Issue 2005-029: Dream Theater - Octavarium - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Root Of All Evil [vi. Ready, vii. Remove] (8:25), The Answer Lies Within (5:33), These Walls (7:36), I Walk Beside You (4:29), Panic Attack (8:13), Never Enough (6:46), Sacrificed Sons (10:42), Octavarium [i. Someone Like Him, ii. Medicate (Awakening), iii. Full Circle, iv. Intervals, v. Razor's Edge (24.00)
In a way every Dream Theater is a reaction to the previous one. You can say what you want about their song writing abilities, but even the biggest DT haters must admit that the band strives to steer each successive album into a different musical direction. Ever since 1997's Falling Into Infinity you could dub their albums as "The Poppy Album", "The Concept Album", "The Double Album", "The Heavy Album" and now, finally, "The Prog Album".
Album opener The Root Of All Evil closes the trilogy of The Glass Prison (off Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence) and This Dying Soul (off Train Of Thought), dealing with Mike Portnoy's former alcohol addiction. The song sounds every bit the Dream Theater song, not in the least place because there are several musical and lyrical themes from the previous two songs incorporated. This makes the song sound a bit samey, really, and doesn't bode overly well for the rest of the album. Fortunately, it is mostly uphill from here.
Very un-Dream Theater, they follow the opening track with a ballad. Now every Dream Theater album contains at least one ballad, but coming so early on an album The Answer Lies Within might catch you off guard. A particular nice touch is the string quartet that plays on this song - the synthesised strings utilised on Six Degrees On Inner Turbulence can make me cringe, so I'm glad the band used real instruments here.
Melody-wise the song reminds me of songs like Anna Lee and The Spirit Carries On, though it misses the climax of either of those tracks. The band is often criticised for their ballads, but I can't help but liking them. The melody is very accessible and James LaBrie sings better than he has done in a long time.
Then we seem to go back full metal gear with These Walls, with an intro that harks back to the sound of Images And Words. It reminds me of both Under A Glass Moon and Take The Time with mellow, subdued verses and heavy choruses. This track also contains one of the few guitar solos on the album.
I Walk Beside You is the band's stab at writing a four-minute hit single. In the accompanying press-release Portnoy is quoted saying:
"we wanted to challenge ourselves this time to try and write shorter songs. For most bands, it's a challenge to write a long song, but to us, the challenge is to go the other way. There are three or four songs on the album that are very short and concise..."
Actually, this is the only song on the album that clocks in under the five minute mark, so I'm not entirely sure whether the band succeeded or not. The track is indeed a very commercial sounding pop-rock song, which leans heavily on the sound of U2. It reminds me most of some of the songs the band wrote during the Falling To Infinity sessions, which didn't make the album in the end, like The Way It Used To Be and Cover My Eyes.
Onto the next track. Hey what's this? The band hired a bass-player? Always criminally low in the mix, John Myung finally gets a chance to shine during the intro to Panic Attack. This is in fact the only song on the album that is in the style of their previous album.
This is one of those tracks where the band is starting to repeat themselves a bit, as there are some musical themes which were also explored on Scenes From A Memory and Train Of Thought, but a lot is made up by the vocal melodies, which are some of the best I've heard LaBrie sing. It remains a bit of a throwaway song though.
Dream Theater has never been shy of acknowledging their influences, and Never Enough starts as a blatant Muse copy. Fast sequencers, heavy guitar riffs, a somewhat monotonous, hypnotising drum rhythm and a distorted, high-pitched, heavy breathing vocal style. For the choruses LaBrie switches back to standard Dream Theater style singing though, and in all honesty I have to admit that I would have preferred the band to stay more within Muse territory. The weird synthesisers and sequencers suit the music very well, I must say. It is one of the most refreshing sounding songs they have done in years (despite leaning so heavily on the sound of another band).
Sacrificed Sons is one of only two LaBrie penned lyrics on the album and it deals with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is a waltzing ballad, which sounds almost like a Goth-metal ballad. Half-way the song transforms abruptly in a standard Dream Theater instrumental. The contrast is somewhat stark and it is more like they had this instrumental piece still lying around, but didn't want to have more than eight tracks on the album. I reckon it will be a killer track live though.
