Warner Theater, Washington DC, USA
Sunday, 6th March 2022
It was pretty surreal to be at the Warner Theater at 7:30pm on a Sunday; it was my first concert since the pandemic began two years ago, and for the longest time it had felt like we’d never be seeing live performances again. This concert itself had been postponed from November last year – as an aside, I bought a Yes concert ticket back in 2019 for a concert in 2020 that still hasn’t taken place!
I still don’t think I’ll ever get used to being around a lot of Dream Theater fans – or, in general, a lot of prog fans of any description. Discussing the music online has been ok. Finding the occasional friend to chat about Dream Theater is refreshing. But something about being surrounded by people who are, on the whole, even more mad about that particular band than you are is somewhat off-putting.
Once again, I was at the venue by myself; it’s rare that I ever have a friend to go with, prog being the niche genre that it is. Around me, I saw mostly men, some women; some men had their girlfriends with them, and some even had their children with them. What a grand thing to introduce the power of Petrucci’s solos to your child at such a young age! Behind my seat, I overheard some fans discussing the signed copy of the new A View From the Top of the World album on vinyl they had just purchased (for $125). They were trying to decipher whose signatures were whose.
I considered talking to someone in the neighbouring seat just to have some company. I really strongly considered it. And then I overheard “I think he first played on Scenes from a Memory…” I deduced they were talking about Jordan Rudess. And I sighed, thinking, “What’s the point?” What’s the point of having a banal conversation about Dream Theater? It would almost certainly devolve into a dick-swinging competition of “How many concerts have you been to?”, “How much do you know about the band?”, “Do you have all their albums?”. Or even worse, you try to justify which song is better than which. Moreover, as a Brit residing in the States, I wanted to treat others as I myself would want to be treated: by not being spoken to by a stranger. So I simply stared dejectedly at my phone as I waited for the show to begin.
Up first was Arch Echo, who began promptly at 8pm. Not wanting to be caught off guard, I had done some research on the instrumental group, mainly by perusing their setlist beforehand. The young group’s technical skills were impeccable. In terms of notes per second, this band was certainly top decile. And the music itself was filled with bright major chords, quite irregular for a prog metal band.
But… something was missing. It took quite a bit of head scratching to figure out what it was. It’s always hard to diagnose why you do like some music but not others; occasionally, the very things you like about one band are the same things you dislike about another. I realised quickly that I simply didn’t care that the band were technically accomplished; bands with pyrotechnic skills on their instruments are a dime a dozen these days.
Moreover, every song on their setlist was too busy, as if they’d tried to cram every moment with as many notes as possible (on every instrument). You’re not really sure where to focus and it all goes by too fast. Some soaring guitar solos sounded like they would have been really good slowed down; if you can’t even play your song at the best speed for it to be enjoyed, you may have to go back to Songwriting 101.
And there was simply nothing ‘cool’ about any of it, no interesting rhythms (just difficult-sounding, complex ones), no interesting timbres, no memorable hooks, nothing that made me want to come back for more. Just masses and masses of notes to sift through. A little restraint would go a long way, if they could slow things down more often and use their technical flashery more sparingly. You can have too much of a good thing. It dawned on me while listening to their music that this must be what prog sounds like to people who don’t like prog.
But I was looking forward to their live performance; it would at least be a spectacle to witness these gifted musicians play with such virtuosity, and indeed it was. Unhampered by the departure of their regular drummer (who was awaiting the birth of his son), I was surprised to find that their back-up drummer seemed to keep things more simple than I had witnessed in the band’s music videos. I actually appreciated tracks like To the Moon and Red Letter even more when I could follow the rhythm clearly.
However, it did little to take away from the dense musical soup that was Arch Echo’s music. After opening with my two favourite numbers, the anthemic To the Moon and Strut, the only piece of their set where they did slow it down for a bit, I felt like I was counting the minutes to the end of their set. There were five musicians on stage, but I could only hear the drums, keyboards and lead guitarist; the bassist and other guitarist were simply lost in the mix, which is a damn shame because I love a good bassline.
SETLIST – Arch Echo
To the Moon
After a refreshment break, the main act began with a projected video onto the textured screen at the stage rear. The two-minute video depicted a coin-operated binocular swivelling and viewing various Dream Theater-related surreal images, to tie into the theme of A View from the Top of the World.
The random images were interspersed with certain Dream Theater album covers; only some of them, not all. I was curious as to why, for example, they would show the Awake cover but not Images and Words, arguably their most well-known album. It turned out that this display of albums was actually a bit of a spoiler for the setlist: each of the covers that were shown (despite AVFTTOTW, naturally) corresponded to exactly one track in the setlist. So if your favourite track was on Scenes from a Memory, for example, too bad, so sad, because the video at the beginning already ruled it out. Even though, intellectually, I was aware that the band most likely played the same set every night, it was disheartening to have that truth spelled out from the very beginning.
