After the commercial success of Images and Words, Dream Theater had an audience waiting to hear something new from the band. For the first time they were working to a time schedule, and having to please the fans, some liked the first album more, some the second, but when all was said and done they came out with at that point the heaviest album they had ever recorded.
Now I have to explain what I mean by heaviest. I don't mean heaviest in the sense of crushing riffs or just flat out noise. No, the boys were subtler than that. Plus Train of Thought is really the "metal" album. No, this is heavier in the sense that it is a very moody album; a lot of tracks here thrive on the atmosphere they create, the emotions they invoke. Especially Moore and Myung's songs really put that to the forefront. Space-Dye Vest may be the best, for lack of better terminology, ballad the band (or Kevin Moore more like) has ever written. Every minute is haunting and beautiful, the keyboard/piano lines subtly enhancing the melancholy and sorrowful atmosphere in the back. The spoken word samples also give it just that extra punch, that extra bit of atmosphere. It may quite well be the best song on here.
Lifting Shadows off a Dream is obviously Myung's track. The bass lines dominate the whole song, the lyrics are more cryptic than usual, and the whole thing climaxes with one of the best choruses the band has ever given off. From the quiet bass intro to the melodic, uplifting end of the song, you're lifted higher and higher only to drop out at the end. A very intense song to listen to, without being heavy.
There are a lot more heavy and aggressive songs on here though. Unfortunately, this is the album where Dream Theater couldn't yet pull the Metallica wannabe thing off. The Mirror works fine, especially with the slower middle section, and Caught In A Web is also quite a monstrous song, but 6:00 falls hilariously flat. The whole song doesn't have any rhythm or flow, it's boring, and when Petrucci's solo comes in, you're left wondering where the skip button is. Lie tries to be The Mirror Part Two, but if anyone wanted to listen to The Mirror, they'd put that song on, so Lie is obsolete.
Then there is the suite in the middle, called A Mind Beside Itself. While it starts off in kind of boring Dream Theater fashion, with an instrumental, which meanders and meanders until you hear a theme that will be repeated in The Silent Man, it trails off into the wonderful Voices. This, again, is where the atmosphere parts go to work. The song is heavy and dark, but it also has that atmosphere; it doesn't sound like senseless aggression, it simply is a well-constructed song. The purely acoustic The Silent Man afterwards just rounds the whole suite off in perfect fashion, not too short, not too long, well done Dream Theater.
Instrumentally this isn't really the band's peak effort. For most parts you won't remember this as the "wank" album, it really has a more sensible songwriting approach than later albums. Of course, there still are the occasional JP-in-overdrive moments, like on every Dream Theater album, but that's what the fans want to see the guy play: blistering shreds all over the place. After all this band is all about the technical gymnastics. Moore is a subtler keyboardist than Rudess however. Rudess is really the one that goes nuts on the keys, playing insane combinations of notes. Moore uses his instrument more wisely, and uses it to create the dark atmospheres found on the album. Both are perfect and suitable for the band, but overall I prefer Moore as a keyboard player due to that.
This, however, is not going to be known as the Portnoy album. Where Portnoy would later take control more and more over the songwriting process, here we can still see an "equal parts" thing. Of course his drums are technical and top-notch, and the guy has never been afraid to show why he belongs in the row of drumming greats alongside Peart, Lombardo, Starr and what-have-you, but he keeps the senseless drum solos toned down. In all regards, this is more of a team effort.
So how does this all stack up for potential buyers? Well, Awake is a solid effort and required for any fan of the band period. I am not sure if it's the best album to get into the band, but if you start here it's going to be a pretty solid journey, I'd guess. Overall, it has some downs and a lot of ups, most notably the fact that this is a combined effort to produce an album instead of all the members ego-tripping all over the songs, and that may make it the best buy for people who prefer musicianship to be focused. I prefer other albums over this one, but it's well worth the money.