LIVE: Dream Theater @ Palace Theatre, Albany 10/12/2019
It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. But there surely can be few finer and more dedicated practitioners of this sub genre than Dream Theater. And they are all in. Long multi part songs. Long solos. Riffs so knotty they would give a sailor problems. Time signatures so tricksy that a math degree would help you figure them out. They check all of the boxes.
The band is currently on its “Distance Over Time” tour and made a stop at the Palace Theatre Albany this past weekend. The tour is named for their latest studio album which came out in February, and comprises the bulk of the first set or “act” that they perform.
The second act is given over to a complete run through of their 1999 magnum opus “Metropolis part 2 – Scenes from a Memory,” celebrating its 20th anniversary.
“Scenes” is a mammoth 77 minute rock opera / concept album with themes of hypnotic regression, reincarnation, and an unsolved murder mystery. Heavy stuff indeed. Now, like much of their material, some of this is repetitive and exhausting. But there are also many moments of thrilling virtuosity and genuine excitement as the band push themselves and the audience to the limit.
Dream Theater were formed in the mid 80’s by three Berklee School of Music students: bassist John Myung, guitarist John Petrucci and drummer Mike Portnoy. Myung and Petrucci still serve, whilst in a surprise move Portnoy, a key member up to then, quit in 2010. Vocalist James LaBrie came on board in 1991, and after some availability issues Jordan Rudess secured the keyboard chair in 1999, just in time for the “Scenes” album. Portnoy’s replacement was Mike Mangini, keeping the Berklee connection going as he gave up his professorship at the college in order to take the gig. A more direct player than Portnoy, Mangini has definitely given the band a heavier edge in recent albums, including the new effort.
LaBrie is very much in the Bruce Dickinson / Geoff Tate mode of melodramatic vocals that fit the music well, but has an interesting stage presence. Not for him, the awkward air guitar playing, headbanging or desultory tambourine shaking of your average frontman. Whenever the band launch into one of their many instrumental passages, Labrie simply ups and leaves the stage, not re-emerging until his vocals are required again. Whether he is catching up on his reading, playing three dimensional chess, or simply having a nice cup of tea, I estimate that the singer is on stage for less than half of the performance.
There is no such respite for his bandmates; they plough on through this demanding material with steely determination. Myung is like Geezer Butler on steroids, constantly churning the bottom end, accompanied by Mangini’s relentless fusillade of explosive percussion.
Petrucci alternates between scalding rhythm and soaring leads with breathtaking speed, and Rudess is a revelation on keyboards. Conjuring a vast array of sounds from his giant synthesizer, he peels off solos of incredible dexterity, somehow squeezing the notes into the dense jungle of riffage that the rest of the band create.
The show is a punishing 3 hours (including a 20 minute break between acts) and the less than capacity but partisan crowd is totally won over by the intensity on display as the band find the energy to barrel through their encore.
If watching Joe Satriani and Chick Corea jam with Metallica at a hundred miles an hour turned up to eleven is your idea of a good time, then Dream Theater just might be the band for you. Subtle it ain’t, but mightily impressive all the same.