This year marks 25 years since the release of Dream Theater’s seminal album Images and Words (1992). To celebrate this, the prog metal legends set upon a European tour called Images, Words and Beyond. Musicalypse went to see the last show of the first leg at the Ice Hall in Helsinki on February 27.
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To be honest, to me this nostalgia tour felt a bit like a plan B, as bandleader John Petrucci had stated as recently as last October that Dream Theater would bring their rock opera, The Astonishing (2016), to Asia and to Europe for a second round. Somewhere along the way, the band’s plans must’ve changed, for one reason or another, and this meant that Finnish DT fans didn’t get to see The Astonishing live, as the European tour last year only included performances in select cities. Some people on social media were upset about this, but given the mixed reception to the album, I’d imagine most fans (including yours truly) were happy to hear the classics instead. Awake (1994) remains the dearest Dream Theater album to me, but Images and Words comes very close, so I certainly didn’t mind the band’s decision to perform the record from start to finish. Despite its 80s-style production, the album has stood the test of time very well, and its daring mix of styles still sounds fresh today, although it was quite the black sheep in the grunge-dominated musical climate of its time.
On the night of the show, there were long lines of people outside the Ice Hall doors, and while not a throng, the crowd seemed to be bigger than 3 years ago in the same venue. The nostalgia angle of the tour must’ve drawn in people who don’t necessarily follow Dream Theater actively anymore but wanted to experience the band’s most famous album live. Of course on the Along for the Ride Tour, the setlist included a heavy dose of Awake and Scenes from a Memory (1999), but it wasn’t implied explicitly in the promotion, so perhaps some potential concertgoers stayed home that night.
The show got off to a shaky start with “The Dark Eternal Night”, which didn’t exactly make the audience ecstatic. It’s the lowest point of my least favorite album, Systematic Chaos (2007), because its forced heaviness and endless shredding sums up the most annoying traits of late 00s Dream Theater. Admittedly it sounded better than on the album, but the quality went up immediately when it was followed by “The Bigger Picture”, which is one of the most powerful tunes on the band’s otherwise slightly lukewarm self-titled album from 2013. The crowd was clapping along during the song’s climax, and not even James LaBrie’s struggling with the high notes ate away the impact. The instrumental of the night was the picturesque “Hell’s Kitchen”, which was introduced with a haunting intro. Digging up the song after a 19-year break was more than welcome, although Mike Mangini’s drumming came across as a little stiff compared to Mike Portnoy’s playing on the original. The Astonishing was represented with two singles, but it felt like people didn’t warm up to the new material despite LaBrie and keyboardist Jordan Rudess’s best attempts to pump them up – Dream Theater’s opening acts are always in a tough spot, even when DT themselves are in that role.
Bass solos may be a bit of a joke in rock circles, but John Myung’s Jaco Pastorius tribute, “Portrait of Tracy”, was wonderful with its clever use of harmonics. However, the piece was just the calm before the storm, as it was succeeded by the steamroller that is “As I Am.” Musical tips of the hat continued when the song was combined with the first verse and chorus of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” At the end there was also a “One” teaser, and John Petrucci even threw in the “Master of Puppets” main riff. The first set concluded with one of my favorites, “Breaking All Illusions,” which seems to have become a modern classic (deservedly so), as the band has played it on almost every tour since its release. Petrucci’s bluesy solo was once more in a class of its own, as was the song’s culmination.
After the intermission, the time traveling began with a collage of the music released in 1992, which ranged from “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot(!) to “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses, and a DJ introduction led to Dream Theater’s ‘new’ hit single, “Pull Me Under.” The people’s reactions immediately gave away what they’d come to the Ice Hall for, as the crowd went bananas, at least as much as a Finnish prog audience can. Although the Images songs were performed in the correct order, the band didn’t follow the album versions slavishly, instead extending them with additional solos. At the end of “Another Day”, Rudess played a keyboard solo, while an excerpt of John Petrucci’s “Glasgow Kiss” was incorporated into “Take the Time.” Mike Mangini, on the other hand, got to play a drum solo in the middle of “Metropolis Pt. 1,” and the moody ballad “Wait for Sleep” was introduced with some piano improv by Rudess, which according to LaBrie sounded different every night. Furthermore, Rush fans’ hearts were warmed with little teasers of “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1.”
The instrumentation was handled gracefully, although Mangini messed up the beat at the end of “Pull Me Under” and Rudess brutally slaughtered one of Kevin Moore’s best keyboard solos in “Take the Time.” However, the guitar bear Petrucci was the shining star of the night, and the legendary solos of “Another Day” and “Under a Glass Moon” were pure ear candy. During the intermission I’d wondered how James LaBrie could pull of the Images and Words material, as during the first set his cold had been made perfectly clear by the hoarseness of his upper register and the constant lowering of vocal melodies. Apparently the constant sips of water (or some other voice-aiding liquid) during the instrumental breaks, downtuning the songs, and the additional breathing spaces given by the extra solos helped, because apart from occasional off-key moments and his voice breaking during the second verse of “Take the Time”, the classics sounded alright coming from a 53-year-old. The concert atmosphere was upbeat and the instrumentation a well-oiled machine, so even LaBrie’s weakest moments didn’t dim the glow of the music. Although you could sense a little bit of frustration in his demeanor when he couldn’t nail some parts, LaBrie didn’t let it take over, handling his duties professionally. During his speeches he was much more talkative than at my previous DT shows: he was astonished by the number of female fans in attendance (“where the hell were you 25 years ago?”) and later recalled the champagne-fueled listening session of the final mixes of Images and Words.
The visual side of the show was a little modest compared to the previous tours, as this time there was no video screen, most likely due to the short break between The Astonishing tour and the anniversary gigs that also included the holidays. Fortunately, the backdrop looked cool when it was colored by the lights, and the stripped-down production was appropriate for the nostalgia theme, as were the cover snippets and little jams, which DT hasn’t played much of since Mike Portnoy’s departure. At least I couldn’t sense any notable tiredness in the band, as the five-piece seemed to be in a good mood: Rudess and Mangini were making faces and gestures at each other, and even the typically cool-as-a-cucumber Myung rose onto the drum riser a couple of times.
Although a few of the song picks in the first set weren’t totally up my alley and LaBrie wasn’t at his best, my main impression of the performance was still highly positive, thanks to Images and Words and the epic encore, “A Change of Seasons.” The show beat the 2015 stub set at Kulttuuritalo effortlessly, although the Along for the Ride concert is still unmatched. All-in-all, Dream Theater offered a nice experience both to old fans who came to relive their memories and my own generation that had barely been born 25 years ago.
Intro (The Colonel by Two Steps from Hell)
1. The Dark Eternal Night
2. The Bigger Picture
3. Hell’s Kitchen
4. The Gift of Music
5. Our New World
6. Portrait of Tracy (Jaco Pastorius cover, John Myung bass solo)
7. As I Am (with Metallica snippets)
8. Breaking All Illusions
Intro (Happy New Year 1992)
9. Pull Me Under
10. Another Day
11. Take the Time (with an excerpt of John Petrucci’s “Glasgow Kiss”)
13. Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper
14. Under a Glass Moon
15. Wait for Sleep
16. Learning to Live
17. A Change of Seasons
Photos: Charlotta Rajala