It’s very well known that every band you enjoy has songs that define them. These songs may not necessarily be their best, but they are the most essential when trying to understand where they came from, and how they got to where they are now. This is the idea of our new feature series, “8-Track”. Here’s the basic premise, in a nutshell: We choose a band that we know has a storied history, and identify the eight songs that define their strengths as a band, musically, lyrically, and conceptually. This is not merely a “Favorite Songs of (Insert Band Here)” list, though for some writers, there will be overlap with the two. This list is meant to show anyone discovering the band songs that really speak volumes of how they are as a band, and songs that are essential to their development and evolution as a band. With that being said, our first band is Dream Theater!
When talking about modern progressive rock and metal, you simply can’t get very far without at least acknowledging the ground laid by Dream Theater. Their use of complex and shifting time signatures, longform and non-traditional songwriting, and exploration of grand lyrical concepts and themes is a common denominator for both musicians and fans of the genre to the point that, depending on what circles you travel in, have either become scripture or a parody of itself. The amazing musicianship of Myung, Petrucci, Rudess, and Portnoy/Mangini, the latter of which being the current drummer, still remains largely unrivaled, with many attempting to copy or best it but falling far short. Aside from grand concept albums though, they are also known for select songs that really resonated with fans, including the songs in Portnoy’s 12 Step Suite, the three middle songs on Awake, and so on. This list was compiled by fans of the band, who, after countless spins through their entire discography over the years, have chosen songs that not only help highlight the band’s strengths, but also show why the band has become so successful, revered, and influential in the music world. Without further ado, let’s begin!
Images And Words is definitely one of the best sophomore releases of any band. With a new singer and tons of new inspiration, the band created a masterpiece, filled with some of their most memorable tracks. LaBrie was new blood, and gave the band a much needed push to help live up to the hype and make an amazing record, and that they did. No track on this record, however, perfectly captures the band’s current state of mind better than the album’s closer, “Learning To Live”.
LaBrie really has room to explore his range on this track, which is notable for him perfectly hitting a high F#, the highest note he ever hit. It’s truly a feat for any singer to achieve, and he did is masterfully. Also, he perfectly sings the lyrics written by Myung, which is another cool aspect of this song. Myung wrote lyrics in the early days, but then stopped until their last album from 2013, where he contributed on one song. Myung is the unsung hero in this song, whose bass work is immaculate, and whose lyrics are spectacular. Perhaps the best part of this song is the little latin part in the middle, where Petrucci deals out an amazing solo on an acoustic guitar that would make any flamenco player proud.
The song is changing constantly, shifting time signatures, shifting moods, and ultimately shifting how the band would be looked at. This was the band’s longest song at the time, and would be the stepping stone to longer, more experimental tracks, some of which you’ll see in this list elsewhere. At the time, the album was met with universal acclaim, and that still has not changed 23 years later. This song in particular, however, is the one that spearheaded their experimental side, and ultimately sent them down a path of prog metal glory.
Awake will have always have a special place in my heart; it was the album which started me on Dream Theater. I had never heard anything quite like it before, the deep, sonorous piano, the moving voice, the powerful guitars. It features one of my all time favorite musicians, Kevin Moore, a genius who doesn’t write, record or perform nearly as much as I would like him to. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since Awake but it’s perhaps the most timeless of Dream Theater’s albums: it still has the same power over me that it had when I first heard it.
“Space Dye Vest” is the quickest way to make me cry. It’s an odd track: samples range from an obscure Canadian TV show to Conan O’Brien and Moore’s piano is laden with such a strong effect that pierces right to your heart. LaBrie also deserves honorable mentions here: his voice is surprisingly restrained, devoid of his usual operatic overtones. That’s exactly what was needed her: a personal and ground level guide through the mazes of this bizarre track.
