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This story was originally published in 2009.
Dream Theater are a prog-metal institution. Since forming in Massachusetts in 1985 (first as Majesty, before adopting their current moniker in 1988), the band has released 9 albums — brimming with virtuosic musicianship and far-out conceptual storylines — six live releases, and uncountable "official" bootlegs.
For the uninitiated, Dream Theater's catalog is almost as intimidating to navigate as it must be to play. As the band — singer James LaBrie, guitarist John Petrucci, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy — gear up to release their tenth studio album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, we looked back at their entire catalog and selected the five most essential Dream Theater releases.
Dream Theater's second album, but first with vocalist James LaBrie, Images and Words brought a new heft, slickness, and high-mindedness to the progressive metal world, sparsely populated at the time by not much more than Rush, Queensrÿche, and Fates Warning. "Pull Me Under" remains a classic, but the accessible, hooky album as a whole is widely revered by the DT faithful.
If Images and Words is soul-replenishing, its follow-up, Awake, is angry and uneasy — and somewhat corrupted by the grunge world. Although fans and critics gave the record a tepid response upon release (they've since come around), its bassy heaviness and ugly lyrics give insight to the band that would next make 1997's even darker Falling Into Infinity, which suffers comparatively as the band second-guesses itself.
Arguably the first release of the band's modern era, Scenes From a Memory is well loved for its paranormal murder-mystery storyline, its conceptual sense of drama, and its swooping emotional/musical dynamics. The album possibly benefited from LaBrie's fecund creativity at the time as the frontman also worked on his first record with side project MullMuzzler.
With an original album cover depicting the Twin Towers burning — printed just days before 9/11 — Live Scenes From New York is nonetheless considered the band's most willfully enthusiastic live album. Three discs dense (and with quickly revised album art), the record includes the exhaustively road-tested Scenes From a Memory in its entirety, as well as closing epic "A Change of Seasons."
Containing thrashing speeds, twin leads, and downtuned riffs, Train of Thought is possibly the heaviest and darkest Dream Theater record, one for Metallica-loving headbangers. There are even some interesting, generally overlooked injections of nu-metal doomfulness. The result is a bold and ultimately successfully — if hotly contested by many fans — Dream Theater experiment.