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Dream Theater - Octavarium CD (album) cover

OCTAVARIUM

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.66 | 1521 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
2 stars Octavarium, Dream Theater, 2005

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Octavarium marks a sort of double-effort by Dream Theater, aiming to create another distinctly Dream Theater album, with Dream Theater compositions, including obligatory ballads, metal songs and epic songs but also to do something new and artistic overall. So, I'm offering two opening analyses: one, the 'art', two, the 'songs' (they're not entirely indivisible, but they're not exactly too chummy either).

Personally, the first aim turns out rather better than the second, which goes in for the gimmicky 'nuggets' far more than truly novel ideas. I guess the best illustration is that if I'm meant to give them credit for having 8s and 5s, should I criticise them for having track limits that aren't 8.88s or 5.55s or not using cyclical track lengths, or say they should use something like ottava rima or a Sicilian octave for the rhyme scheme of the lyrics? Yes, it's arguably clever, and I have to admit one of the nuggets was actually, as I understand it, pretty good, but does it actually add anything to the album and the impact it has? I don't think so... the 5s, 8s and cycles are all referenced fairly often, and all sorts of influences are consciously and often openly aired, but again, that's just an artistic superfluity. So, that's one side on which the album attempts to make a lot of impact or show cleverness that really, just wasn't needed and doesn't add the overall piece.

So, the second: initial remark, the songwriting (or else pick-and-choosing: some reviewers have mentioned borrowings from bands I basically don't know, so for the sake of the review, I'll call it writing: just be aware I'm not 100% certain it always is) is pretty good. The four metal songs are effective and moderately individual, though they're not sing-in-the-shower memorable, and Sacrificed Sons, the Preppic (preparatory-epic), much as I don't really appreciate the lyrics, is a musical triumph, and the title track definitely has its moments, though honestly, I could happily cut it off the album's end. So, all-in-all, on the musical, and, for most of you, I guess, more important front, a success, though not an unqualified one.

Well, that's three times the usual space for an introduction, but what I'm going to say is something contradictory to expectations: if your listening approach is generally like mine, fussing over the effect of specific fills, whether a song should or shouldn't use a fade, whether a lyric is supported properly by the feel of the music and so forth, this album gets much better if you can just switch off, and let the music sink in rather than trying to seek the album's deeper conceptual fish, which are floating lifeless on the surface. At least, that's how it worked for me.

The first of eight (surprises there...) tracks, The Root Of All Evil starts promisingly with a firm, low piano note, a menacing hum and Rudess solidifying over Portnoy's startling, mechanical bursts. A thick riff coalesces very naturally from this, and from that, somewhat more awkwardly, the vocal bit. Labrie offers menacing and murky vocals for a snappy set of lyrics with a matching bass underpinning the whole thing. The slightly ambling chorus doesn't have the punch of the verses but on the other hand the superb squirming Petrucci solo and a tasteful piano part from the later Octavarium slipped in smoothly at the end make this an effective statement of intent, both for the metal and the artistic sides of the album. Not entirely certain we needed eight minutes to get it, though.

The Answer Lies Within is a somewhat typical Dream Theater power ballad in the vein of Another Day or The Spirit Carries On. While it doesn't have the inspiring guitar part of the former, it compensates with somewhat less painful lyrics and a fairly nice, if simple (for some reason, Rudess seems to turn the speed down on the 'emotional' piano parts), piano backing that is darkened neatly at the entrance of the violin. On the minus side, the harmonies just aren't something Dream Theater have convincingly engaged, and Labrie's basically good voice is hamstrung by the audible intake of breath before just about each word and an occasional ineffective echo choice. The violin's entrance and a nicely dark conclusion stand out, and all in all it's not a particularly important attraction, but a fairly pleasant break in between the album's general heaviness.

These Walls opens with a block of surprisingly effectively arranged noise which twists into one of DT's most convincing metal riffs. As Rudess enters at speed it's not really so much changed as revealed to be a more deep, dark, brooding song, and a drifting electro-acoustic or something of the ilk brings us to a great entrance from the still hard-breathing Labrie, as usual, slamming vibrato left, right and centre in a decent performance. Rudess takes the only real criticism for his pseudo-orchestral apparitions, which don't really give the Stravinskian punch I think they were meant to. But, even if the song could be a little more involving and stabbing, the melody is great, the bass part is really neat, the chorus is very memorable, and I don't dislike the lyrics. Petrucci's clever hooks offer it an almost unanticipated staying power (and he also takes credit for a calm, tasteful guitar solo with a good tone), and the rhythm section gives a spectacular, cohesive impression as well as the idea that these are really good individual players. I mean, as Dream Theater goes, this just about manages to unite all their best elements, and I can only criticise a couple of either basically insignificant or else very general elements (too many chorus repeats, maybe? Rushed ending? Not a lot of balance?, but these are all very general or nor really important).

