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On June 7th, Dream Theater's Octavarium, their 8th studio album, was released to the general public for consumption. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I found the leak of the album that appeared a little over a week before the release date. So, I've had the opportunity to digest this album in its entirety before most of the standard fanbase. In addition, I have purchased the official release, as the leak was not the final mix, and I have given that a full listen as well.
Regardless of your point of view towards Dream Theater's newer material, I think that most would agree with me in stating that Octavarium is an important release. The previous release, Train of Thought, put a lot of fans and critics on edge, as it seemed that the heavy, excessively long songs filled with long, arguably pretentious (and borderline pointless) solos were going to become the norm. I don't agree with all the sentiments that the public expressed, but I do consider Train of Thought to be their weakest studio album. The album was a one-time experiment that succeeded about 75% of the time. The solos/instrumental breaks were frequent and sometimes didn't contribute to a song's integrity (see the unison instrumental section with John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess in "In the Name of God" for a good example, or the extended solo section of Honor Thy Father), and some songs felt like extended sections were tagged on for length's sake (see the last two or so minutes of "This Dying Soul"). All in all, Dream Theater established a new set of fans (particularly those with tastes in the heavier side of music), but alienated a good deal of their older fans. This puts Octavarium in a position of "Do or die." Dream Theater is aware of the criticisms that Train of Thought met. They weren't deaf (in fact, as the song "Never Enough" states, they were sometimes downright offended by the ignorant flak some fans spewed in their direction), and from listening to Octavarium it seems like they were eager to address the concerns the fanbase brought up.
In order to prepare myself for reviewing this album, I went back to listened to each and every studio album released by Dream Theater, one a day, up until the official release date. What I found interesting was how much their sound changes just from album to album, and how much Images and Words does not sound like When Dream And Day Unite, and that Awake sounds nothing like Images and Words, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, I noticed that the "wankery" that Dream Theater is accused of didn't truly surface until Scenes From A Memory, and didn't become relentless until Train Of Thought. Out of all the albums, I experienced some bad cases of boredom on Train Of Thought (especially during the later half of "Honor Thy Father") and even on Scenes From A Memory. As I expected, I enjoyed Awake, Falling Into Infinity, and Images and Words the most, with When Dream And Day Unite surprising me (I had never "listened" to that album properly, now I see some of its own magic) and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence getting an honorable mention. When Dream And Day Unite and Scenes From A Memory are easily Dream Theater's most bombastic albums, while Awake and Falling Into Infinity I find to be their most personal. Images and Words is magical and epic, like its not of this world.
I did a lot of research on Octavarium before it was even released. I listened to the early radio edits. I read nearly everything the band had to say about this album. I knew what I was going to listen to. I understood the direction they were going to take. When I listened to the full album for the first time, I was expecting a mix of Falling Into Infinity, Awake, and to a lesser degree, Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, plus whatever new spins Dream Theater would pull on this album. Guess what, I heard exactly what I planned on hearing. It helps to be informed, understand the direction the band is going in, and to prepare yourself for what you will hear. It helps the appreciation process a lot.
Let me be blunt. If you dislike all of Dream Theater's material after Images and Words (and probably even Awake), you won't like Octavarium. Dream Theater is not going to return to that sound, and to expect them to do so is absurd. This record still sounds like the version of Dream Theater that was established on 1999's Scenes From A Memory after Jordan Rudess joined the band as their permanent keyboardist. On the flip side, for the individuals that thought Train of Thought was one of Dream Theater's best albums, and that their earlier work is not as interesting, then I will say that they will probably be under-welmed by this effort. A lot of the elements from their past three albums are absent, and replaced with some sensibilities that haven't been seen since Falling Into Infinity. What is the point I am trying to make? Approach this album with an open mind. It is not supposed to be part two of any of their previous albums. It is the next iteration of Dream Theater, and it takes some elements from their past, ditches others, and then introduces variety and influences that have not surfaced in Dream Theater's music up until now.
Now that the stage has been set, how is the album itself? I think that "variety" is probably the best word to describe this record. I haven't seen this range of variety since Falling Into Infinity. There are the metal songs, there is a ballad, there are a couple of hard rock inspired songs, and then there are a couple prog epics that the band is famous for. It essentially covers every base, meaning there is something for everyone on this album. They wrote these songs in the studio over the course of a month and a half I believe, and given that they took their time and put constraints on themselves, the end result is diverse and focused.
