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The most underrated prog metal album ever - 97%

Caleb9000, April 16th, 2018

Look at just about any review, any ranking and any retrospective regarding Dream Theater's discography. Chances are you'll see this album at the very bottom (or at least close to it). People usually have the same reasons for hating it. The vocals are wierd and annoying, the production is rough, it isn't technical enough, not enough emphasis on the guitar, no really long epics, etc. It doesn't quite sound like Dream Theater as most know them today. It has more in common with what was going on in the 80s metal scene and doesn't hold up as well, or so most people say. Or they'll just call it "immature" because it makes them look like they're being objective. But it wasn't always like this. Most people worshiped this album when it came out, including the members of Fates Warning. But because of Dream Theater's newfound fanbase rooted in other, more modern genres, this album is often panned. But it really doesn't deserve it at all, as it's really one of the band's best albums and a really important step forward for progressive metal.

While this album doesn't feature the technical masturbation found on many of the subsequent Dream Theater albums, it does put more emphasis on shreddy riffs and odd/jazzy time signatures than anything else before it. Watchtower and Sieges Even are exceptions, but they were more thrash-oriented. It takes more direct influence from 70s and 80s prog rock than any other metal album before it. Even Perfect Symmetry by Fates Warning doesn't have this much overt homage to Yes and Rush (despite it being a slightly better album). Although it does seem to take more from what Rush was doing in the early 80s than their classic 70s output. Because of this, When Dream and Day Unite is the most synth-driven Dream Theater album (or at least the most synth-driven Dream Theater album that's actually metal). But this actually works for the album. Kevin Moore is my favorite metal keyboardist and this album doesn't count against that. His keyboard-work is cold, atmospheric, often symphonic and very beautiful, without being overly soft or wanky. Kevin is known to be very atmospheric with his playing. Because of his high prominence here, this is probably the most atmospheric Dream Theater album. It sounds chaotic, yet beautiful at the same time, without being too gay or too intense for its own good.

Another thing that adds to this is the production. It's pretty reverb-heavy and somewhat raw. It's a lot like the production on Legendary Tales by Rhapsody. But it adds to the murky nature of the music. But because of the highly clean and sterile nature of most production on modern prog metal albums, this gets a bad reputation from most fans of that. It's really not even all that bad. The mixing is actually really good. You can hear everything, including the bass, which is something Dream Theater isn't known for. Which is a good thing, as Myung is a genuinely great bassist. Songs like "A Fortune in Lies" and "The Killing Hand" have the dark, mystical atmosphere that they do in part because of the production, though mostly because of the music. But the reason why the music itself feels like this is because of the clear power metal influence. Fates Warning, Crimson Glory, Heir Apparent and other progressive power metal bands were all an influence on this album. It was very uncommon for progressive metal in the 1980s to not have power metal influences, although this does dial it back more than those bands.

But what really kills this album for most people is the same thing that killed early Fates Warning for most people. The vocalist has a strange tone that can be annoying for some listeners. Charlie Dominici was a soul singer before this, which gives him a different background than other singers in his field. He does clearly take influence from metal singers though, particularly Geoff Tate, due to his open-throat phrasing. But the singer he most resembles is Geddy Lee from Rush, though a bit less nasally and more operatic. I personally think his voice is beautiful and perfectly fits the music, though he did put me off the first time I heard it. He tends to almost gasp when he hits semi-high notes and his voice is somewhat effeminate, but in a good way. The same way that James Labrie does, though a bit weirder. He has no problem staying on key and his sustain is good, meaning that there really isn't anything technically bad about him, other than him sometimes having trouble hitting some higher notes. People just need to adjust to him to like him more.

The songs are some of the best that Dream Theater ever did. "A Fortune in Lies" is epic and gloomy, but without sacrificing energy. It actually gets thrashy early in the song, with a palm-muted bottom string riff accompanied by fast double-bass, though that only lasts for a little while. Meanwhile, "The Killing Hand" keeps that sense of gloom and mysticism, but with a more relaxing and enchanting tone, mostly due to the beautiful keyboard work. It's probably the closing thing to a traditional Dream Theater epic on here, due to the multi-part structure and length of the song, though other songs are only a little shorter. "Ytse Jam" is catchy, but very technical, with lightning fast melodic guitar work, almost like a cross between Queensryche and Watchtower. People who like Dream Theater for their technicality will probably like this song the most. But my personal favorite track is the closer, "Only a Matter of Time". This is because of the song's ability to have a triumphant, almost Fifth Angel resemblant feel while still keeping the progressive mindset of the rest of the album, mainly due to the very interesting and tension-building rhythm of the main verse. The lyrics on this song are easily the best that Kevin Moore ever wrote, telling a story about a father letting his son go off to war.

"A father's benediction as his hopeful son departs
To brave the sea of rage and conquer at all costs
Lingers in his memory and visions still surviving
In a logic proof shell
That should have been held sacred, safe and hidden well
Are compromised in usury"

His lyrics really capture the desperation and internal conflict that the father feels. It also has Charlie at his best vocally, delivering a frantic and heartfelt performance that fits the music like a glove. Not to say that every other song isn't a standout. Really the only song that I don't like too much is "Status Seeker". A new wave song with metal guitars, it's actually pretty decent for what it is, but the 80s cheese is a little difficult to stomach. It also features the absolutely awful lyric, "You draw a battle line with the dollar sign". That's pretty much the only issue on the whole album, as everything else is in top form. It's a consistent album with lots of memorable songs with more value than many people would have you believe.

It's more than just memorability that saves this album from the shit that it gets. It's everything going on that isn't on one particular track. The instrumentation really isn't any less creative than it tends to be with Dream Theater (and it does so without being pretentious), the songs are emotive without being sappy, and it's just a milestone in the evolution of progressive metal as a whole. But unfortunately, it receives almost never-ending hate from many fans for things that really don't deserve it. But the truth is that When Dream and Day Unite is a masterpiece and one of the best things Dream Theater ever wrote. It just isn't as appealing to the modern progressive crowd. It's so hugely important and accomplished, but the low reputation it gets pushes listeners away. This is why I consider it to be the most underrated progressive metal album ever. Don't buy into the undeserved neglect it gets, you'll just have more music to enjoy than people who've been scared away.