On Sept. 11, 2001, in the midst of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Dream Theater released Live Scenes From New York, a three-CD live set with an unitentional cover featuring the city's skyline engulfed in a flaming apple. That album (later re-released with a new cover) features a run-through of Dream Theater's entire 1999 Metropolis Part II: Scenes From a Memory, plus many other songs culled from most of the five full-length studio albums the band had released to that point.
On the other hand, the sprawling three-CD Live at Budokan, recorded April 26, 2004, on the other side of the world, only delves back as far as 1997's Falling Into Infinity (save for the surprise inclusion of "Only A Matter of Time" from the often overlooked debut When Dream and Day Unite) and features five of the seven tracks on Dream Theater's heaviest album, 2003's Train of Thought. By spreading 18 songs across a span of nearly three hours, this set gives each player plenty of time to soak up the spotlight and allows longtime fans to indulge in the band's pioneering brand of progressive metal. It's almost too much. But not quite.
All three CDs find Dream Theater sounding tougher than ever – thanks, no doubt, to the additional ammunition the band revealed on Train of Thought. Disc one opens with a one-two punch from the latest album ("As I Am" and "This Dying Soul") then visits older material. Disc two is the most intense, highlighted by the clever "Instrumedley," which contains excerpts from Liquid Tension Experiment's "Paradigm Shift" and "Universal Mind." (Dream Theater now includes three members of that late-Nineties instrumental-metal outfit: drummer Mike Portnoy, guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess). Disc three starts out quietly with "Goodnight Kiss" and "Solitary Shell," picks up pace with the instrumental "Stream of Consciousness" and the evocative ballad "Disappear," and finally climaxes with unbeatable versions of "Pull Me Under" and "In the Name of God."
Unfortunately, singer James LaBrie's voice often sounds thin and unintelligible. Granted, the man's been involved in several outside projects lately, and Dream Theater has been touring almost constantly since the turn of the millennium. But surely the band could have picked a gig where he sounded a little stronger …
Surprisingly, a companion DVD (sold separately) makes Live at Budokan more intriguing and, unlike the CDs, takes LaBrie's voice out of the spotlight. Neat camera angles give viewers unusual perspectives from the sides of the stage and in the musicians' faces. Those, combined with phenomenal visual clarity and 5.1 Surround Sound give the video a larger-than-life vibe. Dream Theater fans who've seen the band's concerts know that LaBrie leaves the stage for practically every extended instrumental passage; consequently he always looks refreshed (and a little possessed). The rest of the musicians provide a study in virtuosity, as they are consummate players who rarely break a smile – although Rudess displays more emotion playing his four-minute solo than Petrucci and bassist John Myung do the entire night.
According to Portnoy, Dream Theater hits the road with 10 hours of prepared material so the band can play a different show every night. (That may explain why the musicians look so serious; maybe they're trying to remember what note of what song comes next.) The set list for Live at Budokan, strong as it is, won't please everyone. But that's what makes Dream Theater so entertaining; even most of the band's weaker songs still manage to sound good. And that's why - with Queensryche switching musical direction and Fates Warning all but dissolved - Dream Theater still towers over its younger imitators after all these years, continuing to set the standard for classic American progressive metal.
CD Track Listing
1) As I Am (7:25)
2) This Dying Soul (11:44)
3) Beyond This Life (19:37)
4) Hollow Years (9:18)
5) War Inside Me Head (2:22)
6) The Test That Stumped Them All ( 5:00)
1) Endless Sacrifice (11:18)
2) Instrumedley (12:15)
3) Trial of Tears (13:49)
4) New Millennium (8:01)
5) Keyboard Solo (3:58)
6) Only A Matter of Time (7:21)
1) Goodnight Kiss (6:16)
2) Solitary Shell (5:58)
3) Stream of Consciousness (10:54)
4) Disappear (5:56)
5) Pull Me Under (8:38)
6) In the Name of God (15:49)
DVD bonus footage includes tour documentary, opening video, and special segments with Mike Portnoy, Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci