Dream Theater's second album, Images & Words, is one of the most ground-breaking and innovative albums of the 90's. It is a milestone in progressive metal and has been the inspiration for countless musicians who heard this disc and decided to play music. Whether this is the best Dream Theater album is debatable. There are people who will consider this and its follow-up their finest works, while some others will claim Dream Theater grew from record to record, always pushing the form of the envelope. However, what cannot be argued is that Images & Words is certainly the most important album they've released and one of the cornerstones of the genre. They have and probably never will sell this well again either. This is their only album that went gold Stateside, mainly because of their radio hit "Pull Me Under".
The song starts with echoic acoustic guitars, creating a nice aura, before rolling drums enter the mix and make way for hypnotic guitar riffs by John Petrucci and beautiful synths by Kevin Moore. Inspired by William Shakespeare's Hamlet, "Pull Me Under" is highlighted by an infectious chorus, delivered masterfully by James Labrie, and a thick bass bottom. Petrucci's sweeping guitar arpeggios and Moore's textural synth work lay the foundation of the piece which lyrically deals with mixed feelings about revenge and death, and even the contemplation of suicide. For years, the abrupt ending of the song has caused controversy among prog fans. Some said it was a mastering mistake; while others disagreed, claiming the unexpected cut-off is meant to signify the sudden, unexpected death of a person, which makes sense. This can be best noticed at the very end of the track where Labrie sings an excerpt from Hamlet: "Oh that this too, too solid [sullied] flesh would melt".
Made up of eight tracks, Images & Words is one of the most balanced albums Dream Theater have produced. Alternating between melodically strong, riff-heavy tracks to more moody, ballady pieces, the variety captured on this disc is stunning. "Another Day" is not only a more compact number, but it also offers one of the finest guitar solos by Petrucci you'll ever hear, not to mention the soaring soprano saxophone that runs through it. This is followed by "Take the Time", a song interlocking atmospheric synths and a groovy bass and guitar tandem. As its title and lyrics suggest, this song reflects the state of the guys' minds (this is the only track on the album with lyric contribution by each member). Without a label, singer, and a fully defined musical direction, Dream Theater decided to take their time to find their own niche, enriching the piece with a powerful vision of songwriting: great backing harmonies, acoustic and synth breaks, storming drum attacks, and a soaring vocal performance are all merged into the compositional framework which has resulted in a Dream Theater classic, still played live in concerts.
Though each piece is vital to this album's success, the general opinion is that "Metropolis Part 1" and "Under A Glass Moon" are Images & Words' centrepieces. The former is their heaviest and arguably most technical work, littered with a jaw-dropping drum solo by Portnoy (after hearing it for the first time my head was spinning so badly I couldn't believe it for a second), great unison leads, killer bass breaks, and incredible melodies. Portnoy's snare sound may not be to everyone's liking as every Dream Theater album after this one exceeded its predecessor in terms of production and mixing. But other than that, some of the guitar work on this track also helped spawn their later masterpiece Scenes From A Memory. "Under A Glass Moon" is another Dream Theater classic. I love its symphonic opening, laced with plenty of Yes-like analog synths by Moore, lending the piece a distinct 70's feel.
With all that said, the last two songs on the album are perhaps my favourites: "Wait for Sleep", given its neat piano playing, reflective lyrics, and excellent vocal harmonies, displays ideas that would be further developed and perfected on their following album Awake. This song was written entirely by Kevin Moore and serves as an intro to the amazing "Learning to Live", perhaps their darkest and most haunting (and longest too) song on the album. The lyrics of this song were inspired by the AIDS epidemic and it contains some direct references to a book by Ayn Rand. That said, the piece can be interpreted in any way by the listener, as Myung's choice of imagery and word plays are amazing (it's a shame he no longer writes lyrics in the band). I recently saw Dream Theater live on their Octavarium tour where they played this track, almost twice as long, yet rendering it equally emotional and effective.
It would be hard to imagine a progressive metal fan who doesn't own Images & Words. Everyone surely has their own favourite Dream Theater album, but I shall repeat what I said in the beginning of this review: Images & Words is a masterpiece and the most important Dream Theater album, ever.
- Pull Me Under
- Another Day
- Take the Time
- Metropolis Part 1: 'The Miracle and the Sleeper'
- Under A Glass Moon
- Wait for Sleep
- Learning to Live