When Dream Theater took the stage on February 22nd at the Apollo Theater in London, England, no one could have predicted that just a month later they would be cancelling their upcoming shows due to a global pandemic. Luckily for the fans, this special night of music was captured on video. Whether you had the opportunity to see this tour live and want to relive that experience, or you unfortunately had tickets to one of the cancelled shows and missed out, once you finish listening to or watching “Distant Memories”, you will feel like you’re walking out of the theater having just witnessed this magical night in person.
Marking the bands first live record since 2014’s “Breaking the Fourth Wall”, Distant Memories captures the band on tour supporting their most recent studio album “Distance Over Time”, and commemorates 20 years since the release of Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory. This would mark the band’s first concept album and is frequently voted by fans (in unofficial polls) as their best studio album to date. Since the release 20 years ago, this was only the second time that the band played the album in its entirety as part of their nightly setlist.
Before I get to the music, I want to first speak about the production quality. Self-admittedly, I am a bit of a snob when it comes to production, and it’s usually the first thing I analyze on any album, much less a live record. With that being said, I must give major kudos to the sound engineer(s) that mixed the audio for this release. In this day and age where a lot of music is over produced, Distant Memories nails the balance between raw live sound and a studio quality recording. The one thing that stuck out to me most was how nothing is overpowering in the mix. With every song you can hear all of the instruments and vocals very clearly, as well as the roar of the crowd.
As the crowd erupts, the band breaks into “Untethered Angel”, the first single from Distance Over Time. With all instruments kicking in at once, it’s a very appropriate song to open the show. From the very first line that James Labrie sings, you can tell that his voice is on point, and spoiler alert, he sounds amazing throughout the entirety of the show. Not to mention, if you’re watching the DVD version, James looks pretty badass sporting what looks to be a new sleeve tattoo on his right arm. As the band hits the breakdown section of the song, it really captures the essence of what Dream Theater is, watching the guitars, bass, keys, and drums play odd-time patterns/riffs in what sounds like perfect unison, right before John Petrucci rips into one of his blistering guitar solos.
After the first song comes to an end, the band immediately goes into “A Nightmare to Remember”, the epic sixteen-minute opening track from 2009’s Black Clouds & Silver Linings. With a video of storm clouds and lightning playing in the background, you hear those distinct eerie piano sounds just before the band kicks in with the heavy riffs as the lights are strobing in unison with Mike Mangini’s double bass pattern. While the song includes some of the heaviest riffs of any music in the bands catalog, the midsection is in my opinion one of the best breakdowns of any song, featuring a softer, more anthemic vibe. I’ve always felt that John Myung’s bassline is what makes this section great.
As “Nightmare to Remember” finishes, James Labrie greets the London crowd before the Metallica style opening riff of “Fall into the Light”, the second single from Distance Over Time, begins. One thing that is never lacking at a Dream Theater show is the crowd participation, as they clap along to the acoustic style strumming and picking of the song’s breakdown section (surprisingly in time with the song).
Next up is “Barstool Warrior”, also from Distance Over Time and my personal favorite from the album. A perfect example of quality songwriting (in my opinion), the piano and bass parts in the verses really make this song shine, as well as another killer guitar solo by John Petrucci, and a bridge that makes you want to sing along. Finishing out the first set is “In the Presence of Enemies”, the opening track and first part of a twenty-five-minute epic from 2007’s Systematic Chaos, and “Pale Blue Dot”, the final song from Distance Over Time.
As part two of the show begins, a video plays on the screen as if you’re watching the opening credits for a movie. We see the names of the characters you hear about throughout the story of “Metropolis Part 2” as an old-style piano piece plays in the background. As the piano fades out and an epic strings section comes in, we are suddenly greeted by that very distinct “ticking” sound as “Scene I: Regression” begins. For those fans who are familiar with the album, you know the soft sounds of the ticking clock and narrator are about to lead you into the epic journey that is “Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory”.
Throughout the story, you hear instrumental pieces and vocal lines that are reminiscent of parts of “Metropolis Part 1” from the Images and Words album, notably “Overture 1928”, “Home”, and “The Dance of Eternity”. Even twenty years after the release of this epic concept album, these throwback parts to the original “Metropolis” really hit you with that feeling of nostalgia. From heavier songs like “Beyond This Life” and “Home” which James Labrie jokingly tells the crowd “this is the metal song on the album” to softer, more emotional ballads like “Through Her Eyes” and “The Spirit Carries On”, the versatility on this album is almost incomparable.
During the performance of “Through Her Eyes”, a video montage plays on the screen paying tribute to some of the great musicians we have lost over the years, including Freddie Mercury, Frank Zappa, Chris Cornell, David Bowie, among others. One thing is for sure, watching the band play “The Dance of Eternity” live will never get old. This epic, but very technical instrumental is full of odd-time signatures, instrumental patterns in unison, and a John Myung bass solo. This song is so complicated to play that it was one of the required songs during the drummer auditions after Mike Portnoy left the band.
In “Finally Free” we get to see what Mike Mangini is really made of, as he pays homage to the original drum parts of Mike Portnoy, but also does some improv and attempts makes it his own in certain parts of the drum solo/outro sections. I’ve seen comments for and against this improvisation, but I guess that is something for the fans to decide if they like it or not. The set ends with a video playing showing the final parts of the story with the iconic “open your eyes, Nicholas” phrase, as the song ends with the sounds of static. For the encore, the band plays “At Wits End” from Distance Over Time. I’ll admit at first I wasn’t sure about this being a good choice to close the show, but with the big sounding choruses and long instrumental outro, it actually is a very fitting song to end the show.
For those of you who were able to make it to a show from this tour, you were very lucky. For those of you that missed out or were supposed to go and had their show cancelled, the “Distant Memories: Live in London” show will definitely help recreate the experience of what it was like to be there in person. I must say, I feel extra lucky. Not only was I able to make it to a show during the U.S. leg of the tour, I was also at the show in 2000 that was recorded for the “Dream Theater: Live Scenes from New York” live DVD/record. Since 1998, I have been to 32 Dream Theater concerts and they are still at the top of their game and prove it with this release.
Unfortunately, we currently live in a world where concerts are non-existent in most parts and like all of you, I miss being able to see my favorite bands live in-person. But being able to sit down, relax, and watch/listen to Dream Theater’s “Distant Memories: Live in London” helps ease the pain just a bit. The bands monumental live concert was released on November 27th so make sure you grab your copy at all major music retailers. And for everything Dream Theater, head to the bands website at Dreamtheater.net .
By: Joe DiFranco