Dream Theater at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Support:
April 18, 2017 at Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Promoter: SJM Concerts

The year is 1992. Rock radio – and MTV, at the peak of its influence – is dominated by what will be the heyday of grunge: the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind and a slew of associated bands, from Pearl Jam to Alice In Chains, via Soundgarden and innumerable others, has resulted in a tidal wave of plaid-wearing, tousle-haired rockers making earnest – perhaps too earnest – music, which is selling by the truckload. Elsewhere, the singles and albums charts are preoccupied with the explosion in popularity of House and EDM. An underground concern for years, dance culture has emerged into the daylight, rubbing its eyes and stretching its muscles as it senses, with some bewilderment that it is now considered mainstream. The UK media announces a second “Summer of Love”. Into this heavily polarised musical environment arrives a record entitled Images And Words.

The album is the second record by US progressive rock band Dream Theater. Originally formed in 1985 under the name Majesty, the band evolved through several iterations before recording their debut album, 1989’s When Dream And Day Unite, under their new moniker. Formed by a triumvirate of Berklee College of Music students, guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy, Dream Theater were immediately an anachronism, utterly out of step with the prevailing musical atmosphere of the time. Equally in thrall to the complex conceptual work of progressive rock bands like Yes and metal luminaries like Iron Maiden and Metallica, Dream Theater fused the frantic energy and driving riffing of metal and the generally more unhurried, atmospheric approach of much progressive rock to create something that today would be considered “progressive metal”. In a world where the word “progressive” was an epithet to be avoided, considered a holdover from the Bad Old Days before punk tore everything down at the end of the seventies, and metal was still living uneasily with its new-found mainstream appeal, Dream Theater were an almost uniquely unappealing proposition for furrow-browed A&R men. Their debut album, recorded on less than a shoestring and consequently less than optimal in many ways, nevertheless piqued the interest of some listeners – and, perhaps more importantly, Derek Oliver at Atco records, a subsidiary of the prestigious Atlantic label. Oliver sensed that some special alchemy was at work, and, impressed with the work ethic and big ideas of the band, signed the band to Atco, where they began work on their second album.

Despite a fractious and at times openly hostile relationship with their famously outspoken producer, David Prater, Images And Words was to be a watershed moment for the band. Sonically a lot more polished than their debut, the album also exhibited a greater confidence in terms of the writing, and instrumental prowess, too. The opening song, ‘Pull Me Under’, powered along by a huge grinding riff and a killer chorus, found its way onto radio, and before the band, Prater or Oliver knew what they had, Images And Words was a bona fide hit.

Such was the impact of Images And Words that for a generation of listeners, it came to define progressive metal. Whilst other bands had dabbled in similar waters before, there can be no question that, perhaps more than any other album before it, Images And Words cemented the genre as its own entity and did a great deal to popularize it. In the process, the album – and the band that made it – did a great deal to spearhead a new wave of progressive rock bands that were to prove instrumental in introducing the idea of progressive music to a new, younger audience, inspiring many other bands to follow in their wake.

Flash forward 25 years, and the musical landscape has changed somewhat. Grunge is essentially long dead, whilst EDM has largely returned to the sidelines having evolved into numerous different sub-genres of its own. However, whilst progressive rock bands are taken somewhat more seriously in recent times – most likely because no matter how hard they try, the media have failed to kill them off – even the big names generally live on the outskirts of the mainstream. Dream Theater, however, still have a sizeable claim to be perhaps the most successful band of their type, with Grammy nominations and a list of hugely successful albums to their name. The latest of these is their sprawling two-hour plus conceptual album The Astonishing, which was released in early 2016 to a mix of puzzlement and delight. After touring the lengthy album as a self-contained show of its own, Dream Theater have elected to revisit their most iconic record with a tour centered around the Images And Words material.

