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How the enduring legacy of Dream Theater shaped music as we know it

More than 30 years into their career, US prog-metal titans Dream Theater remain a vital prospect. And in just a few days, the veteran act will unleash their monumental 15th opus, A View From The Top Of The World.

The group has readily admitted to not being trendy or commercial heavyweights; after all, this is a collective who named a compilation album Greatest Hit (…And 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs). And they certainly have their detractors. To the uninitiated, their elaborate compositions, bustling with virtuoso musicianship, are often sneered at. Said offerings can appear impenetrable – even overwhelming. Critics have also accused their music of being devoid of soul.

“I think when somebody makes a comment like that I don’t think they really know who Dream Theater is,” vocalist James LaBrie told this writer in 2014. “They might have heard a bit of this song or that song, and to them, that’s just not their cup of tea as far as these instrumental passages [go]. I think when someone really takes the time to listen, they’ll realise there’s many layers to the band, and it’s not about being superfluous. There’s a lot going on as far as there’s many ways we go about expressing ourselves. It just happens to be a part of who and what we are. We are technical, there’s no doubt about it. But I also think that the songs are constructed well enough that they are something… It’s much deeper than just the technical aspect.”

However, they also command a listenership that is nothing short of loyal. BLUNT spoke to a variety of musicians, writers and fans about when they first encountered Dream Theater’s music, while revealing their favourite tracks from the band’s extensive back catalogue.


MAT MAURER

Mat Maurer, frontman of now-defunct Sydney thrash metallers Mortal Sin, has a legitimate claim to being Dream Theater’s first Australian fan – prior to them even adopting that moniker – having corresponded by mail with founding drummer Mike Portnoy.

He explains: “Sometime back in 1986, Mortal Sin was getting noticed quite a bit in the United Kingdom, and Metal Forces had run a piece on our debut album, Mayhemic Destruction, in their magazine. They told metalheads they could contact the band via our PO box, which was listed on the back of the album. I got tonnes of letters from people wanting the album, and in amongst those letters was one from a certain Mike Portnoy, who was in a band called Majesty. He wanted a copy of our album, and sent his band’s demo tape for me to have a listen. Well, at the time I didn’t know of Mike Portnoy and I certainly had not heard of Majesty. I gave the tape a whirl in my ghetto blaster and my first impression was that it was reasonably good.

“It was a few years after that when Majesty became Dream Theater, and I had heard that they were going to release their debut album. By this time, I had my record store The Metal Factory open in Parramatta and I had imported some copies of the album. I was completely blown away, and anyone who came into the shop was bound to hear that album on replay for most of the day. I would say to my customers, ‘You gotta check this band out, they’re incredible!’ No one had heard of them, and my constant and insistent hounding sold many a copy in my store.”

So, does Maurer still own that original demo?

“I sold the demo and the letter to a Dream Theater fan club in Europe,” he admits, “Probably about 10-12 years ago. I think I got $350 USD for the package.”

As for his favourite Dream Theater songs, Maurer says it’s “incredibly difficult” to select a single cut, but if he had to name a top five, “it would look something like this: ‘6:00’, ‘Surrounded’, ‘I Walk Beside You’, ‘As I Am’ and ‘Through Her Eyes’.”

MIKE MILLS

The brainchild of Melbourne progressive outfit Toehider heard Dream Theater for the first time in high school. “My friend came over with the Images And Words CD and told me I had to check it out. I remember sitting in my lounge room with headphones on when ‘Metropolis Pt. 1’ came on – I was blown away. I was already into a lot of ’70s prog stuff at that point, but they took it to a whole new level.

“I was fortunate enough to work with James [LaBrie] a few years ago on the Ayreon live show of The Human Equation. We shared a house together for a week during rehearsals, and he was just the coolest guy. Super hard worker too, he’d spend most nights staying up and working on parts, memorising the cues, etcetera…”

His favourite song by the band? “It has to be either ‘Metropolis Pt. 1’, ‘Space Dye Vest’, or ‘Fall Into The Light’.”

MORGAN-LEIGH BROWN

Brown, vocalist for Melbourne progressive rockers Acolyte says ‘Metropolis Pt. 1’ was the first Dream Theater song she listened to. “My bassist introduced me to their works to help get my head around how large-structured compositions could work, with all [of the] instruments being highlighted effortlessly. I now am familiar with much more of their back catalogue, but this remains a favourite of mine.”

Has Acolyte tried their hands at a Dream Theater cover yet? “It has been mentioned a number of times, and our members have tackled some, but Acolyte as a whole are yet to take on a DT beast.”

ANDY DOWLING

The bassist/vocalist for Sydney/Wollongong melodic metallers LORD also first wrapped his ears around Dream Theater in high school. “’You Not Me’ was the first ever Dream Theater song I heard, which I really liked, but ‘Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory’ had also just come out as well around this time, so that was a real novelty. Especially when a lot of the other music I was listening to at the time was less technical and conceptual in nature.

“My favourite Dream Theater song changes often between multiple tracks from Images And Words and Falling into Infinity. ‘Learning To Live’ probably sneaks up to the top of the list most often.”

SCOTT KAY

Kay, guitarist for Perth melodic prog-metal crew Voyager discovered Dream Theater at age 15, via high school friends who had similar taste in music. “I was playing bass predominantly at the time, and was immediately blown away by their prowess,” he recalls.

“My favourite tune of theirs is ‘Under A Glass Moon’. The song title matches how I visualise the music, and [John] Petrucci’s solo on that song is absolutely iconic.”

BRIAN GIFFIN

The radio host, longtime heavy music scribe and author of the Encyclopedia Of Australian Heavy Metal says he became aware of Dream Theater “probably around the time Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence came out, from constant discussions about it on internet metal forums I was posting to then.”

And his pick of the band’s catalogue? “It’s a no-brainer, I guess, but ‘Pull Me Under’. After hearing so much about them, I went back through their catalogue and that’s where I started. It’s always stayed with me. Besides, it totally epitomises their aesthetic. It’s one of the best metal songs of the last 30 years.”

CHAD BOWAR

Bowar, a music writer for more than 20 years and About.com’s heavy metal editor, says Images And Words was the first Dream Theater album he heard. “Octavarium was the first I reviewed as a music writer,” he says. “Since they are such an ‘album’ band, it’s tough to pick individual tracks, but let’s go with ‘The Glass Prison’ from Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence.”