Ushers with waistcoats and bow-ties telling people to put their cameras away, pictures of Bradley Walsh on the walls, champagne popsicles on sale in the foyer, and little pairs of binoculars to see the stage better. Suffice to say, the legendary Palladium theatre in London’s West End is not your typical Metal concert venue. Then again, Dream Theater have never been your typical Metal band.
Such a special venue is required in order to reflect the ambition of what Dream Theater are attempting here. Their new album, The Astonishing, is their most ambitious project ever and trying to perform its thirty-four tracks, lasting 130 minutes, live in their entirety is no small undertaking. The album has divided opinion and most people here tonight would have bought their tickets before they’d heard it, so there is certainly a sense of scepticism in the air. So, has the band bitten off more than they can chew?
Well first of all, this is a very visual show, with banners on stage depicting the flags of the Great Northern Empire of the Americas and the Ravenskill Rebel Militia (the two opposing sides featured in their dystopian sci-fi tale) and large screens depicting the story throughout. Similar to when they toured their previous concept album, Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory, these animated sequences are invaluable in helping fans decipher and follow the story, and thus people who had not quite been able to “get” the complex album just by listening to it will hopefully understand it a bit better now. Being such a highly conceptual project, the story and music go hand in hand, and so this live setting is the perfect way to fully appreciate it.
Another great contributing factor to tonight’s success is the Palladium’s brilliant acoustics; this is not the first time that this 100 year-old hall has had to withstand such loud volumes. From the opening discordant sounds of the NOMACS (the flying robots who create electronic music in the story, and who look truly imposing on the 20ft high screens) to the closing triumphant crescendo of the album’s title track, every note is loud and powerful, yet clear. A criticism some have levelled at The Astonishing is the dominance of keyboards and acoustic instrumentation at the expense of guitars and drums, but this is much less of a concern in this live setting. Every band member is firing on all cylinders, with the live mix being much more balanced than what can be heard on the record; guitarist John Petrucci and drummer Mike Mangini are not happy to just sit back and play a minor role, so their presence is strongly felt. Essentially, any of the fans in attendance who didn’t think The Astonishing was a heavy enough album should be more satisfied with its live interpretation.
I do have some small points of criticism to make though. Dream Theater, as expected, have clearly rehearsed the music to death and I can’t fault their performance from a technical standpoint whatsoever. I was particularly impressed with James LaBrie’s vocal performance, as it was hard enough singing all the different characters’ voices on record, so the fact he managed to replicate it all live without his voice faltering is, well, astonishing; he showed a level of vocal stamina many singers half his age would envy. However, while Dream Theater are arguably the most pre-eminent live rock musicians of their generation, they are not the most theatrical or animated live act. Put bluntly, as good as the music sounds and as effective as the screens and banners are, Dream Theater’s performance of The Astonishing does not rival Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in terms of Prog Rock theatricality.
Maybe this is just because it’s only the second night of the tour; perhaps they’re concentrating on playing the music correctly for now and will add more elements to the stage show later? Or maybe the budget’s not high enough to do anything else? If it was up to me though, there’d be a lot more going on onstage; sets, props, actors to play the different characters, pyrotechnics, and costumes for Johns Petrucci and Myung to break the monotony of their usual “any colour so long as its black” stage attire. Hopefully, they’ll add some of these elements if they tour the album again in future, or maybe I’d just be better off going to see Kiss or Rammstein live instead…
In summary, any concerns that Dream Theater would be unable to play The Astonishing live have been firmly put to bed by this performance; quite simply, the album sounds better live than on record, and the visual aids on stage and screen do a decent job of telling the story. It’s perhaps not quite as theatrical a performance as some people (i.e. me) would have preferred, but that’s not why people go to see Dream Theater live anyway. These are thoroughly professional live musicians at the top of their game and anyone who was previously unsold on The Astonishing as an album should now hopefully realise what a triumph it is.