff working as the backdrop for some of the solos in the second half.
Metropolis‘ instrumental section is one of the few in this album that comes most close to being just a show-off for the musicians but it manages to never be boring, something that the following tracks on this album don’t manage to do as well. Probably it’s more a result of being overwhelmed by all the awesomeness in the previous five tracks: my brain at least can’t take any more music after witnessing the first part of this album. So I’d suggest you to listen to this album in two different sessions, leaving the last three tracks for another day. That’s why I’m splitting this review in two parts. See you next time for the second part of the track-by-track overview and other overall considerations on this album!