DREAM THEATER — Awake (review)

DREAM THEATER — Awake album cover Album · 1994 · Progressive Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Awake is, to me, the “prime” of Dream Theater’s career; perhaps not as musicians, but as songwriters. The band’s third studio album hits the “sweet spot” of a unique sound fallen far enough from the trees of influence, with plenty of creative juices still flowing. While there may not be an overarching concept or some of the technical wizardry that sent their later works into the metal history books, I much prefer a collection of well-written songs that retain a progressive core and melodic structure. This, Awake features in spades.

This is a landmark release for several reasons. Being the follow-up to Dream Theater’s breakout album Images and Words, Awake was written in a bit of a pressure situation, which resulted in keyboardist Kevin Moore’s departure from the band during the recording. Who the best Dream Theater keyboardist is will probably be a debate forever; while Jordan Rudess has flashiness (and now longevity) on his side, Moore’s case is made by tasteful, atmospheric playing an excellent compositional skills (as evidenced by Awake’s beautifully melancholic closer, “Space-Dye Vest”). Indeed, this album is at the bottom of the Dream Theater barrel as far as the complexity of the keyboard lines go (although they’re still very impressive, don’t get me wrong), but again, they fit wonderfully within the context of the music; on no Dream Theater album will you hear melodies as vivid as the ones fluttering through “Scarred,” “Caught in a Web,” and the stirring instrumental “Erotomania”.

Awake also boasts what is far and away the best vocal performance in James LaBrie’s career. It was recorded right before the infamous food poisoning incident (which was arguably the worst thing to ever happen to the band, as LaBrie’s voice has never been the same since), and the difference between the vocals here and, say, Train of Thought are startling; LaBrie’s high register is both powerful and emotive (think “shrieking” rather than “wailing”), actually driving the songs instead of just hanging there. There’s also a certain warmth in the vocals that really embellish the album’s softer moments; a complete effort in every sense of the word.

Song-wise, there are zero weak links here, which might be surprising at first considering how little fanfare Awake tends to get among prog fans. You have “Lie” and “The Mirror,” which are easily two of the heaviest Dream Theater tracks (from a time period in which they weren’t forcing such things), the tremendous opener “6:00,” which features an incredible chorus courtesy of LaBrie, and the fan favorite “Innocence Faded”. Then there are the two greatest Dream Theater ballads in “The Silent Man” and “Lifting Shadows off a Dream;” the former a slow, quiet number with an acoustic guitar lick that tickles the senses, and the latter an excellent showing of the build-and-climax formula that Dream Theater uses so sparsely. Both are equally uplifting and beautiful, and the fact that they stand out in a rather heavy progressive metal album just proves how meticulously crafted the songs here are.

Instrumentally, this is still undoubtedly the Dream Theater that we all love (or hate). It’s technically proficient, tight, virtuosic…whatever you want to call it. When compared to the crowd, though, Awake stands out in almost every category: production, songwriting, texture, and so on…it’s all there. The complete package, and a timeless progressive metal classic that I return to again and again.
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