I Walk Beside You opens with a fairly clever transition from a jumpy string-synth opening somewhat reminiscent of Queen's The Show Must Go On to a fairly horrendous pop track ? now, I admit that elsewhere I've been lavishly praising of 'pop' songs on otherwise 'prog' masterpieces: I Know What I Like on Selling England By The Pound, Love To Love You on Nine Feet Underground, Tua Casa Commoda on Ys... the difference between this one and those ones is that the classic prog bands were generally able to keep their identity and individuality, and also to throw out great hooks and compositions even when working within pop constraints: Dream Theater, here, at least, do not. Labrie's vocal begins well with a sort of jittering Myung bassline, but, as the chorus begins, the song moves from anything memorable to a general mess. The lyrics are uplifting in the sort of way that Finding Nemo was uplifting (terrible movie). The big crescendo is just trying far too hard (straining your voice is not the only way to evoke emotion with it... sometimes it's not even one of the ways), albeit balanced with a brief and somewhat more tasteful piano-sounding flourish. The issue with this isn't that it's pop, incongruous though it feels, but just that I get no impression of personality from it, just 4.27 which is, admittedly nice intro aside, emotionally blank and musically limp. Short, by the album's standards, and inviting the skip button.

Panic Attack continues the trend of the 'metal' songs on Octavarium being better than the pop/rock ones by a large margin, with a hell of a kicking riff interspersed with effective orchestra-lite melodies from Rudess. Energy, attack, a great vocal melody (later reprised in Octavarium with a bit of a twist). Labrie is again (I much prefer him this way) working on the darker side with a couple of neat wavering high notes, and the vocal melody is interweaved pretty cleverly with repeats of the riff. Petrucci and Portnoy are both in full force on this one, offering aggressive, mule-kick drumming and screechy guitar solos, with Rudess' selective decoration and this energy doesn't relent at all until the great end. I haven't a complaint... well, maybe the introduction of Petrucci's solo involves a couple of unneeded bars, but even with that tiny nitpick, it's a hell of a song. Best on the album.

Never Enough is another of the album's metal numbers, and with the heaviest riff, I think, though the build of the chorus leads us only to some very plodding long syllables (I can only take so much of your un-GRAAATEful wAAAYS) are emphasised agonisingly. That particularly section aside, Labrie's twisted, slightly distorted almost opera-metal vocals are among the best I've heard from him, and even his bawling long syllables seem to slip in unreasonably well. Portnoy's lyrics are pretty simple and direct, and dissecting them is naturally going to prove both unfair and unnecessary, but the chorus feels almost intently ambling by comparison with the verses. However, his drumming here is great: energy, attack, a mild element of surprise, fits neatly in with the bass parts, and not too dense for continued impact. Both Rudess and Petrucci seem to be contributing basically embellishments during the song's main chorus, they seem to twine together to create both the killer opening riff and the instrumental mid-section, but then, they're acting just right by the song, and, even if it's not musically visionary and the chorus isn't as great as it could be, it is really a very good song.

Sacrificed Sons finds itself in an awkward position. Automatically, it's the second-most-epic song on an album, which is never enviable, and it's put right against the title track, and it's clearly aiming to be something more than the metal tracks. So, in the album's context, I don't think it's really going to bring out its full potential ? guess that's the issue with making 70 minute albums rather than 40 minute ones. However, from the synthesis of Arabic-sounding prayers, a wandering violin and a set of quotations about 9/11, understandably a sensitive and relevant topic, and I credit the band for trying to engage with it. On the other hand, I don't particularly feel they engaged with it effectively but maybe I'm just too detached to really feel the human, emotional pull they're angling for.

A chilling, simple piano-voice-drums trio, with Labrie's voice on top form is augmented by a fairly harmless orchestral addition played off against swirling, brooding solos from Rudess and Petrucci. The initial melodies aren't especially creative, but the song's main attraction lies in Petrucci's astounding soloing - and all directed towards the song and its lyrical theme ? and the heady metallic mid-section, full of the sort of complex band-lines that made Metropolis pt. 1 such a classic. All, in all, were this the album's ending, I'd call it an almost unqualified success, as it is, the denouement before the album's intended piece de resistance doesn't really suit it, but still, a minor classic in the band's repertoire, and the best playing I've yet heard from the very talented Petrucci.

The centrepiece and twenty-four minute epic Octavarium is obviously the album's making-or-breaking, whether it'll be an occasional listen or a regular visitor to the headphones or CD-player. I personally can understand the accolades it receives on one level ? Dream Theater are a talented bunch of musicians, and they're producing an enormous piece jammed full of information and references in a strictly progressive rock track. I guess it's just not an idea that appeals to me, and the silly five/eight/cycles thing appears to gain any interest accidentally as much as by design ? OK, the notion of infinite reincarnation as a trap is interesting, but I'm not convinced with all the eight-octave-that's-a-cycle thing going on, and five-that's-like-the-black-notes-man. As for the reference soup in pt. III: well, I can't blame them for using them: who doesn't , but just slamming references down rather than using them to establish a point or something of the kind is essentially messy rather than insightful. Still, musically, it's not a bad thing, and addressing that:

