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As the leading force of progressive metal, Dream Theater’s live shows are always geared specifically towards giving something special to the loyal, long-time fans, thanks to drummer Mike Portnoy’s ‘rotating set-list.’ By keeping extensive records of which songs were played at which locations over the band’s numerous world tours, Portnoy strives to ensure that fans get something new from each Dream Theater show, and that extends to those listening to the concert in their own home or car in the form of officially recorded live albums.
Released in 2004 to chronicle the Japanese leg of the tour for ‘Train of Thought,’ ‘Live at Budokan’ is no predictable ‘greatest hits’ set-list, revised only ever-so-slightly from the last live album to accommodate new songs alongside the old favourites. There is an expected small degree of overlap with 2000’s ‘Live Scenes From New York,’ 1997’s ‘Once in a Livetime’ and 1992’s ‘Live at the Marquee,’ but even with such an extensive live discography, only five out of eighteen songs have been released in this manner before. That leaves thirteen songs that have never before been released live, a mixture of mostly newer material released after Live Scenes From New York, and consciously differentiated picks from 1990s albums.
Dream Theater is fond of celebrating every stage of its career with live releases (Portnoy even having set up Ytse Jam Records to release so-called ‘Official Bootlegs’ of notable shows that Elektra Records would have no real interest in promoting), and each release is obviously tailored largely to promote the most recent studio release, in this case 2003’s Train of Thought. Five of that album’s seven songs are included across the enormous three disc set (or one disc if watching the DVD version, but I don’t have that). As it’s one of my least favoured of their studio albums, this live release was jeapordised a little before it even started playing, but as an account of the live Dream Theater experience it has yet to be beaten.
Dream Theater is a progressive metal band, combining the song-writers’ love of classic progressive rock and more recent heavy metal, though the band’s constant evolution with each album (obviously enhanced by their pioneering prog spirit) sees the ‘metal’ in question move with current trends. This collection includes songs from 1989 (‘Only a Matter of Time’) and 1992 (‘Pull Me Under’), both of which are firmly rooted in the eighties metal mentality: high pitched vocals, slow grooving guitar riffs and poppy synthesisers. The same elements are in place that would characterise the band’s entire career, but the attitude of these particular songs, and not necessarily the albums they were taken from, is to be accessible pop metal with a tinge of prog in the vein of Rush and Queensrÿche, the two most obvious influences. Still acting as the more accessible tracks on this release by being performed in a mostly unaltered fashion and also having the benefit of being the ‘old favourites,’ the distinctly retro sound makes them stand out against the more modern, heavier material, and the contrast would have been more effective and less jarring if some of the more experimental and notable songs from those early albums had been chosen instead (but of course, there’s the issue of the rotating set-list!)
The next stage of evolution that is charted is rather oddly the black sheep of Dream Theater releases, 1997’s ‘Falling into Infinity.’ Rather than focusing on its excellent predecessor ‘Awake,’ which arguably perfected the fusion between classic heavy metal and prog, this album was produced under the scrutiny of a record label that wanted something more radio-friendly, so it’s quite a surprise to see three songs (‘Hollow Years,’ ‘Trial of Tears’ and ‘New Millennium’) celebrated here. If the purpose is to contrast starkly with the crushing riffs of Train of Thought material and the insane keyboard shenanigans of the instrumentals, then it certainly works, but it raises the question of who this album is intended for. Only die-hard Dream Theater fans would fork out for a three-disc live album with an average song length of ten minutes each, but those same fans would be turned away by the inclusion of such weak material. It’s a common perception that there are two schools of Dream Theater fans, each preferring either their early or late career (I certainly belong to the former), and while the Falling into Infinity album is fortunately the weak point in the middle that neither tribe has to like, the newer fans that this album caters more towards aren’t going to appreciate such a diversion. ‘New Millennium’ is essentially a pop-rock songs in the wake of grunge, while ‘Hollow Years’ is mostly led by piano, like a couple of other songs already included here. Only ‘Trial of Tears’ could disguise itself as a more experimental song due to its length, but it’s not a very interesting or eventful journey, even if the chorus is quite nice.
