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Where to begin…
Dream Theater is back.
Back from the nebulous wastelands of conflicting musical identity that were Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Train of Thought. Neither of these two were bad albums, per se, each having their moments of brilliance, but neither matched up to the impossibly high standards the band set for themselves with Images and Words, their second album, and Awake, the third. But Octavarium is lightyears ahead of their last few mixed-bag releases, taking the best elements of their evolution in style and musical ability, with an infusion of a new passion, and doing away with the rest: the wastefulness, the questionable songwriting, and (critics of ToT, breathe a heavy sigh) the rap. Even the album’s one reference to Train of Thought, the chorus to “Dying Soul” played during “Root of All Evil”, sounds better in the new context of Octavarium.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed both of Dream Theater’s previous albums, having never been one of DT’s “disenchanted fans”, but they lacked the magic that was strongest with IaW and was never seen to such a degree again. Until now. Octavarium has the magic again. It is brilliant. It is a masterpiece.
A part of the problem with the previous few albums was their emphasis on the album as a whole rather than the songs, and as a result some of the songs are rather weak. Octavarium shifts this focus onto the invidual songs, tightening up the lyrics, doing away with needless instrumentation, and bringing a diversity unseen since IaW. The songs flow better internally, and thus the album flows better as a whole. A new addition is the few seconds of “soundscaping” between each track that ties them all together, and interesting concept that makes everything flow together despite unrelated subject material.
The new album kicks off with “Root of All Evil”, the continuation of the Alcoholics Anonymous saga begun on SDOIT, and is probably the strongest of the three. It makes an awesome album openener, with a kickass drumline (a reference to Dying Soul) leading into a doubly kickass riff that holds the song together without ever getting old. The song is a real rocker that holds your attention from start to finish, unified and cohesive, and features some awesome (but tasteful) soloing by Petrucci and Rudess. The chorus is a showcase for Labrie’s New Improved singing, which is tighter and better than on any previous album and shows just how much he has improved as a singer. The next two heaviest songs on the album, “Panic Attack” and “Never Enough”, are both excellent. “Panic Attack” opens with possibly the catchiest riff on the album, if not in DT’s entire discography, and tears into a blazing fast cacophony that perfectly invokes the emotions of its lyrics and title. Once again we find very nice vocal work by Labrie, especially during a little falsetto bit on the bridge that reminds me in all the best ways of Queen. “Never Enough” is an odd song stylistically for Dream Theater, reminding me more of The Muse, and at first I didn’t like it for the chorus’s lyrics, but it grew on me quickly.
“The Answer Lies Within” is the album’s ballad, a strangely uplifting acoustic song that makes a perfect break after the rockin’ intensity of “Root of All Evil”. Rudess and Labrie dominate this one, and it’s one of their best soft songs, up there with Silent Man and Disappear (although lyrically and thematically the opposite of the latter). It features some very nice violin work and heartening lyrics such as ‘You’ve got the future on your side’. It transitions into “These Walls”, the catchiest song ever written in a major key, and a huge radio hit if they do it right. Radio hits? An oddity for Dream Theater, but one that reminds me of Images and Words, and that’s a good thing. “Walls” has an awesome chorus and some sweet key harmonies, and despite being an extremely simple song for Dream Theater it is excellent nonetheless. The final of the album’s lighter songs is “I Walk Beside You”, a song that could only be a tribute to U2, with some Muse influence mixed in, and just as good as any of the best that either could have written. Catchy, poppy, but I love it nonetheless.
But just for those who would complain about Octavarium’s not being “proggy” enough, DT threw in the final two, beastly tracks: “Sacrificed Sons” and the title track. “Sons” starts out slow and sad, building up through a heavy instrumental section into an awesomely heartbreaking melody and a haunting orchestrated outtro. It has lyrical ties to “In the Name of God”, featuring themes from 9-11—the title is about partly about the reverence for fanatical suicide in terrorist culture, and partly about the war in Iraq-- and has some of the best vocal and guitar work on the album.
Finally is the album’s beast, “Octavarium”, a track that picks up slowly but surely builds intensity throughout multiple musical landscapes until the chilling ending, a lyrical summary of the album that ties everything together. The lyrics are bit out, the rhythm frantic; this is Dream Theater at their most intense and emotional, and every time James Labrie bites out the words “TRAPPED-IN-SIDE-THIS-OC-TA-VAR-I-UM” in a half-scream, it sends chills down my spine. The song then closes with a melodic outtro that reminds me of some of the best work Kansas has done. Throughout the song, there are references to classic rock and Dream Theater's own work; the reference to Nightmare Cinema (DT's "alter ego" band from the FII era) was especially subtle and amusing. Dream Theater fans have asked since 1995 if they could manage an epic that would compare to A Change of Seasons. They have, and while Octavarium is a different song, it is just as surely a prog masterpiece.
Is it Images and Words? Musically, no- it reflects every stage of Dream Theater’s evolution since then. But it features everything that made IaW an amazing album: great songwriting, varied music, technical ability, melodic playing ranging from beautiful to haunting to rocking—and blends in everything Dream Theater has learned since then. It is easily one of their best albums, and a classic for the ages.
"We move in circles, balanced all the while, on a gleaming razor's edge, a perfect stand: colliding with our fate, this story ends where it begins... I'VE COME FULL CIRCLE."