The world was a very different place in 1992. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains numbered among music’s most pre-eminent names, 65 innocents were murdered in the Manchester bombings and Bill Clinton had just collected the keys to the White House. Peter Gabriel, Yes and Genesis still flew the flag for sounds of substance, though despite a popular tour the writing was on the wall for the latter thanks to the previous year’s woeful We Can’t Dance. Meanwhile, over in heavier territory Metallica were still carving inroads to the mainstream via a self-titled black album that eventually shifted more than 15 million units in the States alone.
And as for the melding of the two styles which we now call progressive metal? For those with their finger on the pulse it bubbled away furiously beneath the surface but, to use a current common parlance, it wasn’t really a thing.
“That’s quite true,” agrees John Petrucci, guitarist of Dream Theater, the Grammy-nominated US/Canadian outfit that has since become a figurehead for the genre. “We were friends with Fates Warning and Watchtower, and Queensrÿche had become pretty big, but there wasn’t the scene that we know today. Everything was super, super underground.”
The record that would both ignite this nascent form of music and fan the flames of the career of its creators was a remarkable album entitled Images And Words. The story of its birth – which involved flaming rows with its producer, record company meddling and even, depending on who you believe, a possible Machiavellian plot to replace the band’s singer – is every bit as extraordinary.
For Dream Theater, who three years earlier had crashed and burned spectacularly with a critically acclaimed yet commercially overlooked debut album called When Dream And Day Unite, the dawning of the 1990s spelled the most challenging of times. Having dispensed with the services of frontman Charlie Dominici, Petrucci, bassist John Myung, keysman Kevin Moore and drummer Mike Portnoy fought to be released from their contract with MCA subsidiary Mechanic Records before auditioning around 200 potential replacements. This process was to prove exhaustive and at times soul-destroying.
“Some of those that tried out were out of their minds – as soon as you met them you knew it wouldn’t work out but [for the sake of politeness] you would have to play with them for a while,” remembers Petrucci, still not sure whether to laugh or cry. “There was one guy who called himself The Crazy Viking, and another who brought his whole family with him.”
It would take the singer-less, impoverished Dream Theater two years to find the right frontman, during which time they performed the occasional show as an instrumental four-piece and even hired a guy called Steve Stone, who lasted for a solitary concert.
“It was tough to keep the dream alive,” Petrucci admits. “We were still very young guys and with Operation Desert Storm going on there were some worries that we might have got drafted [into the military]. After letting Charlie Dominici go, everyone went back to their day jobs, but the one thing we still did was practice regularly, for three or four days of every week.”
The missing piece of the jigsaw was James LaBrie, a member of the Canadian band Winter Rose whose CD found its way into Dream Theater’s clutches at a point when one might reasonably have expected them to be abandoning hope.
“By the time I met them, the guys were not in the least downhearted,” recalls LaBrie when asked about the scenario he found himself walking into. “There was great spirit and morale. They knew within themselves that they had something special. That inner confidence was the first thing that struck me about them.”
A 45-minute jam that included a cover of Journey’s Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’ saw a relieved Dream Theater find their man. LaBrie recalls his new bandmates handing him very basic demos of three freshly written tunes (Take The Time, Learning To Live and Metropolis) that very quickly secured an eight-album deal with Atco Records, a part of the Atlantic family run by former Gentle Giant singer-turned-executive Derek Shulman. However, as rosy as things appeared, stormy waters lay ahead and Atco didn’t share the band’s enthusiasm for their newest member. Not only that, the label paired them with an ill-fitting producer who infuriated certain group members almost to the point of meltdown.
Ex-Santana drummer David Prater was an eccentric guy who had made records for soft rock acts such as Firehouse and Diving For Pearls. In 2006, looking back on the Images And Words sessions, an exasperated Portnoy told me: “Dealing with this asshole was tortuous.” Things almost became physical when Prater accused Moore of playing his keyboard parts wrongly on purpose to make him look stupid, wiping the tapes to start over again. Much of the animosity with Portnoy, believes LaBrie, was caused by Prater’s insistence upon using triggered drums.
“Kevin and Mike both had big issues with David, but he got along fabulously with the two Johns and myself,” clarifies LaBrie. Petrucci agrees: “Sure, he could be forceful in expressing his opinions. I recall having been proud of my guitar solo for Surrounded but he told me it sounded like a bad Van Halen solo, but Prater did an amazing job for us.”
Neither can confirm nor deny the rumour that Prater insisted upon getting completely naked and turning off all of the studio lights as he mixed the album’s epic opening track, Pull Me Under.
“I’ve heard that story and fortunately I wasn’t there to witness it,” LaBrie chuckles. “It’s a mental image that I could do without. But hey… whatever works for you, David.”
