Album Review: Dream Theater – Awake (1994)

“I feel elated

I feel depressed”

I thought I would start off by reviewing what could be my favourite Dream Theater album, although Images & Words is a strong contender. For a long time Dream Theater were my favourite band, a spot which in the last few months has been taken over by Marillion (I’ll get to them in another post) and I feel I have a lot to say, having listened to this album probably upwards of 100 times.

As an album, in my opinion, Awake is pretty much perfect. It has a mix of everything and is extremely well balanced which means the listener is never bored. I think this is what I like about progressive music. I find it hard sometimes to listen to a full album of a straight-up rock or metal band without it becoming a little stale.

With the opening drum fill of ‘6:00’ it is fairly obvious that this is a less-than-conventional album; it isn’t going to be something that’s played on Radio 1, and don’t they know it. The song makes great use of samples throughout – something which I love about Dream Theater’s style but which is particularly impressive on this album. The drumming in the album opener really stands out, it’s strong in the mix without being too overbearing and compliments the rest of the instruments brilliantly. ‘Caught In A Web’, despite being one the album’s weaker tracks, makes up for a fairly average verse with a strong chorus and good performance from James LaBrie. I feel like Images & Words and Awake were LaBrie’s ‘golden age’, hitting the F# on Learning To Live and delivering a stunning performance on this album. It’s also interesting to listen to the version from Live Scenes from New York, in which it is merged with ‘New Millenium’ from Falling Into Infinity. ‘Innocence Faded’ is a slight turn away from the previous two tracks – it is a lot more poppy and accessible, which isn’t to say it isn’t as good. The lead guitar hook is more catchy and uplifting and later in the song is one of the best chord sequences I’ve ever heard. LaBrie again delivers on the chorus and I hope I get the opportunity to see this song live one day

What comes next is potentially the highlight of the album – the ‘A Mind Beside Itself’ suite, comprising ‘Erotomania’, ‘Voices’ and ‘The Silent Man’. The first track is an instrumental and serves almost as an overture. The guitar solo which utilises the vocal melody of ‘The Silent Man’ is one of my favourite moments on the entire album. This is Dream Theater doing what they do best: phenomenal, twisting and turning instrumental sections. I feel that ‘Erotomania’ is a vastly underappreciated instrumental track in Dream Theater’s music history. ‘Voices’, my second favourite track on the album, is an amazing 9-minute piece featuring some of my favourite lyrics of all time. Although they are very dark, John Petrucci has not managed to recreate the imagery conveyed since:

“I’m lying here in bed
Swear my skin is inside out
Just another Sunday Morning”

“The old man takes the poison
Now the widow makes the rules”

‘The Silent Man’ compliments the darkness and complexity of the previous two tracks with wonderful acoustic grace. The acoustic open chords and simple structure are well needed and round off the first half of the album leaving the listener feeling almost contented.

Then comes ‘The Mirror’. The heaviest track on the album cuts through the brief silence after ‘The Silent Man’ like an axe to a block of wood with the harsh, unforgiving guitar of John Petrucci. A fantastic track, again with some great lyrics from Mike Portnoy and a hint at the ‘Space-Dye Vest’ theme. While this isn’t truly a concept album, there are repeated themes throughout which I really like. Immediately following ‘The Mirror’ comes ‘Lie’, a track which receives mixed reviews amongst the Dream Theater community, which seems to be split into those who prefer their heavier side and those who prefer their proggier side. I’m in the latter camp, and for a long time I didn’t like ‘Lie’ much at all. It wasn’t until earlier this year when I saw the band on the Along For The Ride tour in Manchester that the song really came alive to me. Perhaps it was the energy of the band and the crowd, but I had so much fun during that song and have preferred it on the album since then.

Much like ‘The Silent Man’ before, ‘Lifting Shadows Off A Dream’ provides a contrast to the almost unrelenting 13 minutes of heaviness of ‘The Mirror/Lie’. John Myung’s bass harmonics introduce us to this ballad, which is lyrically very poetic and vague, and musically sublime and optimistic. It’s definitely one of the standout tracks on the album for me. ‘Scarred’ is another track that took me a long time to get into, again almost until I saw it live. It is a difficult piece of music with a wide range of emotions. This is particularly helped by LaBrie’s vocal performance, from the almost whispered “To rise…to fall”, to the spitted angriness of “Can’t let them rape me again / Your venom’s not family here” to the soaring “Thirty years say we’re in this together / So open your eyes”.

The final track is ‘Space-Dye Vest’, another which has split the Dream Theater community. Some people think it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, others absolutely hate it. Me, I think it’s perfect. Kevin Moore’s final contribution to the band and what a way to go. From the haunting piano, to the low, droned guitar, to the deep vocals and the perfectly structured sample section in the middle, there is nothing wrong about this song. It is easily my favourite song on the album and finishes it off perfectly, reflecting the general dark mood of the album and leaving the listener feeling almost emotionally drained.

Awake takes you through almost every style of music without losing the sound that is classically Dream Theater. I find it very hard to find major faults with the album, every song is wonderfully crafted and serves a vital purpose on the album. It is an incredibly mature, emotional and powerful album and an essential listen for anyone who likes either metal, rock or prog – everyone will take something away.

Stand-out Tracks: Voices, Space-Dye Vest

10/10

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