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Ambitiously inconsistent - 52%

colin040, October 20th, 2019

There are bands that are somewhat unknown and then there are bands that you just can't get around - they just get mentioned a lot. Dream Theater fall in the latter category and whereas the band's earlier stuff is often either loved or hated, I believe the band did have the potential to deliver a classic at one point – they never did, which is a shame because the first three albums do feature a few cool tracks here and there. Unfortunately, Images and Words is a good example of such. The band is certainly trying out different things here, but sadly not with the best results.

Clearly more professional sounding than the debut, Images and Words welcomes James LaBrie, who’s probably more accessible than his predecessor – although I should admit I’m not so crazy about his role here. On one hand he does have a unique personality; you won’t mistake him for a Geoff Tate clone that you’d often find on earlier progressive metal records. On the other hand, I think he’s playing it just a bit too safe with these super slick melodic vocal lines that are present on the majority of these tunes. For a better presentation of his style, I suggest you hear the Live at the Marquee EP, where LaBrie sounds slightly more aggressive. (Some will say Awake is his best performance, but he’s rather edgy sounding on that album, which is good for a laugh, but I might save that for another review).

My biggest problem with Images and Words is how its versatility is more often a trap than a quality of Dream Theater. At its worst the result is awfully embarrassing (or laughable, depending on your sense of humor) – where the progressiveness comes off as either over-the-top or rather dry and bland during its softer moments. At its best, the band has a real thing going on for fluent ideas that do work though. Some punchy riffs do work effectively and occasionally the emotional interplay between the instruments do create magic, as I have no problem referring ‘’Learning to Live’’ as a progressive metal classic.

For one thing, John Petrucci doesn’t always do it for me, as he’s rather inconsistent and frustrating guitarist - both in the riff and lead department. At his best he’s able to craft simple, crunchy riffwork found in ‘’Pull me Under’’, makes ‘’Learning to Live’’ quite a journey (which despite being one of the ‘’pure’’ progressive numbers on here, isn’t devoid of any emotional depth) and shreds with taste and class. At his worst, he relies on lazy, dull chugs and rapidly shreds his way through certain tracks with impressive, yet exaggerated leads that I could easily do without – this is especially frustrating when the inconsistencies show up in the same track. ‘’Under a Glass Moon’’ has one of the laziest verse riffs I can think of, but does feature a high flying chorus with a lively riff on top and ‘’Metropolis’’ has a similar problem, which after some chugging (forgiven as it’s just an intro), turns into a behemoth of acrobatic twists and turns between some of LaBrie’s harmonies which is all great – but then an interlude leads to a solo that interrupts the flow for about four god damn minutes before the track picks up again.

Interestingly enough, things starts and ends actually rather well. ‘’Pull me Under’’ is the heaviest piece here; chunky and bended, it’s a Metallica-inspired tune (it’s not quite ‘’Constant Motion’’, however!) Not only is it the closest the band ever got at creating a riff-happy number, it also has good sense of flow to it as it’s not totally predictable, yet doesn’t surprise the listener with any unnecessary moments. I’m especially fond of that ‘’roller coaster’’ riff as I like to call it – the one that goes all over the fret board and leads to that dumb, yet catchy chorus - in this case not a problem, with a solid riff underneath. ‘’Learning to Live’’ shows the band at their most united - from Moore’s happy keyboard introduction to the famous blistering vocal attack to the emotionally provoking guitar swings and motives of Petrruci, it’s just a successful number that actually moves forward towards that incredible ending where the majestic chants appear between the soulful leads.

As pointed out earlier, Dream Theater’s earlier works were ambitious as the band was clearly trying out different stuff on their first few albums (I’m not quite sure about their debut anymore, but this one and Awake certainly count in this regard), but ambitious doesn't always lead to greatness. See ‘’Take the Time’’, which is all over the place, bloody awful and one of the most confusing tracks I can think of. It featuring James LaBrie at his most embarrassing; rapping with a slightly distorted tone over a funky bass line before the track blows in your face with an annoying chorus. I suppose the piano segments makes you want to believe the band can mix their creativity with depth, but I’ll stick to ‘’Learning to Live’’ for that kind of thing. Other attempts at evoking sensitivity include ‘’Another Day’’, which doesn’t even sound if the band was trying hard (lyrics aside that is), but instead just wanted to have a pure ballad on the record for the sake of it and the more climax-driven ‘’Surrounded’’ – which is not awful and at least works towards something at one point, even though it takes far too long to get going.

While I definitely don’t believe Images and Words (or early Dream Theater in general for that matter) deserves the hate that it gets, I wouldn’t recommend it, either - I prefer my metal albums to have more than two cool songs on them, after all. This is just mediocre and I'd rather listen to other progressive metal albums instead.