Dream Theater: Chaos in Motion 2007/2008

Dream Theater

Ever since 2003’s Train of Thought album, progressive rock kings Dream Theater have been remarkably consistent with their releases. They put out a new album every two years and release a DVD document of the ensuing tour in the intervening years. But with the new Chaos in Motion 2007/2008 DVD, this pattern officially becomes like clockwork.

This is a solid 2-DVD set, but it’s also the first video release from the band to feel like business as usual. 2004’s Live at Budokan felt special because it was a document of the band playing a show in Tokyo’s legendary sumo arena, the site of several other famous live albums. And 2006’s Score not only featured the band playing a set with a full orchestra, but the second disc included an exhaustive 90-minute video covering the band’s 20-year history.

Chaos in Motion chronicles the band’s world tour from the summer of 2007 through June of 2008, culling individual performances from a variety of locations to create a three-hour show on disc one. Disc two is another 90-minute documentary, this time highlighting all of the behind-the-scenes activity that goes into putting on a Dream Theater show.

To drummer (and creative director) Mike Portnoy’s credit, Chaos in Motion may feel like business as usual, but he makes a valid attempt to keep things fresh. Portnoy is the band member who puts the setlists together on the road and has the most creative input into all of the other aspects of the live show, such as lighting and video projection. While the band’s previous three DVDs were all documents of single performances, this release is the first to pick and choose songs from multiple shows over the course of a tour. The end result is 14 songs from six different venues, interspersed with interview footage throughout the three-hour running time.

Although the DVD naturally focuses on new material from the band’s 2007 album, Systematic Chaos, the remainder of the performances here are of older songs that are making their first appearance on a live DVD. And while there has been plenty of “on the road” interaction with the band on earlier DVDs, Chaos in Motion is the first time Portnoy and his camera crew have spent any significant time talking to the band’s support crew about what they do from day to day on tour.

So Dream Theater deserves credit for going the extra mile. The two discs here are loaded with content, and new label Roadrunner Records is all too happy to indulge the band’s diehard fans. They put out a Special Edition of Systematic Chaos last year that included a 90-minute “making of” DVD chronicling the recording of the album. And they’re releasing a five-disc edition of Chaos in Motion that contains the DVD performance on three compact discs. It’s all a nice effort.

But there are problems on each of the two discs here. For Dream Theater fans who have the previous DVDs and have seen the band in concert multiple times, it’s all beginning to run together. The band is incredibly skilled on a technical level, and it’s a marvel to see them play their complex, epic-length compositions live. But they really aren’t the most dynamic performers onstage. There’s very little room for real improvisation in the band’s live sets, and the music itself often seems so difficult to play that you get what amounts to three hours of the band standing almost still, churning out thousands of notes in the process.

This is an oversimplification, of course. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess has become much more energized as the years have gone on, and the addition of a new keyboard, the Zen Ripper (basically a buffed-up version of an ’80s keytar), allows him to get out from behind his bank of synthesizers and come to the front of the stage to duet with guitarist John Petrucci. Petrucci himself moves around quite a bit when he’s not stuck to one spot playing blazingly fast solos, and Portnoy always seems to be having a great time behind his massive drumkit, but there’s only so much one can do when you’re sitting behind several dozens drums all night.

As it usually happens with this band, the main complaint comes down to lead singer James LaBrie. Whether you love or despise his operatic vocals, he just isn’t very dynamic as a frontman. Of all the band, he may be the most guilty of standing still and not putting out much energy during performances. There’s no question that the man can sing, but his ability to get the audience pumped up is definitely in doubt. Luckily for LaBrie, most of the audience is there to see the entire band, so the Dream Theater experience neither succeeds or fails due to his stage presence.

The point is, the band’s stage show hasn’t changed all that much over the past decade, so sitting through a three-hour DVD performance of the same stuff, albeit with different songs, is starting to lose its luster.

Still, it’s nice to see old favorites like “Take the Time” and “Scarred” show up in fine form, while the aggressive “Panic Attack” off of 2005’s Octavarium seems to energize the band. “Surrounded”, from 1992’s Images and Words, may fare the best out of the oldies, as the band sheds the ’80s cheese-metal sheen from the song and brings out the melodies that make it a great pop tune. “In the Presence of Enemies”, the two-part epic from Systematic Chaos, works better live as a single composition, and there’s a nice cameo from Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt on the short version of “Repentance” that’s included.

Meanwhile, the documentary on disc two has noble intentions, but fails to generate much excitement. It amounts to Portnoy and his camera crew walking around on the day of a performance in Frankfurt, Germany, and talking to everyone involved in making the show happen. This would be great if any of these people were interesting in front of the camera, or had great stories to tell, but it doesn’t work out that way. The guys in the catering department basically say, “We cook a lot of food for these people every day.” The road manager says what amounts to, “It’s a big job every day, and there are different challenges at every venue, depending on its size and layout.”

But he doesn’t go on to tell any amusing anecdotes about bad days or difficult venues. The head gopher says it was tough for the first few days, but once he got the hang of it, the job wasn’t too tough. A section that focuses on the band’s interaction with a Make A Wish kid before the show fares much better. He’s a teenage drummer, so Portnoy lets him play on his kit and meet the rest of the band before the show.

Maybe the problem is that the bulk of the crew seem to be career rock roadies. For the most part, they aren’t guys who have been with the band from the beginning. Some of them did a few tours in the ’90s and came back over the past few years. Even the band’s manager has only been working with them since 2000. It’s just a job for these people, and since none of them really came along for the ride with the band when it was first getting started, that lack of personal history seems to hurt the film.

It’s somewhat interesting to find out what each person does and how it pertains to putting on a show in a theater or small arena, but even when someone does attempt an amusing story, it falls flat. Take the guy who runs the video projections and controls the onstage cameras. His story involves his first day on the job. He accidentally dropped an expensive projector from three meters above the floor, smashing it beyond repair. Fortunately, he says, he had a spare projector so the show went on with all the regular video. Lucky for him, but bad for anybody watching who wanted to hear an interesting story.

Chaos in Motion amounts to a solid but unspectacular performance disc coupled with a well-meaning but somewhat dull backstage documentary. It’s a good release for Dream Theater’s legions of fans, but it won’t win over many newcomers. Mike Portnoy at least deserves kudos for keeping the setlist varied and for choosing footage from some very interesting venues. It’s nice to see the band playing outdoors in Buenos Aires and to see the four-way drummer jam from the final night of this spring’s Progressive Nation tour.

There’s a solid set of extras on disc two. Videos of songs from Systematic Chaos include “Constant Motion”, “Forsaken”, “Forsaken (In Studio)”, and “The Dark Eternal Night (In Studio)”. The studio videos are basically retreads of material that was on the previously mentioned special edition of Systematic Chaos last year. “Constant Motion” is a glossy performance clip of the band, complete with strobe lights and cutaways to CGI footage inspired by the cover art of the band’s last two albums. “Forsaken” is a cheaply animated video that follows the vampire-based lyrics of the song and tries to disguise its lack of actual animation with lots of camera tricks.

There’s also a photo gallery, always the most useless aspect of any music DVD, and brief guided tours from Mike Portnoy of the stage and the backstage area. The band also throws in the projection videos that played on the big screen behind them during the tour. A couple of hidden videos can be accessed that feature Eric Disrude, Portnoy’s drum tech. Unlike most of the crew, he seems to enjoy being on camera and it’s at least entertaining to watch his backstage antics as he debates whether to shave his beard and attempts to get each member of the band to pay him a dollar.

RATING 6 / 10