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Dream Theater - Awake CD (album) cover

AWAKE

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

4.11 | 1488 ratings

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Marc Baum
Prog Reviewer
5 stars In 1994 the Heavy Metal scene had taken a backseat to more stripped-down, grungy style of music called Alternative Rock or Grunge. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with their politically conscious and sometimes undecipherable lyrics, ruled the radio waves with their muttering angst and 3-chord progressions. Any Heavy Metal that still existed consisted of tuned-down guitars and simplified lyrics and music in order to make the music more readily mainstream. Somewhere, underneath all of noise of Metal bands scrambling to find their new voice and once again hit the top of the charts, a band called Dream Theater would release what is arguably one of the best prog metal albums of all time. And yet only a small, close-knit, underground following of this superbly talented band would be privy to this masterpiece called "Awake". And that’s what makes it even more special.

"Awake" is the critical record from an amazing progressive metal band. In a career full of blindingly bright moments, Awake is the shining crown jewel that rises above them all. Images & Words is more influential, Train of Thought is heavier, Scenes From a Memory is the current cosmopolitan pick for their best, but none of that matters. Simply put, Awake is where Dream Theater moved away from the sometimes sophomoric excess of their first two records into a realm of maturity and glorious yet restrained performances, a realm that is heartbreakingly perfect, a realm that they seldom fully enter anymore, preferring an amalgam of the lyrical darkness of Awake with the absurdly amazing playing on Images & Words. Thus, much as I love the rest of the catalogue, they are virtually incapable of ascending to the absolute pinnacle of excellence that they achieved over a decade ago.

I tremble as I try to express how much this record has meant to me, how these songs are burned into my mind. This is prog-metal gone dark, stripped of it's silly window dressing and it's trademark excess. Awake is song writing over performance, real emotion and ideas over flights of fantasy and overblown "messages". Every performance is sharp, every note planned out and pressed into the service of the song. If you consider the maniac soloing of "Metropolis Part 1" or "This Dying Soul" distracting or overwhelming, take the time to immerse yourself in a work of grand, groundbreaking vision.

The album works on a variety of levels, from the high ground intellectualism of the lyrically challenging "Scarred" and "Voices" to the down and dirty rock'n'roll power at the heart of "6:00" and "Lie". In addition, the use of the famous recurring riff phenomena gives this album a cohesiveness and unity like no other album I can think of, save for overt concept albums like Scenes From a Memory, Operation: Mindcrime and Tommy. It's subtle, requiring many listens to discern, but soon you might find yourself theorizing about the significance of say, the keyboard melody from "Space Dye-Vest" appearing in "The Mirror". Is this symbolic of "The Mirror"'s alcoholic protagonist sliding into the delusional despairing isolation of "Space-Dye Vest", is it simply Kevin Moore sneakily adding another touch of complexity to a frightfully intelligent composition, or is it just your imagination, did you really hear what you thought you did? The recurring riff phenomena gives Awake an amazingly dream-like quality, as if these songs are just being fished out of some sort of collective unconscious, pure emotion manifested as spell-binding music.

This album marks a paradigm shift for the neo-prog movement. I am firm in the belief that without Awake many of the more cerebral modern prog acts wouldn't be around as they are today, many of them probably going in a more Symphony X -type direction. Awake addresses real concerns without being comically topical like Rush, Queensryche, and even later Dream Theater can be (see "The Great Debate"). Every song relates to a feeling or an internal conflict, as if we are being given a chance to sift through the subconscious of the members of the band, who were at a tremendous crossroads in real life too.

Thus, from Kevin Moore we get the desperate cry for freedom of "6:00", a catalytic opener with perhaps Mike Portnoy's most charmingly and jaw-droppingly self-indulgent performance, a perfect counterpoint to Moore's frenetic keyboard squawk. This (along with "Erotomania") is the link to the prog-mania of the "Ytse Jam" and "Learning to Live", a real performance piece that can truly be called energetic like almost nothing else. Despite the very real sense of a creative mind confined to mediocrity in the lyrical narrative, Kevin Moore is writing fun, hummable, almost rapped lyrics that highlight James LaBrie's new found sense of power and aggression. LaBrie chews scenery here, snapping off syllables and giving a biting edge to his high notes that seems to owe more to Sebastian Bach than any classically-inclined operatic style as employed on the previous album. Indeed, this song is the adrenaline on a measured and gloomy record, a track that incites bopping and headbanging from the opening samples, impeccably arranged until they have their own bizarre rhythm and pentameter.

