Dream Theater intimidate quite a few people (well, beyond their considerable following). Call it the scale on which they operate, call it the boldness with which they pursue such an essentially niche formula, but their tech/prog/melodic/metal hybrid has left many potential fans a little wary. ‘Soulless complexity’ is a criticism levied at many a technical head-fucker. And yes, it’s been clear from the off that Dream Theater are eager to capitalise on their virtuosity. But to call them soulless would be a little reductive, especially given the beautiful tunes of which they’re capable.
This box set covers the period from their 1992 ‘breakout’ to A Dramatic Turn Of Events, their first post-Mike Portnoy record; 10 albums, 10 titanic exploits. Images And Words – second album, first with vocalist James LaBrie – saw John Petrucci and his Berklee College pals Portnoy and John Myung prove that their heavy-riffing-meets-lovely-melody formula had legs – commercially successful legs. It’s a prog-metal landmark and a career highlight, with good reason.
Crucially, when Dream Theater get it right the results are spectacular. And surprisingly often it’s the ‘epics’ that really shine. Otherworldly, heavy ambient synths and guitar swirl into the likes of Octavarium – via exquisite, original soft passages and 70s prog sensibilities. Metal is obviously part of their bag, but this box-set reminds you what prog nerds they’ve been, though hooks and progressions gradually steered them further into hard rock.
Intense, sometimes overly convoluted, but at their height they’re a thrilling, groovy proposition. And besides, a little trickery (hell, a lot of trickery) can be mightily satisfying, as shown by Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, possibly the closest rock has come to demonstrating how inner turbulence actually sounds – even if you do want to shoot them for muddling certain moments with drum fiddles and electronic squiggles.
It’s a funny truth about a lot of ‘twiddly prog’ that through squillions of notes, modes and exotic scale combinations, it’s still easy to end up with, basically, the same general sound. That’s where Dream Theater sometimes fall short, resulting in a few samey minor chunks – largely in the latter years.
By Black Clouds And Silver Linings (Portnoy’s last) you can hear that they were all knackered and ready for change. Which happened, with their excellent self-titled record in 2013. Complex, laboured in places, magic in others… An intense, inventive shot to shake up your record collection.