The song that will undoubtedly gain the most attention on the new album is the title track: this is quite literally a twenty-four minute ode to prog. If nothing else the band proves they are indeed capable of writing a prog epic. Of course, it is not the first long song the band has produced, but A Mind Beside Itself, A Change Of Seasons and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence were all epics that consisted of several shorter songs, most of which could stand well enough on their own. This is their first true epic.
It starts with a long Shine On-like guitar intro, though played as if by Steve Howe, rather than David Gilmour. Gates Of Delerium references are even more obvious when the rest of the band kicks in, though the atmosphere quickly gives way to Genesis, with the first half of the song being mainly acoustic guitars, vocals and flute. The style of LaBrie's singing closely resembles that of one Eric Woolfson, giving the song a (perhaps unintentional) Alan Parsons atmosphere.
The Obligatory Moog Solo™ has Jordan Rudess doing his best Rick Wakeman impression, though it is done in Dream Theater style: it goes on for a good three minutes and contains more notes a second than Steve Vai on speed.
The third section of the song is called Full Circle and this is literally Mike Portnoy's ode to prog as the lyrics consist of nothing but word-jokes listing his favourite songs, bands and more. If you listen closely you can make out Beatles tracks like Day Tripper, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Get Back, Genesis' Supper's Ready and Cinema Show, Floyd's Careful With That Axe Eugene and Yes' Machine Messiah, as well as My Generation (The Who), Show Me The Way (Pete Frampton), Light My Fire (The Doors) and much, much more. "Jack The Ripper Owens Wilson Phillips" - geddit? Musically this section is another page straight out of the book of Genesis.
And no good prog epic with a majestic climax, right? Utilising a full chamber orchestra the closing section Razor's Edge is juiciest and meatiest of prog climaxes you can imagine. Petrucci's guitar really shines for the first and only time on the album, but he does so for a good three minutes.
A nice little touch is that the song finishes with the opening notes of The Root Of All Evil, so the album literally comes full circle.
Special mention must go to the artwork of the album, created by one Hugh Syme (of Rush fame). The booklet is also full of references to the number 8: an eight-ball, an octagon with an eight-legged spider, an octopus and an octave on a piano. Though the exact same thing has already been done by Spock's Beard when they released their eighth album earlier this year, it is a nice gimmick.
The album is a lot more logical successor to Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence than Train Of Thought was.
Overall you could say it is a mix of the more poppy, song-based material of Falling Into Infinity and the symphonic approach of Scenes From A Memory and the title track of Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence.
The album is surprisingly light on guitar (solos). John Petrucci limits himself mainly to playing rhythm guitar and only occasionally breaks out into a solo. In fact, the long steel-guitar intro to Octavarium is played by Jordan Rudess! That doesn't mean that fans of Petrucci will be disappointed, as the music still retains a very definitive Dream Theater sound.
The album is also a lot more vocal than previous albums. It is the first album since Images And Words that doesn't contain an instrumental. Furthermore, it is a slightly unbalanced album, with the second half being far more interesting than the first half. The songs on the first half of the album aren't bad at all, but they often sound like stuff the band has done before, and are completely overshadowed by the title track. As far as I'm concerned the album is definitely a leap back into the right direction after the disappointment of Train Of Thought.
Dream Theater's Train Of Thought stirred up some discussion, the album ended up as the number one disappointment but also the third best in the same DPRP 2003 poll. People were complaining it was too much metal with too little prog. They expected more from the front men of prog metal, but the band appeared very satisfied with Train Of Thought and claimed this was exactly the album they planned to make. An album that gained new fans but also lost them a number of fans.
And then surprise, surprise, surprise : Octavarium is more in the vein of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (especially the second disc) and not, as to be expected, an extrapolation of ToT. I have no idea what the ToT fans will think of this, but it really put a smile on my face! Still some of the echoes of ToT can be heard and the solid guitar sound is present in some of the tracks. On their web site Dream Theater state they planned to make this album "go back to a more traditional Dream Theater style" in a reaction to the darker ToT. I hope they did that because of they felt they wanted to, not because of the reaction of fans to ToT.
Root Of All Evil is a typical Dream Theater track with all ingredients to make it a good one. James Labrie's voice slightly distorted, solid guitars, catchy refrain and a number of original breaks but the leading role is for Mike Portnoy's drums.
The Answer Lies Within is a classic ballad, Jordan Rudess' piano gives this song a very tragic and melancholic atmosphere. LaBrie's voice however is dragging too much, probably to get more effect, but it makes the song much too slow and almost slimy, not the effect they wanted I expect.
