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Dream Theater: Octavarium

Dream Theater returns with their eighth studio album and in typical DT fashion, the latest release bears little resemblance to the album that came directly before it. Train of Thought was "too metal" for some fans (but not for me) and chock full of arguably over the top soloing that sometimes worked against the compositions. Those that found some of Train of Thought to be overkill should be delighted by Octavarium. Case in point: John Petrucci plays with far more restraint while Jordan Rudess' keyboards are higher up in the mix.

At 75 minutes, Octavarium is a very long CD. Dream Theater always cram a lot of music onto their albums and I long ago accepted the fact that their CDs can be a bit of an endurance test. But the time factor is more noticeable with Octavarium because it gets off to such a painfully sluggish start. Before anyone starts to think I'm being too harsh, bear with me here: Octavarium contains some of the band's best ever material. But the first few songs are just so ordinary by Dream Theater standards in a "been there done that" sort of way that one might be tempted to hit the stop button before hearing the frankly outstanding compositions yet to come.

"The Root of All Evil" continues the saga of Mike Portnoy's alleged experience with The Twelve Step Program that began on Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence ("Glass Prison") and continued with Train of Thought ("This Dying Soul"). Those were fantastic pieces of music while "The Root of All Evil" is just anticlimactic somehow. Even more problematic is "The Answer Lies Within", a complete throwaway ballad that is inappropriately sequenced as track two of the CD. Things start looking up with "These Walls" and the curveball that is the U2 pop flavored "I Walk Beside You"; seriously, James LaBrie appears to be emulating Bono on the chorus.

By the time of "Panic Attack", I'm getting hooked. The intensity and heaviness reaches that of some of the better moments of Train of Thought. Really, from "Panic Attack" forward, Octavarium is consistently, well…awesome. "Never Enough" is another killer heavy track before the band pulls in the reigns for the ten minute "Sacrificed Sons", a haunting epic that conjures up images of 9/11, dogmatic politicians and the futility of religious wars. The lengthy instrumental break is simply ferocious.

But the magnum opus here is without question the twenty four minute title track, a wonderful symphonic rock tour de force that gets my vote as Dream Theater's finest epic ever. Compared to most of the rest of the CD, "Octavarium" isn't in the least bit heavy and it isn't until the twelve minute mark that the musical fireworks begin. Jordan Rudess really gets a chance to shine here as he never has before, with a fine Rick Wakeman like synth solo which in turn shifts over to a neat Genesis inspired instrumental arrangement. In case anyone doubts the band's prog rock influences, check out the "Full Circle" section of the title track for some amusing stream of conscious lyrics mentioning some famous epics! "Octavarium" finally concludes with a recapitulation of the main theme featuring an orchestra and simply defines the term symphonic rock.

So where does Octavarium sit among Dream Theater's fairly prolific back catalog? I'll leave that one up to the reader to decide. For my taste, it's the band's finest album since Scenes From a Memory; it's certainly their most tuneful album in quite some time. I oftentimes struggle with star ratings but I'm giving Octavarium four strong stars. I would easily give it higher marks if the first few tracks were up to snuff, but they are just so bland that five stars would be an inaccurate representation of the album in balance. But program out at least the first two songs and you have one of the best albums of 2005.

Track Listing

  1. The Root of All Evil (8:07)
  2. The Answer Lies Within (5:26)
  3. These Walls (6:59)
  4. I Walk Beside You (4:29)
  5. Panic Attack (7:16)
  6. Never Enough (6:33)
  7. Sacrificed Sons (10:42)
  8. Octavarium (24:00)

Added: July 18th 2006
Reviewer: Steve Pettengill
Score:
Related Link: Official Dream Theater Home Page
Hits: 7701
Language: english

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» SoT Staff Roundtable Reviews:

Dream Theater: Octavarium
Posted by Murat Batmaz, SoT Staff Writer on 2006-07-18 06:56:07
My Score:

I learned long ago not to pass quick judgement on a new Dream Theater album, especially from their post-Awake period. Because whenever I did, as in the case with Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, I had to eat my words upon discovering the album is actually ultimately rewarding given patient listens. The case with Octavarium isn't any different. After the band's obsessively heavy (yet also amazing) Train of Thought, Dream Theater have put out an album that in no way treads on the same route as its predecessor. Rather, it forges its own path, still unafraid to borrow any and all influences the band members may have had during the writing and recording of this album.