Dream Theater, for example, forced themselves to write some songs that weren't extended in length (much like Rush did at one point in their career). Those songs include "The Answer Lies Within" and "I Walk Beside You." Other songs break the five minute mark, but are much more concise in what they state musically. "The Root of All Evil," for example, is a continuation of the AA saga by Mike Portnoy that started with "The Glass Prison" back on Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. This is the first song in the series that does not break 10 minutes. Unlike "This Dying Soul," it does not feel like the song meanders pointlessly. Instead, it is a focused effort that continues the AA saga and references the past songs to produce a enjoyable atmosphere.
Finally, the first seven songs are all written in different keys. "The Root of All Evil" is in A, "The Answer Lies Within" is in B, "These Walls" is in C, and so on and so forth. In Octavarium, it once again starts with the key of A, and ends on A. This artistic idea is creative, and further serves to give all the songs their own identity.
Now for the contributions of the band members.
John Petrucci - I applaud Petrucci as he showed restraint. This is the first album since Falling Into Infinity where he crafted solos that did not blaze at a mile a minute. It shows a sense of discipline, and the quality of the songs grew due to this. Petrucci also utilized some low tunings on this record to produce a soundscape that hadn't been explored previously. With all this said, shred-fanatics need not fret, as Petrucci really lets things rip on "Panic Attack" and "Octavarium." Petrucci created some catchy riffs this time around in songs such "The Root of All Evil," "These Walls" and "I Walk Beside You." Other times, he utilized an acoustic sound in "Octavarium" to create a different type of atmosphere. All around, a solid effort by Petrucci.
Lyrics Penned: The Answer Lies Within, These Walls, I Walk Beside You, Panic Attack, Octavarium (Sections I and V)
Mike Portnoy - Of all the members, he showed the least "change." In other words, the drum work on this record is the typical Mike Portnoy affair. Like Petrucci and Rudess, he shows restraint where it is proper, such as on "The Answer Lies Within." Portnoy likes to borrow heavily from his influences, so for example there is some Muse-like drumming in "Never Enough." The effect of Portnoy on this record is not so much in a change of drumming as it is in the creativity of the songs. He and Petrucci are the main songwriting team, and it shows. The overall song-feel is the more modern, post-Kevin Moore sound that was "perfected" (depending on how you view it) on Scenes From A Memory. He does some very nice bass kick work in the chorus of "These Walls." I don't recall any crazy solos however, like at the end of "Finally Free" in Scenes From A Memory. No big loss though, the drums are not supposed to overpower but to support the overall rhythms of each specific piece.
Lyrics Penned: The Root Of All Evil, Never Enough, Octavarium (Sections III and IV)
John Myung - It's nice to hear Myung once again. Poor Myung has always been lost in the mixing process, and could only be appreciated in the live CDs. But, now he has been given the space to breathe, and his work is phenomenal. He does a nice, complicated riff at the beginning of "Panic Attack" that sounds effortless and holds a riff for an entire sub-section of "Octavarium." This man is a monster on the six-string bass. Impressive work. It's a shame that he doesn't contribute lyrically anymore, but the band refuses to work around his writing style nowadays, and the man shouldn't have to compromise.
Lyrics Penned: None
Jordan Rudess - Probably the most controversial member of the current version of Dream Theater. His keyboard sound effects, continuing with this record, sound nothing like Kevin Moore's or Derek Sherinian's. But, to be fair, he toned down the bombastic nature of his sound effects this time around. He sticks to more organic sounds (and even a sound effect that sounds like a tribute to Ayreon!), and introduces the wonderful sounding instrument called the continuum in "Octavarium." As far as his solos, they are still shred-inspired, but they are limited to where they are called for, such as in the solo section of "Panic Attack" and "Octavarium." I must say though that his ballad-piano work in "The Answer Lies Within" surprised me, as I didn't think that he was capable of writing such a melody line. Well done Rudess. His other piano work (as in piano sound effect) is the standard neo-classical affair that we've come to expect. But, much like Petrucci, its more restrained and focused on increasing the strength of the song as opposed to using it to show off. In this record, Rudess got the opportunity to show his artistic chops in a variety of ways, and it came off as classy. An effective use of talent by Mr. Rudess.
