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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Concert Review: Astounded and Surrounded

Dream Theater plays The Astonishing in Newark.
by Paul J. Pelkonen drums. Dream Theater lead singer James LaBrie sings The Astonishing.
Photo from the video of "Our New World" © 2016 Dream Theater/Roadrunner Records.
The gulf  between grand opera and heavy metal seems vast. These two genres of music commanding different audiences that are equally passionate about their artists. And yet, some intrepid bands have thrown bridges across that gulf, writing astounding rock operas that swell and surge with orchestral power and epic, complex storylines as convoluted as the grandest opera. On Wednesday night, the veteran progressive metal band Dream Theater brought their touring version of their new record The Astonishing to Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Center for Performing Arts.

Dream Theater have been around since the late '80s, when four young musicians at Berklee College of Music in Boston dropped out to start a band that was intially called "Majesty." Since their first album, the band has undergone lineup changes and shifts in musical direction. Their thirteenth effort, The Astonishing came out in January of this year. It is their largest and longest album yet, a two-disc, two-hour-ten-minute rock opera set in a dystopian future where music is a forgotten art. Set in the year 2285, the album opens with the appearance of "NOMACs" ("noise machines") that are the only permitted music, a series of dull electronic squeaks, beeps and clicks.

This concert featured lead singer James LaBrie shifting between a cast of seven major characters. Mr. LaBrie's lyric tenor (he can range all the way up to a high E flat and down to a baritone D) was front and center on Wednesday night, as he shifted his remarkable instrument from a whisper to a scream. He added declamatory singing, narrating the complex story of the confrontation between the forces of Nefaryus and the singer Gabriel, a messianic figure whose efforts with an acoustic guitar signal a new renaissance for mankind.

On the surface, the plot of The Astonishing sounds a little bit like Rush's 2112, but this work tells a much bigger story. Gabriel's abilities attract the attention of the Emperor Nefaryus and his royal family, who fly to the village of Ravenskill to see what this new music is all about. Gabriel falls in love with Faythe, the Emperor's daughter, which sets the stage for the clash between these two cultures. A subplot chronicles the fight between Daryus (Nefaryus' son) and Arhys, the leader of the Ravenskill militia. These generals are mirror images of each other, and their bloody battle brings the story to its climax. The story was accompanied by a long series of digital visuals with renderings of all the key characters, films that looked dated by today's standard but enhanced the storytelling.

Onstage, Mr. LaBrie was flanked by John Petrucci and John Myung, the two founding members of the band. The Astonishing was conceived by Mr. Petrucci and written with keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and as one might expect, these two musicians were front and center. (That's the only problem with this record: the shorter songs do not give Dream Theater's rhythm section (Mr. Myung on bass and drummer Mike Mangini) the same opportunities for instrumental workout that have featured on past records.) However, all four players and Mr. Labrie had their moments of impressive virtuosity and, at the end of Act I closer  "The Road to Revolution", Mr. Petrucci unleashed a soaring solo that crested on a tidal wave of sound.

Back in 1997,  it was Mr. Rudess' decision to join Dream Theater that radically expanded the band's sonic palette. The Long Island-based pianist uses electronic keyboards, but loaded with realistic, sampled pianos (they even sound slightly "flawed" the way a real concert grand does), organ, synthesizer and orchestral and choir parts, the last usually triggered by foot pedal. In addition to his custom keyboard rig, Mr. Rudess was armed with a Haken Continuum, a flat, keyless electronic instrument that allows him to play swoops and glissando parts in tandem with Mr. Petrucci.

Unlike past Dream Theater releases which have featured songs up to thirty minutes in length, the songs on The Astonishing are short. Framed by instrumental stings for piano and acoustic guitar, the band shifts moods constantly in service of Mr. Petrucci's narrative. Gentle instruments are used to represent the pastoral people of the village of Ravenskill, and the fury of the band's electric roar accompanies the appearances of Nefaryus and his troops. Here, it was the combination of Mr. Petrucci, Mr. Myung, Mr. Rudess and the versatile, thunderous drumming of Mr. Mangini that brought this ambitious, sprawling work to a climax that was well-earned and simply...Astonishing.

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