So, the first four minutes or so are a twisted welding of Bijou and the introduction of Shine On You Crazy Diamond ? Petrucci's more than up to the task, not so convinced that Rudess' keys have the emotional grip that Wright never relinquished. After this and admittedly a very pretty flute part, a content guitar (any resemblance to Cadence and Cascade is probably an imagination on my part), a good Labrie vocal and the occasional reinforcing piano note. Portnoy's arriving rattle adds a slight, building depth, though the transition of 'I thought what I could tell' unfortunately sees Labrie straining to create effect. I find myself at about nine minutes in by now, with a cool bass groove, less cool lyrics, some neat fills by Portnoy and three minutes later, I'm still in much the same mood... it's not so much that the song's not good, but just that it's making no continued impression on me. I phase out and find myself waking up occasionally to check where I am by the lyrics.

A very neat synth solo ? according to the site I've got up, cribbed, but still, it's well-played ? is my next point of actual contact with the music, and after sitting through it and wondering just what it's meant to add to the piece before settling down to plain enjoy it. Now, Full Circle, part III, is a dilemma for me. As mentioned, I think the lyrics are a horrendous mess, but Labrie is on top form and the riff they've pulled out is really strong, and the descent into a sort of collective madness at around 16.00 is great, with what sounds like a brief reference to Metropolis pt. 1, or, at least, the same sort of complex fast-paced, high-energy progressive metal. Head-spinning assaults from the bass and guitar and synthesiser counterpointed with a big range of keyboards, solid ten-second references. I find myself strangely able to completely ignore the lyrics of the next section and carry my full enjoyment of the song across Labrie's odd, but effective, vocal stylings and the full yowling post-ordial swirl of the band. Razor's Edge, though itself somewhat unremarkable, does a good job of working out the tension and energy spilling over from the previous two sections. Some more Brian May-ish guitar-work takes us on our instrumental ride out with a complementary, if brief, appearance by the orchestra.

Well, left in the aftermath with one chilling low piano note, what do I think of Octavarium? Good question... my description's been pretty brief given the length ? and I've been trying to give impressions rather than a list you yourself can hear if you pick up the album. Still, it's an enjoyable progressive rock track, with some of Dream Theater's most focussed and impressive music yet, and yet it's a conceptual mess ? pritt-sticking a hundred influences together with little other than a lot of instrumental talent to do it. From an intellectual, puzzle-solver and poet, standpoint, I think it's decidedly lightweight, from an emotional standpoint, it almost pulls off the huge finale thing it was going for. And from about the 11.00 or 12.00 mark it never really lost my attention. Unfortunately, this isn't really a case where something less than absolute success can be enough, the album's impact clearly depends on this suite to unify it from a smorgasboard (I wouldn't recommend the cheese) of harmless pop/rock and artistically-leaning metal numbers, and for me, this one isn't good enough to do that.

So, all in all, I think Dream Theater somewhat overreached themselves by a sheer effort to be artistic here, instead ending with a jumble of circumstantial or arranged fives and eights and a couple of whole-album links that really are a bit too light to justify the effort put into them. Additionally, the enormous centrepiece supposedly unifying this is good, but just not good enough or intellectually convincing enough to iron out so many kinks. However, this artistic misfire actually has little effect on the enjoyment of the album proper and, all in all, we're left with some very good songs, in fact, some of DT's best, especially Never Enough, These Walls and Sacrificed Sons, and I think the band's overall sound benefits a bit from Rudess being a little less and Myung a little more noticeable (worth using a good set of headphones for this one ? really enjoyed the production). All in all, a pleasant, fairly memorable effort, and worth a few listens even if you're not the band's biggest fan, even if the whole effect doesn't really pull together and I Walk Beside You is a real monstrosity. Three deserved stars from me.

Rating: Three Stars, 10/15... if you want an introduction to the band, I'd say Images And Words (a sketchy 11/15) would be a better choice than this, and Awake a better album than either of them. Favourite Track: Panic Attack

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For the record, this is the fifth Dream Theater album I've heard, and the fourth I've listened to enough times to get a good impression (about four or five 'complete' listens, and a fair few repeats of the various songs depending on inclination and challenge). However, given I'm reviewing this one based on the excellent Spotify, I find myself without the negative time between the tracks, so be aware that I'm missing about two minutes of the album's incidental music. Additionally, this review has hit, at the moment of completion, 2917 words... long reviews, I'm afraid, result from my style ? it wasn't just that I really hated Scenes From A Memory Metropolis. Oh, and I forgot: a mention for Myung's bass solo in Octavarium. Always good to hear a bass solo.

Edit: Cut to two as I'm moving to generally harsher ratings (not just because I'm having a go at Dream Theater... whose latest wasn't terrible, btw), I felt that maybe the derivative nature of the album works against it and there are noticeable patches of patchiness in among the neatness (I also figure that if I can't remember what happened in what I called the best song on the album, it probably isn't the best song on the album... heh).

TGM: Orb | 2/5 |

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