To preface this review, I was a really big fan of Dream Theater as a teenager. As a musician, their technical ability inspired me. I used to sit out in the garage and play along on the drums, carefully counting out time signatures and working on copying fills. I started to fall out of love with them around Train of Thought, and wasn’t particularly excited by any album they had put out until their self titled album ‘Dream Theater’came out a few years ago. I really enjoyed The Astonishing as evidenced by this podcast and so I was really excited to see it performed live. My friend Jack is a bassist and a fine musician, and never really disliked Dream Theater’s music, but never considered himself a fan. So, with that clarification, we’ll get to the concert.
I had the opportunity to go and see Dream Theater in Cincinnati with my friend and the bassist for my band, Jack. This concert was a unique experience. Dream Theater played the entire album from start to finish, which wouldn’t have taken several hours if it would have been another band. But, they blasted through all 34 songs with incredible accuracy and fidelity to the recording. All of this was magnified by an impressive light setup and audio/visual presentation behind them, presented on 5 large screens. We were reintroduced to all of the many characters, rendered in CGI (a bit reminiscent of Playstation cutscenes at times). My favorite character, of course, is Emporer Nafaryus. With a name like that, you just know you can trust the guy. I mean, all he really wants is to make the Great Northern Empire Great Again through oppressive tyranny. Can you fault him for that?
Despite what was probably a lot of work from the audio/visual, it was often times hard to follow the story. James LaBrie’s vocals were often times overpowered by the other instruments. This was no one’s fault in particular. The room and the mix were not favorable to James’s higher and lower vocal moments. Normally, this would have been easier to deal with, but when a story is being conveyed, certain moments were left out. During the intermission, Jack turned to me and said, “OK. What the hell is going on?” I luckily had been to the interactive website and knew enough to give him a rundown.
Musically, the band was perfect. Each instrumentalist soared through fast arpeggios and unison runs and highly polyrhythmic sections with ease. This laser-like precision is what Dream Theater has always been known for. John Petrucci’s guitar work was incredible- of particular note was his brilliant and very Vai-like solo in the end of ‘A New Beginning’. There are several great solos on the album, but this one takes the cake.
Mike Mangini’s highly symmetrical drumset and open approach to playing made for an unusual but thrilling scene. Let me explain: he doesn’t cross his arms over when playing hi-hats like so many drummers do. And all of his drum pieces are easily reached on a grid that involves a wide range of movement but not a lot of physical stress. It was sort of like watching him do jumping jacks behind the set. Not to mention his brilliant drum passages that involved one handed 16th notes on rides or snares. I could’ve watched him all night. Another thing I noticed about Mangini’s playing: from a technical standpoint, few drummers would argue that Mangini is among the worlds most skilled drummers. His technique is flawless. But, for most of The Astonishing, his drum playing fit the song perfectly. In other words, his drums, rather than standing out in a major way, complimented each song on both a musical and a rhythmic level. At certain points I was sort of dying to see him go crazy, but props to the guy for showing restraint on so many songs. He’s also got a sense of humor. At one point, he was playing drums with large mallets, which he proceeded to lick at one point as if it were a marshmallow or ice cream cone. Don’t worry Mike, we saw you.
James LaBrie is maybe the most divisive figure in Dream Theater. Fans either love or hate his vocals. I am in the ‘love’ camp. I think he fits their music pretty well, and has for years. I can’t imagine songs like “Metropolis Pt. 1” with anyone else singing. However, he wins the Most Valuable Player award for the night. He sang some of the most complex and difficult vocal work of his career on this album, and it was clear that it was a massive challenge. He had to create a voice for each of the characters on the album, and he jumped deftly from the soft and tender Fayth to the defiant Arhys to the nefarious Nafaryus (I just HAD to). At one point, a person behind us said, “He was definitely flat on that note”. Yes, after singing 34 songs with pages of lyrics, playing 8 characters, and singing a baritone to high tenor range, he was entitled to a couple sour notes. But Jack and I, having played many a show and having dealt with some pretty terrible venues, totally understood and give him the MVP award for plowing through what was an incredibly challenging vocal part with an impressive range of ability.
Rudess, despite his technical prowess, played mostly understated parts throughout the night. He did thoughtful piano based transitions, but his playing wasn’t the principal highlight. John Myung had a few moments where he shined, but his bass was so treble-y that it washed out in the mix. You really had to pay attention to hear him- which is fit-to-form for the Silent Man. The band shined, however, when they all were playing their complicated music together. It was always thrilling and truly a spectacle to watch them.
One of my favorite parts of the concert was looking around at the fans. It was a pretty diverse crowd. But, among them were lots of teenagers that kind of reminded me of myself at that age. And they, above everyone else, were FREAKING OUT. They were standing up and cheering, singing along to every word, cheering incredibly loudly… It was so much fun to watch them enjoy the band with so much glee. I remember hearing Dream Theater’s seminal album ‘Scenes from a Memory’ as a young man, and just how blown away I was. It’s amazing that almost 17 years later, Dream Theater is still inspiring the younger generation of prog-metallers and musicians with their technical ability and bombast. We both went home with strong impressions of the night: Jack went home with a greater appreciation for a band he knew very little about previously, and I went home with lots of warm fuzzies and nostalgia for a band that was an integral part of my musical history.