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Well.....I can't tell you how much I wanted this album to be great, for this to bring Dream Theater back to the progressive spotlight, for them to do something new.
But, after listening to it many times, I think Dream Theater is a dying band. They're devoid of new ideas, and most of the members seem to be too caught up in how great they think they are to realize it.
There are several issues that plague this album. One of these issues is the production. John Petrucci's guitar sound on the albums has been getting worse ever since he got the Music Man as far as I'm concerned. I wasn't a fan of the guitar sound on SDOIT, although I love the album, and the guitar wasn't awful. However, on this, it sounds pretty bad. The production is also very muddy, not acceptable from a Dream Theater album.
The next thing, stale instrumentation. John Petrucci has apparently acquired a fetish for down-tuning his guitar and playing generic power chord riffs. That's what a lot of the playing on the album sounds like, which is unfortunate, since we know he is capable of so much. Another stale bit is Jordan Rudess' playing. "The Answer Lies Within" is what I would call one of the "good" songs on the album, but the keyboard is so stale. He's not even trying to play outside the box, just playing quarter-note chords. How boring coming from Jordan Rudess.
The other issue with instrumentation is soloing on the album. There are only two worthwhile solo sections on the album, the one in "Octavarium," and to a lesser degree, the one in "Sacrificed Sons." I laugh every time I hear the solos in "Panic Attack." John Petrucci isn't even trying; he's just doing random guitar exercises. Jordan's solos also sound uninspired on this. It sounds like they just said "oh yeah....I guess we should stick a solo in there."
The whole "dark" sound is another issue. Dream Theater just can't do it without it sounding like epic radio rock. This power chord writing, and then the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure is very boring. So a lot of the songs they end up coming out with a generic song that could have gone through it's musical variety in under four minutes, but they drag it out to eight. The other problem with this is that the vocals suffer. James LaBrie can't do the dark vocals, but they paint him into that corner, using the lower range over a heavy backing, and he sounds mediocre at best. His best performances are in the non-downtuned songs here.
The ripping off is something I shouldn't have to hear from Dream Theater. While there are Muse inspired moments on the album, "Never Enough" is a complete rip-off of Muse. I'm not a Muse fan, but I was alerted to this by someone else. The U2 chorus on "I Walk Beside You" is also a rip-off, but the rest of the song doesn't sound like that, so it's not as big an issue. The point here is not whether it sounds good or not, but that it takes no though at all to rip-off another band.
There are some good moments here. "Sacrificed Sons" is straight from Scenes From A Memory, which if not totally creative, is better than the more generic things on the album. The best track here is the epic title track, "Octavarium." Lots of interesting melodies (compared to the generic melodies they use in the "heavy" songs), a nice solo melody, great vocals from James, and the nice addition of a string ensemble for the emotional ending. An excellent song. This is what they should be doing more of here.
I'm not saying there is anything wrong with "heavy" songs. Dream Theater have some really great, tasteful heavy songs that aren't just generic radio-rock fests......all the seven-string songs on Awake, "The Dance Of Eternity," etc. But this is just generic material. Especially "These Walls." It's just a seven and a half minute radio rock song.
So here is my track list from best to worst, and notice the mediocrity line.....although for Dream Theater, it should probably be the line where it's not worth listening to.
2. Sacrificed Sons
3. I Walk Beside You
4. The Answer Lies Within
5. Never Enough*
6. Panic Attack
7. The Root Of All Evil
8. These Walls
*Never Enough is good as a song, but the fact that it is a complete rip-off of another band means that it doesn't have much musical value.
To conclude.....this is a good album. It has a few great songs, and some good songs. However, this is not a good Dream Theater album at all. It's not "progressive," it doesn't introduce anything new, and with the exception of one song, they can't even go back to their old sound, so it's not even a nostalgia trip. There are quite a few points where you can hear the "progressiveness" trying to poke its head out, but those moments don't outweigh how thoroughly generic a good portion of this album is. I'm buying this album.....but unless they can pull themselves out of the gutter this might be the last Dream Theater album I can buy. Sadly, I don't see them bringing it back up because they don't seem to be able to take criticism or see any negative things about what they're making. As many know, 'Elements Of Persuasion' was originally distributed masquerading as Octavarium. Well, this album isn't too far removed from that heaping pile of garbage, but it's worse in principle just because this is Dream Theater making this. Remember what they can do? Well....this isn't it, they're holding back. If it weren't for the title track, this probably would have gotten a thirty. Even though there are some really nice moments here, especially in the "good songs," from a musical perspective, it's generic and cliché. This is what it sounds like when a good progressive band decides to do radio rock.
Buy it for Octavarium, the great song, and for the couple of other "good" songs.