Since 2004, Dream Theater has had a reliable track record of releasing a live album to document their most recent studio album.
Much to the consternation of some fans, they broke that tradition with their unorthodox, and somewhat polarizing concept album The Astonishing. Being that the tour presented that album almost exclusively, and the tepid reaction from some fans (including me), it may have been a good move. Still, the diehard fan base was itching for a new live release since we had gone more than half a decade since Breaking the Fourth Wall. Making the wait more difficult was that Dream Theater’s most recent album, Distance Over Time, has received near universal acclaim, and those fortunate enough to see their live show seemed to sense a renewed vigor. I was one of those attendees at both American legs of the tour so it will be a bit of a challenge to objectively review the DVD after seeing two outstanding shows.
Upon the start of the film I was immediately taken back to the moment I walked in the theatre and saw what is easily Dream Theater’s most complex stage setup. It is so large that it seems like they may have gone a bit too far as Mike Mangini’s drum kit actually blocked a bit of the big screen that took up the entire stage. There was also a vaguely futuristic steel walkway surrounding the back that the band made use of often. On the video screen we get to see Dream Theater’s introductory animation which utilizes graphics that look like they may have been inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien. A full embodiment of an android, whose hand you’ll recognize from the Distance Over Time artwork, scrolls through each album cover, providing a visual overview of Dream Theater’s history as the introductory music crescendos to indicate that the show is about to begin.
I don’t know if it’s cabin fever or what, but I could barely stay seated on my couch as I anticipated the opening chords of Untethered Angel. While it isn’t my favorite from Distance Over Time, it sounds great live. In fact, the sound of the entire show is monstrous to the point where I had doubts if any song would sound less than amazing. Unfortunately, soon after Dream Theater hit the stage to a thunderous ovation, the crowd soon began to take their seats, minus a few stragglers. Despite the extremely disappointing crowd, Dream Theater continued their high energy performance throughout the night with James utilizing every inch of stage, yet stopping short of his earlier intense and infamous spinning jaunts that we saw in the Live in Tokyo video.
As advertised, Dream Theater would be playing their entire Scenes From a Memory album in the second set which made me intensely curious how they would handle their first set. To my surprise, the next song they played was the 15+ minute A Nightmare to Remember, easily one of my least favorite songs in their catalog. Not only that, but it took up valuable time since over half their show would be from one album only. I try not to be a naysayer, but I wasn’t thrilled until I realized that this performance was breathing a new life into an old, and in my opinion, lackluster song. The same thing happened with The Shattered Fortress on 2014’s Breaking the Fourth Wall. Somehow, their live performances exceeded the album versions and made me gain a new appreciation for them. In fact, some of the problems I have with A Nightmare to Remember were Jordan’s penchant for using gadgets just for the sake of using them. Yet as I saw the band perform before my eyes I began to have fun watching him. Even his use of the somewhat cheesy “Zen Riffer,” (read: it’s a keytar…don’t deny it) was really pretty cool. I was even transfixed by his iPad solo.
When that song was originally released, Mike Portnoy faced some pretty big backlash for his “growling vocals” which I was pretty indifferent about. Now, with John Petrucci being the only other backing vocalist, performing minimally at that, James was left to do the whole section by himself. Growling he did not. Using a lower register with some melody and a bit of snarl, these are the vocals that should have been on Black Clouds & Silver Lining. Perhaps best of all, watching Mike Mangini perform reminds us that this is the song that helped him get the gig, and it’s clear why. That man is entertaining as hell to watch. His slightly pared down kit, using only a single kick drum, also allowed us to see more insane footwork even when the camera wasn’t on him.
Nearing 30 minutes and only two songs in, Dream Theater decided to make a bold move. The rest of the songs, aside from the advertised anniversary set, would only be from two albums: one from Systematic Chaos, and the rest from the album they’re touring in support of. At this point, I realize I’m more than okay with that. They heavily represented a few of their albums in previous tours, so I’m glad I get to hear mostly new songs.
After the intermission, it was no surprise to anyone that the entire Scenes From a Memory album would be played next and just like at the shows I saw, I wasn’t too thrilled. I seem to be in the minority of fans that not only don’t consider it my favorite album in their catalog, but I doubt it even breaks my top 5. I still love it, and it is the album (and tour) that started my fandom, but perhaps the obsession and constant adoration by fans and critics has driven me away. Afterall, the album is already represented in full from the first supporting tour, and then a good chunk of it in support of the 15th anniversary, on two separate live releases. The band has gone on record stating that because there is an entirely new crop of fans, too young to have ever seen the album performed, that they wanted to give them a chance to see it for themselves. The cynical side of me thinks it was merely to sell more tickets. No matter if there is truth to either side, I would be remiss to dismiss it solely on my personal fatigue. Putting that aside, I cannot deny that the performance is excellent and judging from the joy of those I saw in person and even the seated audience for the London DVD, I’m glad I didn’t have veto power to take that experience from anyone.