Lyrics Penned: None
James LaBrie - The other controversial member, as most people either love or hate him. Let me just say "wow!" I knew that he had been reworking his singing style ever since the Train of Thought era (essentially, he got a new vocal coach that said his old coach's techniques were bullshit, so he needed to "start" all over again), and the result of this is magnificent. His range is starting to once again reach the heights he achieved in Images and Words, and there is a greater warmth is his tone and expression. I really can't see how his voice can be perceived as annoying on this recording. He doesn't sound like he is straining himself anymore. Instead, it is a true joy to listen to his range and expression. Given the overall soundscapes explored, the music compliments his timbre well. He uses doubling and tripling of his vocals to achieve harmonies that simply haven't been heard on a Dream Theater record before (they have appeared on his side projects, however). James LaBrie's showing is one of the greatest strengths of this album, and this seems to promise an incredible set of performances on this upcoming tour to promote Octavarium.
Lyrics Penned: Sacrificed Sons, Octavarium (Section II)
Finally, the song breakdown:
The Root of All Evil (9/10) - The opener of the album, and the continuation of the Alcoholics Anonymous saga that began with "The Glass Prison" and continued with "This Dying Soul." I love the intro into the song. It starts off with the final piano note from "In The Name Of God," Rudess creates an atmosphere with his sound effects (reminds me of being stuck in a thick liquid) that reminds me of the very end of The Human Equation by Ayreon, and the rhythm of the final riff in "This Dying Soul" is pounded out by Portnoy repeatedly until the first main guitar line starts. As it stands, this song is the least metal of the three entries in the AA saga so far. It's more hard rock inspired, and that's quite fine. The main riff is catchy (and reminds me of the color blue for some reason), and yet sounds at home with the previous sonic themes from the other entries in the saga. Speaking of which, "This Dying Soul" is openly referenced in this song, and makes for a very cool, haunting effect. No, Dream Theater is not running out of ideas and needs to reuse their old songs, this piece is a continuation of a much larger suite, and it is only appropriate that certain lyrical and musical themes are reprised now and again. It was done in "A Change Of Seasons" and "Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence," why not here? Overall, a great rocker and an excellent way to start the album.
The Answer Lies Within (8/10) - The main ballad of the album, and it is the simplest one that has been released. This is much along the lines of "Anna Lee" in that it is heavily piano driven and quite intimate in its emotions. Some beautiful and melodic lines are played by Rudess, and Petrucci eventually joins him acoustically. The song is moving, and the lyrical theme presented is uplifting, as opposed to the dark subject matter of "Anna Lee." LaBrie has song warm moments on this track, especially at the "you're gonna shine" lyric, which gives me chills. There are no solos, which is appropriate. This piece is sincere and warm, and a solo would just spoil the mood. Unfortunately, because this song is slow-moving, one may be inclined to skip it from time to time. Unlike some of the other material on this record, this is not a piece that fits into the "listenable in any mood" mold.
These Walls (10/10) - The first of three Dream Theater classics on this album. I've been listening to this song ever since the radio edit was released, and it never gets old. The song is an excellent mix of heavy and soaring sounds, and the result is an uplifting song that has "balls." The chorus is memorable, possibly one of the most memorable they've ever written (considering the fact that a number of their songs don't have a discernable chorus). As mentioned before, I also like the bass kick Portnoy uses during the chorus. Petrucci's solo is one of the most minimal that has come from him, and it works quite well in the context of this piece. It helps to drive the piece into its final moments, and doesn't distract the listener. The vocal effect that LaBrie uses at the end with the lyric, "Tear down these walls for me / It's not too late for me" is neat, and makes me feel happy inside. Despite the depiction of struggle that manifests itself over this song, it is clear that in the end things will work out, and LaBrie's vocals really help to portray it. This is one song I can't wait to see live.
I Walk Beside You (8/10) - The first of two songs that are clearly inspired by a rock band. This song is quite U2-ish in its construction and in LaBrie's vocals. This is probably the poppiest thing Dream Theater has released on a studio album (aside from "You Not Me," but that song was a general failure), but you know what? I like it. For once I'm not feeling like I need to pay attention to the technicalities of the song. The song is written in what appears to be D Major, and that gives the song an uplifting feeling. I remember smiling broadly when I heard the familiar tick tock from Scenes From A Memory at the beginning, followed by Rudess's staccato keyboard hits and going into the melodic opening guitar licks from Petrucci. This song reminds me of "Innocence Faded" in some ways. It's uplifting, not overly complicated, and LaBrie gives an impassioned performance. This is a feel-good song that I know can make my day feel better. I take this song for what it is, and why it was written as it was, and that's that.
