Month in Review: November ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Time sure flies when you’re posting once a month! This November I think I spent more time growing a beard than growing my list of movies I need to keep tabs on. Now that we’re officially in the swing of the holiday season, awards chatter (and those WONDERFUL Christmas jingles . . .) have picked up dramatically. And there are questions. Lots and lots of questions. What movies are you most anticipating as this year comes to a close? What movies are you going to try and avoid because of crowds? Will Ridley Scott turn a miracle with All the Money in the World? What if Dunkirk takes home Best Picture? Could it be any more poetic that the great Daniel Day Lewis is choosing to bow out of the limelight after one more collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson? And how will Phantom Thread stack up in the PTA pantheon?

There’s as much to chew on there as there was at Thanksgiving dinner. Without further ado, here’s my November in a nutshell. Movies AND music combine in this month’s round-up! Let’s do it!

Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!

New Posts 

New Releases: Thor: Ragnarok

Blindspot Selection: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Asbury Park in a Blur

On Saturday, November 18, my dad and I took a two-hour jaunt south to famed Asbury Park, New Jersey to catch Dream Theater on their 25th Anniversary tour commemorating the release of their classic ’92 album Images & Words. By the time we got there it was long after dark, and a relative ghost town, most of the shops along the boardwalk darkened in their off-season slumber. The show at the historic Paramount Theater was my fifth DT show overall, our second experience together and in as many years, and for me it’s the one that won’t be topped.

While I will forever lament my inability to time travel back to the mid-’90s, before the band’s front man and singer James LaBrie ruined his voice thanks to a bout of food poisoning, there’s something uniquely entertaining about the way he tries to compensate in the live setting. In his older age, for the notes he can’t hit (that F-sharp at the end of Another Day comes to mind) he simply substitutes volume for pitch. That tendency, along with the gesticulations, are the kinds of quirks that tend to leave the most lasting impression. That and Petrucci’s attempt to grow a Gandalfian beard. By the time I saw him, he was halfway there.

Saturday’s official setlist (for those interested):

Act I

Intro sample: “The Colonel” (taken from Two Steps from Hell’s album Skyward)

“The Dark Eternal Night” (Systematic Chaos)
“The Bigger Picture” (Dream Theater)
“Hell’s Kitchen” (Falling into Infinity)
“To Live Forever” (Images & Words b-side)
“Portrait of Tracy” (Jaco Pastorius cover by John Myung)
“As I Am” (Train of Thought) — segue in/out “Enter Sandman”
“Breaking All Illusions” (A Dramatic Turn of Events)


Act 2 — “Happy New Year ’92!” sample

“Pull Me Under”
“Another Day”
(James LaBrie notes the strong whiffs of marijuana in the crowd. Proceeds to give the thumbs-up)
“Take the Time”
“Metropolis Pt1 Miracle and the Sleeper” — segue in/out Mike Mangini drum solo
“Under a Glass Moon”
“Wait for Sleep”
“Learning to Live”


“A Change of Seasons” (A Change of Seasons EP)

Another Two-fer

Coco · November 21, 2017 · Directed by Lee Unkrich; Adrian Molina · An absolute feast for the eyes and for the soul, Coco is another richly entertaining and emotionally nourishing adventure that follows a young boy in his quest to live a life just like that of his idol, the great Mexican singer/songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) has more than stage fright to get over if he wants to make it big. For generations the Rivera family has banned music because it is believed to be the source of great emotional pain, caused when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and child to pursue a career of fame and fortune. Rejecting music outright, each subsequent offspring turned to shoemaking as a way to make ends meet, and now that burden has fallen to Miguel. Yet for him the plucking of guitar strings is as natural as putting one foot in front of the other, and soon he finds himself going to extraordinary lengths to prove his talents as well as the fundamental flaw in his family’s extant beliefs. Coco, steeped in the resplendent color and conceptual profundity of Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” festivities, offers audiences both a reliable Pixar package and a unique opportunity to experience culture as few animated films have before. Pixar isn’t taking as big a creative leap as they did when they conceived of a plot about what’s going on inside a child’s head, but they manage to arrive at a similar emotional depth with the way Coco gives equal weight to both cultural and individual values. ****/*****

The Babysitter · October 13, 2017 · Directed by McG · The latest offering from the director of Charlie’s Angels takes an almost perverse pleasure in serving bullies a dose of their own medicine in a violent, profane and generally antagonistic tale about an outcast teen who learns a shocking truth about his babysitter. Australian actress Samara Weaving inhabits the role of the “hot but psycho” babysitter whose trust is violated one night when young Cole (Judah Lewis) begins to spy on her when she thinks he’s gone to bed. Somewhere in this sloppily made, middlingly acted drama you may find amusing if not righteous commentary about standing up for yourself and fighting back against . . . well, cult-y babysitters who hit (and hit on) you. It might have even worked as a suggestion of where sexual frustration begins its descent into sexual deviation. Alas, the film is more immediately concerned with the cosmetic — cleavages doused in blood-syrup; abdomens scarred by sexy wounds; the generally ridiculous way people lose their heads over things. Any number of more meaningful readings could well be accidental. The Babysitter gets decent mileage out of shameless exploitation, but it very easily could have been something more than a goofily-acted male fantasy. **/*****

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: Steve Little;

Dream Theater’s The Astonishing — Live

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

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.


On Dream Theater and the upcoming concept album


It’s no secret that yours truly is a diehard Dream Theater fan. (I suppose it’s somewhat of a secret seeing as I’ve only mentioned the New York-based band once on this site in the last four years.) I have attended three concerts — one in Atlanta in 2005, one in Cleveland, OH in 2007 and one in Asheville, NC (of all places) in 2010. That is precisely nowhere near as many as I would have liked to have attended so far, considering the band has released two new albums since my last trip. Despite feeling I haven’t gone to enough of them, these are without a doubt among the best experiences of my life. You want an immersive concert experience? Go to a DT show.

I regularly steer new listeners of this very niched band — so named after a now-demolished movie theater in Monterey, California — to their live performances if I learn those listeners are on the fence about them. This is a band that demonstrates profound, technical musicianship in the studio but to bear witness to this spectacle is something else entirely. I also tell these people they should take lead singer James LaBrie’s vocal approach with a grain of salt (this is the hurdle a great many people have unsuccessfully cleared when popping in one of their albums for the first time). The guy has a distinctive, powerful and often goofy operatic singing style. It took me several albums to decide if I liked him or not. Now, I can’t imagine the band without the Canuck.

Dream Theater hair fashion show

Oh, the ’80s. Gotta love ’em. Band from left to right: John Petrucci; Mike Portnoy; Charlie Dominici; Kevin Moore; John Myung

On November 2, the band had hinted through their Twitter a new album was on its way. About time! It’s been more than two years since their last effort, the longest turn-around time between releases following their split with Elektra Records in 1999. Since joining their current label Roadrunner for their first self-produced concept album, the commercially and critically acclaimed ‘Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory,’ founding members Mike Portnoy (drummer) — who departed in 2010 and was replaced by the equally talented Mike Mangini — and John Petrucci (guitars) have ensured their fans will have something to look forward to at the end of every tour, which for the most part have consumed an entire calendar year.

They then hibernate in their favorite New York recording studio to jam and eventually turn that session into a beautifully orchestrated and produced symphony of notes, harmonies, face-melting solos, and high-concept lyrical content, the likes of which have more often than not ended up in international metal magazines’ year-end lists of the greatest stuff you’ll hear all year (it is with some hesitation that I clarify: I refer more to the music than the lyrics; DT doesn’t necessarily hang their hat on their lyrics, even if this aspect isn’t by any means a weakness).

Yeah, someone here is biased. I know that. I’m fully aware that my publicizing — and premature celebrating — of the upcoming album is predicated by my long-standing relationship with the band. Time and again, however, I’ve been shown that lofty expectations be damned; the new album will always find its place somewhere in the greater story that is Dream Theater. The 2016 release, their 13th, bears the official title ‘The Astonishing.’ Leaps out of chair, fist-pumps and pulverizes knuckles on ceiling fan on accident. Music is tough love. \m/ \m/

Dream Theater's 'On the Backs of Angels' was nominated as Best Metal track of 2011. Their first nomination

Dream Theater’s ‘On the Backs of Angels’ was nominated as Best Metal track of 2011. Their first nomination. Left to right: Mike Mangini; John Myung; Jordan Rudess; James LaBrie; John Petrucci

In light of the exciting news, I’d like to attempt to back-up some of my verbal diarrhea with some factual tidbits. Well, not necessarily ‘factual’ in the strictest sense of the word; more like evidence that this is a band well worth listening to even as the members enter their late 50’s (keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who joined on the aforementioned ‘Metropolis’ album, is the oldest at 58) and despite the fact this will probably forever be the Biggest Band You’ve Never Heard Of. Below you’ll find an arrangement of their discography that I’ve prioritized based on my preferences.

