An insider’s account of a concert by “the standard bearers of progressive metal”.
Labyrinthine. Quite possibly the only word you could use to describe Dream Theater. But then, progressive metal is well known for its diverse sonic palette, even in one band. Indeed, there is one musician I like who has a reputation for recording an album about an alien called Ziltoid “the Omniscient”, directly before making a series of four concept albums – concerning a cheeseburger (he’s probably a Monty Python fan).
It’s a good thing then that Dream Theater is thankfully more consistent than that particular example. That does not mean that the band is boring, as I found out when they came to London as part of their Distance Over Time tour. Take the opener, “Untethered Angel”. Directly after the soundcheck lulls you into a false sense of security (mainly because recorded Kraftwerk songs are being played in the background), all hell breaks loose in the form of a guitar riff. In hindsight, it is a very good way to start the evening, as it is basically a hyperkinetic overview on what Dream Theater’s style is: catchy lyrics set over a soundscape of guitar/keyboard interplay, amid several time/tempo changes.
And then, in case anybody wasn’t listening, they do it again, but more slowly. Indeed, at a length of sixteen minutes, you would have to be very ignorant indeed to miss the stupefying musicianship of “A Nightmare To Remember”. This emphasises another recognisable hallmark of a Dream Theater album: their ability to make songs of ludicrous length (around five of their songs pass the twenty-minute mark). Afterwards, the length is toned down significantly: the next number, “Paralyzed”, only lasts four minutes. That’s not to say it is bad: it is still a very good slab of power metal, delivered with singer James LaBrie’s characteristic commitment.
It is then that the music shifts into power-ballad territory, with “Barstool Warrior”, a blend of anthemic rock and ELP-esque keyboard runs that culminates into one of guitarist John Petrucci’s finest solos. After that, the first part of the concert closes – Dream Theater has a reputation for 2-3 hour-long “short sets” – with two tracks that basically show off the gentlemen’s’ instrumental chops. To elaborate, the former of these “suites”, “In The Presence Of Enemies”, has its lyrics appear five minutes in, while “Pale Blue Dot” is unabashedly epic in its scale: so much so that it would not feel out of place in any number of recent sci-fi films.
Which is ironic, seeing that the subject matter of Act 2’s sets are solidly set in the 1920s; the aim of the whole tour being to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their fifth LP, a concept album under the name of “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory” (part one being mainly an instrumental jam from their second album). Of course, from what you would probably expect from reading this article, by no means is this straightforward (particularly if you take into account the fact that they recently wrote a 34-track-long dystopian rock opera).
Just as the plot involves you having to fully immerse yourself into it (before rendering it null and void in the silliest fashion possible at the last moment), the music itself also proves to be very knotty in places for newcomers. This is mainly because of the inclusion of several moments where the group decides to place complex (not to mention lengthy) instrumental sections in between various plot points: worthy stuff, but it does make the album lag in some places.
It is fortunate then, that Dream Theater, having possibly considered that eventuality, decided to play the whole set alongside some recorded images made exclusively for the occasion. It also helps that all the members of the band are on particularly fine form for the evening. James LaBrie is particularly energetic, and there is a very clear sense of a good musician/audience relationship. As in the studio, keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess is the driving force behind the music, providing an excellent soundscape for the rest of the group to develop. Of course, Dream Theater would never be Dream Theater without the constant presence of resident guitar virtuoso John Petrucci: throughout the whole experience (especially the slower moments where he gets to provide some extremely emotional soloes), he simply takes your breath away. Finally, the drummer Mike Mangini and bassist John Myung, despite being in the background, still hold the whole act delightfully.
All in all, you could infer that I had a very good time, but that would be an understatement. However, I would certainly recommend this band; after all, they are very accessible. Now, where’s my opera ticket…?
Review by James Wood, Year 10
Image courtesy of Luuk Wouters @unsplash.com