The use of disproportionate force, effort or expense to make one’s point is often referred to as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Should that be true, then what Dream Theater have done with their latest album The Astonishing might be described as deploying a nuclear warhead to open a family-sized packet of cheese and onion crisps.
There was no reason for them to have given birth to something so staggeringly overblown as a 34-song concept-based double album based upon what its biography calls a “retro-futurist post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by medieval-style feudalism” – except for the fact that they could.
During the build-up to its release, the band were roundly mocked – in some instances by their own fans – for the unapologetic scale and nature of The Astonishing. But hearing the music caused the lion’s share of those same doubters to eat their own words, and tonight the Palladium’s 2,286 seats are sold out for the first of two shows, excitement filling the air for the album’s worldwide onstage premiere. With its ornate decor and olde worlde atmosphere, this is the perfect venue for an occasion of such importance and gravitas. A sole gripe is the staff inside the auditorium constantly repeating the mantra of “No photos! No photos!” International Rescue-style.
Divided into two acts separated by a brief interval, the show’s beginning is superb. The eerie, mechanical introduction Descent Of The NOMACS clanks forth as the four instrumental players take their places for a crisply despatched Dystopian Overture, and when James LaBrie finally appears after eight minutes, the storytelling is ready to commence. A night at the prog metal opera begins.
Alternating his voice to portray multiple characters, LaBrie’s contribution tonight is nothing less than pivotal. The Canadian has had his knockers in the past, but speaking as someone who saw the group on each of their previous British tours, this show’s demanding nature brings out the best in the 52-year-old – he’s never sung so impressively before.
Dream Theater resist the temptation to tell their story using actors and actresses, or even a formal narrator – LaBrie does that as well. There are no additional bodies onstage. Nor are there additional players. Instead the orchestral and choral parts are sampled from the album, along with the stomping feet of soldiers, squawking birds, a brass band, the tolling of bells and those excruciating bagpipes. Behind the group, the computer-generated faces of Gabriel, Emperor Nafaryus, Arhys, Faythe and the rest flash up on the screens, alongside the music. They’re not exactly lifelike, but nobody seems to care – it really is all about the music.
Despite playing a reduced kit, Mike Mangini keeps time brilliantly, while Jordan Rudess’ revolving keys set-up now takes the form of a small Viking longboat. And should you fail to fully understand the complexities of plot? Well, you ain’t alone. It’s 2112 with Game Of Thrones and Stars Wars thrown in – that’ll suffice. What you do need to know is that The Astonishing downplays the heavy metal side of the group’s oeuvre in favour of something softer, deeper and more absorbing. Although Act One houses most of the night’s best tunes, the staging during the show’s second half is mesmerising, and the time simply flies by.
Three songs from the end, fans begin to stand up during the uplifting Our New World. Around them, others follow suit, and of course the mobile phones come out. Somehow, though, it seems appropriate. It feels like a rock show. And when final chords of the closing song, Astonishing, evaporate, a lengthy list of credits rolls behind Dream Theater, and the night takes an additional twist – now it feels like we’re at the cinema. A couple of issues back, DT told Prog of a desire to make a movie version of the album. Don’t rule it out.
The Astonishing is, of course, exactly the sort of project that Mike Portnoy would have sunk his teeth into, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that the drummer, now out of the group for six years, recently restated a desire to play with them again at some point in the future.
But right now, Dream Theater really don’t need him. You can only applaud them for the sense of ambition they display tonight, as well as their skill in bringing that vision to such a perfectly formed reality. This is bewilderingly, brain‑bogglingly brilliant.