Review Summary: Boasting a strong regard for song writing, atmosphere and heaviness, Awake exists as one of the band's most compelling albums to date.
There’s no denying that Dream Theater proves to be one of the most well regarded names in progressive metal. The band has managed to display immense levels of talented technicality that many bands only try to duplicate. It is for this reason these musicians are highly esteemed in the progressive metal community. The genre as a whole often showcases endless levels of efficiency, while at the same time not ignoring the other sides of music like masterful lyrics and added levels of atmosphere. Opeth and Tool accomplish this aspect of progressive metal extremely well, with the former often slowing things down a bit for acoustic sections and the latter placing an emphasis on spiritual lyrics. However, when it comes to Dream Theater, they happen to be a band that could easily be appreciated simply for their seminal contributions to the genre. Unfortunately, their music certainly isn't for everyone due to the fact that they more often than not sacrifice plenty of emotional soul in their music for intimidating levels of meandering flash. These abundant moments of flash are masterfully delivered, but as a result, atmosphere and songwriting often gets eliminated nearly altogether. It’s for this reason that Awake
shines a hell of a lot brighter than their other technical masterpieces like Images and Words
and Metropolis Part Two
However, what makes Awake
so different from the rest is because of the blatant regard for song writing, heaviness and atmosphere on here. Though it may not be their heaviest, it’s certainly much heavier and nowhere near as accessible as their influential sophomore outing. For this album, the band nearly altogether strips away their signature instrumental veering in favor of writing structured, meaningful songs that make stunning use of their technicality, keyboards and overall bleak atmosphere. It’s this refreshing change of pace that really brings to light how many recent bands that are influenced by this album and some of those include Riverside, Arcane, Karnivool, Haken and Animals As Leaders respectively. While the band’s exceptional skills at the helm of all their instruments may still be evident, make no mistake that the band also chooses to not neglect all other sides of heavy music to great effect as well as remaining true to themselves in the process.
Strong evidence of their focus on songwriting this time around happens to be “The Mirror” and “Lifting Shadows off a Dream.” Both songs feature stunning keyboard melodies that provide pleasing textures to increase the emotional weight of the album. “The Mirror” showcases an incredible chorus driven by James LaBrie’s solid vocals, memorable guitar riffs and a refreshingly contained vibe in terms of instrumentation. Plus, the last 30 seconds of the song proves to be one of the most memorable moments of the album due to the powerfully heavy guitar riffs leading into “Lie,” which is an equally masterful song featuring some of the same qualities of “The Mirror.” However, “Lifting Shadows off a Dream” is without a doubt one of the most powerful songs of the album. The introduction boasts gentle guitar work and awe inspiring keyboard melodies that really heighten the brooding atmosphere of the album. These songs alone deliver in the aspect of improved songwriting, but the balance between their typical style and atmospheric style is another quality that makes this album so stunning.
Album opener “6:00” reveals this balance to immense effect because not only does the overall song have a darker, more emotional delivery, but the band’s technical detour works so well because it’s not overdone and gives the listener time to truly appreciate their talent rather than wanting the band to get to the point. “Voices” also functions in the same light. The introduction is as gritty as ever and it paves the way for James powerful vocals aiding his other band members that seemingly take on a life of their own with their unreal instrumentation. Even “Erotomania” soars high as an instrumental jam due to the band’s signature chemistry, as well as “Scarred,” which is the lone 11 minute epic of the album that never drags at any point.
Surprisingly, some of the other stars of the record includes the ballads of the record, which happens to be a rare occurrence for this band. “The Silent Man” is a short yet sweet acoustically driven ballad with beautiful vocals and lovely piano work. However, it’s “Space Dye Vest” that proves to be the monumental stunner of the two ballads on Awake
. Driven by strategically placed samples, James’ awesome delivery and an extremely memorable piano melody, the song’s emotionally charged mood makes it the power ballad to end them all. Completely free of any cheesiness and corny lyrics, this one happens to be completely different as opposed to some of their other ballads. Essentially, there doesn't exist a better way to end a seminal album like this.
It’s safe to say that Awake
exists as one of the safe havens for lovers of progressive music that doesn't ignore the emotional aspect of music. It’s a colossal, emotional album that is just about as controlled as it is technical. The band balances both of the styles immensely well and they even manage to make it significantly darker and heavier than a lot of their other albums. Everything that includes tight drumming, talented bass work and memorable guitar riffs remains completely intact here. Make no mistake that this is still a Dream Theater album, but it’s not just them being Dream Theater like their most recent albums; it’s the band being a better version of themselves that could win over anyone who dislikes the often pointless meandering in their music. As stated before, it’s undeniably easy to appreciate this band, but it’s this album that makes them tough to resist. Awake
is also an staggeringly appropriate title for this album because they were more Awake than ever when they record this one.