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t take this as an ordering of their most popular or their most commercially viable releases or anything like that. This is my attempt to highlight their prolificness, in case anyone needs a head start on where to go — and trust me, if you like what you hear at first, there is A LOT to get into. It can be a little overwhelming. I’ll include the track I’d recommend starting with on each album, and which album I think best defines this ever-changing band. Bear in mind this is a group that has been influenced by everything from Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne; from pop to blues. If you dig deep enough you’ll find references to John Lennon’s poetry and tips of the hat to Yes’ early etchings of the progressive rock scene. DT is quite literally in a category all their own. One reason I love them and can’t wait to see what they will have come up with next year.

'Octavarium' album coverAlbum: ‘Octavarium’

Release: June 7, 2005


Recommendation: I have to send up one flag with this, my immediate go-to: it is, in DT terms, a true ‘epic.’ Clocking in at 24 minutes even, it’s one long listen. But these are some of the fastest-passing 20 minutes you’ll likely hear once you commit past the trance-inducing opening. Built upon the concept of the passage of time and sharing the album’s obsession over the musical application of ‘8’ (octave is an important element here) ‘Octavarium’ is simply a work of art. It is perhaps my all-time favorite song. Possibly because it recalls early Pink Floyd more than anything; is that ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond?’ No, it can’t be. This is a 2005 track. . .

'Scenes from a Memory' album coverAlbum: ‘Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From a Memory’

Release: October 26, 1999

Track: Fatal Tragedy [Scene 3]

Recommendation: On an album marked by some of the most beautiful and brilliantly constructed progressive music in the last several decades, ‘Fatal Tragedy,’ merely a small part in the bigger picture of a tale about a murder and its consequences on a family and a lover caught in an affair, is one heck of a jam. It may not be the most accessible track on the record but it’s probably the most fun passage. It starts slowly and rather unsuspecting, building rapidly towards an energetic and complex battle between Petrucci’s mind-numbing guitars and Rudess’ keyboard wizardry.

'Images and Words' album coverAlbum: ‘Images and Words’

Release: July 7, 1992

Track: Learning to Live

Recommendation: Dream Theater’s most celebrated (and in my book their third greatest achievement, especially considering they were just kids when it was released . . . okay, they were roughly 20 years old) piece boasts eight tracks, each of which are essentially better than the last. It is capped off with this incredibly rich 11-minute romantic flourish with a rare lyrical contribution from bassist John Myung (a.k.a. the guy who never speaks). ‘Learning to Live’ takes some patience to digest but once you’ve opened up to it the song just gets better and better, and it features one of Petrucci’s select Spanish guitar solos. You have to hear it.

'A Dramatic Turn of Events'Album: ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’

Release: September 12, 2011

Track: Bridges in the Sky

Recommendation: ‘Bridges in the Sky’ serves as both a centerpiece for the band’s first album following the departure of long-standing (and founding) member Mike Portnoy as well as the epitome of what DT can do with some classic, hard-hitting riffs. ‘Bridges’ boasts one of the most uplifting and exhilarating lyrical breaks/choruses in DT’s catalogue, providing LaBrie another opportunity to display his vocal range and prove that he’s not all about the excessive wailing and tongue-sticking-out stuff. (Watch him on a DVD or in concert and you’ll see what I mean.) This is a great modern metal tune with some particularly memorable lyrics. 

'Systematic Chaos' album coverAlbum: ‘Systematic Chaos’

Release: June 4, 2007

Track: The Dark Eternal Night

Recommendation: I might be venturing out into Dream Theater purist territory here but there’s no denying this heavy, morbid track epitomizes the uniqueness of DT’s sound. The ominous, heavily textured guitars and crazy lyrical inflections make ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ one of the most distinctive releases in their catalog. I’d be lying if I said this isn’t something the sickly curious should check out. Listen to that chorus. Listen to that bass line. And then the musical interlude that consumes you after the second refrain. Oh man. What a track.

'A Change of Seasons' album coverAlbum: ‘A Change of Seasons’

Release: September 19, 1995

Track: A Change of Seasons

Recommendation: Technically speaking, this is not an official studio release, as this oft-forgotten EP from the mid-90s features only one original work (the title track) amidst a collection of live cover songs, each of which are interesting in their own right. But this sprawling adventure is too good not to recommend. This 23-minute long track encompasses a variety of strong emotions and manages to sneak in a quote or two from the hugely successful drama Dead Poets Society. Lyrically inspirational and featuring one of the more blues-y guitar breaks in recent memory, this utterly progressive epic is a must for DT completionists.

'When Dream And Day Unite' album coverAlbum: ‘When Dream and Day Unite’

Release: March 6, 1989

Track: Afterlife

Recommendation: Arguably the stand-out track on the debut album from a band that at the time called themselves Majesty, ‘Afterlife’ is an exciting, enchanting pondering of what lies beyond. While clearly lacking in the clean production of later albums — this was the band’s first and only album to fail to produce a subsequent tour — WDADU (which has a hilarious phonetic pronunciation of “what’d I do?!”) represents several hallmark idiosyncrasies that would later endear millions to the band. This track in particular features a wicked guitar solo that leads into one of the best guitar-keyboard unisons I have ever heard. This album also marked the first and only album featuring former singer Charlie Dominici and the first of two collaborations with then-keyboardist Kevin Moore, who has since disassociated himself with the band for reasons unknown.

'Train of Thought' album coverAlbum: ‘Train of Thought’

Release: November 11, 2003

Track: Stream of Consciousness

Recommendation: I have debated inserting this selection as my #1 choice as its distinct lack of vocals makes it a potentially more accessible passage, given singer James LaBrie’s unique singing style, yet I wouldn’t quite feel right doing so on the virtue of specifically excluding one of the core members. Nevertheless, ‘Stream of Consciousness,’ which represents one of several of DT’s instrumental tracks, is absolutely classic. It features exquisitely complex guitars and drums, both in hair-tearing medleys and in isolation; and one of the most recognizable riffs in DT’s catalog. It is available on an album that is more straightforward metal than anything they’ve done and is one of the first songs that got me into the band.

'Falling Into Infinity' album coverAlbum: ‘Falling Into Infinity’

Release: September 23, 1997

Track: Trial of Tears

Recommendation: The band was going through a particularly difficult patch in their careers at the time of this release. As a band that has largely been defined by their unique sound and bold decision to consistently produce lengthier songs in an era where songs seem to only be getting shorter, DT was facing incredible pressure from the label to put together a more radio-friendly product. The tension was enough to almost end the band completely, but rather than folding they came up with perhaps their most overlooked album. It’s a shame because it features ‘Trial of Tears,’ a gorgeously composed, relatively mellow exercise in aural hypnosis. Penned once again by the quietly prolific John Myung, it’s an exclamation point on a strong album that has perhaps taken far too much criticism

'Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence' album coverAlbum: ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’

Release: January 29, 2002

Track: Misunderstood

Recommendation: There are too many choices when it comes to DT’s follow-up to their seminal ‘Scenes From a Memory.’ ‘Six Degrees’ manifests as another concept album, one split over two discs and featuring five lengthier tracks on disc one — each one a build-up to disc two’s “six degrees of inner turbulence,” a nod to the various states of psychological distress and ailments. While I could spend hours nitpicking through the brilliance of the second disc, ultimately what this comes down to is uniqueness. And track #3 on disc one is the epitome of it. Some have made it known that they weren’t overly enamored by DT’s more experimental movement in ‘Misunderstood,’ and even I have to admit the last few minutes of the song remain bizarre to me but it’s the overall piece I’m concerned with. ‘Misunderstood’ is atmospheric and its lyrical content is a highlight. John Petrucci wants to know, “How can I feel abandoned even when the world surrounds me?”

'Awake' album coverAlbum: ‘Awake’

Release: October 4, 1994

Track: Lifting Shadows Off a Dream

Recommendation: This is certifiably obscure DT but I love ‘Lifting Shadows Off a Dream.’ Leave it to John Myung to provide dense, mysterious yet ultimately optimistic lyrics. The ninth in an 11-track collection of decidedly heavier songs following 1992’s break-out hit ‘Images and Words,’ this song ultimately falls on the generally more accessible side of the spectrum as it restrains technicality in favor of melody and lyrical content. A perfect example of the band knowing when it’s appropriate to scale back their almost obsessive meticulousness. 

'Dream Theater' album coverAlbum: ‘Dream Theater’

Release: September 23, 2013

Track: Illumination Theory

Recommendation: E-hem. Yes. At 23 minutes, ‘Illumination Theory’ puts the finishing touches on an album marked with a distinctly cinematic motif, with many a riff and refrain echoing the grandeur of movie scores. Just once I’d like for this band to score a movie, and well, I guess the guys have already played with that notion. Here’s one idea of what that might sound like. Though I still don’t fully grasp what the title refers to, suffice it to say the musical content speaks for itself. Sitting pretty in the middle of this gorgeous epic is one of the most extensive orchestral breaks DT has yet featured, leading listeners to believe the song may bow out on a quieter note. But any regular listeners aren’t likely to be fooled so easily. Indeed, Petrucci and friends erupt into a spectacular crescendo down the stretch, and, along with an almost never-better LaBrie at the mic, finish the song and their most recent album off in traditionally dramatic fashion. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits:;;;;;