When Dream Theater announced that they were beginning a special tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their second album Images and Words, my first reaction (aside from figuratively running online to buy tickets) was to wonder at the fact that Dream Theater has released albums older than I am, and are still going pretty strong. While the last truly excellent album they released was 2003’s Train of Thought, 2005’s Octavarium was relatively strong (though overly-reliant on music theory geekery), and 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events had some interesting sonic (if not lyrical) moments.
I had first begun listening to Dream Theater during my junior year of high school, where 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory and 1992’s Images and Words quickly piqued my fascination and launched a minor obsession with the band, culminating in my hunting down the rare Falling Into Infinity (1997) demo sessions in the winter of my junior year of college. To this day, I will insist that the transition from “Goodnight Kiss” to “Solitary Shell” from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2001) is one of the best pieces of music ever written.
Yet it seemed that I largely came to the band too late to really revel in their peak — founding member and drummer virtuoso Mike Portnoy had been long gone, and the most recent albums had been 2007’s Systematic Chaos and 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings, both of which linger at the bottom of my Dream Theater discography rankings. A Dramatic Turn of Events, which came out after I became a fan and featured the work of new drummer Mike Mangini, was more of a relief than anything particularly earth-shattering on the level of their earlier work, and their subsequent albums Dream Theater (2013) and The Astonishing (2016) failed to impress or even intrigue me much. I had the opportunity to see them live in 2011 during their tour for Turn of Events, but since the last few albums of theirs never really resonated with me, the setlist likewise didn’t make an impression. (I actually had to go back through my ancient Facebook notes to even remind myself what they had played that evening in Los Angeles.)
When the band announced that for their Astonishing tour, their setlist would consist solely of that album, my interest in seeing them was quashed. Yet when news of the “Images, Words & Beyond” tour dropped, I knew I had to find a way to see them play, because to this day Images and Words is still a fantastically and thoroughly enjoyable set of songs, including personal favorites such as “Under a Glass Moon” and “Take the Time”. Most of the songs on Images and Words had not been played live in years, adding to the novelty of it all, and ultimately leading to me buying tickets to a February concert in mid-November.
So Images and Words runs about an hour. Given Dream Theater’s propensity for long songs and longer shows, that left roughly two hours for them to fill. Fervently resisting the siren call of the spoilers of setlist.fm, I sat on the bus from Vienna to Prague consumed by fantasies of what the rest of the setlist would consist of. Would I finally, finally get to hear them play “The Dance of Eternity” (Scenes from a Memory), one of the most devilishly complicated songs in their repertoire? Would they close the show with a rousing rendition of “In the Name of God” (Train of Thought) or surprise me with a left-field performance of “Scarred” (Awake, 1994)? On a more technical level, would vocalist James LaBrie manage to hit the high notes of Images and Words tracks like “Learning to Live”? Would I ever not feel Mike Portnoy’s absence, and would I come to appreciate Mike Mangini for his own merits?
Unfortunately, my dreams of a perfect setlist never came to fruition. Setting aside the performance of Images and Words in the second act of the show, much of the Prague show consisted of songs I actually never particularly liked from albums I never particularly liked — namely “The Dark Eternal Night” from Systematic Chaos and “The Bigger Picture” from Dream Theater. Dream Theater is not known for their lyrical prowess, and songs like “The Dark Eternal Night” only demonstrate this weakness while also not being that interesting to listen to. Images and Words had the benefit of previous keyboardist and excellent co-lyricist Kevin Moore alongside guitarist John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy, and bassist John Myung, but after Moore’s mid-’90s departure there was a definite worsening of the words that went along with such intricate and technically proficient instrumentation.
