There is an important distinction that I have to make before writing this concert / album review. Dream Theater is only playing the album, “The Astonishing” for this tour so the concert and album review is intertwined in this case. As you’ll see at the end, my opinion of the album is a large factor in the review.
If you really liked “The Astonishing” you will disagree with some points of what I am about to write and you should definitely see them live on this tour.
I discovered Dream Theater only about 2 years ago because it’s not like prog rock / metal is played much in America or easy to find if you aren’t looking for it. I really like their albums for the most part up through 2005′s Octavarium and generally think that Score, their career retrospective concert at Radio City Music Hall shortly after that album is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. (No, seriously. Watch it here and see what I mean.) I own the CD and the DVD of that one. Because I hadn’t known about them until recently I wasn’t at that show.
Additionally, this band is almost 100% of the reason that I became inspired to study guitar, take up music, and was my gateway drug into the world of prog. Music is a large part of my life right now because of this. I really wanted to see the guy who inspired me to make and discover music play live. When 2016 tickets went on sale last Christmas for Radio City Music Hall I immediately bought mine.
There was one problem that I would discover later – this tour the band would only play their new album, “The Astonishing” from start to finish. No other songs would be played. I think that this wasn’t announced until after tickets went on sale. If it was, I missed that. I hoped at that point that when the album came out that it was a good one because the tickets had a “no refunds” policy. DT is fabulous, so generally everything they make is impressive.
“The Astonishing” album review:
“The Astonishing” is a technically proficient album. I greatly appreciate the idea of doing an epic album that tells a story as you can see by my Steven Wilson / Hand. Cannot. Erase. at the Beacon Theater review. Unfortunately, just like I mentioned in my Steven Wilson review, a big problem with epic albums is that very often the story falls flat. SW doesn’t have this problem because his albums paint with internal emotions rather than talk at you. I’ll quote myself from my SW review:
“The idea of a concept album is almost always better than the execution. When I listen to many of them I feel like I’m hearing a secondhand narrative of what the characters are feeling minus their emotional complexity and journey. In Steven Wilson’s case, the things that happen to his characters actually could happen.
That makes it actually terrifying and resonant.
Let’s be real, it’s unlikely you are going to ever be a heroin addict sleeper agent murderer controlled by a guy named Dr. X and meet a prostitute nun like in Queensrÿche’s “Operation Mindcrime”. However you will experience loss, may likely feel alone at times in your life, and many of us fear being forgotten. ”
“The Astonishing” has the same problem “Operation Mindcrime” and other similar albums have. The characters seem like paper puppets devoid of emotional resonance existing in a world that is so unrealistic that it’s hard to care. If I had to describe this album’s story to someone who had never heard it it would be as follows:
The plot of “The Astonishing” is set in a futuristic renaissance faire style war where music isn’t allowed, similar to that Footloose musical in the 80s. The characterization isn’t terribly deep, including women who we never get to meet or care about existing purely to die to motivate the heroes to try and fight to bring music back to the people. The main character’s girlfriend also dies (because apparently that’s what women do all the time) and he brings music back and at the end she’s brought back to life somehow. Click here for a full plot summary.
It is worth noting that none of this is a big problem. I love a bit of cheese with my metal. The problem is more nuanced and lies in how confusing the story is coupled with the lack of dynamic range in the song compositions.
James LaBrie sings all of the character’s parts, so it’s hard to follow what’s happening (because there’s 8 of them coming out of 1 guy) unless you spend time to read deeply and research. Even the lyrics of the songs left me confused to much of the story.
Lyrically the idea of “you just need faith” recurs, but it’s also downright confusing to also have a character named “Fayth” with a Y. While this may have been the point, it came across as confusing and simple instead of deep.
While I could get off on a tangent here about how adding Ys to people’s names (which they did to at least 3 characters on this album) is incredibly dated and one of the biggest 80s metal cliches I can think of, I’ll just leave you with this post and ask you to click here for my reference material. Yes, that one:
Silly plot and peoplyle wityh Ys everywhyre aside, this could all be forgiven (and even flipped around to be seen as absolutely awesome) if the music were dynamic. Therein lies the main problem I had with this particular album.
Unfortunately Dream Theater’s normal bombastic metal sound seems blunted on this album in favor of keyboard-driven ballads and rock songs that feel squished dynamically. People often criticize Morrissey of The Smiths of speak-singing in a very not dynamic way all the time. “The Astonishing” gives lead singer James LaBrie such same-sounding vocals that one almost wants to make comparison to Morrissey.
To be clear, none of this is LaBrie’s fault. His performance is great. The lyrics as written are just blunted speak-singing through the lion’s share of the album. Getting through this album feels like work solely because of the lack of dynamic range – and it’s 2 hours long.
You are free to listen to the album stream and make up your own mind. I know some people who love this album, and that’s totally cool.
I kept my opinion of the album to myself until now because I assumed that perhaps the production on the album is what blunted the guitar’s bite (and I also had already bought my tickets to the tour). Maybe the live show was the point. Maybe the live show would convert me.
Radio City Music Hall has pretty terrible sound. Everything sounded loud, but lyrics and the nuances of the instruments were lost. I was in the front left of the orchestra level, about 20-30 rows back.
The layout of the venue was very good. It’s a venue I would return to – but I’d never buy orchestra tickets ever again. Balcony only. Why? Read on.
I have no idea how prior DT concerts have been, but at “The Astonishing” tour many fans who came tonight were the rudest assholes I’ve seen in awhile. I have never in my life seen more people ejected from a venue by security in my entire life.
Right at the first song some idiots had the idea to stand up even though this was a 2 hour long seated show. Well, then others had to stand up because they couldn’t see. We had large groups of people standing and sitting randomly like some schizophrenic church all night making the show irritating to watch. Fights broke out because many people were getting tired of the rude assholes not caring that their standing was screwing up the view for everyone behind them and several guys would stand up abruptly and start fist-pumping and yelling. This wasn’t an issue on the balconies – only in orchestra. I will never buy an orchestra seat again at Radio City Music Hall for this reason.
It wasn’t the majority of fans, but there were enough bad apples that it caused a problem.
“The Astonishing” live is just as blunted and lacking of dynamic feeling as the album is. You almost forgot that John Petrucci was on stage from time to time because of how buried the guitar was in the scheme of things. James LaBrie singing all of the parts made the show confusing and inaccessible to people new to the band, like my husband who was totally lost.
Every member of the band was playing well as you’d expect. James LaBrie’s vocals were strong. It’s just the work itself – 2 hours of keyboard-focused rock opera speak-singing – dragged for us. A complicating factor was that the sound was bad where we were so if you wanted to hear what he was saying you couldn’t really – it actually emphasized the lack of dynamic range of the vocal lines and music.
The stage show – projections and lighting weren’t very interesting if you didn’t already know the story and the designs seemed amateurish to the point of looking like dated technology. You can directly see an example of this on their promo video:
I was hoping that LaBrie would tell the audience to sit down. It certainly would have saved us from witnessing a few fights, but he didn’t even address the audience beyond a rushed “Hello, New York!” and maybe 1 more sentence in the entire first half of the show. It all seemed like they wanted to play the entire thing and get out of there as soon as possible. Or maybe they were playing to a click track and had to keep going to remain synced up with the video.
Between the rude, standing, fist pumping fans and the speak-singing lineup of songs that all sounded much the same we ended up leaving at the intermission.
I applaud John Petrucci’s idea of making “The Astonishing” a concept album much like “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” and “Octavarium”, but the key component that made those albums good for me (even Queensrÿche’s Operation Mindcrime) – dynamic range and guitar-driven music composition – is missing from “The Astonishing”. This directly affects and relates to the energy and engagement of the live show. The live show itself engages in the same degree as the album (at least the first half that I saw) seems impersonal and overly pre-prepared with very little audience interaction or improvisation such that you may as well just play the album.
I wish that they had skipped spending on the projections and animations and had just paid for multiple singers instead. For me that might have been enough to make this show (and album) feel personal, special, and engaging.
I feel like the album and the tour are both equally polarizing to their fans and there will be many who love this show. Here’s the real deal:
TL;DR if you like their new album you’ll like the live show and highly disagree about me leaving at intermission and that’s totally OK. If that’s you, then you should see the show. As always all members of Dream Theater are at the top of their game from a technical perspective.
However, this album and tour is probably not the best jumping off point for new fans of the band. I would heavily advise against bringing new people who are unfamiliar with “The Astonishing” to this particular tour.
If you don’t care for their new album and hope for the days of “Train of Thought”, “Score”, “Octavarium”, and “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” you won’t like “The Astonishing” Live and you should probably sit this tour out. DT is fabulous and I’m sure their next album will offer something for everyone as usual. I wish they had done what Steven Wilson did on his current tour and used the first half of the show to do new epic material and leave the second half as more of a mix precisely because this album is polarizing and a bit different from what they have done in the past.
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