Indeed, even the album cover for the encore – Black Clouds and Silver Linings – was shown, which meant that people had a one in six chance of guessing what that encore would be. An encore should feel like a special, not guaranteed, unexpected treat, and I am still salty about the time that the band used the final song of their concept album The Astonishing as their encore, as if the audience are supposed to believe that they would play 33 out of 34 songs from their latest album in order and just skip the last one.
As the introductory video wound to a close, the band stepped on stage, sans singer James LaBrie, and immediately erupted into The Alien, the perfunctory number that served to reintroduce DT fans all over the world to their favourite band last year. When the single originally came out, I don’t think anyone was expecting The Alien to be as good as it was, a deft balance of breakneck metal and soaring prog with some kickass hooks to boot. As predictable as it was, it made perfect sense that this would be the concert opener, the hype track to the concert as it was to the album.
And boy, did it pack a punch live. Immediately, the pre-concert angst I was feeling was swept away as I became one with the pulsating rhythms and intricate time signatures. For the first time since the pandemic began, I felt that adrenaline rush over and over again, as I experienced live music once again. It was the same Dream Theater magic that I knew and loved.
But with such a strong opener, it was difficult to predict where the band would go next. In my eyes, their second choice of the night was perfect, not too obvious but still an old, familiar, beloved classic. As soon as Mike Mangini executed that signature drum roll – flawlessly, I might add – the theatre erupted in recognition. It was, of course, 6:00 from Awake, a funky classic that was to serve as the only pre-2000 song in the setlist.
Indeed, it was interesting to see Dream Theater abandon their roots so completely and focus mainly on their middle-era, the ’00s (interspersed, of course, with selections from the new album). It made me realise just how strong their back catalogue really is, that they didn’t need to hark back to their oldest songs (as a lot of 40-year-old bands will do) to keep the audience entertained; that they had the confidence to leave Pull Me Under, Metropolis and even Scenes from a Memory behind, to deliver quite the eclectic set. Truly, I think the band could have played any random ten songs from their back catalogue (minus The Astonishing) and the audience would have been happy.
Back to the present, the band decided to deliver another new fan favourite, Awaken the Master. Aside from The Alien and the title track, this is the song that got the most buzz online, primarily due to Petrucci’s new 8-string guitar sound. It’s been one thing to hear Petrucci play, but it’s another thing entirely to see him play it. I gasped when I noticed that no one else was playing during the intro; how could one instrument alone make such a glorious racket?
Dream Theater was my introduction to progressive music, but for about 12 months between 2008 and 2009, they were the only band I would listen to. I used to eat, sleep and breathe Dream Theater. I could identify a song by only its track length. So it was surreal to me when the next song started, and I could not identify it whatsoever. I knew that it was a song I liked, it sounded like Train of Thought but it was a slow number… no, not Vacant… dang what is this track? I’m going to kick myself when they get to the chorus…
Oh yes, Endless Sacrifice, the band’s heartfelt message to their families acknowledging their pain when they are gone for months on end on tour. I don’t think I had listened to that song in maybe 10 years or more. At some point, Dream Theater dropped off the radar for me as I discovered so many gems from the past, and I even felt ‘done’ with them as their new music simply wasn’t stacking up to their old stuff. So it was enjoyable to be reminded of a classic that I had forgotten about, and I even found myself singing along to the chorus, and attempting the high pitch “Iso-LA-ted” when LaBrie wouldn’t, presumably to save his voice. The experience of rediscovering a song you love by having the band you love actually play it to you live was transcendental.
And then… BWWOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAHHH… Oh god it’s THAT one, that one with the tribal vocal groans at the beginning of it that I hate from A Dramatic Turn of Events. I don’t remember the name of it, but I know I don’t like it. Maybe it’s not as bad as all that? Maybe my opinion will have changed now?
As the song started, I felt indifferent, even though the band were still playing their signature brand of technical instrumental music. None of it felt familiar to me until that chorus kicked in. That was familiar, the swinging triplet feel chorus that just felt so out of place with the rest of the song, and the cringey lyrics, “May healing waters bury all my pain”. How can you bury anything in water? And it took until the second chorus for me to remember the song’s name, Bridges in the Sky. I know a lot of fans like this one; I do not. The tribal, mystical element simply doesn’t vibe with me and I don’t like the chorus at all. I realised that the reason I never put on A Dramatic Turn of Events after it first came out is because of this song, because I actually quite like the rest. I guess it would be too much to expect to love every song on the setlist.
And speaking of a song I really hoped they wouldn’t play, but expected that they would; the second single from AVFTTOTW, Invisible Monster, was up next. It’s not a bad song by any means, but I don’t find it exciting at all. As I said in my review of the album, this feels like simply the next in a long line of less progressive singles that the band seems to be contractually obligated to put out each album. Even the fun Haken-esque thing they do in the second verse failed to sway me this time. Yawn.
