Formed after leaving the Berklee College Of Music in 1985, Dream Theater have become synonymous with writing a cerebral, skilful and inventive blend of prog rock and metal, becoming the undisputed genre leaders given the gradual fall of Queensrÿche. Some 13 albums into their career, and surviving many changes of key personnel, they have remained a hugely imaginative force and have so far shown no indications of becoming creatively spent. Always proudly standing on the periphery of musical fashion and, aside from a solitary hit single, never being “cool”, they gradually amassed by word of mouth a vast loyal fan base who’ve transformed this underground band into arena fillers. We’ve raided their back-catalogue to find the finest 11 tracks that truly define Dream Theater…
Only A Matter Of Time (1989)
Taken from their first album, when Charlie Dominici was still their singer, it epitomised the approach that Dream Theater intended to take. Awash with progressive keyboards and raging guitars, it is a carefully crafted song that showcases their technically adept, college-based musical education. Lyrically, the song dealt with the band’s hopes to make a breakthrough and it proved to be prophetic. It may have taken another three years for Dream Theater to get noticed, but this song was a proud and direct statement of intent.
Pull Me Under (1992)
Dream Theater’s only foray into the charts was this 1992 single, an unlikely choice given the album version extended to over eight minutes. Yet with hefty editing, it was heavily rotated on MTV and the band’s trademark Rush meets Metallica sound was warmly embraced by thousands of new fans. Blending whirling keyboards and a typically driving guitar, it was a central part of an album that was crammed with tracks of a similarly substantial calibre.
Metropolis Part 1 (1992)
Admittedly, the sleigh bells that open this track make you think of festive reindeers or Awaken by Yes, but this song arguably remains the most outstanding they’ve ever recorded. An almost constant stalwart in Dream Theater sets during the intervening 23 years, it would become a blueprint for many of their future epics. Swirling keyboards, giddying changes of pace, consummate musicianship and no moments of superfluity, the song has defined the band’s approach.
The lyrics to this single were written by keyboard player Kevin Moore just prior to his departure from the band and hinted at his feelings of detachment from his bandmates. The song is notable for the aggressive tone of James LaBrie’s vocals that marked a departure from his previous style. “My vocals are a lot more varied and aggressive so people will think ‘They’ve changed singers again’,” joked LaBrie at the time.
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Peruvian Skies (1997)
A lyrically shady track from their most commercial album, Falling Into Infinity, it includes all the facets of great Metallica and Pink Floyd songs, but dealt with the uncomfortable subject of child abuse. With an unbridled aggressive guitar that inventively contrasts and intermingles with more laid back melodies, it was a highpoint on an overlooked album, often harshly lambasted for its accessibility. The closing guitar riff in particular genuinely equals those found on Metallica’s Black album.
The Spirit Carries On (1999)
Highlighting their mellower side, The Spirit Carries On was the final track on 1999’s Scenes From A Memory. Lyrically delving into the dark topic of death and rebirth, it’s a musically uplifting song with a triumphant ending. Melodically beautiful, the combination of Jordan Rudess’s piano and Petrucci’s Dave Gilmour style solos are immensely evocative.
The Dance Of Eternity (1999)
Anyone wanting to try and explain the appeal of Dream Theater to friends should turn to this instrumental track for audible support. Indeed, the talents of the musicians within the band are often overpowering, with Mike Portnoy’s drumming and John Myung’s bass being allowed space to breathe in a track that showcased their technical chops, especially when performed live. Mixing metal, jazz and prog, all constructed around a dizzying array of time signatures, it remains a stunning recording in their back-catalogue.
As I Am (2003)
The band’s overtly heavy 2003 album, Train Of Thought, was a specific attempt by Dream Theater to record a “classic heavy metal album”, and this track, with a tolling, Black Sabbath-esque bass line opening, epitomised that approach. It may lack some of their more subtle moments but by applying a metal frame to their progressive mindset, any suggestions the band were one-dimensional were firmly dismissed. The scintillating guitar solo remains one of John Petrucci’s greatest.
“We were looking for that ultimate Yes or Genesis influence for that track” said keyboard player Jordan Rudess at the time, and they succeeded in their aim. Lasting for over 20 minutes and containing a succession of nuances that recalled those prog rock greats, it is expansive as it is alluring. With strings adding a fresh dimension to the band’s sound, it is an ambitious track that is crammed with all the attributes that have made Dream Theater such a successful act.
The Count Of Tuscany (2009)
Lyrically detailing a bizarre visit by guitarist John Petrucci to an antiquated Italian winery, The Count Of Tuscany is another 20 minute track that encompasses every aspect of Dream Theater’s music. Whether the beguiling mellow intro guitar, the metallic riffs, the cerebral playing or the elongated, mesmerising Petrucci solo that kicks in after 11 minutes, it’s a faultless track that would mark drummer Mike Portnoy’s final recorded performance with the band.
The Looking Glass (2013)
Owing much to Rush’s rich musical heritage, this five-minute song represents Dream Theater at their most compressed and accessible. There may be countless examples of concise songs throughout their career, but The Looking Glass is incisive and immediately infectious. An obvious highlight on their self-titled album, the interplay between bass and guitar is impeccable, with an infuriatingly catchy chorus merely adding to the appeal. It also contains one of singer James LaBrie’s most consistent and heartfelt performances.