LIVE: Dream Theater, Arion @ Eventim Apollo, London

By Graham Hilling

It’s a chilly evening tonight in Hammersmith ahead of catching Dream Theater on their extensive European tour promoting their latest album, ‘A View From The Top Of The World’. The queue to get into the venue is already snaking its way around the building and theres an air of expectation as the crowds shuffle forward, slowly inching towards the doors. Inside, there is the usual squeeze at the merch stall, with the fans able to purchase all manner of memorabilia ranging from the usual t-shirts and hoodies to scarves and key rings!

Soon, the first band of the evening take to the stage – Arion from Finland, they have been support for this whole European leg of the tour, which started in January. They burst onto the stage with a huge amount of energy. It’s sometimes difficult for support bands and this evening is no exception, with a rather muted response from the half full venue (too many people still buying merch!).

Arion continue without any slow down though, keeping the energy levels high for the whole set. The music is more power metal than prog metal, and certainly not as nuanced or complex as Dream Theater’s material. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like here and eventually the audience does warm to them. ‘I’m Here to Save You’ rumbles along at a frantic pace with big choruses mixed in with some fine pop sensibilities. The energy levels remain on overdrive with ‘Punish Me’ and the guys all seem to be having a great time on the stage.

The vocals of Lassi Vääränen are particularly impressive, showing a great range; this is a man that can definitely hold a note. Closing the set with ‘At the Break of Dawn’ leaves a lasting impression and perhaps in a smaller, more intimate venue with a more fervent crowd, they could indeed shine.

By the time the lights go down, the venue has filled to capacity with only a few empty seats to be seen. Cheers and applause greet Dream Theater as they take to the stage one at a time. Touring almost non-stop for a year and travelling all around the globe, with only the odd few weeks off here and there, looks to have taken its toll on Dream Theater tonight and that becomes quickly noticeable. At their last London performance at Wembley nearly a year ago, there was a spark and a buzz in the air, the whole band clearly loving the experience of playing live again post-pandemic. Tonight, that spark seems to be less evident. This is the last night of a very long phase of touring, promoting the current album, ‘A View from the Top of the World’, and the band look a little exhausted.

That’s not to say the performance isn’t as spot on as ever; the musicianship is always top notch. John Petrucci and his epic solos are always going to be jaw-dropping quality, and they are. But it takes 3 or 4 songs from the set before we see some real energy coming from the stage. This is definitely partly down to the decision to make the Apollo an all seated event this evening, and a crowd that only managed to stand up to applaud from the 5th or 6th song onwards. Bands feed off of the energy of the crowd and the crowd feeds off of the energy of the band; it is a symbiotic relationship, and it’s one that didn’t really get going until well into the set tonight.

Thankfully, the sound is very much up to scratch, with all of the subtleties of the songs ringing loud and clear. For a lesser band, this could spell trouble but not for Dream Theater – they are squeaky tight and everything falls into place exactly as you’d expect it to. As on previous dates, there has been a massive projection behind the band for the whole set, with carefully chosen videos which match the songs and add to the music without being a distraction, and tonight is no different. Opening with ‘The Alien’ sets the tone nicely and it is clear to see why this song won Dream Theater a Grammy; there are hooks aplenty along with some hugely complex elements and rhythms that have become trademark traits over the last few albums. And let’s not forget the guitar solos, which shine throughout.

James LaBrie sounds in fine voice, which is impressive given the gruelling touring schedule. John Myung rarely moves, seemingly lost in the music, gently swaying while knocking out complex basslines, supported admirably by the drumming of Mike Mangini. Mangini proves again and again throughout the set that he is massively skilled, holding the whole band together and driving the songs forward with purpose. Indeed, out of all of the guys on the stage, he looks to be having the best time.

Jordan Rudess has his single swinging keyboard setup towards the back of the stage. This is a man who normally looks like he’s in his element playing live but tonight he is very much subdued. His playing is still spot on though, with some of the more ostentatious keyboard lines giving a unique spin to the whole sound. Rudess stays at the back of the stage for the whole set, only coming down to the front at the conclusion of the evening.

In addition to ‘The Alien’, the set comprises of three other (long) songs from the current album; ‘Sleeping Giant’, with its slow build and beautiful solos, ‘Answering the Call’ with its brooding intensity and more solos to die for, and the magnum opus of ‘A View From the Top of the World’ which has so many changes, twists and turns that it could be an album just on its own. Certainly, there are enough ideas and themes here for most bands to produce a decent album from.

There is also a nod to the earlier Dream Theater work in the shape of ‘About to Crash (Reprise)’ & ‘Losing Time/Grand Finale’, which goes down very well with the crowd. ‘6:00’ takes us right back in time, and a welcome inclusion in the set this time round is ‘Pull Me Under’ which is widely regarded as one of the best Dream Theater songs, the crowd greeting it with huge cheers and applause.

La Brie chats to the crowd about how much the fans mean to them and to muse on the beer “cups” at the venue, observing that “only in the UK could they have handles!” He also shares that Dream Theater will not be back in the UK for a couple of years, likely tying in with writing new material for the next album and a touring schedule to promote it once it is recorded and released.

‘A View From the Top of the World’ is accompanied by some impressive videos, covering various topics associated with being at the top of the world – mountaineering and sky diving for example – along with imagery from the album cover itself, actually flying around the cover elements. On stage, all of the musicians are in full swing with impressive work coming from all of them, each bringing something special to the whole performance. Breaking away from the video, if you close your eyes while listening to the slower parts of the song you can be transported to all manner of places.

This concludes the set and Dream Theater leave the stage to a standing ovation. A brief pause and they return for the expected rendition of the classic ‘The Count of Tuscany’, another audience favourite. The crowd surges toward the stage as the first, familiar notes ring out from Petrucci’s guitar, the venue staff are doing their best to keep the aisles clear and urging people to return to their seats; clearly they’re fighting a losing battle with this.

At this point in the show, any exhaustion has melted away and band are back enjoying the moment and interaction with the audience. As before, the musicianship is second to none; fantastic solos and complex songs with loads of hooks and turns. Soon the last notes of the song are dying and Dream Theater are down at the front of the stage taking a well earned bow and chucking plectrums and other paraphernalia into the crowd.

As on the previous date last year, we’ve been treated to a tour de force of musicianship and entertainment. There’s still a thought that this would have been a better gig without a seated venue, but it was still a powerful evening, with plenty of punters leaving with smiles on their faces.