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When Dream Theater didn't (completely) suck - 61%

Jophelerx, May 28th, 2014

I wasn't around to remember or experience it, but there was once a blissful time when progressive metal wasn't always associated with excessive keyboards and guitar masturbation. This was the era when progressive metal typically meant heavy or power metal with progressive elements; bands like (early) Queensryche and Fates Warning, Crimson Glory and Sacred Blade, before the very late 80s and early 90s when progressive metal started to change into a different beast. A few bands are known as pioneers of this style; Norway's Conception, Fates Warning (post-No Exit) and of course today's topic, Dream Theater. While Dream Theater aren't necessarily more culpable for the start of this modern brand of prog than Conception or Fates Warning are, they are more irritating to me because unlike the other two bands, not only did they never really produce anything worthwhile, they're also one of the worst offenders of the genre (and I've listened to a lot of it).

Their 1989 debut When Dream and Day Unite is, thankfully, more worthwhile than any of their other material, with few sections that are actively irritating and some that are even marginally enjoyable. It is a very groundbreaking and somewhat influential album - which in this case means the heaps and heaps of modern prog bullshit to come in the years ahead. While the album itself is fairly harmless, what it inspired is much, much worse. However, let's get on to the music itself. Even in 1989, wimpy, largely ball-less prog metal wasn't terribly uncommon; Queensryche's Rage for Order, Fifth Angel's self-titled, and some largely Queensryche-derivative bands like Gehenna, Drive, and Scarlet Rayne were around. However, one thing none of these bands was the prominent keyboard presence on When Dream and Day Unite, nor did any of them take the progressive aspects to such an extreme degree.

This album is fairly dense and can be bewildering on first listen with the constant changes and numerous simultaneous elements; in this way it is like Fates Warning's Awaken the Guardian, Slauter Xstroyes' Winter Kill, or Psychotic Waltz's A Social Grace from the following year. Like A Social Grace, it's hard to put this into a specific subgenre besides the highly nebulous "progressive metal" tag; if I had to do so I would call it symphonic heavy metal with progressive rock and power metal elements, but that's quite a mouthful, so I'll call it "modern prog," to differentiate it from bands which also fall into the progressive metal category but aren't in the same style (the aforementioned Psychotic Waltz, Voivod, later Holocaust). The weird thing about this album (for its time) is that, as I mentioned, the keyboards are very prevalent; as prevalent as the guitars in some sections, more so in many others. The production is also quite wimpy, so as to accommodate for the strong keyboard and vocal presence, with slick, muted guitars that don't do any respectable metal album justice.

Vocalist Charlie Dominici is technically good, hitting all the right notes, and has a fair amount of charisma, but his performance is even less ballsy than that of (late 80s) Geoff Tate and his imitators (Lethal's Tom Mallicoat, Screamer's Bill Carter, etc.). Tate's introduction to metal in '82 surprised everyone, as he had classical training and went for a cleaner, more operatic style, but this is a step further. I don't know a lot of rock singers from that era very well, but to give the best comparison I can, Dominici sounds sort of like a lamer, gay Geddy Lee. Not to bash Geddy Lee - Dominici is much wimpier than Lee, who works well with most of Rush's material - I just don't know prog rock and Lee is the first person who came to mind. I'd be surprised if there weren't some Rush influence in the music as well - there's obvious prog rock influence - but I don't know Rush's material well enough to pick out any specific albums or anything.

The sad thing to me about this album is that the songwriting is actually pretty decent throughout - the vocal lines are good, the guitar riffs are often fairly good, but the vocalist sucks and the lame pseudo-epic keyboard lines drown out the guitars most of the time. Had they cut they keyboard wankery and gone with a real metal vocalist like John Stewart (Slauter Xstroyes), this could've been a fairly cool album, but as it is, it just feels too bloated, saccharine, and flaccid most of the time. The lyrics are also quite shit, with pseudo-intellectual vomit like "A trifling euphoria was such an untimely religion" and "Visions still surviving in a logic-proof shell", and when they're not trying to be intellectual, they're talking about some lame personal struggle or some such shit - boring as fuck.

Still, despite its shortcomings, the album is not without its merits. As I said, the riffs and vocal lines are often good, and occasionally even the keyboards won't utterly suck, creating a triumphant feel such as at the end of "Only a Matter of Time" or sort of mysterious as on "The Ytse Jam" (which, being mostly guitar focused and lacking Dominici, is easily my favorite track here). The song moods are typically melancholic and/or romantic, often both in the same song, pretty understandable considering the lyrical content but not really my bag; the keyboards, lyrics, and vocals together just completely castrate the album most of the time, relinquishing it of all power it might have had and turning it into an instrument wank-fest. Not as badly as subsequent Dream Theater efforts, but still, not what you really want to hear out of metal. Overall the album is pretty mediocre, with enough redeeming qualities to keep it from being painful but never rising above its choking failures. I would not advise anyone to check out this or any other Dream Theater album, ever, but if you really have some burning desire to listen to the band, this one is your best bet.