That brings us to the majority of the album, which is taken from albums in Dream Theater’s more recent, continuing phase. The emphasis of this period is more on a conflict between crushing heaviness, probably inspired by the emergence of so-called ‘nu metal’ in the late 90s more than death metal, balanced out by a softer side of soaring guitar melodies and light keyboards. The live experience begins with a demonstration of Dream Theater at its most uncompromising, pounding through the first two songs from Train of Thought (‘As I Am’ and ‘This Dying Soul’) followed by a ridiculously extended version of the heaviest offering from 1999’s Scenes From a Memory (‘Beyond This Life.’) This is all about satisfying modern Dream Theater fans, which is no bad thing, and it was probably an intentional decision to alienate any new listeners not bold enough to face this challenge rather than try to suck them in with the poppier offerings from later on. The first two songs have a little improvisation added from the year-old studio tracks, but it’s pretty much the same deal as the whole Train of Thought album: songs based on fast and heavily down-tuned guitar riffs with aggressive vocals and even a very small dose of rap, something it took me a while to get over. It’s a little more pleasing to hear these songs in the live environment, as the original studio production was a little too muddy and imposing for me, and although these aren’t Dream Theater songs I would listen to very often at all, they’re memorable and accomplished, if a little too long.
‘Beyond This Life’ was the first Dream Theater song I heard many years ago, and it gets the balance between heavy and prog right on the nose, helped by a fantastic and instantly recognisable riff that the band can’t help but head-bang along to. Even the original version tries my patience at eleven minutes, breaking into a jam and improv for the second half, so I don’t exactly find this double length version the most riveting listen ever. Nevertheless, a lot of fans do, and this would be particularly suited to those who enjoy rock instrumental improvisations from the likes of the Dream Theater side-project ‘Liquid Tension Experiment.’ For those that don’t enjoy this type of thing... well, you’ll at least be safe for the rest of this disc.
As mentioned earlier, ‘Hollow Years’ is a fairly nice and inoffensive ballad of sorts, in the acoustic guitar, piano and soft singing way more than an Aerosmith power ballad, and its extension to nine minutes is more relaxing than imposing. The last two songs are extracts from the band’s eight-completely-different-songs-that-pretend-they’re-one-song epic ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’ from the 2001 album of the same name, which would later be released in a complete live form on the next live album in 2006. ‘War Inside My Head’ is a fairly inconsequential starter piece that brings things back around to heaviness, while ‘The Test That Stumped Them All’ is the band wishing they were Pantera, but a little better, with quite a cool groove metal song bringing back the aggression of the first three tracks in a more concise manner. This is what the first disc has mostly been about, with lapses into a softer side and keyboard and guitar masturbation, and the others take a little more time out to explore the full extent of the band’s capabilities.
The second disc is again dominated by three very long opening songs, this time all very different. ‘Endless Sacrifice’ is another new one from Train of Thought, and it’s a little slower and more thoughtful, sort of a love song to guitarist John Petrucci’s wife (but sung by vocalist James LaBrie. I’d watch out if I were him). This is probably my least favourite song on the entire album, largely because it bores me by dragging on towards the end without offering anything new, though the crowd seems to be into it. The later ‘Trial of Tears’ similarly tries my patience, but being an older song it sounds more fitting to the melancholy it’s trying to evoke by not shoving a down-tuned riff down my throat. The lyrics are memorable, and as with its previous live appearance on Once in a Livetime, the band mess around with the introduction for their own amusement.
In-between these slower pieces is the mania of the bold ‘Instrumedley,’ likely the high point of this whole album for avid Dream Theater fanatics who enjoy analysing all the clues and ‘easter eggs’ in the band’s composition, album art and lyrics. This piece is anchored in the instrumental recording ‘The Dance of Eternity’ from Scenes From a Memory, which was itself based around the earlier song ‘Metropolis Part 1,’ and that source song is also featured by the guitar, bass, drums and keyboards alongside selected and recognisable extracts from Dream Theater’s other official instrumentals ‘Ytse Jam’ (1989), ‘Erotomania’ (1994) and ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ (1997), also featuring clips from the band’s genuine and brilliant 1995 epic ‘A Change of Seasons’ and material from the afore-mentioned Liquid Tension Experiment side-project of the majority of band members. It may be too zany for newcomers, but it’s a lot of fun trying to spot all the instances being quoted, which also keeps it fresh and exciting throughout, certainly a unique highlight of this recording. The rest of this second disc is unfortunately as disappointing as the beginning, with ‘New Millennium’ pointlessly revived from the 1997 album, and ‘A Matter of Time’ sounding a little too out-of-date alongside the Instrumedley and subsequent ‘Keyboard Solo’ from Jordan Rudess, rather dull but permissable for being only a few minutes long and in the interests of fairness after his predecessor Derek Sherinian’s solo spot on Once in a Livetime.
