ON TRACK: Dream Theater every album, every song – Jordan Blum
Fresh from his tome scrutinising the music of Jethro Tull for Sonicbond, Jordan Blum looks at the ‘divisive’ catalogue of the Prog Metal pioneers.
The On Track series is fab. I’ve enjoyed the series so far for either (a) giving me a nice insight into a band I don’t know/am a little aware of or (b) a band I love so I can read and mull over the author’s thoughts with some knowledge and experience. And opinion – that’s the key factor. I fall into the latter category for DT so approached this one with some relish to see which opinions were going to make the grade.
They’re a fickle group the DT fans; a constant banter of which album/song is the best, even verbally squabbling over the band members. The use of the word ‘divisive’ through the text has never been more apt. There may never be a definitive list when it comes to sorting their albums, but several online publications have attempted the ‘worst to best’ and rarely do they match in many ways.
We can’t resist skipping to the end to see how Jordan Blum has ranked the albums which not so much acts as a spoiler but sets the scene appropriately. He says some nice things about the first album When Dream And Day Unite, although it sits bottom of his rankings. And that’s the general thrust of this set of album analyses.
There are good and not so good from all eras. Regular peaks and troughs. Albums that fit into the ‘good but not great’ category and at least a couple – Awake and Falling Into Infinity – that we’re urged to reappraise. Fair comment as for me, Awake is the underrated one and acknowledged by the band who played a huge chunk (including the excellent Space-Dye Vest) in ‘Act II’ on the 2014 tour.
Images And Words – one of the big hitters – sees some tracks analysed in detail yet more scant for others. I’d be arguing my corner (over a pint of course, as that’s the nature of the beast) a couple of tracks he passes over such as Surrounded and Under A Glass Moon. The opening few minutes of the latter in particular is some of my favourite DT riffing and writing. And while we’re on the subject, I also love I Walk Beside You (from Octavarium) which Jordan notes as “flowery radio-friendly wholesomeness” and “insipid” yet I’d argue no more so that Hollow Years which makes his ultimate playlist. Such is the nature of appeal and opinion.
With the highs of Scenes From A Memory and the A Change Of Season track, Jordan doesn’t hold back his admiration. He calls A Change Of Seasons an epic that “they’d arguably never better” while he adds to the already high acclaim for the former, by going into competition with Mike Portnoy in a battle of hyperbole. Blum: “quite possibly the greatest progressive metal album of all time“. Portnoy: “a masterpiece / the ultimate Dream Theater experience at every level.” It does live up to the billing although for those new to DT, it may have your head spinning/ears bleeding within twenty minutes…and that’s before you get to Dance Of Eternity (“no progressive metal instrumental has ever, definitely, topped it.”)
The major purple patch continues with Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence and the heaviest album in the catalogue, Train Of Thought (and also IMHO, Pertucci’s best – shorn hair – look…). Not forgetting what could be the last great DT album, Octavarium, which does suddenly throw in from some musical technicality which is beyond my layman’s appreciation (apparently the sounds of nature act as an F sharp/G flat segue so that The Answer Lies Within can resolve to G minor…)
Black Clouds & Silver Linings, Portnoy’s swan song, again is rated not downright bad but not great, summing up the message for many albums. From gushing over A Nightmare To Remember, “one of the greatest tracks Dream Theater ever cut,” Jordan acknowledges the magnitude of Portnoy’s musical Twelve Step suite spread across five albums that concludes with The Shattered Fortress. However, he’s less sympathetic about the intensely personal tribute to Portnoy Snr on The Best Of Times – “stagnant and uninteresting.”
Aside from A Dramatic Turn Of Events, the first post-Portnoy album, he has little time for the latter-day efforts. Three of the four post-Portnoy albums sit nervously above their debut in the relegation zone table of DT albums. Caught betwixt the ‘too different’/’too similar’ continuum, they don’t seem to have sated the fanbase. Maybe the absence of the Portnoy-Petrucci dynamic (they’ve recently played together on Petrucci’s solo album – maybe ‘a sign‘) or the watering down of the band-producer relationship clashes that may have appeared counterproductive but often gave an edge to the music.
A good start to the new DT but as good as it gets as the eponymously titled album is deemed “majorly forgettable and boring” and polarising The Astonishing gets a fair deal, warts and all. Black clouds and silver linings coming in to play again, accentuating the positive where he can. Having done that he confesses to 2019’s Distance Over Time being “almost completely benign and foreseeable / faceless, machine-like diligence.”
I really enjoyed reading this look at the DT catalogue as a whole, flitting twixt sagely nods of agreement and eyebrow-raising surprises. As anticipated, there’s plenty of, erm, let’s call them discussion points. Tying it together are frequent references to Rich Wilson’s excellent and highly recommended DT biography Lifting Shadows, which tells the story in much more detail and of course, plentiful quotes from band members to back up the views.
One thing that On Track always does unfailingly is have you dashing to your collection or the streaming services to check out the music. So, we take leave to head back to the hypnotherapist in Metropolis Pt 2 where “you’ll enter a safe place where no-one will harm you…“
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