Panic Attack (10/10) - This is one of the greatest metal songs by Dream Theater. It completely blows everything from Train Of Thought out of the water. It has heavy guitar tones, but the keyboards are not obscured, since Rudess does not try to sound like a second guitar this time around. The piano bits with the chorus sound effect remind me of the more memorable parts of Scenes From A Memory. LaBrie gives an aggressive performance, and even mimics the singer of Muse near the end. The solo section is awesome, and actually feels like it belongs versus being inserted for the hell of it. The heavy riffs are given time to develop, and are utilized as a repeating theme throughout the song. This is THE song I want to see live. This is a serious contender for my favorite heavy song from Dream Theater.
Never Enough (7/10) - Before I had the lyric booklet and understood what this song was actually about, I remembered being a little disappointed with this one. This song sounds a lot like Muse's "Stockholm Syndrome" in the opening guitar riff. LaBrie even uses the same type of vocal distortion that is found in British pop rock acts such as Muse and Radiohead. So, out of everything on this album, this sometimes feel a little bit like a rip-off. However, the second half of the song saves itself, and I love that echoed-type sound effect Petrucci uses in his solo. Now, since I know that this song is about Portnoy's encounters with ungrateful fans (and I mean fans who verbally abuse his work without explanation, who constantly ask him to release things and then bitch when it's not to their expectations, and who chew the band out for not playing a certain song at a three-hour concert or say stuff like, "Train Of Thought was a fucking stupid idea"), the whole use of the British art rock style makes a lot more sense. Radiohead in particular has always been subtle musically when it comes to their anger towards society, and typically they juxtapose very angry lyrics over beautiful musical passages. Dream Theater does something similar. The music itself is not all that angry, particularly the verse parts. It's more haunting, and I feel that the band was taking a stab at masking angry lyrics with, more or less, standard non-angry art rock music. Does it succeed? More or less. Now that I know what its about, at least I understand why it sounds like it does, as opposed to just being a rip-off. It's still my least favorite song on the album though.
Sacrificed Sons (9/10) - Classic Dream Theater mini-epic right here. Opening with a middle-eastern twang, the song then builds into a quiet melody line. The vocal lines are haunting, and the solo section is of the traditional Dream Theater style. The build and pace of this song reminds me of "Peruvian Skies" in many ways, including the fact that both songs make me feel the same emotions and "colors." Dealing with sad subject matter, it ponders it for a while, breaks into a solo, and then turns metal and brings the song to an energetic close. As far as the lyrics go, they deal with 9/11. Yes, I know this is going to make some people uncomfortable, and some others angry that they even tackle this subject at all (either because they should "forget about it" or because they see it as overtly "pro-American," which I don't see at all). I feel that James LaBrie, the writer of the lyrics, handled it in the best way he could. It is obviously his first person account of how he felt about the whole situation, and he is NOT condemning the middle east. He is condemning the perpetrators for perverting their scripture and for sacrificing their own sons to achieve their own twisted end. It's "Sacrificed Sons," not "Evil Terrorists." "In The Name Of God" dealt with fringe cults in America in a more general sense, this deals with James LaBrie's personal feelings about the tragedy. He just didn't have the opportunity to do so until now.
Octavarium (10/10) - The closer of the album, and what a way to end things. A word of advice: just because this song is the same length as "A Change Of Seasons" doesn't mean you should expect ACOS part two. I did that, and I was sorely disappointed the first time around. This song sounds nothing like ACOS. So, on my second listen, I choose to listen to "Octavarium" instead of ACOS part two, and it that made the song click for me. The orchestra has some beautiful accents to Dream Theater's composition. Overall, this is probably the most majestic thing Dream Theater has created (I mean this from a beauty aesthetic). The song is just beautiful to listen to. Jordan's new device, the continuum, sounds great, and adds an atmosphere to the song that has never been heard on a Dream Theater album before. This epic is a nod to progressive rock from the 70s, and develops as such. In other words, this song is one HUGE crescendo. It just builds and builds as we move from one movement to the next. The solo section, when it finally kicks in, begins to build a sense of chaos that, up until this point, had been relatively absent from the song. The end of the build occurs with James LaBrie SCREAMING "Trapped inside this Octavarium!" over and over, which gives me the chills, something that I hadn't experienced since 'The Crimson Sunset' movement in "A Change Of Seasons." As for the scream, some have expressed distaste towards it for whatever reason. My response is to get open minded. The song has been building for twenty minutes, reprising themes from the entire album, and then you say a scream at the climax is "unwarranted?" It's a perfect release of tension, and from the music's aesthetic, not much else would have fit. Seriously, it's not a death metal growl (which I happen to like anyway), and its no different than the screams that were overlaid in "In The Name Of God."
