So, according to my half-assed music library database I own more non-bootleg songs by Dream Theater than any other band. This makes sense; I was a huge fan for many years and the band has consistently released official studio, official live CDs and DVDs and an enormous catalog of “bonus” CDs and DVDs for over 25 years. This adds up to 45 full length CDs and DVDs in my collection which yields almost 70 hours of content. I could listen / watch Dream Theater for almost 3 straight days and not hear a single repeat.
While there have been blips in the road here and there in terms of quality…and the band peaked over 15 years ago, the total catalog is extremely impressive, with an overall rating of 75.
A couple house-keeping notes:
- All charts can be clicked to see a full-scale version
- I use a ratings system I’ve developed for my purposes. It’s not very complex but it does account for the difference between a really great 3-minute song and a really great 25-minute song. Read the link if you’re interested.
- You’ll also see something call “Prog Arch” or “Prog Arch Rating”. This is Progressive Archive’s rating for the same item; gives you a sense of how my rating compares to the masses. The site is user-generated and I’ve found it to be an excellent reference; the contributors are clearly big fans of music in general, progressive music in particular and, in aggregate, are a highly informed, conscientious source of music knowledge. Their ratings usually make sense to me and don’t suffer outrageously generous scores like those found on Amazon or the flattened scores (with nothing ranking too high or too low) found on Rate Your Music.
As seen, the band’s official studio output is substantial (over 15 hours) but it makes up less than a quarter of their entire catalog. This is because the band has consistently toured and released many, many live CDs and DVDs. In addition, there is a huge library of “bonus” material. Remarkably the majority of all this music is consistent, high quality with very little filler or duplication.
Any band that’s been around for 25+ years is likely to have some turnover; probably a lot of turnover. Dream Theater isn’t an exception but the band has been relatively stable. While there’s been a total of 9 members, the core four of John Petrucci on guitar, John Myung on bass, Mike Portnoy on drums and James LaBrie on vocals played together for 17 years, generating 10 studio albums. In fact, there’s only been one change since 1998: Portnoy, a founding member and the face of the band for many years, left in a messy dispute but the band had continued on, seemingly unaffected.
Unlike many long-lived bands, DT has never taken a sabbatical, never going more than 2 years between a full-length studio release, for a total of 13 albums spread over 24 years. That’s a consistent output and while there have been some not-so-stellar releases it’s hard to criticize the band’s catalog in its entirety.
Again, we see a familiar pattern: a series of extremely high quality releases early in the career. Since the band’s peak in the 90’s they’ve produced a lot of good music but nothing that has ranked higher than a 75.
Obviously, everything here is just one man’s opinion so I like to show how my opinion compares to others. The following shows my rankings as compared to the collective opinion of Progressive Archive’s readers; albums to the right of the black line are rated more highly by me; those to the left more highly by the PA readership.
There’s pretty solid agreement on the majority of releases. There are a several noteworthy disagreements, however:
- Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence: this is the band’s 2 hour-20 minute magnum opus. Many DT fans consider it the pinaccle of the band’s career. I’m not sure why. One disc is a 45 minute concept piece; and while it has it’s moments it pales in comparison to the 25-minute A Change of Season for several reasons:
- The intro is an interesting but not particularly great 5 minute orchestral piece; as an individual song I would rank it a 3.
- The conclusion is a dull, plodding, droning segment that I would rank as only a 2 (maybe a 3); the 1+ minute fadeout of a single note is prog excess at its worst.
- The overall message is not coherent; it’s basically six pieces about people dealing with mental issues; A Change of Season, on the other hand, told a coherent story with a premise, a dynamic protagonist on a quest, conflict, a clear story arc and a satisfying conclusion.
- The rest of the disc is four songs. All are too lengthy and would benefit from editing. None rank higher than a 3 for me.
- A Change of Seasons: the key reason for the variance here is my rating is based only on the 25-minute studio song and not the four live bonus songs. The PA rating is based on all five songs.