But that was ok, because those were the only two duds in a night of gems. As Invisible Monster closed, Rudess kept the song artificially going with a piano outro that quickly transitioned into a very familiar piano intro. Yes, it was About to Crash, the first part of the band’s 42-minute epic Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (if you discount the naff Overture). What an odd, unexpected choice! But a great one nonetheless. The story of a girl falling into catatonic depression was rendered all the more heart-wrenching by the band’s passionate performance. I had to admit, I felt a little giddy at the unrealistic prospect that they might actually play the entire Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence suite following this song…
But alas, it was not to be… Because something even better happened. Without even pausing, the band went straight into The Ministry of Lost Souls. The crowd lost their minds when the realisation set in that the band were giving us this 15-minute epic, quite out of the blue; that feeling that the next quarter-hour is suddenly accounted for in the best possible way is extraordinary. Despite all the clues that the intro video had given us about the songs that were to be played, I don’t think anyone would have predicted Ministry…, a track that seems often overlooked by fans. How the band landed on any of these songs for their setlist made little sense to me, but it was a joy nonetheless to hear one of my personal favourites that I never expected to hear live (and one that I had put on just two days earlier as part of a “warm up playlist” to prepare for the concert), played before my very eyes. I let myself sink into the storytelling and allowed myself to really feel the lyrics for the first time as I sang along with LaBrie.
It’s here that I’ll say that, while I had mainly enjoyed the selections that the band had chosen – and didn’t begrudge them choosing two songs that other people probably enjoyed – I was a tad disappointed they hadn’t done anything more interesting with their songs. There were very few embellishments, and the couple of times I did notice the band hold on a note were so that Rudess could switch to his keytar. I was hoping for an extended jam, a cover version, a cover within an extended jam, a medley… just something that was different from the album versions of all these songs. But we didn’t get that, not this night. Maybe some other time. In the end, this wasn’t too big a problem as the setlist itself was phenomenal.
By now, the band had played eight songs, five of which were around the ten-minute mark or longer, and we still hadn’t gotten to “the reason we’re all here” as another fan behind me put it. It’s safe to say that everyone in that room was anticipating the 20-minute suite A View from the Top of the World, and it was only a matter of time before the band were going to oblige.
It was interesting to contrast Ministry of Lost Souls, a well thought out, cohesive 15-minute epic, to View, a suite that feels more like a jumble of ideas tied together by string. Despite being five minutes longer, View seemed to go by much faster than Ministry. Seeing View played live did little to increase my feelings for it, but it was still a fun 20 minutes.
And then the show was over. But we all knew it wasn’t. Not really. The more astute audience members would remember that Black Clouds and Silver Linings had not yet been represented; I was not one of those members, so I was totally flabbergasted when the guitar introduction for The Count of Tuscany began.
Another 19 minutes!? Yes, please! I was reminded of how generous Dream Theater had been with their encore for the last concert I had attended, where they played the full A Change of Seasons. At this point, the band have quite a sizable selection of epics that they can draw from to make fans extra happy.
But Count goes beyond that for the fans. Because of its ever-so-hard-to-take-seriously lyrics, ostensibly about a real-life encounter Petrucci had with an actual Italian count where he got a bit creeped out, it has become a meme song that unites the fanbase. “Let me introduce”, will say one fan. “My brøthër”, will reply another. The combination of daft lyrics and truly epic composition makes for an utterly entertaining journey.
As always, the music was executed flawlessly. Having not seen the song played live before, I gained a new respect for the ambient guitar solo section, which never felt like much on the album but was a spellbinding dance between Rudess and Petrucci in a live setting. Even though they play the same thing every night, they still managed to turn it into a real show, with Rudess making exaggerated movements for the three notes he has to play every chord.
As the song draws to a close, the Petrucci character asks if he’s about to die, to which the Count replies “Lol, no. It’s literally some wine and my historian brother. What about that situation is threatening to you? Tell you what, why don’t you turn this whole saga into one of your songs and GTFO my house?” Trusting the audience’s ability to sing along and remember the notes, LaBrie conducted us all in the “Whoooaaaa whoaaaaoooaaah” section of the outro, giving us all an ‘ace’ signal when we hit the high note. It definitely made that encore just a bit more special and personal.
As the band concluded and bowed to the audience, I reflected on what had been a phenomenal night of music. I had bought my ticket to witness the band playing tracks from the best album they had made in over a decade but I’d come away with so much more. By avoiding tracks that long time fans would have probably seen dozens of times, the band had created a truly unpredictable and eclectic yet rewarding set. Moreover, they’d managed to hit some of my absolute favourites along the way. While I had hoped for a bit more ingenuity and innovation from a live set – every song was pretty much played the same as the album version – this concert proved that the band still have a lot of great years of touring ahead of them.
SETLIST – Dream Theater
Awaken the Master
Bridges in the Sky
About to Crash
The Ministry of Lost Souls
A View from the Top of the World
The Count of Tuscany