Refusing to wallow in my own preference, I recognize that the entire second set in many ways is probably better than their first live recording of the Metropolis sequel. The performances and energy are just as good, yet with two decades more experience and a financial advantage, the presentation is wonderful, supplemented by anime like images on the gigantic screen and again, I cannot express how good the sound quality is. So if the repetition of seeing and hearing this again (and again, and again) is what achieves these results, I’m content and actually quite happy.
One major difference in the performance is of course, the lack of Mike Portnoy. This is offset by the gain of Mike Mangini. The end of Finally Free would see Portnoy unleash a fury of drum action almost to the point where it was a signature moment for him and that song. Mangini did not replicate that in the slightest and instead went on a bizarre journey of off-timed rhythms while the band chugged away at that heavy riff, only to return with a more intense and straightforward beat. I couldn’t decide if I was put off by it or amazed or both! It wasn’t until I listened to the show again on a walk that his unorthodox trek forced me to reckon with the somewhat chaotic nature of the experience of our main protagonist Nicholas and his (spoiler alert!) untimely end. I finally “got it” and went back time and time again to hear that section but also to closely examine how Mangini and the band could play such conflicting roles and yet seamlessly reenter the established beat almost too effortlessly.
With the encore, Dream Theater decided to again do things their own way and NOT play an established song. Instead, they closed the show with At Wit’s End, which, according to internet commenters, appears to be the almost universally favored song on Distance Over Time. Judging by the audience’s reaction, it would seem so, with members of the crowd joining in with the sorrowful refrain of “Don’t leave me now, don’t leave me now.” Somewhat melancholy that this exceptional show is now coming to an end, I tried to put it out of my mind that those lyrics are actually uttered in the song between two lovers trying to recover from one being the victim of terrible abuse. Not exactly light hearted yet an undeniably great song to end the show with. It is also nice to see a song whose lyrics are penned by LaBrie get such acclaim. If there’s any justice in this world, he will continue to play a much bigger role in that regard. Might I add that he has no business sounding as good as he does at the age of 56 while singing in an insane register.
I’ll be honest, I’m surprised at how much I love this release. Despite being excited for it, and having a blast at the two concerts I saw in person, I completely forgot just how great these guys perform. Maybe it was the somewhat lackluster setlist, or trying not to remind myself of how much I miss live music in the era of COVID-19, but listening to this release has been both cathartic and painful. It’s a great reminder that when things get back to normal, there are great bands with great music that help make life a little more exciting but painful because we don’t know when or just how normal it will be. Overall, Distant Memories is certainly going to help me through these next several months as the weather gets colder and everyone will need to hunker down inside more than before. Heaven help us (and my wallet) because when tours resume, I might break the bank attending multiple concerts in hopes of recreating the excitement of this show. At least for the time being, Distant Memories helps keep those memories not so distant.
Bernard Romero is a history teacher by day and a music and film fanatic by night. More than once he has gone to bed well past midnight with a sore back and neck from standing and headbanging at Dream Theater shows and still made it to work at 7:30AM the following morning so London has no excuse.
Sonic Quality: A- (drums are a tad loud at times)
The tracklisting for Distant Memories – Live In London is:
1. Untethered Angel
2. A Nightmare to Remember
3. Fall Into the Light
4. Barstool Warrior
5. In the Presence of Enemies – Part 1
6. Pale Blue Dot
7. Scenes Live Intro
8. Scene One: Regression
9. Scene Two: I. Overture 1928
10. Scene Two: II. Strange Déjà Vu
11. Scene Three: I. Through My Words
12. Scene Three: II. Fatal Tragedy
13. Scene Four: Beyond This Life
14. Scene Five: Through Her Eyes
15. Scene Six: Home
16. Scene Seven: I. The Dance of Eternity
17. Scene Seven: II. One Last Time
18. Scene Eight: The Spirit Carries On
19. Scene Nine: Finally Free
20. At Wit’s End
21. Paralyzed (Bonus Track)
You can get the album in its different formats here
Band official page: https://dreamtheater.net/
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