The third and final disc is thankfully a little better, changing the formula to avoid over-long songs for the most part and focusing on a wider range of source material. ‘Goodnight Kiss’ and ‘Solitary Shell’ continue the Six Degrees epic from where ‘The Test That Stumped Them All’ left off on disc one, though the hour break is a little confusing and makes me wonder why this wasn’t the second disc in the set. These songs offer a more melodic perspective than the Pantera-esque heaviness of the earlier instalments, the first being, as expected from the title, a soft love song almost like a lullaby (but with better guitars), and the second being a little incessantly catchy and quite good in a very pop-rock way, even if the main melody is a complete rip-off of Faith No More’s ‘Everything’s Ruined.’ ‘Disappear’ is also from Six Degrees, but doesn’t form a part of the suite that the others have, standing alone and strong as another fairly derivative pop-rock song, this time more like Radiohead. In perhaps the only instance on this album, this live version is actually shorter than the original. The penultimate ‘Pull Me Under’ is the band’s first and perhaps only MTV hit, but has appeared on enough live albums to be rendered quite obsolete and dull by now.
The two new songs on this final disc are likely the most interesting picks from Train of Thought, the really unhinged instrumental ‘Stream of Consciousness’ and the bleak religious diatribe ‘In the Name of God.’ The first runs along similar lines to the earlier Instrumedley, very carefully planned and executed with a very complex structure I won’t even begin to attempt to explain. It’s incredibly demanding, but unlike the extended jams which merely seem to go off on one, this is a fantastic piece of music and the peak of Dream Theater’s instrumentals, perhaps the reason they haven’t released another one on the two albums since. ‘In the Name of God’ attacks religious leaders in the wake of September 11th and is a little depressing as the song to go out on, another reason it might have been prudent to switch the second and third discs around (if anyone was ever planning on listening to this in its entirety). The main riff is slow and heavy, but in a more careful and interesting style than the similarly downbeat ‘Endless Sacrifice,’ and although the choir chant carries on for a little too long at the end, it at least proves that Train of Thought wasn’t completely worthless.
‘Live at Budokan’ was the second three-disc live album from Dream Theater, and not the last. With the band’s patience-demanding song lengths and even more frustrating extensions into jams, a two disc release wouldn’t cover much ground at all, and certainly wouldn’t allow the newer material to be properly set against the band’s extensive back catalogue. The newer material does work a lot better in this context, although I still don’t appreciate the style as much as I do the earlier (and later) works, and as this is unavoidably the ‘Train of Thought Live Album’ in essence, it wouldn’t be my first choice to listen to with all the others out there, which pay more attention to more enjoyable material.
The ‘Instrumedley’ and the live version of ‘Stream of Consciousness’ make this a necessary purchase for fans more interested in the band’s extreme experimental side, and their inclusion here means that they probably won’t show up on a live release again, at least not for several years. This is where Portnoy’s rotating set-list is a double-edged sword, providing something new with each live release for fans who have all of them, but also, essentially, requiring fans to buy all of them in the first place. As a consequence of this release, 2006’s ‘Score’ features the worthwhile song ‘Vacant’ from Train of Thought (leaving only the worthless ‘Honor Thy Father’ unreleased in this form), while also collecting the entire ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’ epic together for the first time, similar to the collection of ‘A Change of Seasons’ on the 2001 live album after bits and pieces made their way into Once in a Livetime.