The fact that The Astonishing is a concept album (a double concept album, no less), meant that taking two songs from the album and inserting them into the middle of a melange of songs across Dream Theater’s career also stuck out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, hearing the subtle, tense instrumental “Hell’s Kitchen” from the much-maligned Falling Into Infinity (which is actually pretty underrated) and the classic “As I Am” from Train of Thought were undeniably enjoyable, as was the spotlight given to Myung with a bass cover of “Portrait of Tracy” by Jaco Pistorius. The desire for a perfect setlist is obviously not attainable, but the choice of songs for the first act of the concert, to my mind, just didn’t play on the band’s strengths. As far as instrumentals go (so necessary to allow LaBrie to rest his voice during sets), “Stream of Consciousness” from Train of Thought and “The Dance of Eternity” are simply more engaging and exciting than “Hell’s Kitchen”, and I would have rather they scrapped the songs from Systematic Chaos, The Astonishing, and Dream Theater in favor of some truly great deep cuts from Awake like “Space-Dye Vest” or “The Silent Man.” At least they didn’t play “Wither” (Black Clouds and Silver Linings) or “Forsaken” (Systematic Chaos).
The second half of the show, in contrast, was a much more cohesive and impressive blast from the past. While “Pull Me Under”, the opening track of Images and Words and the band’s most successful single, is played fairly often at Dream Theater shows (it was the encore at the 2011 show I attended), it managed to build anticipation for the rest of the album to follow. While the first act gave Myung its chance to shine with a solo, “Another Day”, “Wait for Sleep” and “Learning to Live” provided the same for keyboardist and bald-headed wizard Jordan Rudess, “Take the Time” for John Petrucci, and “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper” for Mangini. Mangini in particular finally won me over (after half a decade of missing Mike Portnoy) with his gleeful, exuberant demonstration of prowess with his massive drum set. John Petrucci, as always, made ripping out those guitar lines look so, so easy, his long hair blowing in the artificial breeze, arm muscles practically the same size as the body of his bright pink guitar.
Really, the only inconsistent technical aspect of the show in its entirety was, and, it seems, will forever continue to be LaBrie. After the infamous food-poisoning incident in the late-’90s that damaged his vocal chords, he has really never sounded the same. What was a voice almost akin to Freddie Mercury’s, with incredible range, projection, and emotive capabilities on Images and Words and Awake has since become weaker, narrower, and more nasal, especially live, and when it comes to the high notes of “Under a Glass Moon” and “Learning to Live”. The sustained vocals have been necessarily replaced with what sounds like screams as he struggles to reach that note. It’s undoubtedly frustrating for LaBrie and the rest of the band, and yet there have been moments since his injury where he almost sounds 100 percent better. For example, on 2006’s live album “Score”, his performance had me thinking “what vocal injury?”
The problem, then, simply seems to be that LaBrie isn’t consistent. If that means that the band needs to reevaluate the kinds of vocal lines they have him sing — he still shines on ballads in a lower register, such as “Far From Heaven” and “Beneath the Surface” from Turn of Events — or play more instrumentals during concerts, then that is the direction they need to head in in order to keep playing at the level expected of them.
While the band has updated its tour schedule to include Vienna, where I am currently living, I don’t foresee the need to see them again unless they shake up the first half of the setlist. Seeing Dream Theater live feels like no less than a marathon, but it’s a more enjoyable marathon when they are playing songs you like. Here’s to the future inevitable Images and Words celebration tour in 2042!
“The Dark Eternal Night”
“The Bigger Picture”
“The Gift of Music”
“Our New World”
“Portrait of Tracy” (Jaco Pastorius cover) (John Myung solo)
“As I Am” (bridged with an excerpt of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”)
“Breaking All Illusions”
Act 2 (Images and Words):
“Pull Me Under”
“Another Day” (extended outro with a Jordan Rudess keyboard solo)
“Take the Time” (extended outro with a John Petrucci guitar solo)
“Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper” (with a drum solo by Mike Mangini)
“Under a Glass Moon”
“Wait for Sleep” (with extended keyboard intro)
“Learning to Live” (extended outro with a Jordan Rudess keyboard solo)
“A Change of Seasons”