Live at Budokan marks Dream Theater’s third full-length, live album release, aside from the few official bootlegs that have been released on drummer Portnoy’s YtseJam Records. Recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo, Japan on April 26th, 2004 during touring in support of their 2003 album, Train of Thought. Live at Budokan is a three disc set, basically a documentation of a single live show. The setlist for the show, while not unexpected, provides for an interesting listening experience, but an undoubtedly more interesting live experience.
As such, Live at Budokan’s first disc opens just as Train of Thought did. From the distance — and growing ever closer — is the sound that ends 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, opening the album and, alongside John Myung’s mesmerizing bass playing, introducing “As I Am.” In typical Dream Theater fashion, the performance is immaculate, at times breaking away — though usually only slightly — from the recordeding on Train of Thought. Follow “As I Am” on both Train of Thought and Live at Budokan is “This Dying Soul,” which proves to be another excellent reproduction of the album track, with the unique stylings that come when Dream Theater plays live.
It is not until the third track, “Beyond This Life” from Metropolis Part II: Scenes From A Memory that Dream Theater displays the true power of the live experience they produce. The song is faithfully reproduced, including guitarist John Petrucci’s complex, impossibly fast riffing, until the central solo comes around. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess and Petrucci interchanage solos as expected for a short time, when Rudess fades out, and Myung hammers out a riff repetitively, while Rudess, Petrucci, Portnoy, and occasionally Myung himself throw solos back and forth between the four musicians. These moments are what set Dream Theater’s live albums apart from more the bland recordings of more traditional bands — they are obviously not afraid to improvise and display both their technical and stylistic skills. Somehow, as if by miracle, the band takes this extended jam and transforms it back into the ending three minutes of “Beyond This Life,” almost shocking the audience into realization that, all this while, these outstanding musicians kept the rest of the song in the back of their minds.
Following the extreme complexity and intensity that was exhibited in their performance of “Beyond This Life,” Dream Theater slows the pace of the concert with the calm “Hollow Years.” In his usual fashion, Petrucci’s guitar solo is extended and complexified, giving the song an entirely new meaning. “Hollow Years” also gives vocalist James LaBrie a chance to display his powerful, melodic voice that has helped to carve nearly fifteen years of Dream Theater’s musical history.
The twelve minute “Instrumedly” could easily be considered the most interesting musical point of Live at Budokan, consisting heavily of moments from Scenes From A Memory’s “The Dance of Eternity,” as well as from, among others, “Metropolis, Part 1,” “Erotomania,” and the Liquid Tension Experience piece “Paradigm Shift,” not to mention an ultimately humorous interpretaion of “Heart and Soul” by Rudess.
Live at Budokan helps to raise the standard for what a live album should consist of. The quality of the recording is markedly pristine: LaBrie’s vocals are crisp and clear, the open quality of Portnoy’s drumming makes itself heard throughout the album, Rudess’s dramatic keyboard playing flies through the sonic ambience of the crowd, Myung’s visceral bass rhythms provide an excellent backing for the pieces, making themselves heard while not overwhelming listeners, and Petrucci’s large, epic riffs cut through the mix like a knife through hot butter. Live at Budokan is easily Dream Theater’s most successful live album to date, in all of its three-disc glory. As Dream Theater’s sole official release for 2004, this release both appeases fans and gives casual listeners nearly three hours of solid music, a rarity in music. If anything, this album is a demonstration of the influence and power Dream Theater will likely have for many years to come.