Lastly, was Petrucci really into Sunn O))) at the time of recording this track? His guitars are insanely fuzzy, filled with a rich, feedback tone that I don’t think he’s used ever since. It’s the perfect touch for this track, adding flesh and muscles to this otherwise sparse creation. The overall result is a track that I feel will echo through time, sticking with me for as long as I need a place and a time to weep silently for the sadder things in life. It has become a sort of companion, a friend that’s always there for me.
Confession time: Falling Into Infinity is my favorite Dream Theater album. I think I’ve said this on the blog before, but it bears repeating: the blend of Sherinian’s industrial-like keyboards, LaBrie approaching the height of his singing career, Portnoy’s metallic sound, Petrucci still curbed by actual songwriting and some of the most memorable playing from Myung. What’s not to like? Despite a few hiccups in the beginning of the album, the tracklist is masterful.
I’m here today to speak about the best track from that album, by far: “Trial of Tears”. It is the epitome of 90’s Dream Theater: its blend of groove, Rush and technicality is so bewilderingly effective that I’ve been listening to it regularly since I discovered it 13 years ago. Divided into three acts, each one has its own distinct and masterful strong point; the first is the emotional opening, setting us up with the somber and personal tone of the track. While it doesn’t have the best lyrics, they get the job done, introducing us to the “protagonist”.
The second act is where things get interesting: its ending has the best Myung-keyboard collaboration in the band’s history. Sure, Rudess is the iconic keyboardist of the band, but Sherinian had a few tricks up his sleeves and this is one of the best. But the third act is where it’s all at: it opens with one of the best vocal/lyrical passage the band have ever written:
I continue to move along
Cultivating my own nonsense
Welcome to the wasteland
Where you’ll find ashes, nothing but ashes
Bringing change, bringing movement, bringing life
A silent prayer thrown away,
Disappearing in the air
Rising, sinking, raining deep inside me
Nowhere to turn,
I look for a way back home”
All that’s left is for the ending climax to cash in on the emotional baggage so carefully constructed. This is one of the most complete Dream Theater out there: from start to finish, all parts are completely devoted to the overall mission of the track. It has a cohesion that many later, long tracks lack. It is a hidden gem in a hidden album, often overlooked and for no good reason.
When I was in high school, I spent entire weekends trying to learn how to play the guitar solo in this song. I slaved over it like no other guitar solo I’ve ever heard in my life. A lot of kids who play guitar obsess over established classics like “Eruption” or “Stairway to Heaven” when it comes to adding solos to their repertoire, but Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page never grabbed my attention the way John Petrucci did. I wanted to be able to sweep pick like him. I wanted to do scale runs as fast as he did. I wanted to be a goddamn machine like him. “The Spirit Carries On” was my Eruption, my holy grail, my Shangri-La.
Paradoxically, this is one of Dream Theater’s simplest songs. It’s a lackadaisical, “sway-back-and-forth” kind of jam that bears a passing resemblance (okay, maybe more than passing) to Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse.” “The Spirit Carries On” represents the moment in Scenes From a Memory’s convoluted story in which the narrator accepts that he’s, uh, the reincarnation of a girl who got murdered in 1928 and has been haunting his dreams. I think. Thankfully, the album is a lot more sure of itself on a musical level than it is lyrically, and “The Spirit Carries On” is a brilliant little foray into radio-friendly power balladry for Dream Theater. The band was never really BAD at writing poppy songs, but the ineffable, yet inescapable cheesiness that permeates their music prevents anything they’ve ever done from feeling like a legitimate ploy for radio play. “The Spirit Carries On” is accessible and inviting without even attempting divest itself from the musical quirks and hallmarks that make Dream Theater who they are.
Of all the songs in Dream Theater’s catalog, I think “The Spirit Carries On” is their catchiest. Its easy, repetitive melody and gradual dynamic buildup make it a real earworm. Labrie’s vocals soar above the music and the lyrics (written by Petrucci) are concise and unpretentious singalong fare.
“If I die tomorrow, I’ll be alright,
because I believe that after we’re gone,
the spirit carries on!”
Yeah! Let’s see those lighters, people! But put ‘em down during the guitar solo, because Petrucci just might melt your face.