Review Summary: An endearing listen, warts and all
Like many an awkward debut album, 1989’s When Dream and Day Unite has always had an odd place in Dream Theater’s discography. The band’s influences are immediately transparent in that Iron Maiden meets Rush foundation yet they were already playing a pivotal role in pushing progressive metal forward, building on Queensryche’s pomp and Fates Warning’s intricacy. It’s lovingly derivative yet also has enough of its own energy and ambition for its own bits of personality to shine through.
Of course, it’s best known for being their only album to feature Charlie Dominici on lead vocals. His voice has a measured presence compared to the band’s other singers, avoiding the reckless showboating of Majesty’s Chris Collins but lacking the AOR prowess of his successor James LaBrie. His somewhat lacking power is made up for by his nasally wail never coming off as abrasive or overcompensating. It’s an acquired taste for sure but one that informs the personality and atmosphere.
The other musicians’ performances are also fairly removed from the institutions they’d become, armed with the classic Berklee combination of technicality and youthful exuberance. Guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung reflect their inspirations in the former’s frequent shredding sweeps and the latter’s Steve Harris-esque noodles while Mike Portnoy’s powerful drumming sets him up for those Neil Peart on steroids aspirations. Keyboardist Kevin Moore’s performance is also fascinating, peppering bright hits that feel like a contrast to the more introspective textures that would soon follow.
But for all the group’s lingering accusations of self-indulgence, you can’t say they were without their moments of accessibility. “Status Seeker” is straight from Rush’s early eighties single playbook with its prominent synths, catchy hooks, and restrained vocals masking cynical lyrics while “Afterlife” drums up driving guitars, weaving verse vocals; and the chorus’s opposites theming. Even the token instrumental “Ytse Jam” (geddit?) feels more like a wordless crowd-pleasing anthem than a post-music school exercise with its eastern melody and “Transylvania”-but-fancier escalations.
Their epic tendencies are also out in full force, albeit with considerably more naïveté behind them. The near nine-minute “The Killing Hand” feels downright adorable when the band would soon be writing even longer songs in their sleep, but I just love how they make it out to be such a big deal with its grand fanfare and twisted narrative structure. There are certajnly moments where they might’ve bitten off more than they could chew, but the frantic jumbles on “Light Fuse and Get Away” are fun and “The Ones Who Help to Set the Sun” hints at the wintery atmosphere that’d be fully displayed on Images & Words.
When Dream and Day Unite might be too warts and all for anybody but Dream Theater diehards, but it makes for an endearing listen. The techniques and production made it dated as all hell on arrival, but there’s also a sense of forward thinking even if the band didn’t quite have their tricks fully mastered. Even if they’d quickly move on to bigger and better things, you just know there’s some weirdo that thinks this was the only good album Dream Theater ever made…
RIP Charlie Dominici (June 16th, 1951-November 2023)