This disc may be Dream Theater's most mellow outing since Falling into Infinity. It does contain some commercial moments as well as a good many ballady material, but careful repeat listens will attest to their wealth of melodies and meticulous arrangements. The oft-criticised "The Answer Lies Within", considered too monotonous and sappy by some, is actually a very neat song. It may bear a resemblance to "Anna Lee" off of Falling into Infinity in some ways, but there is more to this carefully written and arranged piece. While its beginning may seem cliche because of its slow intro, plucked acoustic guitars and Labrie's ballad-style voice, the inclusion of a great string quartet with awesome violin and cello motifs in the second half help elevate the song to impressive heights. And thus, "The Answer Lies Within" becomes quite engaging, particularly given it's the second song of the album. It provides a nice contrast to the ambitious album opener "The Root of All Evil", the third piece of Portnoy's AA program, following "The Glass Prison" from Six Degrees and "This Dying Soul" from Train of Thought.

"The Root of All Evil" is among the best songs on the album for a variety of reasons: it encompasses the whole Dream Theater sound their fans have come to appreciate over the years, as it moves from a brave synthesized patch to wonderfully restrained drumming and forceful bass guitar. There is even a cool vocal melody that is strangely evocative of Labrie's work on Scenes From A Memory. The piece is finalised with a frenzied guitar and keyboard interplay and a sweet piano coda respectively.

It is understandable the rather modernist beginning of "These Walls" and the much U2-inspired main chorus of the somewhat poppy "I Walk Beside You" will not be among Dream Theater fans' favourites, but it is also important to note how these songs are actually structured with creative ideas and top-notch production. Myung's bass becomes a driving force on "The Walls", which is saying a lot, considering the same fans have expressed a wish to have his instrument louder in the mix. Octavarium presents his fat, growling bass through and through, on almost all the songs. And although there are no extended guitar solos on these tracks, Petrucci plays well-written guitar themes that fit the flow of the cuts. Dream Theater has never been a band to hide their influences, as they've paid tributes to bands like Metallica, Tool and Radiohead, let alone their 70's influences. The Bono-like vocal interpretation on "I Walk Beside You" is nothing but sheer emotion. It shows Dream Theater are also capable of churning out melodic lead choruses and make it work.

Delving into heavier territory, the album presents the rockers "Panic Attack" and "Never Enough", a song that became controversial more so for its lyrical message than its instrumentation. The song starts with the words, "Cut myself wide open, reach inside, help yourself, to all I have to give" and continues with, "Sacrifice my life, neglect my kids and wife, all for you to be happy", not to mention the rather extreme main chorus, implying Portnoy wrote this piece to vent his frustration about his fans never being content with what they're getting, no matter how hard he tries. Whether it was really written for the fans or not, however, remains a mystery, but who could blame him if it was? Going back to "Panic Attack", the heaviest song on this disc, it stands out for its dynamic bass and heavy riffage atop symphonic passages where Portnoy also adds incredible fills. The song is also infused with some of the most interesting vocals Labrie has put on tape.

The last two songs, also the longest ones, see Dream Theater employing a real orchestra and turning to their 70's prog rock influences, like they've never done before. They did play lots of 70's stuff live, but on an album, this is the first. "Sacrificed Sons", whose lyrics were penned by Labrie, deals with the 9/11 tragedy, featuring all kinds of spoken vocals (by politicians, victims' families, even terrorists) and proceeds with a long yet fitting instrumental midsection only to return to its calm beginning.

Special mention goes to keyboardist Jordan Rudess for his superlative performance on the 24-minute prog rock epic "Octavarium", nicely broken down into five sections. It begins with a great symphonic arrangement, acoustic instruments, folky flute sounds and violins before seguing into "Medicate (Awakening)", complete with thick bass and drums, and a perfect balance of Genesis-like synths and Wakeman-like soloing by Rudess. The third part of the song, "Full Circle", is also their bravest moment, also featuring mighty back-up singing by Petrucci and some quite aggressive vocals by Labrie. The riffing is intense and brutal, but Rudess once again softens things up with a playful, almost humourous piano melody. The theatrical final section of the song brings to mind Gabriel-era Genesis, bleeding into "Intervals", a short yet surprisingly heavy passage, laced with Metropolis 2-like spoken vocals, a chopped guitar riff and awesome drum syncopation, not to mention Labrie's most aggressive singing in his Dream Theater career. The piece quitens down and closes on a fully orchestrated note, leading Petrucci to a climactic finale.

Octavarium may not be Dream Theater's best, but it easily blows most other prog albums out of the water.

Dream Theater: Octavarium
Posted by Pete Pardo, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-06-28 19:24:13
My Score:

Dream Theater's latest release has had me excited just as much as it has had me puzzled since the day it came out. After many spins, my opinion remains the same as was after first hearing the CD-it works on many levels, yet parts of Octavarium sounds so familiar and pedestrian that it has to be seen as somewhat of a dissapointment after the exceptionally heavy yet chancy Train of Thought. While that CD saw Dream Theater take bold steps towards a heavier sound and a somewhat different and younger fanbase, Octavarium bridges the gap between the more commercial sounds of Falling Into Infinity and the progressive metal of Awake. The end result gives us a few tunes that are surprisingly mellow and commercial, a couple of songs that deliver the crunch, and an epic title track that is the most progressive piece the band has ever recorded.