Like Moore, Petrucci gives us a harrowing glimpse into his own mind, fearlessly pounding us with his self-doubt, with his religious conflicts, with the primal screams that we all sometimes would like to get out. "Caught in a Web" provides an interesting counterpoint to Moore's wanderings and desire to escape, almost as if the album mirrors the falling out between Dream Theater and Kevin Moore. On "6:00", Moore tells us that he feels hemmed in. On "Caught in a Web", Petrucci tells us that he cannot escape, as if Dream Theater has become the spiders web and Moore it's helpless prey. Appropriately then, the song is a sledgehammer, with Portnoy and Myung driving the song forward with a single-minded trudge while Petrucci and Moore, if anything, lighten the affair with a hopelessly gloomy yet still anthemic flick of the wrist.

LaBrie and Petrucci continue on in this little analogy I'm playing out in my overly analytical mind with "Innocence Faded", a very Images & Words style song about, obviously, the loss of innocence. Throughout this review you may notice I don't give much in the way of criticism towards the music (because I think most of it is just perfect), but I will say that "Innocence Faded" has a bit of pretty poor chorus. The verses are amazing, great examples of the dark side of I&W, as the keys and guitars sparkle without being uplifting; the chorus however, is simply incongruous with the rest of the song. It's like they grafted the chorus from another song onto an unfinished one. Regardless, the ride-out harmony is amazing, and it's blessed with some truly stand-out performances.

After a frenzied instrumental work-out called "Erotomania", which is incidentally one of the strongest uses of the recurring riff idea as it shares riffs with at least three other songs, Petrucci gives us a superbly poetic lament about how difficult it is to have faith sometimes. "Voices" features some truly amazing lyrics, both effecting and ambiguous while possessing a great flow and cadence (no Anthrax-style line cramming here) that give LaBrie a perfect platform to truly shine on. This is one of the prime examples of where Awake improves on I & W. On the Petrucci-penned "Under a Glass Moon" for example, the poetry is cheesy and depends to heavily on florid description. Here, Petrucci raises important questions that stick with you. "Is there fantasy in refuge/God in politicians/Should I turn on my religion/These voices in my head tell me to..." Musically, the performances are solid as ever, with special mention to Kevin Moore. Appropriate to the theme, Moore turns in a gothic, cathedral like tone that is unique in the DT canon (perhaps the ride out in "Finally Free"). Rather than lose the focus of the story Petrucci is trying to tell with showboating and key'n'strings duels, he adds texture and flavour throughout, adding to the chilly atmosphere permeating the track. "Voices" is an epic that remains committed to song writing, the crazed and eventful break occurring at a logical point in the song and following an amazingly well-chosen cameo by a rap artist who adds an extra degree of credibility as Petrucci gradually ramps up the intensity underneath. Other than "Scarred", I feel "Voices" is James LaBrie’s finest hour, as he displays an incredibly amount of shade in his tonality and impeccably well- chosen phrasing. In fact, the only improvement that could possibly be made to the performance occurs on Once in a LIVEtime, where James actually manages to inject more feeling and emotion into the final charge that leads into "The Silent Man".

Speaking of that very song, "The Silent Man" is a perfect example of how versatile Dream Theater has become. It's inspiring and up-lifting acoustic song-writing, and that nifty little solo towards the end of the song would fit on a far more mainstream record than this. I love this song for it's simplicity, just James and John on the guitar without any accompaniment (there may be a hint of keys towards the end to give that escalating sensation), and the Live Scenes From New York version actually angers me because in adding electricity and making it a full band piece, the subtlety and magic is gone. However, on the album there is nothing but pure perfection, even down to the excellent backing vocals contributed by one of the producers. Lyrically, this song is also about faith and familial relationships, like the calm denouement of an older man looking back at the passion of his confused youth ("Voices"). However, it is only a brief respite.

Mike Portnoy's contribution to Awake is pure sledge, a love letter to Pantera that is earthshakingly heavy. This isn't heavy for prog, this is undeniably heavy. The guitars are a distorted, face-melting, force of nature like virtually nothing else. The pounding rhythm and crushingly heavy guitar give added support to Portnoy's anguished tale of despair and self-loathing, an autobiographical account of an alcoholic trying to drag himself out of the hole that he finds himself in. This song is mean, sullen, uncommunicative and absolutely spine-crushing. I'll never forget watching this song explode live, heavy beyond heavy on a night when the band played the entire Train of Thought album, possibly the heaviest prog album ever made. "The Mirror" stomped all over it. Special mention to the high (but not sweetening) keyboard work that gives what you think is a slight respite from the stomp before you realize that it is subtly warped and disturbing, more of the cathedral-style dramatics that bolden and only add to the seriousness and class of the record. And then, just as the song seems to be grinding to a halt..."LIE"!

