Legendary Metal Virtuosos Dream Theater Celebrate a Classic at the Chicago Theatre
By Alexander Kloss
My history with Dream Theater has been tumultuous to say the least. I was first introduced to the band through playing what is arguably their most famous song, “Pull Me Under,” on Guitar Hero in 2008. This experience in large part inspired me to pick up an actual guitar shortly afterwards. Since then, Dream Theater has always followed me in one way or another. I borrowed Black Clouds & Silver Linings from my local library shortly after it came out in 2009 and listened to it on repeat. From there on, I dove deeper into their discography, ripping through essentially their entire catalogue all the way back to their 1989 debut album When Dream and Day Unite.
In 2012, Dream Theater toured and scheduled a gig in Berlin along their international route. Being the only city on the list even remotely close to my hometown, 14-year-old me was determined to make it to their show, but my plan to attend the concert fell through rather quickly. This specific tour was notable because it was the first to replace founding member and drum legend Mike Portnoy, who is commonly considered as one of the greatest drummers alive, with Mike Mangini, another drum star famed for his speed. While the change doesn’t seem like much, it was a huge deal at the time—many fans revolted when hearing that one of the creative leaders of the band would go. I too felt a bit disheartened.
Following the events of that year, I took a hiatus from Dream Theater myself. I hardly listened to their last couple of albums and even turned down an opportunity to see them in 2016. It is really only after Distance over Time came out this February that I started to get into their music once again.
In a way, you could say that finally seeing Dream Theater at the Chicago Theater last month was my very own rediscovery of both their oeuvre and a lost era of my life. Their current tour is a special one because it is part commemoration and part album promotion. The first half of the set is mainly filled with new songs, though interspersed with the occasional classic from earlier albums (most notably “A Nightmare to Remember” right after their opener “Untethered Angel” from the new LP). The second, and larger, half of the show consists of a performance of the entire 1999 album Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory as a tribute to its 20th anniversary.
Being a concept album (an album centered around a common storyline or theme), Scenes from a Memory naturally lends itself to such a wholistic staging. Over the course of nearly an hour and a half, the five musicians lead their audience through a story centered on the protagonist, Nicholas, who is undergoing past life regression therapy. As hammering double basses and prog guitar riffs lead from one piece into the next, the story of Nicholas’ former-life alter ego Victoria slowly unravels, revealing more and more details about her harrowing murder.
To hardly anyone’s surprise, each of Dream Theater’s members performed at their best all throughout: every solo was crisp, every cymbal perfectly timed, and every lyrical interjection spot-on. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess and guitarist John Petrucci both have large individual followings on social media, and regularly tour solo or with different side projects. But even aside from that, every band member has been able to use the group as a vehicle to showcase utmost virtuosity on their given instrument. As such, bassist John Myung, singer James LaBrie, and the aforementioned Mike Mangini are also seen as some of the biggest stars and staples in the current metal scene. Having all of them together feels like listening to a supergroup à la Cream or ELP, even though none of Dream Theater’s musicians were famous before the band’s formation.
Scattered throughout the show were neat little thematic accents. For example, LaBrie used two different mic stands, one with with a skull finish based off the new album’s cover art, the other with an infinity sign that refers to Scenes from a Memory. Additionally, a giant screen at the far end of the stage projected animated scenes during songs. During the ballad “Through Her Eyes,” for example, Nicholas visits the graveyard where Victoria is buried. And as LaBrie crooned “Just beyond the churchyard gates/Where the grass is overgrown/I saw the writing on her stone/I felt like I would suffocate,” the names of recently deceased rock icons such as David Bowie and Chris Cornell flashed across the scene—but also Randy Rhoads, one of Petrucci’s biggest influences who died in a plane crash at age 25 in 1982.
Without a doubt, the concert was an emotional rollercoaster: the aforementioned graveyard scene definitely marked a low, while the whipping drum beats and driving guitar and keyboard sections contributed to the highs that dominated the evening. A personal highlight was the instrumental “Dance of Eternity,” known for its baffling complexity, frequently changing time signatures, and ridiculous solos by all band members that are virtually impossible to replicate as a whole. Another favorite of mine was witnessing “A Nightmare to Remember” in person, as it is is the second Dream Theater song I ever heard and because it remains a top pick in my personal song selection to this day. The concert culminated, both musically and plotwise, in a grand 12-minute musical finale, which built up from a lyrical ballad all the way to a grandiose metal suite before fading into static.
Scenes from a Memory ends as it began: with a plea to open one’s eyes. Finally seeing Dream Theater live, after all these years and two failed attempts, was an eye-opening experience in many ways. Eye-opening regarding the level of craftsmanship rock musicians can achieve, but also eye-opening to witness that Dream Theater has entered an entirely different era compared to the one in which I first discovered and grew up with them. While their new content is certainly enjoyable, something about the band unmistakably changed after Portnoy’s departure. He had something, perhaps intangible, that Mangini lacks, even if it might just be his bold demeanor or how he presents himself. There’s no question that Mangini would never drum Slayer and especially not his own solos on a Hello Kitty kit. It might be the stupid little subtleties, but sometimes it is exactly these nuances that shape our preferences the most.
At the end of the day, that’s only my two cents. The band put on a great show, and left a packed Chicago Theatre on a stunning note: “Pull Me Under” was their encore song of choice. And thus the story comes full circle: my first (and favorite) Dream Theater song is the last one I would hear them play live—how befitting! Even though LaBrie wasn’t quite on point for the high entrance of the second verse, it was a rock-solid performance overall that let everyone leave with a smile. The magnificent five took a band photo and waved at some fans before they finally packed their things, but not until Rudess and Petrucci finished taking pictures with the audience. Because no band tour is perfect without some good old self-promotion. But who can really blame them after playing their hearts out for almost three hours? To say it in their own words, I was glad to be along for the ride.