On Wednesday, October 19, 2016 the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark hosted Dream Theater for ‘An Evening With’ as the progressive-metal giants played in its entirety their brand new album, the sprawling odyssey that is The Astonishing — an epic tale of betrayal, loss, hope and redemption set in a dystopian future circa 2285 in an America not that dissimilar to the one you find in The Hunger Games.
The Astonishing represents the band’s 13th studio release, and their third since the departure of original drummer and one of the band’s founding members Mike Portnoy in 2010. While the album certainly features all of the elements and ingredients that have helped maintain the band’s longevity (they’ve been rocking since 1989), The Astonishing is undoubtedly their most ambitious and most exhaustive undertaking to date, featuring 34 tracks and running over 2 hours in length over the course of two discs overflowing with virtuosic musicianship, deep emotional hooks and conceptual grandeur. It’s quite unlike anything the band has tried before and they have tried a lot of things in their 30 year history. Rumor has it that guitarist John Petrucci has ambitions of turning it into a Broadway play . . . although I’m not sure Broadway is ready for something like that. Or ever will be.
For those curious about what’s established here in The Astonishing:
The Great Northern Empire of the Americas would look eerily familiar yet terrifyingly primitive to the people who occupied roughly the same territory three centuries before. After a great calamity precipitated a gradual societal collapse, medieval-like feudalism reemerged alongside the relics of technology and “progress” from a now all but forgotten era. Safety in servitude replaced ambition. An aristocracy replaced nobility. The ever-watching omnipresent NOMACs (Noise Machines) broadcast an empty cacophony; all that remains of music and creativity in this dystopia. But in Ravenskill, a village situated on Endless Isleland, a lone voice heralds the arrival of a reawakening in human consciousness. Freedom of expression finds a way, in the purest of musical outpourings not heard in generations, to stir the hearts of the people and shake the very foundations of power.
For more, you should visit the band’s official website at dreamtheater.net.
So the Newark show was actually my fourth time seeing the band and while I can’t quite say it ranks amongst my favorite shows this experience reaffirmed the notion that Dream Theater is simply a band you have to see in the live setting. There’s something electrifying about seeing Petrucci take center stage when he dives into one of his incredibly complex solos, even if you are like me and don’t exactly count yourself amongst the elite musicians of the world (I can’t even hold a guitar the right way). The power of that musician is in itself astonishing. Every time I’ve seen the guy play — be it in Atlanta, Cleveland, Asheville or Newark — I’ve been amazed how effortlessly the guy manages to seduce his audience, holding thousands in the palm of his hand as he unleashes a maelstrom of sound through those ever-reliable Mesa Boogies.
Then of course there’s the lead singer, Canadian James LaBrie, who is a character unto himself. The number one complaint I’ve heard from people I have tried to recruit into Dream Theater Land is that they have an issue with the vocals. Why does the singer sound like that, they wonder. And I never have the right answer, other than the default “well, he’s sung opera before . . .” Come out to the live show and listen to him then. There’s a good chance he will persuade you. And last but absolutely not least the other musicians — bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini — surround these guys with their own brand of face-melting awesomeness. It is such a complementary band, one fully attuned to its own idiosyncrasies. There’s no one quite like DT and they know it. That’s why they can get away with selling out major venues as a single act playing their new album from start to finish. How many other bands can get away with that these days? How many have albums that are long enough to sustain the length of a concert?
With all that in mind, I have to concede that The Astonishing represents my least favorite of the band’s thus far. In fact I hadn’t even listened to the entire album before seeing them reenact it on stage, a span of almost ten months. But that actually gave me a unique opportunity to treat the show as my proper introduction to the album and all that it entails. I don’t think I have ever had that experience before. Of course, that also meant not being able to sing along and anticipate some of the highs — those Petrucci solos seemingly came at random and largely caught me off-guard — but in the end I don’t know if I would have had it any other way. This was such a different way to experience a concert, even if it ultimately hasn’t really had much of an impact on what I think of the new work. There are some good bits here and there but structurally I’m not a fan of it. And when I heard Petrucci comparing the album’s concept with that of something like Game of Thrones, I cringed. I mean, this has never been a band to float the mainstream. If anything has changed since the departure of Portnoy, it’s that they have flirted more with that line. It has gotten a little scary at times. I’m hoping with their next album we’ll revert back to stuff that’s a little more original.
The Astonishing — Live! also provided me a chance to share my love for this band with my dad, who had been getting into them ever since I introduced him to their 2005 album Octavarium some years ago. Getting him in to his first DT show was a bucket list item for me absolutely, and it feels great to be able to tick that off. There were a lot of nerves before the curtain went up for me, and I think that stemmed mostly from the fact that I was greatly anticipating how he would react. In the end, I needn’t have worried.