It’s a bold move. Vocalist James LaBrie is, let’s make no bones about it, 25 years older than he was when the band were recording Images And Words, and the ear-splitting high-register vocals he contributed to some of the tracks must surely be difficult for him to reproduce after all this time. Clearly, though, the other band members have all aged to the same degree – even the band’s two newer members, keyboard player Jordan Rudess who joined the band in 1999, and drummer Mike Mangini, who replaced the much-admired Mike Portnoy in 2011, neither of whom played on the original album. Images And Words is, even given Dream Theater’s fearsome reputation as highly skilled and technically gifted musicians, an incredibly difficult album to bring to the stage.

Taking the stage to a suitably grandiose intro tape, tonight the band opt to open with the blistering assault of ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ from 2007’s Systematic Chaos, a Lovecraft-themed fantasy piece that moves from grinding metal into an intense, lightning-fast instrumental section that sees every member of the band really showing off their notorious instrumental ability. It is, perhaps, a measure of Dream Theater that they open with one of their most difficult and abrasive tracks: there’s no concession for any new listeners that might have turned up tonight out of curiosity or who might not have kept up to date with what the band have been doing since Images And Words was released. As always with this band, the listener is asked to take a leap of faith and accept that they are anything but easy listening. As the cleverly designed stage lighting takes full flight, the band follow suit. By the time Rudess wanders out from behind his surprisingly sparse instrumentation – just two large keyboards and a few small pieces of equipment – with a keytar, upon which an iPad is clearly integrated, to play an eerie outro solo, whilst the remainder of the band lock into a grinding riff, the crowd are practically on their feet in delight. Years of listening to Dream Theater proudly plough their own furrow has left their fans more than willing to embrace the idea that Dream Theater are very much their own entity, a band who stubbornly refuse to do anything other than exactly what they want to do.

The band’s show tonight is divided into two sets, separated by a brief intermission. The first set is clearly designed for the hardcore fans: it’s a winning mix of recent favourites and lesser-played deep cuts that manages to showcase a variety of moods and the band’s virtuosity whilst simultaneously delighting fans with some unexpected treats, most notably the seldom-performed instrumental ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, reproduced in loving, languorous detail, and 2011’s lengthy ‘Breaking All Illusions’, which concludes the first set with such a crowd-pleasing flourish that it’s easy to imagine the crowd would be content if the show was ended here, with the song fresh in their minds. In the middle of the piece, Petrucci walks casually to centre-stage and deploys a sensational guitar solo that is as virtuosic as Steve Vai at his best and as emotive as Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and the crowd go collectively bananas.

Along the way, we are treated to a couple of tracks from The Astonishing, but no sooner does ‘The Gift Of Music’ get underway than LaBrie fumbles with and then drops his microphone. Retrieving it from the stage floor with a chagrined smile, LaBrie shrugs to his bandmates and jumps back into the lyric as though nothing had happened. He is later moved to mutter “son of a bitch”, to affectionate and sympathetic laughter from the audience. We’re also treated to a powerful ‘The Bigger Picture’, blue searchlights sweeping the stage, a blazing, defiant ‘As I Am’, back-lit with powerful strobe lights, and a brief but mesmerising tribute to legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius from the famously soft-spoken Myung as he glides his way through a faultless reading of ‘Portrait of Tracy’.

After the brief intermission, an intro tape is run that features snippets of popular songs from 1992, and we’re reminded forcibly once more just how out of step with the prevailing musical fashions Dream Theater were when they released Images And Words. As the band take the stage once more and launch into ‘Pull Me Under’, there’s a definite sense of celebration in the air. Such is the album’s reputation that even many latecomers to Dream Theater’s music were probably introduced to them via this record – and it is immediately apparent just how much this material is loved. During the first set the crowd are sometimes a little tentative in their interactions with LaBrie, but any such inhibitions vanish very quickly after a few rousing choruses of ‘Pull Me Under’, and the applause as the track grinds to an abrupt halt in time-honoured fashion is long and loud. That reaction sets the tone for the rest of the show, as Images And Words is performed in full, in its original running order.

