May 23, 2016 Dream Theater Bring The Astonishing To The Fox Theater Oakland, CA 5-8-16
Sometimes a band comes out with an album so powerful and thematic, that the only touring option is to bring it in its entirety to their audience. With that in mind, Progressive Metal icons Dream Theater bring their thirteenth album, The Astonishing, on tour, accompanied by incredible visuals that brought the entire album to life in a way that was immersive and engrossing. Jie Ma, the artist that created the visuals for characters, maps, and scenery, created incredibly detailed art for the album and merchandising that was definitely evocative of Final Fantasy games 12 and beyond in their style. As far as the overall cast for this Rock Opera masterpiece, credits go to music by John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess, lyrics/story by Petrucci, Orchestra and Choirs arranged by David Campbell, vocals by James LaBrie, guitar by Petrucci, keyboards by Rudess, and drums by Mike Mangini. Touring for years, Dream Theater wanted to make this 2016 run unique and they took that concept to the Fox Theater in Oakland, California on Sunday, May 8th.
As the lights dimmed, the monitors filled with the image of a NOMAC (‘Noise Machines’ that manufacture and perform artificial electronically conceived music). This was all while “Descent of the Nomacs” played; klaxons blaring throughout the auditorium bringing attention to the front. As the intro fades into “Dystopian Overture,” the band, not including LaBrie, came onto the stage to much applause. The imagery was that of the landscape of this dystopian America set in the future. It was unrecognizable and felt very foreign. Quite vivid, the song set the stage for Act I, with the motifs and themes to come. It was not until “Gift of Music ” that LaBrie made his own entrance to another round of raucous applause. This first track on the album with lyrics introduced the audience to Gabriel, a man with the natural ability to make music and sing. Directly after, Petrucci switched to acoustic guitar for “The Answer,” which goes into more details about the chosen one named Gabriel.
Moving on, “A Better Life” starts off with a Rudess solo, showing off the wonderful stage lighting, and introduces images of three characters floating across the screen. The design was breathtaking, which definitely added heavily to the emotions that the story prompted. Thereafter, “Lord Nafaryus” introduces the audience to the nefarious, Emperor Nafaryus and his family. The imagery here was not just of them, but strangely advanced flying platforms that contrast strongly with the otherwise medieval landscape and setting. Again, Petrucci switches to acoustic guitar and it was moments such as these when the music was much more quiet that the strings and orchestra were most appreciated.
It continued with “A Savior in the Square,” which is the first meeting of the royal family and Gabriel. Here, images displayed townsfolk bowing to the royal family, and it is the first time the noise machines are mentioned directly in the lyrics. Fading smoothly into “When Your Time Has Come,” which opens with the applause of the townsfolk, showing exceptional use of the sound effects used on the album. Rudess’ intro here was simple, but his attention to detail when it came to intonation of the show was pure mastery. Furthermore, it also perfectly marked the moment that two of the main characters fall in love. With that said, “Act of Faythe” opens purely orchestrally, being the motif for the princess, it is delicate, sad, and yearning. Then, from the innocence of “Act of Faythe” to the dark and dangerous “Three Days,” the Emperor demands that Gabriel be delivered to him within three days and the transition is menacing. Here, the imagery was much more violent and terrifying as the music moves from solemnly threatening to playfully evil.
Ten songs in, the audience received another NOMAC intermission. For the song “The Hovering Sojourn,” there were more NOMACS gathering in the sky and electronic sounds were somewhat of a palate cleanser. After the short break,“Brother, Can You Hear Me?” came in. Then, back at the royal palace, “A Life Left Behind” had Faythe leaving to find Gabriel, with her mother’s blessing, but secretly, the Empress sends Daryus to follow his sister and keep her safe, with his own intentions. The brother and sister’s musical themes clash beautifully at the end of the song as Petrucci stomped around the stage menacingly.
With birds chirping, the scene was back to “Ravenskill” and the song reached a desperate sounding passage once she reveals herself to young Xander who takes her to his father, Arhys. Bringing it all together, Rudess and Petrucci really worked well together to convey strong emotions. “Chosen,” another soft piano intro, highlighted Rudess as Faythe, with Petrucci’s acoustic guitar tied strongly to Gabriel who in the visuals was often seen carrying a guitar. Meanwhile, in “A Tempting Offer,” Daryus’ evil motifs clash with the innocence of the young Xander and Petrucci’s guitar solo fits the mood so perfectly here. Per usual Petrucci fashion, he made his solos look excruciatingly simple on stage before fading out softly as the audience was granted another intermission.