On the very first day of the recordings, Derek Oliver, the former journalist who signed DT to the label, visited the studio to say that Atco would not allow them to record one of the strongest tracks intended for the record. Inspired by the grief of his mother’s death, Portnoy had written the lyrics of the 22-minute, seven-part suite A Change Of Seasons, and he took the news badly, commenting: “It was a sour way to start the session.”
There’s an audible sigh as LaBrie laments the label’s misunderstanding of what Dream Theater were about. “Early on, they had told us what we were trying to do had ‘nothing to do with today’s music’,” he winces. “And of course that was the whole point! But you could almost hear them wondering how they hell they were going to make the record stick.”
However, as much as Portnoy, who slated Prater as “one of my least favourite human beings on the planet”, and Kevin Moore had butted heads with their producer, Portnoy would later acknowledge through gritted teeth that the saving of A Change Of Seasons for standalone EP status was “probably the right decision because had it been included it would’ve made the album 70 minutes long”. He even credited Prater for providing what he termed “a push towards the mainstream”, adding: “We were writing music that sounded like Metallica jamming with Yes or Rush, so somebody needed to [act as a mediator] or the album might’ve disappeared into oblivion.”
“Mike was completely right,” believes LaBrie. “Had we made the record that we’d really wanted to, it may have been a little too much for people to absorb.”
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It was quite a while afterwards that word began to emerge of a plot to oust James LaBrie in favour of Robert Mason, at the time a member of former Dokken guitarist George Lynch’s band Lynch Mob and now the frontman of hair metal survivors Warrant. Portnoy remains convinced that it did happen, remarking in that same 2006 interview: “The idea of replacing James was something we only found out years later. The management, the label; everyone was trying to dip their hands into the pie.”
A quarter century afterwards, LaBrie and Petrucci are not so certain. “I did wonder why I would not have been privy to that but believe it might be bullshit,” LaBrie now says. “In fact, the subject came up again quite recently when we started discussing Images And Words again,” he continues. “I asked John Petrucci point-blank, what about that guy… was his name Robert Mason? He told me we had already done a demo of the songs and were about to enter the studio. His words were, ‘If anyone had tried to force that upon us, there was no freakin’ way.’ Myself, I don’t doubt that Derek Oliver wanted to bring in another singer because he never really liked my voice, but it would never have gotten past the discussion stage.”
“I suppose it might be possible Mike knew something that the rest of the band did not,” Petrucci muses, sounding a little uncomfortable. “Beyond that, I can’t say.”
(Without warning, a band representative comes on the line and requests that “we move past any more Mike questions” – amazing considering Portnoy’s significant role at this point in the band’s history. Hmmm…)
Looking back, it’s difficult to overstate the David and Goliath scenario that awaited the release of Images And Words. Here was an album full of eight, nine and 11-minute pieces, delivered with painstakingly honed technique and an occasional sense of beauteous serenity that couldn’t have been more out of step with the simplicity and angst of the day.
While many of their contemporaries busied themselves with self-loathing and adolescent issues, Dream Theater sought an entirely different intellectual plane. Written by Kevin Moore, Pull Me Under referenced Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Metropolis – Part 1 (The Miracle And The Sleeper) was based on a documentary Petrucci had seen on TV. Elsewhere, John Myung’s 11-minute piece Learning To Live tackled the topical issue of AIDS.
It’s also been suggested that with its lyric of ‘I’ve heard the promises/I’ve seen the mistakes’ and with the band being unwilling to ‘Waste another breath’, Take The Time was a response to DT’s treatment by Atco, though LaBrie dispels such theories.
“Those words were written way before the label became involved with us,” he clarifies. “But there is some truth to what you say. The band wrote them because they were frustrated in their search for a singer and a label that would get behind them and understand their musical ambitions.”
Dream Theater’s initially frosty relationship with Atco, or more specifically its parent company Warner Music, would prove considerably longer-lasting than anybody suspected.
“Whether they moved us onto EastWest, EastWest America, Elektra or Atlantic, every time the option came up for renewal they picked it up,” Petrucci notes drily.
At first Atco pressed up a mere 8,000 copies of the album, though they started to realise the band’s potential when the eight-minute track Pull Me Under attracted radio play at college level and then national exposure. Reviews were hit and miss, though to be fair one critic correctly predicted that Images And Words would “do for prog rock what Nirvana have done for smelly cardigans”. Not long afterwards Iron Maiden offered the band some support slots on their tour for Fear Of The Dark and Dream Theater at last stated to enjoy some real traction.
“When we first began touring for Images And Words it really was just five guys in a van with a little bed bunk in the back,” LaBrie laughs at the memory. “All of us would take turns driving – it was pretty brutal. We knew that the album was going to stick out like a sore thumb and for it to take off we’d have to show some real tenacity. But if it wasn’t for Pull Me Under there’s a very strong chance that you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Dream Theater would go on to release a further 10 studio records whilst rising to the dizzy heights they now occupy – until scaling things back to large-sized theatres for their most recent bout of touring, the band had long since attained the status of Wembley Arena headliners – but Images And Words remains their most successful album. Neither James nor Jon will dispute the fans’ assessment that it’s still their magnum opus.
