CONCERT REVIEW: DREAMSONIC 2023 Takes Flights in Texas (June 16th, 2023)

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Words by Gonzalo Pozo & Ann-Jinette Hess | Photos by Gonzalo Pozo

The Dreamsonic tour, a prog metal tour package anchored by none other than Dream Theater, kicked off in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park at the lofty HEB Center on Friday, June 16, 2023. Joining the Long Island legends were instrumental djentlemen Animals as Leaders, and the inimitable Devin Townsend.

Animals as Leaders opened the Dreamsonic tour, showcasing their immeasurable talent as one of the leaders (see what we did there?) in the djent movement. Originally from Washington DC, the trio formed when Prosthetic Records approached then-Reflux guitarist Tosin Abasi and asked him for some solo material. Now on their fifth album, Animals as Leaders enjoys throwing curve-balls at their audience by marrying their trademark technical prowess and crushing heaviness with trippy electronica and jazzy swagger.  Opening their set – and the Dreamsonic tour itself –  with “Ectogenesis,” the trio brought the audience in from the scorching Central Texas heat and into a funky, instrumental journey.

Bluntly, an Animals as Leaders set is nothing short of mesmeric. Abasi and fellow guitarist Javier Reyes spearhead the modern shred movement, often eschewing conventional pick or fingertip attack entirely and playing nearly fully tapped compositions.  A technique pioneered by Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten, eight-fingered tapping kinda vanished for a few decades, but currently enjoys a resurgence among djent, jazz, and tech-metal woodshedders. Abasi and Reyes not only master this technique individually, they do it in freaking harmony because no, your head can’t spin enough, dammit. Rounded out by the simultaneously bombastic and understated drummer Matt GarstkaAnimals as Leaders is an intoxicant for the mindful shredder, and can perhaps be fairly summarized as being really, really loud jazz.

ANIMALS AS LEADERS Photo Gallery:

Building off the melodic and intense energy of Animals as LeadersDevin Townsend transitioned the crowd from that purely instrumental experience into a sound that’s a bit softer, lighter, and we daresay, poppier than what we were used to from his Strapping Young Lad days. With over 28 albums across all of his projects, Devin Townsend has showcased a range so impressive during his illustrious career, one could argue he’s only been bested by Frank Zappa himself. Townsend’s solo material took a healthy turn away from Strapping‘s deeply-seeded rage, and is an often unpredictable blend of hard rock, melodic metal, punishing brütality, and even the occasional waltz. Lyrically, “Lightwork” is what its cover art depicts – a beacon in the storm of life. Opening with “Lightworker,” Townsend throttled down the beat and set the stage with some  transcendental metal balladry with a chorus so catchy, I absolutely sang the shit out of it as I shot Devy and his Merry Band of Goons from the photopit… and Devy may or may not have mocked me for it.

Devy and his band – drummer Darby Todd, Sikth bassist James Leach, and Zappa alum Mike Keneally on everything else – followed that breezy opener with the perennially  crowd-pleasing banger “Kingdom,” which would have instigated a circle pit if this weren’t the other DT‘s crowd. Devy, being Devy and all, also kept the laughs coming with both his absurd antics and his self-effacing wit. “Don’t talk about your balls! Don’t talk about your asshole!” he shouted rather than trying to convince Mighty Ziltoid during “By Your Command,” only to announce to the audience that he’d pooped a little from the blueberry waffle he’d had at the hotel restaurant that morning. “But don’t worry, it’s a cute one!” he reassured us about the payload he’d just made. As deadly serious as Devy’s music is, the dude is absolutely not above mocking himself or his fans, and those who believe that they are above it do so at their own peril. If you can’t laugh at yourself or at the clown toying with that theremin and donning ten-gallon University of Texas Longhorns cowboy hats in between those blistering solos, stratospheric screeches, and a vocal range you could drive a Sherman through, you honestly have no business basking in this retinal circus. Devy and his fans may have the most loving, wholesome relationship in all of metaldom, and for anyone to miss out on it simply because they can’t get over themselves is a goddamn tragedy.

DEVIN TOWNSEND Photo Gallery:

Calling Dream Theater the fathers of progressive metal might be bold, but it’s not too far from the mark. They’ve been at the prog-metal forefront for over thirty years now, and it’s not inappropriate that this traveling nerd-metal roadshow debuted so close to the city that birthed the genre. (What?! You don’t know Watchtower?! Shame on you!) Pairing metallic aggression with academic finesse has been their forte since their beginnings as Fates Warning fanboys in the mid 80s, and rejecting the mainstream tropes that dominated metal back then proved to be a wise career choice indeed. Now on their fifteenth record, Dream Theater‘s resolve and dedication to their craft have earned them not only legions of fans, but a belated Grammy as well. For a band that’s been so good about pushing their own limits, it is a grave misfortune that one particular member of this illustrious group seems to have reached his.