After the release of the next studio album, mostly likely in 2009 as one has only just been released this year, Portnoy has expressed his wish to perform and record his entire Alcoholics Anonymous suite in its entirety, which ought to be a fairly tedious hour of music but will also make the inclusion of ‘This Dying Soul’ here (written as parts four and five of the suite) and ‘The Root of All Evil’ on the following live album (parts six and seven) irrelevant in hindsight. At least there will finally be a live version of the criminally overlooked ‘The Glass Prison’ (parts one to three) from Six Degrees album, which really should have replaced one of the weaker fifteen minute songs on this live recording. Portnoy’s preoccupation with getting everything possible released in a live form will doubtless damage future live releases if allowed to remain unchecked, and already appears to have affected this release with the apparent performance of ‘Millennium’ merely because it hadn’t been done yet. ‘Live at Budokan’ is primarily a mixture of weak Train of Thought material and an edited version of an epic suite that would be released more definitively later, and aside from interesting instrumentals it can probably be written off as an inessential purchase, whatever the completist drummer would have us believe.
Imagine a colossal stadium. Now pack it with rockers, metalheads and prog-junkies, and throw four of the world's most technically proficient instrumentalists onto a stage in front of them. Oh, and James LaBrie, too. The result is one of the best 3-cd live albums ever.
Having seven albums and other various tidbits' worth of music to show off, DT are kings on-stage. True, not all of Train of Thought's tracks were great, but starting off with As I Am and This Dying Soul was a great move to get the crowds going. Most of Beyond This Life was nothing but weird noises, but in a good way... Apparently it's an interesting bit on the dvd. Hollow Years is great-- There's a nice little guitar-etc jam in there, and it immediately breaks into War Inside My Head. This and the following track, The Test That Stumped Them All are probably the weakest tracks on the cd. LaBrie still sounds better in the studio, in my honest opinion.
Disc two is by far my favourite of the three. I don't really care much for Endless Sacrifice anymore, but the Instrumedley was one of the reasons I purchased the album in the first place. They're all in there-- Dance of Eternity, Erotomania, Hell's Kitchen, YTSÉ Jam, A Change Of Seasons, Metropolis pt I... And a pair of Liquid Tension Experiment tracks. Brilliant. It launches straight into Paradigm Shift at about eight-and-a-half minutes in, and Universal Mind shortly after. Both very jazzy tracks.
As I bought Live at Budokan before Falling Into Infinity, I familiarised myself with this live performance of Trial of Tears before hearing the studio version. And let me tell you, I'd think it was a studio recording had I not known better. It's not that it SOUNDS like a studio recording, it's just that it's so well-played that it might as well be. Brill once again.
New Millenium is delightful. If anything, it's better than the studio recording. And the subtle (bwah) alteration of the lyrics towards the end is also a nice tidbit. And then the Keyboard Solo... I couldn't really get into it. It's not that catchy, and a tad too experimental for my liking.
Only A Matter Of Time was fuggin' GREAT. The new keyboard bits, the guitarisms, everything is exhilirating. The only gripe I have is that JLB's voice doesn't slot in as well as Charlie's did on the original. Boo.
Disc three opens with the melodic, initially-slow-paced Goodnight Kiss. It's OK, but wasn't one of my favourite songs in the first place. When the guitary bits properly kick in, it's a nice, vigorous, melodic listen until Solitary Shell starts playing. Don't get me wrong; the studio recording was great - It was prolly my favourite track on the second disc of SDOIT. But something about the singing... I don't like it. It sounds far too whiny for my liking. The extra riffs not present in the studio version are *great*, though.
Stream of Consciousness? oh yes. After initially griping about the fact that it wasn't included within the Instrumedley, I listened to this and stopped caring. It's absolutely fantastic live. Seriously. If you've heard (and like) the studio, you'll love it. If you haven't, you'll hate the studio after hearing it live. Seriously.
Disappear... Eh. It was another of the good tracks on SDOIT, but doesn't really work well live. I think it's the distortion on the studio track that gives it that special "vibe" for me. Worth a listen, though.
Pull Me Under was... Wow. I'm not actually a huge fan of the song, but I always listen to this track just to hear the huge cry of "woooo!" as soon as the intro is played. And then JLB yells "goodnight, Tokyo!" at the end, but that's not quite it.
In The Name Of God was my favourite track on Train of Thought, but I'm not too fond of it live. Firstly, the singing isn't great, and secondly, what with everyone being tired as hell, the band struggle towards the end of the song. I'm glad that they performed it, though, because that bumps it up to a nice, round six tracks per disc.
Worth buying? Certainly, but it's not something that I'd pay over £20 (roughly $35 dollars US-ish, I think) for. I'd go for Once In A LIVEtime instead, if I were you.