Dream Theater have always been pretty forward about looking backwards. Back in 2004, when the band played this venue on the second date of the Train Of Thought world tour, the evening’s entertainment opened with a short film briefly celebrating their previous releases. As each album flashed up onscreen, a roar of recognition and unfettered approval went up from an audience that were already giddy with excitement.
Tonight it’s slightly different, but the past is still acclaimed: it’s the 25th anniversary of the landmark Images And Words album, and the devoted hordes have descended once again, to worship at the feet of a band whose music is celebrated almost as much their ability to play it. And as the intro tape – Two Steps From Hell’s dramatic march The Colonel – echoes around the hall, it’s clear this is serious business. It’s the kind of music rugby league teams use to usher themselves onto the field of play in order to ramp up the atmosphere and steel themselves for battle.
Things settle down a little after this triumphant introduction. Jordan Rudess looks relaxed at his keyboard – which pivots and tilts and swings around in circles – piloting his instrument with all the unconcerned assurance of a Trent Bridge groundsman steering the heavy roller on the first morning of a Test. But not all is well. The mix is initially muddy, and James LaBrie’s voice sounds shrill and almost aggressively flat. This remains an issue throughout, but the overall sound gradually improves as the band kick off the entertainment with something of a greatest hits set. The Dark Eternal Night, The Bigger Picture, Hell’s Kitchen, The Gift Of Music and Our New World all pass by in a whirl of bewildering dexterity. When Malcolm Gladwell espoused his 10,000 hours theory, it’s this kind of end result he had in mind: hours of tortured practice leading to levels of skill simply not available to other, less driven mortals. And when James Myung and John Petrucci are locked together in ferocious bass/guitar unison, perfectly mirroring each other’s playing, it’s almost worth the price of admission by itself. Myung ups the ante further by playing a precision-tooled version of Jaco Pastorius’ harmonic-driven masterpiece Portrait Of Tracy as a tribute to the dear, departed virtuoso.
So far, so well-oiled. For all the complexity on show, the experience is akin to visiting a bakery to inspect a brilliantly designed, mind-bogglingly clever machine that pumps out perfectly formed yet somewhat bland biscuits. The evening needs an emotional lift, and it’s provided by a rousing As I Am, its thudding riff segueing into a short cover of Metallica’s Enter Sandman, and for the first time the audience feel like participants rather than rubberneckers.
The second half, devoted to tracks from Images And Words, is much more inspired. It all starts with the sound of a radio scanning across the frequencies as if in 1992, picking out short highlights of popular radio hits from the year: Pearl Jam’s Even Flow and Alive, The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love, Nirvana’s Come As You Are, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under The Bridge, and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ode to the delights of the hefty posterior, Baby Got Back (I Like Big Butts). This collage serves the purpose of showing exactly how unlikely Dream Theater’s own college hit was, and that song – the beseeching epic Pull Me Under – starts the second half proper, and moves the show into another gear. A soaring Another Day maintains the momentum, before LaBrie picks out journalist Derek Oliver in the audience, humbly thanking him for his role in the band’s early success (Oliver played a key role in getting them their record deal with Atco).
The band are flying now, and Another Day, Take The Time and Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle And The Sleeper offer Rudess, Petrucci and drummer Mike Mangini the chance to shine individually. LaBrie spends so long offstage during these extended instrumental passages that one return actually prompts Prog to briefly wonder if the singer has done something with his hair while away. He hasn’t. But he does tell a good story about a rice cooker and toasting the band’s early success with champagne provided by Mike Portnoy’s dad.
Learning To Live provides an effervescent finish, before the band return with a 23-minute romp through the seven movements that make up A Change Of Seasons, a piece originally slated for inclusion on Images And Words but eventually released in its own right.
It’s everything that Dream Theater are: overblown, ridiculous, ambitious, confounding, exultant, stunningly skilled and utterly, utterly unique.