Dream Theater treats progressive metal in the same way that an Olympic athlete treats a race. One doesn’t just prepare for a trade but rather trains diligently and goes for gold. This is the reason why, in the prog-metal arena, the band’s albums are always ranked highly as some of the best that this genre of music has ever produced.
Do the musicians in Dream Theater go over the top in presenting their musical chops? All the time! Do they use classic prog-rock or metal as a reference point? Of course! Have they created rich, memorable songs? Yes, many times.
That’s why today I’m applying to Berklee College of Music, not expecting any answer, and ranking Dream Theater’s discography, from their worst albums to their very best.
Dream Theater Albums Ranked
16. “When Dream and Day Unite” (1989)
Most students hand in their homework a few days late and try to hide it from prying eyes. Dream Theater made their Berklee Coellge assignments public with their debut album, “When Dream and Day Unite.”
At this stage, the band was known to rehearse for a few hours nearly every day. Their ambitiousness is obvious from the get-go, even if original musical ideas are still in short supply.
The band is chasing a progressive metal sound that includes intricate musicianship and melodic compositions. Strange time signatures and elongated solos are part for the course.
They certainly like their Queensryche and Fate’s Warning. But they’re not quite there yet for their first release. Charlie Dominici’s singing is fine but doesn’t quite gel with the band’s take on heavy metal. James la Brie’s arrival to the group would feel like a natural fit. For these reasons the album, while not a poor debut, sits last on our list.
Yet, “When Dream and Day Unite” is full of promise and contains, arguably, the most Dream Theater-sounding title ever.
15. “Falling into Infinity” (1997)
“Falling into Infinity” carries on Dream Theater’s crusade of evolving into the modern prog-metal equivalent of Yes. But the more relaxed approach to songwriting doesn’t seem to always work in the band’s favour.
Still, “Falling into Infinity” does contain the anthemic “Peruvian Skies” and the melodic “Hollow Years.” Both should have, in a normal world, gifted Dream Theater a couple more hits.
It wasn’t to be. And, for the majority of their career from here onward, the band would stick to the musical intricacies that had put them on the map in the first place and leave hit chasing to other more pop-oriented groups.
14. “Distance Over Time” (2019)
Nobody exactly treats themselves to a new Dream Theater album. They book time in their schedules for it. With this in mind, those willing to explore the band’s heavier complex tendencies will be delighted by “Distance Over Time.”
The fact that “Distance Over Time” is a return to the band’s roots can be heard from the beginning. However, their ability to properly recreate what made Dream Theater good in the first place is a surprising realization.
Standout tracks include “Untethered Angel,” “Paralyzed,” and “At Wit’s End.” They prove DT can still headbang with the best of them and outplay most bands too.
13. “Systematic Chaos” (2007)
Dream Theater had practically written the rule book for modern prog-metal. And they don’t stray far from their own rules for “Systematic Chaos.”
This all means that Dream Theater knows its place. To a group of fans of progressive music, they are unbeatable heroes. To casual listeners and naysayers, they produce overly theatric and super complex classical music played on electric instruments.
“Constant Motion,” “The Dark Eternal Night,” and “In the Presence of Enemies” are some of the album’s best tracks, ones on which James LaBrie intervenes rarely but nearly always does it effectively.
12. “Black Clouds & Silver Linings” (2009)
Dream Theater can play any style of music at any time they want. We are all aware of this. Throughout “Black Clouds & Silver Linings,” they showcase this trait as they deliver one of their most challenging albums to fans.
Producing “challenging material” could by now be a chore for Dream Theater. The band has built its reputation on the ability to produce complex pieces. And, with “Black Clouds & Silver Linings,” there’s a sense that the band members feel forced to outdo themselves.
They come good, however, with “The Best of Times” or the progressive epic “A Nightmare to Remember.”
11. “Dream Theater” (2013)
Making a self-titled album so long into a band’s career is an attempt to send a message. And, yes, Dream Theater deliver a good representation of what the band stands for with this one.
“Dream Theater” is one of the band’s best albums in years. Perhaps this is due to John Petrucci taking on more creative control. Or, maybe it’s because the new lineup of the band had had time to adjust to playing together in front of large audiences.
Regardless, “The Enemy Inside,” “Along for the Ride,” and “The Looking Glass” should be enough to please long-time supporters.
10. “A Dramatic Turn of Events” (2011)
“A Dramatic Turn of Events” couldn’t be a more apt title. Dream Theater does the unthinkable and attempts to replace drummer Mike Portnoy. The results are quite predictable, however.
New recruit Mike Mangini integrates himself easily into the fold. Meanwhile, John Petrucci and John Myung lead Dream Theater in a highly organized, aggressive musical direction.
“On the Backs of Angels,” “Breaking All Illusions,” and “Bridges in the Sky” are highlights. However, overall, “A Dramatic Turn of Events” is less consistent than some of the band’s previous albums.
9. “The Astonishing” (2016)
Just as sports fans celebrate their team winning a trophy, so do Dream Theater fans celebrate a concept album by the band. “The Astonishing” is the first of this kind in a long time.
What’s the concept exactly? It involves a dystopian future in which ruling empires fight using the mystical power of music. The band said it was inspired by “Game of Thrones.” However, Styx’s “Killroy” feels like apt source material, also.
“The Gift of Music,” “A New Beginning,” or “Moment of Betrayal” are convincing, especially if you don’t look too deeply into what all of these songs mean.
