Live Review: Dream Theater – Symphony Hall, Birmingham
18th February 2023
Words: Matt Noble
Photos: Damian John
On a Saturday night in Birmingham, I go off to my first heavy metal gig at the Symphony Hall, a stone’s throw from the Utilita Arena and The Flapper. It makes a change from the dingy charm of the pubs and clubs I’m used to - there’s rows of seats going up to the fourth (maybe fifth?) floor of the venue, giving the event a real sense of grandiosity and spectacle before any bands take to the stage. It feels much more like a ‘proper’, valuable musical event, though it is strange to witness metal performed to a seated crowd. How might the bands roll with that? With more than a few empty seats, questions will again be raised about ticket prices - some of which before the event were going for triple figures - though as the night proceeds, the concert goes to prove that each penny of those eye-watering figures is warranted; this is not just any ordinary gig.
Finnish power metallers Arion warm the crowd up with a bombastic performance and a half-hour journey into their world of fantasy. The intro tape builds suspense with dramatic lighting flourishes before the band stride onto the stage and a glorious, energetic ‘No One Stands In My Way’ gets the set up and running. The band have good stage presence, and several of the instrumentalists get involved for the vocal harmonies - and even these backing vocalists have an impressive vocal range considering their voices aren’t their ‘main’ instrument. It is difficult to tell how ‘into’ it the crowd are during most of the early set, with many unfamiliar with the band, but they make an awful lot of noise for Arion between songs, who are clearly humbled by the response they’ve earned.
Musically, the choruses are uplifting and melodic, and the instrumental wizardry is enviable, with camaraderie between guitarist and keyboardist during a back-and-forth shred-off in one of the songs’ instrumental breaks. The super-heavy ‘Punish You’ is a personal highlight, with its nasty grooves, crushing heaviness and amazing solos. Frontman Lassi is a good conductor of the crowd, and he does involve the audience for a participative singalong, which does see the seated near to my section get into it and join in. This is saved for the end, though, could the seated crowd have been engaged a little more earlier on? Their dream-come-true slot with Dream Theater tonight is still well deserved and their melodic, symphonic sound is a good fit for the Symphony Hall.
Dream Theater boast an immersive backdrop and stage setup before the interval between bands is even halfway through. They play dramatic orchestral music over the speakers as the Hall slowly but surely seems to fill out a bit more than was previously. With the seated experience and huge screens, the feeling is like getting ready to watch an exciting new movie. Eventually, the Squid Game theme plays at a much louder volume and the house lights drop out. A cinematic opening film clip is played, with lots of nature-inspired imagery. This video backdrop remains throughout the rest of the set and allows the audience a constant visual element, should they just want the music to wash over them. By now the suspense is pretty much at breaking point…
Huge cheers finally erupt as Dream Theater come on with ‘The Alien’, their first Grammy-winning song, from 2021’s ‘A View From The Top Of The World’. The album artwork, a depiction of Kjeragbolten in Norway, is the basis of the visuals for now, providing a nature-inspired, ethereal, soothing backdrop behind the stunning progressive metal onstage. Coming in strongly with the track’s quirky intro, frantic rhythms and crazy instrumentation, the band finally seem to settle in onstage with John Petrucci’s first guitar solo of the night. Effectively an overture for the evening, the phrasing is absolutely gorgeous. He feels and sounds comfortable, with a quietly confident presence on stage-left before the band lock into a steady groove and James LaBrie joins the rest of his bandmates onstage to lead the evening. He greets each wing of the crowd before the end of the first song, making everyone feel at home in spite of the huge size of the venue and the distance between the stage and those furthest to the top.
For the most part, the four instrumentalists faithfully get on with their jobs, tight down to every last semi-quaver, although it’s fun to watch when Petrucci and John Myung interact together during instrumental breaks, and keyboardist Jordan Rudess looks up on occasion during some of his quieter moments and proudly takes in his appreciative audience and the grandiose venue. The band logo on his music stand is certainly a nice touch. Mike Mangini is a versatile and accurate beast behind the kit, though you can see the pure joy on his face when it’s time for ‘Pull Me Under’. Admittedly, despite the way the crowd completely raise the roof when its intro chimes out and a few near the front stand up to rock out, some of LaBrie’s high notes don’t quite cut it during this song in particular, giving credence to the popular criticism that LaBrie is the band’s weak link. Part of this, surely, is the dazzling strength and technicality of his bandmates - and possibly partly that LaBrie has been fronting Dream Theater for over thirty years.
The new material is pretty impressive live, although I’ll admit to being a casual listener at best, unable to compare the ‘Top Of The World’ songs to much else - the most recent song performed outside of the new record is from 2011’s ‘A Dramatic Turn Of Events’. What I can say is that the jaunty opening groove to ‘Sleeping Giant’ is absolutely killer, with deft key changes and impressive instrumental sections to illuminate it further. Petrucci’s solo for ‘Answering The Call’ rouses a massive cheer and a round of applause after he’s done. I always imagine most of his solos to be full of wild technicality as this one boasts, but in reality he shows himself off as an incredibly tasteful and melodic player for the most part of the set, with the lightning-fast shreds present to lift a passage rather than take it over completely. And when it’s time for the cinematic, twenty-minute title track with its multiple movements, at no point does the song drag or the band outstay their welcome. Yes, the music is excellent, but the immersive visuals, coloured lighting and backdrop, an important part of the experience, keep the set fresh and interesting past the 90-minute mark, even for a novice like me.
As immersive and awe-inspiring as the band are, they still make time for clapalongs and relatively participatory moments. LaBrie is a good speaker and entertainer between songs - though some speeches threaten to teeter into rambling - and he introduces some of the bigger name moments with clear confidence and glee, such as the suite at the end of ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’. It incites joyous singing and movement from the seats, sounding majestic and other-worldly at times. The gong at the end is a great touch. ‘Bridges In The Sky’ brings the heaviness, though with a super-melodic chorus to keep it rounded. The classic ‘Caught In A Web’ is another clear-cut highlight, too.
Dream Theater earn a long, heartfelt standing ovation at the end of their main set, before the epic ‘Count Of Tuscany’ brings everything to a close. All five play their part well for a thrilling finale, but Petrucci is particularly in fine form, notably with an exceptional guitar solo backed only by Rudess’ keys partway through, built on melodic volume swells and gentle melodies. Some of the crowd sing along with the counter-melodies or Petrucci’s leads - some just quietly take them in. Virtually the whole room is on their feet by the end of the song, with noise from the audience long after the band have left the stage.
It feels like words still aren’t doing this performance justice. I’ll openly admit to not knowing Dream Theater too well, and I wouldn’t often listen to them at home, though I can vaguely remember ‘Black Clouds & Silver Linings’ coming out when I was very new to metal - ‘The Count Of Tuscany’ left an impression on me even back then. Tonight’s show was still thrilling, and its cinematics and broad range of musical palettes meant that its two-hour length didn’t matter. Of course, the instrumental displays were always going to be mind-blowing, but the tasteful songcrafting was somewhat of a curveball. The band would be incredibly tight as a unit and as individuals, but LaBrie led the entertainment masterfully and made it fun when it needed to be. I’d walked past Dream Theater at festivals between bands, underwhelmed by the sound on the day - but at their own show, with a proper sonic and visual presence, they were outstanding.
Absolutely solid. Hats off to LaBrie, Petrucci, Myung, Mangini and Rudess. If you get the chance to see them at a show like this, just do it.