Anyway, back on the song. Lyrically, it deals with a man who, as a child, wanted to live his life to the fullest, but didn't end up achieving that. He then falls into a catatonic sleep, and awakes to find out that he lost thirty years of his life. After that point, it looks like the song breaks from this story a little bit, and gives a laundry list of words that have a slew of messages in it pertaining to Dream Theater, progressive rock, and persons and events from the past thirty years or so. So actually, one could interpret that this is all the stuff that this man has missed, and it is flooding back to him. Unfortunately, it seems like he fell back into his catatonic state, and (this part is pure conjecture) Octavarium is the next thing he hears. Each of the previous seven songs are recapped, and it is revealed that he is trapped inside an octavarium, a series of eight songs, eight notes available in an octave, and that these notes flow in a perfect circle. The song closes with the ideas of coming full circle, and ending exactly where we began, which is exactly how Octavarium closes, with the opening sound effects from "The Root Of All Evil." Wonderful song, and an awesome way to close the album.
Album Themes - One thing this album has is a lot of hidden messages and "easter eggs" within the packaging and the music itself. Musically, this is something that hasn't been done since Awake (I don't count Scenes From A Memory, since that is a concept album and the style demands it), and it was something I was delighted to see return. It encourages replaying (especially with headphones, as some things will not be caught otherwise) and it really drives home the fact that artistically this is an album, not just a collection of singles. Although the songs stand alone, they are still connected in some way. I will not delve into some of the more obscure bits and pieces, as some of it is just mere speculation, but I wish to drive home the artistic merit Dream Theater has created with this album.
The first thing that I immediately noticed is that bits and pieces of melodies from songs are played in other songs. You can hear the "medicate me" melody riff in the background in "The Answer Lies Within." I know that other riffs from "Octavarium" appear in the other songs. In addition, this album seems to reference Dream Theater's past albums in some ways. There are footsteps at the beginning of "The Root Of All Evil," a tick-tock sound in "I Walk Beside You," and a guitar squeal in "Sacrificed Sons" ala Scenes From A Memory. A couple piano lines in "Octavarium" and "The Answer Lies Within" give me a serious "Anna Lee" vibe, and I don't think that's an accident. In movement four of "Octavarium," you can hear Portnoy say faintly in the background "root," "second," "third," etc. as each two line sentence is recited by LaBrie, followed by a brief clip of the song that lyric refers to.
The 5:8 connection is found a lot in the artwork. The eight refers to the eight notes to go a full octave, there are five black piano keys and eight white keys in an octave, this is the band's eighth album with five members (and eight total members have gone through the band since they've been in the studio), there are five birds and eight balls on the cover, with the birds in-between the ball where the black keys on a piano would be. There is a five point star in an eight-sided building. Finally, there is the circle of fifths, which is how the eight main letter scales of the western world are formed. Basically, this kind of stuff is all over the booklet, and is probably encoded in the music somewhere (I wouldn't be surprised if a melody line follows the circle of fifths somewhere).
The album deals with coming full circle, and ending where you begin. The album goes from lyrically upbeat songs to lyrically upset songs, to a song that encompasses it all, only to have it all recycle again with the next listen. Much like life, we go through these feelings in stages. We never escape them, and we continue to realize that a lot of life goes through cycles.
In conclusion, as can be gathered, I was extremely happy with how this album turned out. It's the most artistically engaging thing they've released since Awake, and it feels much more personal than the last three albums. I know this album will be meeting a lot of flak, for a lot of people were probably expecting something completely different. I got exactly what I wanted. This is the album they said they were making, and what we have is a diverse, focused, mature effort that drops some pretenses in order to advance the art of songwriting. Screw the fact that most of this album is not prog. What does a genre matter anyway? Good songs with artistic integrity can be found in rock, metal, prog, electronica, etc., and this album is full of them. This is a new direction for the band, and for me I feel like they finally hit the mark in the Rudess-era. What will their next album hold? I have absolutely no clue. The previous albums held small clues as to what the next album would sound like ("The Glass Prison" on SDoIT and a few moments in "In The Name Of God" and "Vacant" on TOT), but I can't pick out any of those clues this time around, perhaps because of the great diversity this album holds. Whatever it is, you can sure as hell bet that it will sound like nothing that came before it.
Great effort Dream Theater, I look forward to hearing this stuff live.