8. “A View from the Top of the World” (2021)
“A View from the Top of the World” focuses, once again, on Dream Theater’s core values: ethereal visions backed by tough-sounding, intricate musical arrangements.
It’s good to know that some things don’t change. And it’s also mighty fine to realize that Dream Theater hasn’t made many poor career choices throughout their discography. Hardcore fans of the band can rarely declare themselves disappointed by a new release by the band.
“The Alien,” “Invisible Monster,” and “A View from the Top of the World” will win them over once again.
However, as someone who has travelled to Kjeragbolten, the landmark depicted in the artwork, I can tell you that the artist may have embellished the image ever so slightly.
“A View from the Top of the World” also proved to be Mike Mangini’s swan song with Dream Theater. The group announced in October 2023 the decision to have founding member Mike Portnoy return as the group’s drummer. It was a controversial decision embraced by many fans and questioned by others.
7. “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” (2002)
“Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” sees Dream Theater further exploring the concept album format. This time, the songwriters are interested in personal turmoil and redemption.
Particularly, Petrucci, Portnoy and keyboardist Jordan Rudess are also interested in making it hard for themselves. Songs are usually lengthy and hard to play by most other musicians. That’s the Dream Theater brand, after all.
But, “The Great Debate” and “The Glass Prison” are some of the band’s finest works in a while.
6. “Train of Thought” (2003)
By 2003’s “Train of Thought,” Dream Theater wasn’t looking for new supporters. Rather they use the album to consolidate the band’s rabid fanbase.
These fans, however, not only love their prog-rock complexity. They also adore their metal. On “Train of Thought,” Dream Theater are more interested than ever before in providing them with the latter.
“This Dying Soul,” “Endless Sacrifice”, and “Stream of Consciousness” are some of the album’s highlights.
5. “Octavarium” (2005)
Dream Theater, like most progressive bands, works best within a concept. On “Octavarium,” they use musical theory as the jumping-off point for the songwriting.
This is the eighth Dream Theater album. It contains eight songs. Each song is played in a different key, starting with F. And each song on “Octavarium” features a different time signature.
I remember buying the album and spending a lot of time trying to absorb the musical information. The same must’ve happened all over the world, as the album was a Top 40 in many countries, particularly in Europe.
The album’s standout tracks include the epic title track “Octavarium,” as well as “Panic Attack” and “These Walls.”
4. “A Change of Seasons” (1995)
“A Change of Seasons” isn’t a bonafide studio album. It’s one great new song and a few progtastic covers.
However, it showcases Dream Theater’s seamlessly infinite musical ability. Some might even argue that they’re at their best when covering their heroes.
The title track, “A Change of Seasons,” is fantastic. Their choice to cover Elton John‘s “Love Lies Bleeding” is great thinking and a nice tribute to a fantastic artist who once embraced progressive music. And, at a time before the internet, music fans needed to either hear the kind of stuff that the band could produce or merely have it be told to them by some over-eager prog-metal supporter.
3. “Awake” (1994)
“Awake” is the darker companion piece to “Images and Words.” The band is at the height of its confidence and at the top of the prog-metal mountain.
Arguably, the band has never been better at superimposing the most complex of musical arrangements onto memorable, almost poppy songs.
It’s also around this time that, while on tour, the group opted to replace keyboardist Kevin Moore for former member Alice Cooper’s live band, Derek Sherinian. By the year 1999, however, Dream Theater had opted to move again and hired Jordan Rudess, who has been with the band until today.
The real highlight is the band’s newfound confidence in creating alluring, atmospheric pieces on prog-rock songs like “The Mirror,” “Lie,” or “Scarred.”
2. “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” (1999)
Prog-rock fans love concept albums more than they love their own mothers, probably. And, with “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory,” Dream Theater made their first stab at a concept record. The results are convincing.
Plus, there was no going back to pop-rock for Dream Theater. “Falling into Infinity” had pop bait on it, but the radio stations didn’t bite. Their loss!
Petrucci and Portnoy layer “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” with intricate musical moments and a complex storyline. This would blow the minds of most casual listeners. But Dream Theater, for the most part, had a cult hanging on their every note (and, boy, are there a lot of notes here).
If anything, “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” is a report on where the progressive rock and metal scene was heading towards by the turn of the century.
1. “Images and Words” (1992)
Wohoo! Dream Theater finds its way on its second album, “Images and Words.” It’s enough to turn them into the bright young hope of prog-rock and provide them with a hit single (their only to date).
Blame that kind of success on James LaBrie, a Canadian singer who instantly fits within the band’s format. (But I’ll give props to previous vocalist Charlie Dominici for trying his hardest). The list of great Dream Theater albums could now be started.
Furthermore, the band has crystallized its vision. John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy, the band’s creative dynamos, like soundscapes that can allow them space to express their technical prowess.
“Pull Me Under” is the iconic hit single. It’s also an unexpectedly appropriate tune for the dominating alt-rock charts of the early 1990s. No other of their songs would have quite the same crossover appeal again.
Meanwhile, the epic “Metropolis Pt. 1,” running at nearly 10 minutes, showcases the band’s ambition.
Luckily for Dream Theater, fans of both Pink Floyd and Queensryche were dying for something new, and the NYC outfit had everything going for it. Its rank on our list is determined by the overall musical inventiveness, as well as the group’s clear enthusiasm.