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Disregarding the rare bands that seem incapable of crafting anything less-than-stellar, most every group will, over the course of their career, produce an obligatory unaffecting album. Whatever the case - perhaps the songs are inconsistent, or perhaps they’re so consistent that I don’t remember any of them - these are the albums that are destined to become lost in the void of time, records that will not receive overwhelming hate for their stunning badness but will never garner overwhelming critical acclaim for their supreme quality either. They exist, and that is all.
For Dream Theater, Octavarium is their obligatory unaffecting album. Sledged in-between the uniquely metal Train of Thought and the diverse Systematic Chaos, the album is just… sort of… there. You don’t hear about it a lot because there’s almost nothing worth mentioning, but there’s almost nothing worth deriding either. Aside from “Never Enough”, which is undoubtedly the most pathetic thing the band has ever crafted (it’s whinier than Steven Wilson on a binge drinking escapade), the remainder of the work is quite good, in particular its title track.
Clocking in at exactly 24 minutes, “Octavarium” may be Dream Theater’s finest moment. It’s certainly the epitome of their craftsmanship, sporting intentional references to their idols with just enough originality to make it feel like a Dream Theater song. The instrumental break towards the end of the third movement “Full Circle”, in particular, is probably the best instrumental break on the album. And, of course, there’s the concluding movement “Razor’s Edge”, which, despite being almost absurdly epic, works because of how the momentum builds leading up to it. Unlike the other 20+ minute marathons – “A Change of Seasons”, “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, and “In the Presence of Enemies” – “Octavarium” flows well, and does not suffer from the herky-jerky structures that limited its counterparts.
If there is one criticism of the record that detracts from it more than anything else, then it is the complaint that many of these songs sound like unabashed rip-offs of other bands’ songs. Some Dream Theater fans were alienated following the release of the album in 2005 because, despite the fact that the band has always worn their influences proudly on their sleeves, Octavarium showed signs of them taking this habit to the next level. The aforementioned “Never Enough”, for example, brings Muse’s “Stockholm Syndrome” to mind, and “I Walk Beside You” vaguely sounds like U2.
What’s more bothersome than the possibility that Dream Theater unknowingly borrowed some material from their peers is the reality that, for the first time since Falling into Infinity, the band tried to write more concise, radio-friendly songs, and didn’t do a great job of it. They didn’t do a bad job by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s nothing here on the same level as “Hollow Years” or “Anna Lee”. “The Answer Lies Within” is clichéd, but good, as is “These Walls”, which is very good, but there’s nothing that strikes you as being in the upper echelon of the Dream Theater arsenal.
There were signs planted throughout the record that the band was starting to get too silly for their own good. The recurring theme of 5/8 in the artwork and songs is one of the funnest things I’ve ever seen a band do with their product, but it got a little far-fetched after while. More pressing is the middle bit of “Sacrificed Sons”, which is groovy despite the bookends of the song being sad. The track is still very listenable and overwhelmingly affecting (see it performed on Score to attain full effect), but parts of it are so incongruous that they reek of pretentiousness.
Octavarium is, at the end of the day, an immovable middling album. It’s nowhere close to being one of the band’s worst, but it’s even further from being one of their best. It also comes across as having something of an identity crisis, the band clearly trying to restrain themselves but going over the edge whenever they decide to let loose. And, aside from the title track and the opener “The Root of All Evil”, there isn’t a whole lot of material here that you'll ever feel like revisiting. The album merely exists, quietly going about its business and never calling any attention to itself, but it suffers for it.