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Over Dream Theater’s sparkling career the band has dealt with many changes. Changes in fan base; a prime example being the shift from mainstream audience to almost underground metal following between 1992’s Images and Words and 1994’s Awake. They have dealt with changes in lyrical style; early songs such as “Under A Glass Moon” serving as a near opposite to recent writings of drummer Mike Portnoy’s “AA Saga.” However, the biggest shift the band has undergone to date is undoubtedly the style of writing within Dream Theater music itself. Gone are the polished unison solos of early tracks such as “Afterlife” and in their place extended guitar and keyboard solos – virtuosic elements within each band member crying to burst out. To couple with this change in individual tendency is the tendency of the band as a whole - Dream Theater riffs becoming almost stereotypical in their construction and repetition.
Enter 2004, the year in which many fans had had enough. Having just released 7th studio record Train of Thought, many fans felt almost disgusted at the radical change in direction Dream Theater had taken. Stripped from their notable genre of Progressive Metal was the “Progressive” label, Train of Thought providing purely heavy and sometimes insane instrumental work. Despite this radical change in musical direction, one variable remained constant: the intensity and awe of live Dream Theater concerts. Ironically, 2004 coupled Dream Theater’s weakest studio release with their most notable concert venue to date - The Nippon Budokan Hall. As is tradition with the famous arena, a live concert DVD was shot and recorded entitled “Live at Budokan,” this time Dream Theater being the advertising band. Overall, the two-disc package is a solid watch for any fan of heavy music and is surely among one of the best buys a metal fan could hope for.
In terms of production value, Budokan is second to none. Even those who question the concert’s inconsistent setlist will fess up that the mixing of sound and camera work is phenomenal. The 5.1 Surround Sound is flawless, so much so it almost pushes every single song past the quality and high of its original counterpart. The only sound flaw I can attempt to shed light upon is that guitarist John Petrucci and keyboarist Jordan Rudess are sometimes too low in the mix during leads, and don’t stand out enough. Besides that jack-ass observasion only a true nitpicker can make, Budokan’s sound can only be described as jaw-dropping. Picture-wise, the camera work is very consistent – focusing on James LaBrie almost all the time during short vocal passages and on each insturmentalist during upbeat or solo sections. Visually, everything is as clear as one could want and the lighting of the concert serves to benefit the setlist’s darker songs very well. In short, Live at Budokan is almost certainly the best looking and sounding DVD I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Disc One begins with the riffage-fest that is “As I Am” and serves to set the trend of heavier songs being played throughout the evening. Following “As I Am” is the second chapter of Dream Theater’s AA Saga, “This Dying Soul.” Surprisingly, this is one of the few songs (Along with “Endless Sacrifice and New Millenium”) that I felt was not improved in a live setting. Suffice to say, the first two tracks are never-the-less as heavy as anything Dream Theater has ever written and stress the band’s metal side. “Beyond This Life” is up next and I have to say, singer James LaBrie sounds a little off-tune. However, in terms of individual musicianship the song gives Dream Theater full justice – proof shown during the middle of the song where the boys break into an eight minute solo-fest. While this extended passage is interesting, I must admit it is slightly boring if not completely useless.
Now, as much as a listener hates hearing a concert’s climax just several songs in, this here is the case with Budokan. Just three songs gone by, just four songs in, Dream Theater mellows out the frantic mood with Falling into Infinity’s “Hollow Years.” How does one describe this track? How can one put something so brilliant into words? Well, quite simply, “Hollow Years” done live is Jamie Fox emerging into his prominent role of Ray Charles in “Ray.” In laymen’s terms, “Hollow Years” shatters everything it stood for on its studio recording, James LaBrie’s voice complementing the melodies perfectly; John Petrucci’s extended guitar solo transforming the original version from a poppy collaboration into a spine-chiller, and the chorus’s motivational words contradicting the dark mood of Nippon Budokan Hall. Truly, you don’t have a pulse if “Hollow Years” doesn’t hit you hard and leave you begging for more.
From this point the concert endures some major high points and some major low points. On the low side, several tracks come across as boring and overdone. Prime examples of these negative descriptions are “Endless Sacrifice” and “New Millennium.” The former is a downright shred-fest with a horrid chorus and noticeable changes to its instrumental section, while the latter is uninteresting and drawn out. On the other side of those specific negatives, and without mention of several other solid songs (“War Inside My Head, The Test That Stumped Them All, Trial of Tears, A Keyboard Solo, Only A Matter of Time, Goodnight Kiss, Solitary Shell and Disappear”), Budokan again showcases some memorable numbers that absolutely baffle the listener.
The first of these baffling performances that come to mind is “Instrumedley,” a number that covers memorable moments of Dream Theater instrumental sections. If there was ever a doubt about the individual talents of each member, they will all be laid to rest here. Every single member endures 12 minutes of the hardest Dream Theater passages ever created, and pull it off to a tee. Towards the end of the second set, Dream Theater pulls out previously unreleased “Stream of Consciousness” and fan-favorite “Pull Me Under.” “Stream of Consciousness” was the one song off of Train of Thought that was unanimously accepted by fans of all eras, and its performance is only surpassed in a live setting. “Pull Me Under” is played two songs later at the conclusion of the 2nd set, and serves to energize the listener once more.
The encore of the concert is “In The Name of God,” which quite frankly is a love-or-hate type affair. John Petrucci uses his Piezo pickup to showcase an eerie introduction - reminiscent of early Metallica ballads - before the entire band breaks into an absolute rocker of a riff. From here things take an absolute U-Turn as the song becomes an epic cry, the listener memorized by solid backup singing from John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy. Two major problems with the performance here are James LaBrie’s blatantly tired vocals and the out-of-place instrumental section in the middle of the song. Although the instrumental section is one of the most impressive things the band has ever done from a virtuosic element, it disobeys ever songwriting technique ever implied. Following a godly unison solo from Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci, the band revisits its early riff before inviting the crowd to join them in the singing of an epic outro. As is typical Dream Theater fashion, John Petrucci adds yet another previously unreleased solo to the conclusion of the song which chills your spine and makes every miss-cue throughout the number forgivable. Incredible!
Disc Two is comprised of several interesting features, the most prominent of which is a documentary entitled “Riding the Train of Thought” which follows the band around on their Japanese tour. One element I’ve always respected about Dream Theater is that fact that each and every member comes across as human, something wonderfully showcased in this documentary. The viewer also gets three specials: John Petrucci’s Guitar World, Jordan Rudess’s Keyboard World, and a Mike Portnoy Drum Solo. However, most fun to watch here is the multi-angle version of “Instrumedley” which, if you read my above opinion, you know is something mind-boggling to behold. The one complaint here is that there is nothing on bassist John Myung, which would serve to make an interesting bonus feature. Never-the-less, Disc Two is a worthy collection of bonus material that will keep you occupied for efficient time.
In conclusion, Live at Budokan shows a band whose live ability is so proficient they are able to obliterate nearly every representation of song compared to its original version. While the tone of the concert does jump around too much, while James LaBrie is still showing obvious signs of vocal inconsistency, Dream Theater again proves they are a force to be reckoned with. Don’t get me wrong, Budokan is certainly not for everyone. However, if heavy music and unreal musicianship be your piece-of-the-pie, you’ll be committing a crime to yourself if this package is not added to your library in short time.
Notable Tracks – Hollow Years, Stream of Consciousness, In the Name of God