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Dream Theater – Awake

Note: This review was expanded a few days after its initial publication.

So the main problem with this album exists not merely on its own merits (or demerits), but also because early Dream Theater is simply put… somewhat cheesy. I think it has something to do with their power metal roots. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Images and Words has its silly, poppy bits like “Another Day” and “Surrounded”, but even those songs are enjoyable along with the virtuoso performances and speed, fury, brilliance that we see on the five main songs (Pull Me Under, Take the Time, Metropolis, Under a Glass Moon, Learning to Live) despite said elements. In fact, on at least half the songs, Awake does a good job of following up that element of Dream Theater’s sound – perhaps lighter and softer than you’d expect from a prog metal album, but more importantly showcasing excellent musicianship and compositions.

The problem with Awake is that in addition to said aspects of Images and Words, the album tries to be very heavy at times. Unfortunately, this isn’t the Slayer sort of heavy that takes the best of hardcore and puts it into heavy metal, or the Candlemass sort of heavy that inspires one to think about medieval Europe, or whatever sort of heaviness that we like in heavy metal. It’s the “Pantera” sort of heaviness. It doesn’t make itself manifest for very long or result in simplistic groove songs, but it does result in a crapload of musical confusion when it rears its head. The problem with Dream Theater trying to employ this method (in this case, on “The Mirror” and “Lie”) is not that they use it at all (nothing automatically wrong with it), but that they try to mix it with their lighter, more upbeat power/prog sound, and the results are painful to listen to. I’m sure it can be done – we know they did well with Images and Words, and their later albums apparently perform the “straightforward” heaviness thing better than this does.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to “The Mirror” – it’s a total crapfuck. It starts with downtuned chugging, which forms the base of the song. But then, James LaBrie tries to sing like he does on the rest of the album, and they clash horribly. There’s also some keyboards floating around, creating further incoherence. Now, I’m not the kind of person who screams in terror and shouts obscenities when I hear genre mixing – whether it be simple jazz fusion – fellows like Stanley Clarke or bands like Atheist, or bands that just take influences from anything they want, like Solefald or latter day Ulver. But the thing that makes those fusions good is their cohesion. “The Mirror”, as well as “Lie”, feel like incoherent combinations of Pantera groove with some of the cheesy excess that prog gets its hand on sometimes.

Fortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t degenerate like those two songs. While it’s easy to spot the band’s attempts to produce heavier, darker music, the attempts at doing so feel better thought out – while many of these songs are “heavier” than songs on the previous album, the attempts are subtler, and they don’t come across as chimeric abominations borne of men trying to fuse musical styles but not necessarily being sure how to do so. With this in mind, I can sort the songs into three groups – songs that remind me of Images and Words, the “heavier” songs, and The Mirror/Lie, which have already been described.

With this in mind, the “heavier” songs that work tend to be more focused than the average song on Images and Words. They seem to have crunchier, downtuned mixes, showcase less soloing on average, and in fact, are shorter on average than the last album’s songs. The first two tracks, for example, does a reasonably good job of providing this heavier take on Dream Theater. While they’re composed in a similar fashion to Mirror/Lie, they don’t suffer the aesthetic confusion that harms the other so much, and also have better riffing. The closing track provides an alternate approach to increasing “heaviness” – while it’s a very laid back track, it’s also a relatively morbid one – all about how the speaker feels unworthy of loving people.

The “softer” songs is actually a partial misnomer – but I feel that they’re more coherent. At the very least, they fall into similar roles as songs on the previous album. Innocence Faded is the crossover pop song, Erotomania provides plenty of instrumental virtuosity (or wanking, but you wouldn’t listen to Dream Theater if you didn’t like it, did you?). voices/The Silent Man forms a more streamlined take on the typical Images and Words songwriting, Scarred is morose, Lifting Shadows off a Dream is morose, etc. sometimes, the writing is stagnant, but the songs tend to be good.

Still, I’d recommend Images and Words over this.

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