Every member of the band is given room to shine. Petrucci has numerous show-stealing solo spots, most notably the legendarily difficult solo in ‘Under A Glass Moon’, and at the end of ‘Take The Time’. Here he spins out the outro, seamlessly working in melodies from his solo album, Suspended Animation, which earns him scattered cheers from the die-hards who are plainly familiar with the material. Petrucci acknowledges the tacit praise with a nod and a broad grin. Rudess is given space to improvise around the melodies of ballads ‘Surrounded’ and the rarely played ‘Wait For Sleep’, and flawlessly reinterprets the saxophone solo from ‘Another Day’ on keyboard, whilst Myung and Mangini comprehensively steal the show during the mind-warpingly complex instrumental section of fan favourite ‘Metropolis Pt. 1’ with virtuoso solo spots that have even clearly veteran fans laughing in delight and disbelief. As for LaBrie – in a sense, the whole second set is a showcase for the formidable larynx of the Canadian; a good chunk of it is probably right at the top of his range and frequently the lyrics are veritable tongue-twisters in their own right. Early in the set, LaBrie backs off from some of the higher-register parts in ‘Another Day’, but any question about whether he is actually still capable of delivering that end of his range is roundly answered as he powers his way through the high notes of the choruses in ‘Under A Glass Moon’ and the grand finale of ‘Learning To Live’. With such demanding material, it’s clearly in LaBrie’s interest not to go all-in on the first night of the UK leg of the tour.

The album – and thus the second set – is built around the three lynchpins of Images And Words: the opening ‘Pull Me Under’, the largely instrumental chaos of ‘Metropolis Pt. 1’ and the closing ‘Learning To Live’, and if the cheers these songs receive are particularly enthusiastic, it’s a surprise to no-one, least of all the band, who clearly relish performing these favourites – ‘Metropolis Pt. 1’ is still regularly performed even without the trappings of an anniversary tour. As ‘Learning To Live’ comes to an end under a canopy of spiralling amber lights, the audience leaps from their seats to applaud and refuse to sit down again.

In true progressive rock style, Dream Theater’s encore tonight consists of only one song – but since it’s the twenty-minute ‘A Change Of Seasons’, a song originally intended for inclusion on Images And Words but left off for reasons of length – that’s just fine as far as the audience are concerned. A fan favourite of old, ‘A Change Of Seasons’ is rarely performed these days – at least in full – because of its length, but the nostalgic nature of the evening provides the perfect excuse to dust it off. An epic tale of love, the loss of innocence and mortality, the intricate multi-part epic is delivered with assurance by the band. Its universal themes are as potent as ever, and the audience stand, rapt, as the track unfolds before them. Wreathed by turns in icy blue and blood-red light, the band deliver the song with steely intensity, an intensity matched by the audience who seem to be collectively holding their breath. It’s only once Petrucci begins the cycling riff that marks the end of the piece that the audience relax, and the cathartic finale sees more than a few moist cheeks amongst the members of the audience. The cheer that goes up at the end of the song is extraordinary, and the band remain on stage for some time, seemingly reluctant to leave. They take their bows as the applause continues, Mangini excitedly high-fiving the whole of the front row, before filing off-stage.

No band likes to be defined by one of their earliest records, least of all a progressive rock band – what’s progressive in outlook about re-living the past? Tonight’s show, however, is not that kind of empty nostalgia. Dream Theater’s set cunningly lays out the strength and variety of their more recent work, as well as appeases the hardcore fans with some rarities, before delving into the past, and the second half of the show feels more celebratory than nostalgic – a fine distinction perhaps, but this is a band who’ve never been content to rest on their laurels, despite a career that now spans four decades. Tonight, in the stylish environs of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Dream Theater have succeeded in reminding us all again just why this band has such longevity and is so beloved. For the committed fan, this tour is a treat indeed; for those who want to find out what kind of alchemy has made Images And Words – and the band that made it – so iconic and influential, it is nothing less than a masterclass in modern progressive rock.

Photo by Mark Tiplady

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