Dream Theater has played London many times over 30 years together. But this year’s show at the famed Apollo Theater was especially memorable. The over two-hour set that took place during two nights in February would be one of the last shows Dream Theater would play before the world shut down.
Amid the global shutdowns affecting music, it seemed like fate that Dream Theater had already planned to film the Apollo Theater show for a live release. The release dubbed Distant Memories-Live In London would be their ninth live installment and narrowed in on their 2019 record Distance Over Time and the 20th anniversary of their monumental concept album Metropolis Pt 2-Scenes From a Memory.
“It was great,” founding member and guitarist John Petrucci told American Songwriter about the show. “A lot of our fans knew it was filmed so it was a very international crowd. We filmed two nights and because we had done all the previous touring, we were in really great shape. The crew and the show were just dialed in. There was a ton of energy and we performed great. It really couldn’t have gone any better.”
Dream Theater spent almost a year preparing everything for production; custom stage props and screens to create what would unravel each night on the tour as the band played each album back to back. And as far as the band’s massive and highly technical material, well- that was the easy part, Petrucci said.
“Preparing ahead of the tour took a lot,” he said. “Because we were preparing music which was the easy part but we had to design the show, the set. And we had some custom elements like backdrops and screens and new animated content to depict the storyline in Metropolis Pt 2-Scenes From A Memory.”
With a well-equipped crew and band, the pressure of playing such a long set with a myriad of material was off. And it was like any other night and any other show. Metropolis Pt 2-Scenes From A Memory especially impacted the set’s extravagance with its narrative that originally came to life in 2000 when the band was finally ready to make their own concept masterpiece. Which they modeled after some of their favorite albums like Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime, The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
“It was about 10 years into the career,” Petrucci said about making a concept album. Everyone was really big fans of The Wall, Tommy and Operation Mindcrime and it was almost expected (to make a concept) as a progressive band. The music just lends itself to it. So, we felt ready to do it. And there was a lot of pressure to live up to our favorite concepts. So it wasn’t that we had a story to tell, we just wanted to do a concept album.”
Metropolis Pt 2-Scenes From a Memory also counted a second experiment, with a shifted writing dynamic on the promotional track “Home” which featured lyrics written by drummer Mike Portnoy. “At Wits End” from Distance Over Time was also a similar instance where the band really fostered the co-writing approach. “That was the first song we wrote for the Distance Over Time,” Petrucci said about ‘At Wits End.’ “It was the first time went away together as a band to a location. We just hung out, reconnected after a long tour and settled in without distractions in upstate New York. It was a great environment and conducive to writing and bonding as friends.”
Through the years since Metropolis Pt 2-Scenes From a Memory nearly everyone in the band has written lyrics. But the task ultimately shifted back to Petrucci, who always pushed lyrics as a crucial element in the music. Though as a progressive band Dream Theater could have easily fallen into the niche of instrumental music. But Petrucci’s teenage passion for prose and creative writing toppled any notions of that.
“Lyric writing for me has been something I’ve always been into. Even as a young teen, I was really into creative writing,” he said. And as a musician it worked hand in hand. I always looked at lyrics as such a vital part of the song no matter what the style. I try to craft lyrics with the same energy that I do (with music) as a guitarist.”
“But different songs are taken on by different people,” he continued. “Mike (Portnoy) would take some. Kevin (Moore) was great too, our bassist would take some responsibility and of course James (LaBrie). As the years went by it shifted to something I’d share. And with the Astonishing record, our second concept, I wrote a fully realized story with characters, lore and mythology. That was a cumulation of all my writing passion as a kid. So, somehow we struck a balance where we could highlight the instrumental side without sacrificing a vocalist or storytelling.”
As a band with a highly focused and prolific nature, the rest of 2020 has been a whirlwind, in a time that is arguably the longest stint the band has been home over their career. But Petrucci always finds a silver lining. Starting with his immediate jump into recording his first solo album, Terminal Velocity since 2005’s Suspended Animation. Afterwards he wasted no time moving directly into writing the next Dream Theater album, set for release when they can properly tour and promote it.
“I’ve been more busy in the studio and made more music in these past few months than I ever have. And it’s helpful to maintain a sense of normalcy and creativity,” Petrucci said about staying busy during the pandemic. “It’s therapeutic and keeps the sanity.”
Dream Theater’s live release will be available here on November 27 with both digital and physical formats including, CD, DVD, Blue-Ray and Box Sets. The DVD also features an additional Behind The Scenes peak at the band as they prepare for shows.