It is unjust that such comically advanced musicians as John Petrucci, Jordan Ruddess, John Myung, and Mike Mangini be fronted the way they’ve been fronted these past several years. While longtime singer James Labrie certainly delivers the goods in studio (he sounds particularly great on his Evergrey guest spot, and on his melodeath-inspired solo albums), his live performances are spotty at best. He usually sounds fine on more recent songs like opener “The Alien,” or “Sleeping Giant.” But by the time we reached “Caught in a Web,” it was obvious that he and his bandmates need to reconsider their approach to older material. It’s fine that he can’t hit the notes at the second half of verse two. It’s not fine that he now mumbles his way through that passage with such soporific tedium. We are in no position to instruct Labrie to do anything, but your audience pays good money to see you perform, good sir. Please respect that.

Klaus Meine compensated for his aging voice by asking his bandmates to tune down. James Hetfield learned how to sing rather than shout. And Ray Alder famously rewrote old melodies to fit his new, lower range. Scorpions, Metallica, and Fates Warning all benefited from these moves, and their longevity is testimony to that. There are ways to adapt to your newfound limits, but paper-thin screeches, thoughtless melissmas, and off-target scooping ain’t cutting it, good sir. Your bandmates are absolute beasts in their respective crafts. Please do what you need to do to get back on their level, because if you don’t, you risk becoming the Fish of progmetal, and none of us want that for you.

Despite Labrie‘s reluctance to adapt, wave his arms convincingly, or even deliver a good joke, Dream Theater as a unit still has it. And while it can’t go unsaid that much of the fun left Dream Theater with Mike Portnoy, it must be noted that not only is this quintet still fire on stage,  Labrie  often sounds fine when he’s within his new comfort zone. The graphics and animations on the Jumbotron Jr have gotten ridiculously good; the “enough injustice” graffitti and burning matches that accompanied “Answering the Call” were downright chilling.

You know what else was chilling? The sound fucking dying during the ass-end of that same song. The entire PA just freaking expired, leaving only Petrucci‘s stacks and Mangini‘s acoustic drums audible to any degree. Despite having attended literally hundreds of concerts over the past three decades, I have only seen this happen once, and I give massive props to the sound crew for reviving the PA in about two minutes. Mangini seized the opportunity to take an informal solo, even playing the intro to Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll” and Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher.” I personally would have preferred he play a proper solo like the one he took during his first tour as the new Dream Theater guy, but that may have been a challenge given that he’s scaled back the size of his kit so dramatically. Before long, the band were tearing their way through “Solitary Shell.”

The real highlights of the set came at the very end though. Petrucci soloing over the piped-in acoustic intro to “The Count of Tuscany” assured me that even though backing tracks are something to which I normally object, they are sometimes appropriate, especially if the payoff is that I finally get to hear this song live. Petrucci extended the swell solo, peppering it with snippets of “When You Wish Upon a Star” – an homage to Pinnochio’s creator Carlo Collodi, himself a Tuscan – as well as “Beauty and the Beast” just to keep with the Disney theme; Ruddess dutifully added some simply wonderful sounds underneath the swell’s cadence, and man what a great reminder that was that just because you can shred doesn’t mean it’s necessary.  The following acoustic passage and the solo that leads the closure are among my favorite moments in Dream Theater‘s storied discography, and experiencing that glory live reminded me that even if the “classic” prog-metal sound is no longer my preferred cup of tea, it is the very foundation upon which my love for metal is built.

I noticed a peculiar thing when the stage lights reanimated the darkened stage for set-closer “The Spirit Carries On:” there were not one, but two keyboardists flanking Mr Mangini‘s kit, and the second one was none other than Mike Keneally. I braced myself immediately, because I knew we were in for something special. And I was proven right when Petrucci emerged accompanied by Tosin Abasi at the start of the second verse, when the guitars enter the mix. But even though I spied a deranged bald elf creature crawling around backstage during this verse, I was absolutely not prepared for Devy himself to take Victoria’s lead vocal so that Labrie wouldn’t have to. Seeing Devy front Dream Theater, if only briefly, was something my decades of metaldom hadn’t prepared me for, and I lost my shit so heavily that I didn’t even notice Darby Todd flawlessly taking the kit from Mangini at the very moment Devy started doing the thing. Darby kept going right through that scorching Petrucci solo, handing the kit off to its rightful owner at the solo’s concluding salvos without even threatening to miss a beat. Devy again joined Labrie for the song’s closing verse and refrain, which was punctuated by Petrucci and Abasi playing that searing guitar melody in harmony together. Words cannot describe how transcendent this experience was, so maybe hit the YouTubes. I’m sure someone has posted it. 

There have been many times in Dream Theater‘s career that I’ve been tempted to write them off as static or irrelevant, and without fail, their live performance disabuses me of such absurdities. They continue to be the reigning kings of their genre well into their fifth decade, and their willingness to bring more obscure talents out on the road with them demonstrates that they are both humble and self-assured enough to nurture groups who more skeptical minds might deem a threat.

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