“I can hear mistakes and imperfections, but spirit has transcended the years. When we play those songs live, they still work”: Dream Theater’s embryonic debut album

Dream Theater
(Image credit: Press)

In 2014 – during the period when Mike Portnoy was out of the band – Dream Theater looked back with Prog at their debut album When Dream And Day Unite. Released in 1989, it was their only LP to feature singer Charlie Dominici, who died in November 2023. 

It was with 1992’s Images And Words album, when Dream Theater scored an unlikely radio and MTV hit in Pull Me Under, that their Rush-inspired, progressive metal first came to prominence. Indeed, there are countless fans who even now fail to realise that back in 1989, with Charlie Dominici and not James LaBrie on vocals, the band released their pivotal debut, When Dream And Day Unite.

Passing under the radar of even the most committed metal and prog fans thanks to a label that failed to promote the album, it’s regarded by some as a badly produced record that is at odds with their slicker, later releases. However, although it undeniably lacked finesse, polish and songwriting maturity, it captured an embryonic Dream Theater, free of responsibility and creating thrilling music.

The ultimate lack of commercial success wasn’t down to a lack of talent, but the fact that the band hadn’t performed any gigs with Dominici and didn’t have a ready-made fanbase garnered from the usual touring route. Yet despite that lack of gigging experience, they were able to still secure a record deal, based solely on a rough demo tape (issued under their previous moniker of Majesty) and a bizarre showcase performance in a Long Island basement.

“We would actually practise in the basement of a hair-cutting salon in Huntington, Long Island,” says John Petrucci, laughing at the memory. “Eventually, without really playing any gigs, we got the interest of Mechanic Records and got signed, pretty much out of the basement. Most bands will tell stories all the time about how they played gigs, had a following and labels came to clubs to see them. No, those guys came to the basement of a hair salon to watch us play. It was pretty hysterical.”

Their debut was recorded in the ludicrously short period of three weeks, with the record label employing producer Terry Date to complete the album as swiftly and cheaply as possible. Such was the time pressure that Dream Theater were forced to record at night, once the band using the studios during the day had gone home. Those sessions were in a converted gun factory, which, as Dominici recalls, was an atmospheric place to record.

“There was a lot of weird stuff going on,” he reveals. “I have hazy memories of half-naked girls running through the strange and eerie layout of the building that housed Kajem/Victory Studios. Apparently it was originally a gun factory and the gun that shot President Lincoln was allegedly made there. It was a very old building that was mandated to remain in its original form, so it was pretty spooky. 

”I remember we found out that Queensrÿche had recorded Operation: Mindcrime there a few months before. We all lived together in a house there and I remember thinking that I wanted to have the same room that Geoff Tate had, hoping some of that vocal genius would be lingering and might rub off on me!

“We were like brothers who shared the same obsession. I have a connection with all of them to this day that no one can break or compare to. It was a time in my life when everything came together for a magnificent result but turned out to be short lived in only three years. Like life, it starts and then it ends. But in the middle, just like life, it was beautiful.”

“We all got along great and were all really excited,” says the band’s drummer and notorious workaholic Mike Portnoy. “The spirits were high because we hadn’t been burned yet. When we made Images And Words a few years later, we had already been through the mill, chewed up and spit out. With When Dream And Day Unite, we were all fresh, excited and there was this incredible potential in front of us. We finally were getting to make our first record, although we were working in the off hours. So we would roll in at midnight and work through until 9am. It was crazy hours and I don’t think I’ve shaken that schedule since.”

With time having passed, the band are able to offer a pragmatic view of the songs, detached from the confident fervour that naturally accompanies any release. Containing material that was both complex and overflowing with musical showmanship, it remains one of Dream Theater’s heaviest releases. Tracks such as A Fortune In Lies, Status Seeker, the instrumental madness of Ytse Jam and the wonderfully upbeat Only A Matter Of Time have remained in the band’s live set to this day. Yet it’s the audacious intent that is still overriding, as guitarist Petrucci explains.

“Yeah, we were young guys who had a lot of energy and just a real joy in what we were doing. We had a tunnel vision and didn’t think about anything else other than playing this music that felt natural to us. We didn’t have any conversations about the kind of band that we wanted to be, or the direction of songs. The music was just the way it came out as we were writing. So I think it has a lot of that spontaneity and that kind of fire, that spirit. I can hear mistakes and imperfections all over it but regardless of all of that, the spirit of that has transcended the years. When we play those songs live, they still work.”

“We were young, dumb and full of come,” summarises Portnoy with a laugh. “It was all about the musicianship and the flashy playing. A lot of those songs are not considered on the same level as the rest of the Dream Theater catalogue for two reasons. One is because it was a different singer, so a lot of people have trouble accepting it as true Dream Theater because it was Charlie singing and not James LaBrie. The other is the production, as it was so low budget that the sonic quality of the album is not as great as the rest of the catalogue. But if you take away those issues and just listen to the music itself, that’s definitely the blueprint of the Dream Theater sound right there.”

For all those musical successes, the album would fail to make any great impression, with their label not backing the release with any tour support or even the essential promotional video to showcase their talent on the then-burgeoning MTV. The consequences would be far reaching, with the band losing their record deal and effectively having to start again.

It wasn’t merely the lack of any commercial success that was heartbreaking, but the fact that their dream of becoming professional, career musicians had seemingly been stolen away from them.

“Honestly, it was devastating,” says Portnoy. “After the release came and went with very little fanfare and very little activity, it was a devastating blow and it was the start of a really rough period for the band. It was a huge challenge to overcome the failure of that record. The label didn’t do anything with it. We were heartbroken and it was the first lesson of the reality of the cruel music business that we were dealt.”

John Petrucci continues: “It was total disappointment. We were pretty young, we had gone to Berklee College and then left to pursue this full-time. We were really dedicated, got a record deal, had a taste of a professional career and kind of just dropped out. Then we dismissed our singer Charlie and we were just an instrumental band without a record label, without a singer, and wondering if this was ever going to happen. Fast forward through many, many singer auditions and we found James LaBrie and began writing music for Images And Words. So that was kind of the beginning, but at the time it was very discouraging as we felt that it was so close.”

Images And Words would, of course, relaunch their career in a spectacular way. Yet the foundations of their success had unquestionably started with When Dream And Day Unite. The band had also made the tough decision to part with Dominici after a handful of live dates when they concluded that he wasn’t the perfect fit for them. Even today, Dominici is clearly still saddened at his exit, even if he understands and accepts the reasoning behind it.

“You really know how to dig up the bones, buddy,” he says, only half joking. “I had such dreams that people would see what I saw in the band but it was not to be. Not for another three or four years until they finally did what I was suggesting all along and put out a song that was radio – in this case, MTV – friendly, and the band broke big literally overnight. But I’m proud of it all and always will be.

I got my Majesty tattoo right after we signed… later on, Charlie got the same one and at that point we knew it possibly wasn’t going to be working out with him

Mike Portnoy

“People forget you very quickly if you don’t have your new CD out every year and a subsequent tour. Dream Theater do that consistently and that’s one of the main reasons they are still kicking and getting even more popular after more than 25 years. I’m so very proud of my younger brothers.”

One of the more disturbing aspects of Dominici’s exit was that a couple of weeks prior to his dismissal – and with the rest of the band already having decided his days were numbered – he had the Dream Theater ‘Majesty’ logo tattooed on to his arm. It remains a lasting reminder of those months he spent with the band, and one that he still regards as a badge of honour.

“Charlie was living with me in my house and I got my Majesty tattoo right after we signed that deal, and then later on, he got the same one and at that point we knew that it possibly wasn’t going to be working out with him,” sighs Portnoy.

“But you know what? At the end of the day, it is part of our lives and history. You know, he went away not being in Dream Theater and with a Dream Theater tattoo and now here I am, all these years later, not in Dream Theater and with a Dream Theater tattoo. I don’t think he regrets it any more than I regret mine. It is a part of history and a part of our lives.”