These Walls gives Jordan Rudess more room to use his keyboards. It is a song with mellow and up-tempo parts alternated. John Petrucci's guitar solo is of the kind mellow progmetal guitar solo's should be: not too complex or difficult, he just make that guitar scream. An excellent track: enough bombast but not too much, heavy but filled with melody, progressive without getting too complicated. Well done, gents.
I Walk Beside You could well have been an error during mastering of the disc: some one accidentally put a U2 song on this Dream Theater album. I had never noticed before that James LaBrie's voice is this similar to the voice of Bono. Especially the refrain is very U2-like, music- but certainly voice-wise. Still it is a fine song, U2 could be proud of it. It appears the band have been trying to create a song like this for a long time letting some U2/Coldplay influences in. They succeeded. A very very catchy tune that stays in your head for quite some time. I don't think Dream Theater's future is in tracks like this but just for this time it is nice.
Panic Attack is an up-tempo track with violins and Jordan Rudess getting a chance to indulge in complicated solos together with Petrucci. They are backed up by Portnoy and Myung with a steady beat. If you are easily annoyed by quick and complicated phrases stay away from this track.
Never Enough also has a steady beat, and some of the complicated solos, but it is not as sophisticated as Panic Attack.
Sacrificed Sons' deals with 9/11, the intro consist of a number of news radio clips announcing the bad news. This subject has been covered many times before and now DT are submitting their version. The track is a combination of mellow and more up tempo. It becomes really interesting towards the end and echoes of the last half of 6DOIT can be heard.
Octavarium is the longest track on the album. It starts of quietly and has the same atmosphere of Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond. After that the keyboards of Rudess take it to a more bombastic level that soon tempers down with a cross flute. After the vocals of James Labrie the song goes to more up tempo, but it quiets down afterwards. Towards they end a string orchestra is playing and the song ends in a keyboard and guitar frenzy. In these few simple sentences I hope to convey this track has a superb build up, if you need a reason to buy this album, it is this track - 24 minutes of sheer progressive rock with a touch of metal.
The album Octavarium is a logical successor to 6 Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, not to Train Of Thought. Octavarium is much better balanced than their previous offering and. it is a good thing they decided not to keep burying their music in a metal blur because we would have missed out on tracks like Octavarium, These Walls, Panic Attack and Root Of All Evil. Dream Theater are soon celebrating their 20 anniversary, if they keep creating albums with this quality they can last for another 20 years, easily.
Does Dream Theater really require introduction? Since 1992's seminal Images and Words, they have continued to lead the progressive metal field with their unique blend of stunning musicianship and mastery of melody.
Take the opening track of their new effort, The Root of All Evil, for example. A continuation of the theme of This Dying Soul from their previous album, Train of Thought, soaring vocals over imaginative riffing with a restrained keyboard and guitar solo make this a track that is going to make concert-goers stand with both arms in the air, again. Or take Never Enough, with the trademark unison keyboard/guitar runs, the horror-movie vocal effects, the nearly two minutes of instrumental in the middle - this is Dream Theater, for sure.
No band is perfect, by any means, and this album slips a little in the more "mainstream" of tracks, The Answer Lies Within and I Walk Beside You. The latter is a little power ballad for my taste, but they keep things interesting with some little touches that raise it above the norm.
Why they bothered is beyond me, given the finery of Panic Attack, with its frantic bass intro giving way to an equally frantic piece of constantly-changing music. Jordan Rudess' new keyboard has evidently not changed his sound palette much, but when it's played like this, why complain? Don't be discouraged by Sacrificed Sons' laid-back start, either - when bassist John Myung says its time to change, the waters get choppy - and fun - very quickly.
Which leaves the last and title track. Octavarium. Guitarist John Petrucci has clearly been listening to Ayreon, and this is no bad thing in this track. Don't mistake this one for anything other than a progressive rock masterpiece tribute lyrically and musically. Points of reference include Myung's bass funk at nine minutes, Rudess' Wakeman tribute at twelve (and very convincing he is too), and just try to count the lyrical references to Genesis, Spock's Beard, Yes et al.
After all that, it's a quality album as a whole. Okay, it's slightly uneven, but it's undoubtedly their finest since 1999's Scenes from a Memory. Not a return to the classical complexity of 1992, more like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, but still welcome. Fans of the genre should not hesitate, and those who appreciate progressive music and musicianship should not pass by.