"The Root of All Evil" is a continuation of two songs from the last two albums on a lyrical level, and is a piece that at first sounds a little too similar to these past songs, but after a few listens really delivers as a crunchy prog-metal track complete with complex changes and strong guitar & keyboard work. On "The Answer Lies Within", the band conjures up a ballad that is not too different from the material on Falling Into Infinity, and the same can be said for the commercial prog-rock of 'These Walls", which does feature great vocals from James LaBrie, symphonic keyboards from Jordan Rudess, and Mike Portnoy's nimble drum fills.

Who would have ever thought that Dream Theater could combine prog-rock with U2 flavored pop sensibility? Well, they attempt it on the engaging "I Walk Beside You", a catchy pop tune that really works on a commercial level, although I'm not sold on it being a great Dream Theater tune. It's an interesting song to say the least, with some addicting hooks. John Myung's gymnastic bass lines lead into the pulverizing "Panic Attack", easily the heaviest song on the album and the most reminiscant to the metal muscle that was heard on Train of Thought. Here John Petrucci's guitar finally shows some aggression, while Myung and Portnoy groove furiously. Alongside Petrucci's heavy riffs flow the futuristic synths of Rudess, whose playing on this album sound more like actual keyboards, which was not always the case on the last two releases. He leads off "Never Enough" with some pulsating synth drones before Petrucci blasts through with some thunderous guitar riffs. James LaBrie puts forth a fine performance on this piece, full of power and emotion.

The last two songs on the CD are the two epics, the near 11-minute "Sacrificed Sons" and the 24-minute title track, both great examples of symphonic progressive rock, with hardly a sign of metal anywhere. For many, these two pieces will be the highlight of the CD, as both contain some of the best arrangements the band have put together in years, filled with complex passages, strong vocals, intelligent lyrics, and just enough instrumental fireworks & solos to keep the diehards happy. Jordan Ruddess really shines on these last two, perhaps more so than on any other material he has recorded with the band to this date.

One thing is for certain, Octavarium is a very different album from Dream Theater. There's certainly less noodling here, less metal thunder, more keyboards, more LaBrie, more Myung, more pop, and more prog rock. While that may turn off some of the newer fans who found the heavy Train of Thought so irresistible, those who found that too heavy will like this move back to proggier and poppier directions. Either way, it's a solid album, with some exceptional songs and a few that just merit being "ok". Still, quality Dream Theater nontheless.


» Reader Comments:

Dream Theater: Octavarium
Posted by Karl Jones on 2006-07-06 16:19:58
My Score:

This is another brilliant album from DT. The amazing thing is that each album is quite different to the last but still has all the essential DT ingredients. They never seem to go off on fan alienating tangents. Each album throws up a concept that really makes you think, here its linked to the number eight . The lyrics are as thought provoking as ever, and with each subsequent listen you start to pick up on the threads running through the album which culminates in the magnificent title track which is never boring despite its 24 minute duration. Also a Perfect production for this genre with every instrument brought to the fore at exactly the right time.Superb.

Dream Theater: Octavarium
Posted by bmanikoth@hotmail.com on 2005-09-27 22:31:28
My Score:

as i dream theater fan, i continue to anticipate each upcoming CD or DVD with much excitement. they are arguably the best of this genre (alive & rocking). but with each new album, i find myself missing the dream-theater-of-the-first-three albums: WD&DU, IMAGES & WORDS, and AWAKE. i miss the instrumental interplay and lyrics of KEVIN MOORE, JOHN MYUNG, JOHN PETRUCCI, & MIKE PORTNOY. i miss hearing the dynamics of the four instruments. the feelings those albums bring are fantastic; power, intelligent, and poetic. the songs are unique and inspiring. that's what music does: it inspires.

now, dream theater has become a shred fest of the guitars & keyboards with the bass and drums (sometimes) pushed back in the mix. the songs sound mediocre; with the longer ones sounding scotch-taped together with little to no flow. the passages are technically impressive; but often, they are too quirky and unpleasant to listen to. tracks #7 & #8 on OCTAVARIUM are almost meaningless. the continuum & steel lap guitar intro to #8 just drags on and on until the acoustic guitar finally enters...completely boring uninspiring. just about every new song sounds synthesized. waaaaaaay too synthesized! and what is the deal with JAMES LABRIE's christian-theme lyrics ( i'll reserve my comments on his vocal handlings on the higher registers)? and why isn't JOHN MYUNG & JORDAN RUDESS allowed to contribute lyrics?

as incredible as JORDAN RUDESSS and JOHN PETRUCCI are on their respective instruments, i wish they would play more melody than notes. way too many damn notes!




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