Progressive metal kings Dream Theater kicked off their Dreamsonic tour last week in Austin, Texas. Traveling with them are the instrumental Djent artists Animals as Leaders, and the incomparable Devin Townsend. We in South Florida were fortunate enough to have one of the first stops of the tour at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, FL on June 22.

Animals as Leaders got the festivities started by showcasing their immeasurable talents as one of the top acts in the djent movement. The trio from the Washington DC area was formed when a rep from Prosthetic Records asked then Reflux guitarist Tosin Abasi for some solo material. As a result, Abasi formed Animals as Leaders with fellow guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka. Five albums later, the band enjoys mixing up their trademark technical prowess and crushing heaviness with trippy electronica and jazzy swagger. The Animals as Leaders’ 50-minute set was nothing short of mesmerizing. Abasi and Reyes are spearheads of the modern shred guitar movement, combining fluid picking and two handed tapping effortlessly. Using seven and eight string guitars, as well as tracks, the crew is able to forgo a traditional bass player. The two guitarists, along with the simultaneously bombastic and understated drummer, make Animals as Leaders an intoxicant for the mindful shredder. They can perhaps be best summarized as being extremely loud jazz.

Within 20 minutes of the intense Animal as Leaders set ending, Townsend transitioned purely instrumental to a sound that is softer and maybe a tad poppier than what his fans are used to from his Strapping Young Lad days. With over 28 albums released from all his projects, Townsend has showcased an impressive range during his illustrious career. They kicked off the set with “Lightworker” from his latest solo release, Lightwork.

The album is an unpredictable blend of hard rock, melodic, metal punishing brutality, and even the occasional waltz. The group consists of Darby Todd on drums, James Leach on bass, and Mike Keneally on everything else. As serious as the music is, there was definitely a humorous vibe in between the songs. Devin is not above mocking himself, which included the boys donning oversized foam 10-gallon Texas Longhorn-style cowboy hats during blistering solos and stratospheric screeches alongside his
dynamic vocal range. Animal as Leaders ended their 55-minute set with the tune “Bad Devil.”

In final set change, the lights went dim and the Jumbotron screen behind the drum set started flashing images. The members of arguably the greatest progressive metal band over the last 30 years, guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Ruddess and drummer Mike Mangini walked onstage.

Dream Theater blasted into “The Alien.” Vocalist James Labrie was nowhere to be seen during the instrumental intro. Then he darted onstage, ran around and got front and center just in time to start singing. Combining metallic aggression with academic finesse has been Animal as Leaders’ strength since their beginning. Now on their fifteenth record, the band’s dedication and resolve to their craft have earned them not only multitudes of fans, but a Grammy as well. After the second song, “Sleeping Giant,” Labrie welcomed the crowd and admitted that in all his years of touring, he never realized there was a Hollywood in Florida. The gang went way back in their history and played “Caught in a Webb.”

That number had many in the house singing along with them. While the four members manning the instruments are so comically advanced that’s it’s not funny, Labrie’s voice seemed at times, to be a little off. He was not quite able to hit some of the ridiculous highs like many years ago. No matter, the whole of the performance was still nothing short of amazing. The quintet then proceeded to blast through several more tunes with musical precision few bands can match. They closed the set with the song that got them noticed many years ago, “Pull Me Under,” followed by “Count of Tuscany.”

As the members took a bow and walked off, I noticed a second keyboard being placed opposite stage of Ruddess’ rig. As the requisite encore started, a few more members came out. Keneally stood behind the newly added keyboard as Abasi, Todd and Townsend joined the Dream Theater juggernaut for one final number, “The Spirit Carries On.” Townsend delivered some of the verses while Todd and Mangini took turns on the drums. It was almost an overload of musical mastery and hijinks.

Dream Theater continues to be the reigning kings of the genre well into their fifth decade. Their willingness to bring more obscure talent 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 them a threat.

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