Following next, “Digital Discord” had yet even more NOMACS hovering above the landscape. Twitching and glitching out, the band made instrument changes throughout. LaBrie, who went off stage for any decently long portion of the show with no vocals, appeared about a minute into “The X Aspect.” In this song, betrayal is marked with dramatic bagpipes as the first act was coming to a close. Then, “A New Beginning,” the longest track on the album, featured a wonderful solo at the end of the piece that seemed to reflect the conflict in the Emperor’s heart and it was Petrucci’s highlight of the concert. The first act finally concluded with “Road To Revolution” as Mangini had his spotlight for a fantastic solo.
Allowing another breather, after a twenty minute intermission, “2285 Entr’acte” recapped the themes thus far, and similarly to “Dystopian Overture,” set the stage for Act II. It was here “Moment Of Betrayal” introduced a new theme and started off incredibly strong, making things feel new, but still obviously in the same universe/story. It was a wonderful fresh start after a lengthy first half of the performance featuring more solos from Petrucci and espionage level imagery. Acoustically, Petrucci and Rudess set the tone for the nighttime scene with the nearly-instrumental piece “Heaven’s Cove.” Beautiful backdrops created a tense atmosphere as the audience knew that the story could not end without conflict. The next track saw the strings and Rudess emphasizing the princess’ new ambition to make the world a better place so that everyone could have “A New Beginning.” It was gentle and sweet, contrasting greatly as “The Path That Divides” began. Here, violent sound effects colluded with Mangini’s well-executed drumming and Petrucci’s nefarious guitar as an epic battle was fought. After, another NOMAC interlude was shown, and it was the largest gathering of them in the sky yet.
Leading the audience into the climax of the second half was “Machine Chatter.” As the frenzied music mirrored the backdrop, “The Walking Shadow” made its way onto the stage, looming in the imagery behind the band. Here, tragedy strikes and instantly brought the mood to a somber crawl as blood splashed on the screen and Faythe’s rasping breaths had the audience on the edge of their seats. After the hero found the heroine on the verge of death, the tenderness of the moment faded and fury took over as Petrucci conveyed well through his solo. When “My Last Farewell” ended, the hero let out a bloodcurdling scream, which was heard throughout the entire town and causes the villain to go deaf. This comes before LaBrie gives a convincing scream, dropping to quiet and making way for the emotional opening to “Losing Faythe.” The images show a reversal of roles here as the Emperor begs the hero, in contrast to the way the townsfolk bowed to the Emperor earlier. Rudess’ tragic portrayal of the princess on “Whispers On The Wind” brought the audience to the verge of tears, while the hero felt helpless and the song ended with the rumbles of low, low orchestral strings.
Seeming like all is lost, a violin in the intro signals a sign of light on “Hymn Of A Thousand Voices” where the acoustic guitar (the hero) is supported by the people (violin) and they give him hope again. To really bring the story to life, LaBrie had the audience stand and sing along as best they could. As things turn victorious, “Our New World” turned everything around and Faythe’s ambitions finally came to fruition as Petrucci gave his final victory solo, mimicking the melody sung by LaBrie. As the song ended, the band bid farewell to the audience and exited the stage as everything went dark.
A riveting tale until the end, on “Power Down,” the Emperor follows through on his promise to deactivate the artificial ‘Noise Machines.’ During this final NOMAC interlude, the crowd watched in wonder as thousands of machines in the sky slowly fall to the ground below as they are deactivated, red lights blinking in time with the sirens. Simply amazing, the audience adsorbed the entire experience as they still stood feeling like it was a personal victory for all involved. For the encore, Dream Theater fittingly returned to play the final track on the album, “Astonishing.” Featuring each character reflecting on the events in the epic, the future was clearly bright as the backing track for the choir was very well mixed as fans soaked in the finale.
A living entity, Dream Theater took The Astonishing to its next step; not a concert, but a performance, with two acts and an intermission. The audience clearly loved it and they were on their feet clapping, whooping, and whistling as the band walked around congratulating each other before offering their final bow. The event was simply majestic and the only logical next step would be to turn it into a full-on play that Dream Theater accompanied on top of an orchestra. A production of that proportion would be a massive hit with the kinds of followers that Dream Theater has. While the North American dates are through, Dream Theater take the show over to Brazil and Mexico through June and July. With that said, those who have not had a chance to see this wonderful spectacle need to find the means to do so.