- Black Clouds and Silver Linings: while the PA readers and I agree BC&SL isn’t among the band’s best I think it is without question their worst. The PA readers, however, rank it similarly to a number of other DT albums.
And another way of looking at the band’s career over time:
The following is my favorite chart. It shows the percentage of each release that rated a 1,2,3,4 or 5. It is, in my opinion, the single best image to capture the quality of a band’s history. We see a clear delineation between the band’s peak years when blues and greens (4 and 5 rated songs) dominate and the post-peak period when we still see some blue and green but a lot of pink and the occassional orange.
The following captures every song that has appeard on DT’s studio albums. The starred releases I recommend to any hard rock, heavy metal or progressive rock fan.
And here’s every song shown by album; I like the visual these views create:
Most long-lived bands have a large number of live releases and Dream Theater is no different. What is somewhat different is despite releasing 23 hours of live music, there’s very little duplication. This is due to three things:
- The band does not have any “must play” songs that your average fan would expect to see. If you go see Rush or U2 you pretty much know what about 75% of the show will be because they always play certain songs. Not so with DT.
- The band has committed to mining their entire catalog throughout their touring career. They don’t only play songs from their last 3-4 albums, instead sprinkling in songs from even their oldest albums. In fact, legend is they maintain a database of what songs have been played in which cities so when they return they can craft a setlist that will be largely different from previous shows.
- The band extends this “always new material” to their live CDs. While you’ll find some duplication, it’s very little with no songs showing up more than four times on any live CD or DVD. That’s fan-friendly attitude I wish more bands employed.
- Fans will also find some variance from the studio versions here and there. Sometimes it’s an extended solo; sometimes bits from other band’s songs that might have
been stoleninfluenced the song being played; sometimes totally new extended musical jams (these are my favorite). Add it all up and even duplicated songs are often different.
Looking at the following graph the consistent quality of the live catalog is amazing. Preparing for this post I listened to a couple of these from beginning to end and it’s still impressive listening. One thing to note is some of the CDs are also available in DVD form and others are DVDs that I converted to audio.
Again, there’s a difference between a 40 minute live release and a 3 hour release. We see in the following chart that DT has released some really long live sets, with six logging in at over 150 minutes and several at or above 3 hours. That many of these are also their best is astounding. For newbies I’d recommend Once in a Livetime, Scenes From New York and Score.
The following shows when and where each song shows up on the band’s various live albums. As noted, there’s relatively little duplication. The vast majority of songs appear on only 1 or 2 releases.
Live Video Releases
Everything I just wrote above….ditto for the band’s live video catalog. Lots of good stuff; little duplication.
Again, really, really high quality throughout the band’s career. It’s highly unusual to capture such a long-lived band’s career at every stage; as fans we’re drowing in an embarrassment of video riches here.
This is the first band I’ve done a history of that has a substantial catalog of “bonus” material. These are songs that aren’t included on the band’s officially released studio and live CDs and DVDs. DT is swimming in this stuff, primarily from two sources:
- Fan club releases: for years DT fan club members received an annual CD containing unreleased live and studio material
- YTSEJAM: this is the band’s “official bootleg” site where they sell unreleased material, mostly live shows and cover songs.
Overall, the quality is not up to the standards of DT’s primary material. There are a lot of cover songs here. The band seems capable of choosing just about any insanely difficult song by….Yes (for example) and playing a cover at any given time. That’s impressive…..but I have a general rule about covers: they should either be better than the original or they should be different from the original. Very few of DT’s covers meet either criteria. They’re always well done, with the precise musicianship we expect; but they’re basically done exactly as they were done originally but lacking that special something that made the songs great in the first place.
Here’s every single bonus song rated and segmented into various groups:
Whew….this was an undertaking. A huge library of music to cover so anyone who’s made it this far I give you kudos! 🙂 In conclusion, here’s every studio album in detail (click for the full-size version). Please leave any comments below and let me know the next band’s history you’d like me to chart.