TVD Live Shots: Dream Theater at the Eventim Apollo, 2/21

The first time I heard Dream Theater was back in 1992 when “Pull Me Under” took the US metal market by storm. I was working in a record store in St. Louis while going to university, and I remember thinking, what in the hell was this? It was heavy and melodic; it was progressive metal for metalheads. 

As soon as “Pull Me Under” hit MTV and the local radio station, people were coming in droves to buy this record. The problem was no one had heard of Dream Theater previously, and the majority of people wanted to just buy the single. (Yeah, there was this thing called a cassingle at the time. Look it up.) But there wasn’t one released for this song. The only option was to buy the entire CD or nothing. Images and Words started flying off the shelves. But just as quickly as it flew out the door, it started coming back in.

People were shocked that there were ballads on the record, most notably track two showing up immediately after the hard-driving “Pull Me Under.” “Another Day” certainly slowed the pace down a bit unexpectedly, but the album picked right back up with “Take the Time” and even peaked later on with “Metropolis.” But holy shit, the metalheads just couldn’t accept the fact that there were slower songs on the record. (The lack of patience, and what was acceptable as a metalhead, was very limited.)

Mind you, this is the same year that Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power was released, so extreme was in. (Pantera were label mates with the band ironically.) This was a decisive moment for the Dream Theater, and it split the metal community pretty much down the middle. The record label struggled a bit to figure out what to do with the band, and I think expectations were a bit muddled and the future was uncertain at best.

I totally got it. I fucking loved this record from start to finish and played it pretty much non-stop in the store. I went to see the live show in 1993 at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis, and I remember it like it was yesterday. James Labrie had the most incredible voice I’d ever heard. I remember thinking this guy is like the Celine Dion of metal. His voice was absolute perfection. Add to that the band’s incredible musicianship and the dynamics to take metal to places it had never been before, and I was hooked. But the rest of the world, were they ready for Dream Theater?

I think that question was answered quite abruptly when the second album was released, and I felt like the label had already thrown in the towel. Awake was released in 1994 and is a stellar record, but with fading support from their record label and the arrival of grunge, it wasn’t looking good. That said, Dream Theater would end up having the last laugh.

Fast forward three decades, fifteen studio albums, and twelve million album sales later; Dream Theater are not only the titans of prog, but they are also one of the world’s biggest and most successful metal bands. I find it fascinating how these things work themselves out when the band doesn’t give up and finally lands on a record label that gets it. I give full credit to Roadrunner Records for getting the marketing strategy back on track in terms of promotion, but when it comes to their high-flying success, that’s due to the music and the band’s vision. Guitarist John Petrucci continues to innovate and drive Dream Theater into uncharted territory.

Now I’ve seen Dream Theater several times over the years, and I still get chills every time I see them play live. Touring in support of the latest record, A View from the Top of the World, they would return once again to the legendary Hammersmith Apollo here in London. They came out all guns blazing, opening the set with the Grammy award-winning song “The Alien” (yeah, they won a fucking Grammy). How the hell do they make it look so easy to play some insanely complicated riffs and time signatures? But we were just getting started.

There were four songs from the latest album, but the real surprise was two songs from Awake, including “Caught in a Web” and “6:00,” and the resurrection of “Pull me Under,” making it back into the setlist and sounding better than I’ve ever heard it, mind you. But the real highlight of the set came at the end. “The Count of Tuscany,” the 20-minute magnum opus that effortlessly combines metal, prog, and even a bit of pop, was the showstopper. Not only is this easily one of their finest moments as a band but seeing Petrucci play the transition from the dark into the light, like majestic birds soaring during the twilight, was nothing short of magical—a serene moment where everyone in the theatre was transported to another place just before the hero’s journey comes crashing down.

An absolutely brilliant night with a legendary band. It was a next-level experience as both a rock and metal fan. And I also have to mention that James LaBrie’s vocals were spot-on. I’ve read a few critical reviews in the past, but he was stellar and hit all the notes bang on. Don’t miss this one folks, these guys are at the top of their game.

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