I remember listening to this album for the first time and practically jumping at the abrupt change of gears into this loping crunch-fest. This is Moore's second contribution to the album, and it is similar to "6:00" in that it employs a deceptively swinging vocal melody that sheds more light on his disenfranchisement and growing paranoia (at least, as far Awake being a narrative in my own mind). "Lie" just plains rocks, with a hip-shakin' and headbangin' beat that leads to a real crowd pleasing chorus. Plus, "Lie" features by far and away the most badass rendition of a nursery rhyme ever (sorry "Enter Sandman"), James having fun being bad with the effortlessly memorable lyrics. Recurring riff phenom strikes once again, as we suddenly plunge back into a complex and daring reprise of "The Mirror" which allows the band to flex it's considerable musical chops.

After that two song assault on the senses, another breather is needed, which comes in the form of John Myung's spacey and elegant "Lifting Shadows Off a Dream". The bass in this one is terrific, very melodic and mercurial as with other Myung comps like "Trial of Tears" and "Learning to Live", Portnoy doing some nice almost Simon Phillips-like light touch stuff, Petrucci and Moore adding colour, shimmer, and vibrancy wherever their enchanted music works it's way in. This song is very much about transformation and love, perhaps offering a chance at a metamorphosis for Moore (which, leaving and forming ChromaKey, he took). Regardless, LaBrie is heartfelt and moving, and the harmonizing and gradual uplift on this song is sublime. This is the sound of true art, of a genius that few bands truly possess; something that Dream Theater seems content to toss off as if it's no big thing.

The hardworking, kitchen-sink epic of Awake is "Scarred". It is of comparable length and placement (second last rather than last) to the hardworking, kitchen-sink epic on Images & Words, that being of course "Learning to Live". The difference is that on that record there were no less than five hardworking, kitchen-sink epics ("Pull Me Under", "Take the Time", "Metropolis", "Under a Glass Moon", and "Learning to Live"), and just like "Learning to Live" represents Images & Words, with it's over the top chopperiffic craziness, so "Scarred" is an avatar of the Awake record as a whole, a song of considerable heft and density possessed with a steely-eyed drive and an amazing amount of intelligence.

I consider "Scarred" to be John Petrucci's greatest song-writing accomplishment, the lyrics perfectly emoting the mental scars we all carry through our lies, a grating cry for help that goes unanswered. James LaBrie is amazing in his best performance ever and John Petrucci goes beyond the call with several unbelievable solos, the first being a bit of jazzy genre-bending cool, the second being a high-pitched noodler, and then and out and out note-dense shredder over a mid-paced beat. The song is more active and communicative than the unapproachable and majestic "Voices", especially on it's technically astounding break that gives us the only taste of the duelling that dominates Images and SFAM. The chorus is the only commercial part in the song (it's not quite "You Not Me" though), but it fits in perfectly with the rest, as if the verses are his psychotic ramblings and only on the chorus does he manage to clear his head.

Finally, Moore closes the album with a sombre, introspective piano-only piece. It's an intriguing melody, and there's something hypnotic and tragic about the way Moore mingles the two main piano "riffs" throughout the song. It's a song about growing increasingly alienated from the world, a man who has become obsessed with the models in fashion catalogues to the exclusion of having real, meaningful relationships. On another level, it is Moore's greatest expression of creative freedom on Awake, and yet it is strangely burnt out and smothered, as if it is the aural equivalent of his deadened nerves as he grows catatonic. It is dreamy and only half-awake, best enjoyed when in a dark mood or about to head into sleep. Because it is so stark and centered on one instrument, every move counts, the way he pauses before hitting a certain key, or the way he adds in little transitory fills to move into a new vocal melody becomes a captivating experience. James is both worn and fresh in his vocal delivery, and when the whole band comes in to help drive the song to it's inevitable doom it is every bit as fine and grand an ending as any other in the DT catalogue, more so even because it is so antithetical to the huge anthemic closes of "Learning to Live", "A Change of Seasons", "Grand Finale", and "Trial of Tears".

Kevin Moore left Dream Theater because he was bored and frustrated with the way the band was putting performances ahead of song writing. It is odd then that he left after the record that fits that statement the least of any in their discography, the one most obviously bearing the imprint of his unique style.

Do yourself a favour. Buy Awake, and study it hard. It is beside SFAM the most challenging record Dream Theater has released yet. It is also the greatest prog-metal album, prog-rock album even of the mid 90's.

album rating: 10/10 points = 99 % on MPV scale = 5/5 stars

point-system: 0 - 3 points = 1 star / 3.5 - 5.5 points = 2 stars / 6 - 7 points = 3 stars / 7.5 - 8.5 points = 4 stars / 9 - 10 points = 5 stars

Marc Baum | 5/5 |

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