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Not Beyond Reproach, But Close! - 92%

jontayl, May 18th, 2017

I generally hold live albums to a higher standard than I do studio albums. My rationale is simple: The band is recording pre-written material and are given more creative and musical latitude by an audience than they’d get from a professional recording engineer. Ergo, by virtue of having both a lower creative onus and more leeway, the band can afford to expend their efforts elsewhere. Preferably, on the album itself.

Breaking the Fourth Wall delivers, even given the high bar to which live albums ought to be held.

First, the musical execution. It’s spot-on. James LaBrie isn’t exactly the most consistent performer, and his shellfish-related injury (he ruptured his vocal chords coughing up bad clams) certainly didn’t help. However, he takes the stage in good shape, both as an emcee and as the lead vocalist. Still sounding nasal at times, however, LaBrie isn’t exactly perfect, and his breathiness can gnaw on the nerves of a listener, especially in balladic sections.

John Myung and Mike Mangini perform as solidly as humanly possible, as they always do. Both incredibly talented musicians, neither hog the limelight yet both get their fair share of glory. Trapped behind his fortress-like drumkit, Mangini continually belts out polyrhythms and inhuman right hand/left foot coordination. Likewise, John Myung is consistently in complete synchronization with Mangini’s speedy and complex bass drumming and misses nary a note through the whole show.

Keyboardist Jordan Rudess and guitarist John Petrucci are no worse, for that matter. Both have performances of a lifetime. Petrucci, adapting to his increased duties as the band’s secondary vocalist (Mike Portnoy had departed the band, and none of the other band members sing backup to James LaBrie), is as quick-fingered and tantalizing as ever. Rudess is similarly engaging and exciting to watch, though his self-indulgence does, at times, impede the flow of the music. For example, one could do without the necessary frills on Space Dye Vest.

Finally, Eren Başbuğ conducts the choir and pit quite well. Dream Theater has never been shy about incorporating symphonic elements into their shows, and there’s no better conductor for this particular setlist than Mr. Başbuğ himself. Leading the Berklee College of Music orchestra and choir, Başbuğ’s restrained yet upfront approach to adding extra dimensionality to Dream Theater’s music yields major dividends, especially when it comes to augmenting the low end of the mix and the mid-range of LaBrie’s vocals.

The next area of success that this album has is on the setlist. Opening with The Enemy Inside was a wise choice: It’s an adrenaline-pumping and anthemic metal song, the chorus of which has elements of Bon Jovi-style catharsis. By no means is this a bad song to use so as to kick off a concert.

Following The Enemy Inside are some of Dream Theater’s good-not-great songs. This is par for the course when it comes to the first disc of a multipart live concert. Highlights include The Shattered Fortress and Trial of Tears, executed with an unprecedentedly soulful intro from John Petrucci. To conclude the first disc, the band pulls out all the stops with an Enigma Machine-Along For the Ride-Breaking All Illusions tetralogy, boasting a Mike Mangini drum solo, more of that pop-oriented crowd pleasing, and then one of Dream Theater’s signature epics.

The setlist in the second disc isn’t quite as well put together, but it’s still decent enough. The band returns from intermission with a classic from their Awake album, The Mirror, soon to be followed by Scarred, also from Awake. Then, as a “calm before the storm” entr’acte, Space Dye Vest, again from Awake. It was not a great call to use Space Dye Vest as the penultimate song, given its relative obscurity (especially in the context of live shows–Dream Theater had seldom played this live since Kevin Moore’s departure), but it bridges the gap between Scarred and the grand finale ably. Ministry of Lost Souls, however, or perhaps Another Day would have been better choices, but these are nitpicky criticisms.

Then, the most important part of any show: The grand finale. Dream Theater executed this perfectly. They chose a song that epitomizes the band’s core facets: Its progressiveness, its emphasis on metal and on riffing, the solositic tendencies of its members, and James LaBrie’s penchant for shrieking. They chose Illumination Theory to conclude this show, and it certainly did the trick. Incorporating a key tar solo from Jordan Rudess, several sentimental quips from James LaBrie between verses, incredible rhythmic performances by Mike Mangini and John Myung, and several monstrous, earth-shattering John Petrucci solos, it’s difficult to imagine a song that would have ended this legendary concert better than Illumination Theory.

Then, the encore: Scenes From a Memory. They play Overture 1928, Strange Déjà vu, Dance of Eternity, and Finally Free. A glaring omission is Spirit Carries On,, though that’s certainly forgivable given the abundance of downtempo and emotional songs throughout the performance proper. A well-selected, perfectly executed (Petrucci’s solo in Overture 1928 is one of the greatest of all time, and no one misses a beat, even in the sheer chaos of Dance of Eternity) end to a great performance. 92/100.