Monday, 24 April 2017

Dream Theater - Cardiff Review

In the progressive metal world, there is no bigger name than Dream Theater. While the genre was pioneered by Fates Warning and Queensrÿche throughout the 1980s, it was Dream Theater that really took the genre and ran with it. With a sound that mixed the best parts of Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, Iron Maiden, and Metallica all together in a big melting pot, and knack for a catchy melody, Dream Theater became a big name in the metal world and are still one of the big hitters in the genres today. While the band's debut album, When Dream and Day Unite, failed to really make an impact when it was released in 1989, their second album Images and Words proved to be a real breakthrough. It was the first Dream Theater album to feature frontman James LaBrie and really showcases the band's signature combination of technical, progressive songwriting and a strong sense of melody. The album remains the band's most commercially successful work, and the song Pull me Under became a radio hit in America which really helped the album (and band) take off. It is a very important album in the band's canan and, as a result, it is a real fan favourite. This years marks the album's 25th anniversary, so the band decided to make this occasion with a tour celebrating this fact and playing the album in full. Dream Theater shows are always a 'must' so when a few UK shows were added into the greater European shows I jumped at the chance for tickets. The show in Cardiff seemed to be the most obvious option being a Saturday and the fact that the Motorpoint Arena is a good place to watch live music. The show was all-seated, and only about half of the large arena was used with a large screen erected halfway back from the stage. Dream Theater always seem to be caught between the larger theatre-type venues and arenas, but the larger venues definitely really suit their sound. Despite this reduced space, there were still quite a few empty seats visible about 10 minutes before the band took to the stage. While there were still plenty of people in attendance, and clearly quite a few more filed in as the lights went down, the turn out still could have been better considering this was a Saturday night in a big city. As seems to be the norm with Dream Theater shows these days there was no support act, with the band hitting the stage at 8pm exactly and, apart from a 20 minute interval, played straight through until 11pm!

The show was split into two parts. Images and Words filled up the second half of the night, and the band took the first hour or so on stage to showcase some newer material and some songs that have not been played live for a while. Ominous, gothic intro music filled the arena as the lights went down and the band hit the stage and immediately went into The Dark Eternal Night from 2007's Systematic Chaos. This is a heavy, riff-driven number with one of the band's most energetic and technical instrumental breakdowns, and it was clear from this opening number that the band were really up for the show! From John Petrucci's (guitar/vocals) opening riff to Jordan Rudess' (keyboards) synthy ending, the song was the perfect opening number for a diverse evening of music. LaBrie waltzed around the stage in his usual floaty style and spat out the words of the heavy song with ease. The Bigger Picture followed and the more overtly-melodic number, with lots of excellent piano breaks, was a great contrast to the aural assault of the previous song. The atmospheric instrumental Hell's Kitchen seemed to come a bit early in the set, but again provided another change of pace. Two from last year's rock opera The Astonishing followed with the melodic single The Gift of Music standing out the most and saw LaBrie really taking flight vocally. LaBrie has often come under a lot of criticism throughout his career, but I have always loved his voice. This performance probably was not the most refined I have seen him, but the slightly gritter edge his voice seemed to have really helped add to the energy of the evening. I have always thought of him as a slightly awkward frontman, but he seemed to be in his element in Cardiff and took time to tell stories between songs and just seemed to really be enjoying himself up there. John Myung (bass guitar) got a chance to show off some unorthodox bass playing during a rendition of Jaco Pistorius' Portrait of Tracy, before the band came back and exploded into As I Am. This received the biggest cheer of the night so far and saw LaBrie hold out the microphone for the crowd to sing during the choruses. 2003's Train of Thought is easily the band's heaviest album overall, so it seemed fitting that As I Am should tonight also include the first verse and chorus of Metallica's Enter Sandman. When played back to back, you can see just how much of an impact the riffs of Metallica have had on Dream Theater over the years, and it was great of them to pay tribute to the influence this way. This first portion of the set came to a close with Breaking All Illusions, which is a real modern classic and one of my favourite Dream Theater songs. The lengthy song really showcases the band at their epic best with a keyboard-heavy arrangement, gorgeous vocal melodies, and one of my favourite Petrucci guitar solos. It was the perfect way to end the first half of the show, and it rightly received a standing ovation as it finished and the band temporarily left the stage.

Dream Theater are a band that does not often indulge in nostalgia, but it seems even they could not resist the call to tour Images and Words in full to celebrate the album's 25th anniversary. It remains one of the most instantly accessible of the band's albums, and it worked well being played in full live. It was not played exactly note-for-note as on the album, with many songs being extended somewhat for additional soloing. Another Day featured a lengthy keyboard outro, Take the Time was extended to feature part of Petrucci's solo number Glasgow Kiss, and Metropolis - Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper had an explosive drum solo from Mike Mangini spliced into the middle of it. The changes all helped to enhance the live show and added to the excitement. The single Pull me Under received a huge cheer as a expected, but it was Another Day that was an early highlight for me. Rudess played the saxophone parts on the keyboard and LaBrie's breathy vocals were perfect. It has always been one of my favourite Dream Theater 'ballads' and it was great to finally hear it live. The edge Take the Time was another standout moment, with all four instrumentalists really playing at the top of their game here. This was one of the songs that really established early on the band's technical credentials, and remains one of their most fun workouts. Surrounded is probably my least favourite song on the album, but the floaty song came over well live with LaBrie again delivering another excellent performance. Another song I had been wanting to hear live for a long time was the aforementioned Metropolis - Part 1 and it did not disappoint. While it seemed strange at first to break the song up with a drum solo, it actually worked well when the band launched back into the instrumental part of the song with new-found energy of the back of Mangini's acrobatics. The real highlight of the second half of the show for me however was Under a Glass Moon which remains one of my all-time favourite Dream Theater songs. It features one of my favourite LaBrie vocal performances, and the guitar solo from Petrucci just really sums up his immense talent and style perfectly. The delicate piano ballad Wait for Sleep was really lovely, and the main set came to an end with a monstrous version of Learning to Live, which was probably the band's first true epic. This was a song for Rudess to really shine, and his keyboard playing throughout was exemplary. This is the song on the album that took the longest time to click with me, and for a while I was not really that fond of it, but now I love it and it was great to hear it live again. As the final notes of Learning to Live rang around the Motorpoint Arena the band received another well-deserved standing ovation. There was of course time for more and the crowd was treated to a rare outing of the 25 minute epic A Change of Seasons in full as the encore. This was initially intended to be part of Images and Words a double album but the record company, probably wisely, vetoed this and the song was released as on a stand-alone EP three years later. I must admit that it has never been my favourite Dream Theater song, but hearing it live certainly made me sit up and take notice of it much more than I had previously. The technical riffs and the gorgeous vocals make the song a classic Dream Theater moment, and it received yet another standing ovation as it finished! The setlist was:

The Dark Eternal Night
The Bigger Picture
Hell's Kitchen
The Gift of Music
Our New World
Portrait of Tracy [Jaco Pistorius cover]
As I Am/Enter Sandman [Metallica cover]
Breaking All Illusions
Pull me Under
Another Day
Take the Time/Glasgow Kiss [John Petrucci solo material]
Metropolis - Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper
Under a Glass Moon
Wait for Sleep
Learning to Live
A Change of Seasons

Overall this really was a stunning evening of live music with one of the best and most creative metal bands out there touring today. While these anniversary-type tours leave little room for setlist surprises, the thrill of hearing a classic album being played in full live more than makes up for it. Images and Words is a well-loved entry in the Dream Theater canon so getting to hear it live in full and celebrate it's 25 anniversary with the band was a special moment.

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