“We’ve made others that for me are on a par with Images…” LaBrie contemplates. “Off the top of my head I’d cite Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory , Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence  and even The Astonishing, but of course the continued love of my debut with the band is very rewarding. It’s great that even new bands are being told, ‘Check out Images And Words – that’s the one you’ve got to sink your teeth into.’”
Is it annoying that some fans still think it’s a record that Dream Theater will never surpass?
Petrucci: “In some ways sure, but you’ve got to look past that. I know from firsthand experience that discovering a band and falling in love with a record is a very special feeling. It’s something experienced by a fan of every band and not something to get hung up about.”
LaBrie believes that parallels can be drawn between IAW, which was launched into an unforgiving and downright alien musical landscape, and The Astonishing, last year’s “retro-futurist post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by medieval style feudalism”, which offered more than two hours of music broken down into 34 different chapters spread across two acts (one per CD).
“Even 30 years into our history, with all of the albums we’ve sold and everything that people now know about the band, The Astonishing polarised our fans,” he admits. “They had never seen or heard anything like it before – much like Images And Words.”
In spite of Prater’s insistence upon mixing Images And Words away from the group and presenting the results as a fait accompli, Petrucci and LaBrie believe the album still holds up well. “I’ve some minor reservations,” admits John, “but mostly the album is awesome.”
Back in 2007, celebrating their 15th anniversary and with Jordan Rudess having replaced Moore, and of course before Portnoy handed the drum stool to Mike Mangini, DT played Images And Words in its entirety on a handful of occasions. The band are looking forward to revisiting it once again – even the now 53-year-old LaBrie, who in 1994 damaged his voice during a food poisoning incident in Cuba.
“Images And Words is a great album to perform live – it has such a great flow,” he enthuses. “First time around, before rupturing my chords, it was nothing for me to sing its songs up there in the stratosphere. Luckily, I’ve healed over the years and I’m very confident of putting on an amazing performance. Those high parts on Another Day, Take The Time or Learning To Live all present challenges but I’m not intimidated about calling upon my upper range, put it that way.”
Almost exactly a year ago at the Palladium in London on the opening night of the world tour for The Astonishing, LaBrie knocked it out of the park with a powerhouse vocal display to silence any remaining doubters (and yes, there are still a few).
“Well, thanks for that,” La Brie responds gratefully. “It was an enormous challenge to represent seven different characters in the story, making those transitions within the blink of an eye, but after a few shows I felt myself doing it pretty naturally.”
All the same, The Astonishing really was an album for the hardcore, reflecting its spot of third place in ‘Disappointment Of The Year’ on the 2016 Prog readers’ poll. With hindsight was it a step too far?
“I don’t think so,” LaBrie disagrees. “The Astonishing did very well for us around the world. But when you look at the bigger picture, sure… it was a hard sell.”
“It was a work on such a grand scale, we always knew that some people would be totally into it and others would hate it,” Petrucci agrees, “but the fact that we made a very different record and toured it the way we did made it hugely successful for me, and I thank our fans for that.”
Dream Theater are likely to be touring Images And Words for almost a calendar year, at which point they will begin formulating ideas for album number 14. It’s extremely unlikely, predicts LaBrie, that the band could consider entering the studio until “sometime in 2018”.
Right now all that John Petrucci can reveal for sure about its direction is that there will be no sequel to The Astonishing.
“It’s time for something completely new,” he concludes. “It’s always fun to play the older songs and everyone seems excited about hearing Images And Words again so in some ways this is a celebration and party tour, but by the time we get around to recording we’ll be hungry. My mind is already thinking about the next thing.”
This article originally appeared in issue 74 of Prog Magazine.
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Can’t get enough of The Astonishing? You’re in luck…
In the springtime, _The Astonishing_ assumes a new multi-media identity when noted sci-fi/fantasy writer Peter Orullian will extend its storyline into the form of a novel, which at first will be available in limited edition form (2,500 copies only) and bound in leather.At press time, John Petrucci had yet to read the text in its entirety, but there’s no doubt that the Seattle-based former musician author Orullian is an unashamed fanboy. On his website he proclaims: “The first thing you need to know is that Dream Theater is my favourite band. Ever.” In the same post, Orullian reveals that he has added “new characters, new motives, new technology” to the original story, “all in the over-arching plot, but also introducing new subplots and scenes”.
However, it was the revelation that the special edition will include “audio clips of song ideas not used on the album” that really caused Prog’s antenna to twitch.
“Jordan [Rudess] and I had so many sketches that we simply couldn’t use them all,” Petrucci explains. “We thought it would be an interesting thing to reveal a few of them as part of the limited edition, so you will get to hear seeds of song ideas and demos, all sorts of cool stuff.”
This article originally appeared in issue 74 of Prog Magazine.