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The band made Dream Theater a self-titled album to emphasize that they were moving forward in their career and to make it a reference point for fans. The album's songs are shorter on average than most Dream Theater songs, with the exception of the 20-minute closer "Illumination Theory".
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In calling the album Dream Theater, the band tried to define who they were and emphasize that they were moving forward. Reflecting on the decision for Guitar World, Petrucci said, "We wanted to make this album a reference point for fans as far as what Dream Theater is all about. That was the goal and the mission, and it set the tone for the entire project." In an article for Grantland, Steven Hyden noted the album's stylistic similarities to Rush, writing, "There are songs on Dream Theater that are just straight-up Rush imitations, most notably 'The Looking Glass,' which crossbreeds 'Limelight' with 'Freewill' while leaving out Neil Peart’s misanthropic individualism."
The songs on Dream Theater are shorter and more compact on average than on other Dream Theater albums, a conscious decision made by the band during writing that Petrucci later admitted was a challenge for them. Two songs on the album made use of a string ensemble, including the 20-minute closer "Illumination Theory", which keyboardist Jordan Rudess called the band's opportunity to go "crazy" after writing so many concise songs. Split into five sections, the track goes through many style and time signature changes, with Loudwire observing, "Jam-packed with a head-spinning mix of quiet interludes, face melting jams and, courtesy of bassist Myung and Mangini, forests full of rhythmic majesty, this suite plays like a mini album in itself."
Dream Theater features two instrumentals, "False Awakening Suite" and "Enigma Machine", the former of which was written specifically to open the band's live shows. They were the first instrumentals that the band had written for a studio album since "Stream of Consciousness" on 2003's Train of Thought. Many of the album's lyrics are based on real events; for example, "The Enemy Inside", which deals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was written in response to the Boston Marathon bombings, and "Behind the Veil" references the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping.