London’s West End is full of prog-hunters on this cold and chilling February weekday evening. Jeff Wayne’s “Musical Version of The War of the Worlds” is packing the punters in over at the Dominion. But we’re going to see something far more exciting than that. Have seventeen years really flown-past-us since DREAM THEATER bestowed upon us Scenes from a Memory? That 1999 past life regression concept-piece that re-introduced Tommy and The Wall fans to epic rock opera? That old show/album pesented us fans the keyboards wizard Jordan Rudess (it was his first appearance, replacing Derek Sherinian, who contributed to Scene — Part 1) and it was co-produced by Mike Portnoy — who left the band, perhaps in bitterness — back in 2010. Gosh, how time flies!
Now we have THE ASTONISHING. It’s the thirteenth studio album (the second concept album) from the American progressive metallers. It was released just last month and it was created to be performed on stage, in its entirety. We saw the ambitious production on the opening night in London’s West End at the impressive Palladium theatre.
THE ASTONISHING is an opera, set in a dystopian United States. The story-line follows a rebel militia in their efforts to challenge a dominant empire. In order to save the day, the rebels heroically use magical powers to beat their controlling masters. If this plot sounds vaguely familiar, then it should do … because it is inspired by guitarist John Petrucci’s love of a good yarn … especially the kind of complicated, epically bold story that is found in vast imagined worlds such as Westeros in Game of Thrones or in galaxies far, far away in Star Wars. These kind of worlds offer challenge and depth to the songwriters, and more opportunities for intriguing mystery, questions of morality and episodic drama.
As THE ASTONISHING unfolds, cryptically and provocatively, we are introduced to drone-like NOMACS (noise machines) that follow people around to play them electronically produced and insidiously controlling muzak. We also envision a dystopia ruled by a Great Northern Empire, and we also meet Gabriel at a place called Ravenskill, who is both a saviour and a hero because he can make music and sing (‘The Gift of Music’.) His brother is warrior-commander Arhys the leading member of the Ravenskill Rebel Militia who wants to use his brother’s “powers” to overthrow the Empire. Without giving too much of the plot away (and you should be prepared for many complex convolutions over 2 ¼ hours of majestic musicality) the result is that the power of music and the faith of the people win over in the end.
The score for this epic offering was written by Petrucci with keyboardist Jordan Rudess and with additional orchestration by conductor David Campbell, who has worked with several familiar names including Metallica and Evanescence and even Adele and Michael Jackson. Campbell wrote and conducted the music for the “Rock of Ages” motion picture (2012.) At the London Palladium we witnessed an assortment of musical styles that included not only Dream Theater’s trademark progressive metal, but also rich symphonic rock, poppy lighter moments and some softer-flavored arena-style rock numbers — along with spatterings of classical music. The end result was an ornate spectacle which was fully absorbing.
At the beginning we saw the descent of NOMAC machines repeating their propaganda messages “The Empire Protects You.” There was a drilling buzz in the air and the machines started to overcome and overwhelm the audience. This was the overture and the band entered the stage. Rudess with his famous pneumatically spinning keyboards, Mike Mangini with his extraordinary drum-kit centre stage and John Myung on bass. John Petrucci arrived to a huge applause, and last to arrive was James LaBrie to take on lead vocals.
‘The Gift Of Music’ had piquant urgency. It was light with an appealing melody and, in that sense, the number reminded us of Moody Blues — maybe something from Days of Future Passed which was considered to be the very first concept album.
“People just don’t have the time for music any more…” Sang LaBrie. And the thought drilled deep into our skull… It’s true … we cannot listen to a full album any more; We cannot sit still for a performance lasting 60 minutes. We cannot watch a whole movie wihtout getting up & fidgeting. We cannot read an entire book. What has become of us? As a species, it seems that we are on the edge of the dystopian future that Petrucci fears. It is as if the ‘establishment‘ has taken away our ability to concentrate and has replaced those disciplines with infant toys and fragments of fun. In exchange for a few measly trinkets, smart-phones and plastic gadgets, we have given away our attention span. More than that, though, we have also given away our dignity and our artistic freedom.
There are plenty of warnings in this show that, if we are incautious, we will let them take away all of our natural beauty and our self-esteem. So set against the dark malevolence of keys from Rudess (sounding like flaps of skin being torn off) we feel the menace of the dominators as they enslave and rule their willingly held captives. And although this is chilling and portentous for us, fortunately it feels less real because the setting is vaguely medieval. With cruel sounds to go with the imagery.
The show was completely immersive, with perfectly executed lighting and super-back-drops. There were seven large screens behind the band (another under the drums) and these were employed in unison to create a vast expanse (for example a starry sky) or used independently to offer only a glimpse of a character, or for a sword-strike.
When you see a show like this, you want to go home with some tunes in your head. Yes, you enjoy the technical proficiency, the production, the storytelling … but it is the strong songs — the arias — that will stay with you. And this show is full of them. ‘The Answer’ was a popular song, softly painted ,with an undulating rhythm and a classic melody. Perhaps it could even be considered cheesey (very Lloyd Webberish) but it was welcomed by the audience. ‘A Better Life’ began with a marching rhythm then sighs of cello-like sounds and carefully placed keys. This was dark and brutal. And the guitars cut like scimitars, but it was also the first song in the show that really showed off the full dynamic range of LaBrie, the singer. He brought each different character to life, singing each song in a particular style to suit. So we got compassion, melodrama, anger and despair — all perfectly enunciated and often belted out Broadway-style.
This is progressive rock. So we were ready for theatricality and flamboyancy. The virtuosity was really impressive. Rudess magic was nothing short of amazing, with silver-oaked embroidery one moment, then vaudevillian showmanship the next. Myung also played some richly dramatic and dynamic solos. And the percussion was tiptop, without being too flashy or over-blown. Best of all were the Petrucci-moments. When the guitarist came to center stage and made his instument cry and grind, we were in awe. This was as close as we would get the public participation.
This was not a ‘normal‘ rock concert… It was a theater production. And, because of that, we sat in long rows. We were genuinely irritated by the little boy (aged about 20 years) who had to “go pee” every 15 minutes or so. We were also regularly disturbed by piss-heads who thought that going to get more slopping plastic pots of beer was more important than following the subtle complexity of the ongoing musical texture. Perhaps the band expect too much of a hard-rock crowd. Perhaps their future shows should be convened in places like The O₂ Shepherd’s Bush Empire — in other words in normal rock venues. Then the so-called “music lovers” can exit as many times as they need to, for their regularly repeated smokes, pints and pisses.
In the second half (after the interval) we had the ‘Moment Of Betrayal’ with abrasive guitars and shattering keys. Plus tempo-changes in abundance. At the end of the show all the spectators were standing. It was an extraordinary outpouring of applause and emotion.
THE ASTONISHING is quite simply just that. It’s astonishing. It is a breathtaking musical Rock Opera crafted and perfomed by masters of their profession. We would like to have seen the lyrics. Perhaps these could be projected onto a screen above the stage, as surtitles in future productions. There were also several moments where Myung’s bass-guitar seemed dwarfed and squeezed by the layered sounds from other band-members. But these are minor gripes. Nothing could take away our enthusiasm and appreciation for such a wondrously immersive experience.
It is quite possible that some die-hard DT fans will not be completely satisfied or convinced by this show. It could be considered, by fans, to perhaps be too accessible, too worthy. But Dream Theater are bold practitioners. With THE ASTONISHING they have outstretched their hands to embrace a new expanded audience. This is rock. It is fun. It is for everyone.
The Astonishing by Dream Theater via Roadrunner Records is available to buy now. The show moves to the United States and Canada in April.