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Dream Theater - Octavarium CD (album) cover


Dream Theater


Progressive Metal

3.67 | 2032 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars I am in a state of shock after my second listen to DREAM THEATER's Octavarium, and I sincerely apologize for the length of this...but I want to do this amazing album justice and put it into context. Given the controversy and the flaming DT tends to generate even before an album's release, I worried at first that my high assessment of Octavarium might be due to unfairly lowering my expectations. But after my second listen--this time knowing what I'd hear--I'm sure this really is a masterpiece of prog. DREAM THEATER has finally generated a work that really competes with its other magnum opus, Awake.

After losing atmospheric master and keyboardist KEVIN MOORE, DT had a difficult time returning to the kind of tight cohesion they had before. (I have not heard any albums with DEREK SHERINIAN; I write about the RUDESS era only.) While technically very talented, up until now their third keyboardist JORDAN RUDESS had yet to "click" with the rest of the band, sticking out of joint with meandering solos and grating keyboard patches. His first album with DT, Scenes from a Memory, while conceptually interesting and well-sung by JAMES LaBRIE, suffered seriously in my opinion from a lack of musical direction. The next album I've heard, Train of Thought got closer to integrating RUDESS, and while I know some didn't care for it because of its hard edge and yes...still some over-noodling, it was a decent album. I've always believed, though, that the keyboardist makes or breaks the atmosphere of a prog record, and I worried that if RUDESS did not fully assimilate this time, it was going to be the end for DT.

Thankfully, this album is a best-case scenario beyond my wildest imagination! All the way from the creepy, "Welcome to the Machine"-like introduction of "The Root of All Evil" to the reprise at the end of "Octavarium", there is very little I can find about this that isn't tightly-composed, well-performed, and genuinely moving. The transitions between songs are carefully managed, flowing, and even tiny details have been attended to by the band--right down to taking care to making the track titles display on your CD player and marking the interstitial areas between songs with a "countdown".

"The Root of All Evil" makes a nice sequel to "This Dying Soul", and is part of MIKE PORTNOY's AA series. This one really seems to represent the moment of committing oneself to change...and I've got to give PORTNOY cool points for having the guts to "go public" this way. LaBRIE's voice has been processed in a way that's very strange at first...but to my mind, very effective. And immediately, I notice in the subtler keys of the outro, that RUDESS has learned control. But I hadn't heard anything yet...

The album's softest, sweetest moment, "The Answer Lies Within", reminded me in a strange way of something from Natalie Merchant; but I mean that favorably. I truly felt something stir inside of me not only at the excellent use of the orchestra and piano, but also at LaBRIE's delivery of the lyrics, which was genuinely touching and makes me want to sing along. And at one point, he does a gorgeous multi-tracking of his own voice that is among his best "harmony" moments I've ever heard. It also helps that this song speaks very nicely to where I am in my life--and the fact that I connect on this level is a testament to what DT has done on Octavarium.

"These Walls" and "I Walk Beside You" I'll address together. Both are mellower tracks (once past the intro to "These Walls"), and both have traits that some people are calling "commercial". However--why people are knocking them for that is beyond me. What I hear is good music with a real flow to it...and, even uplifting. Wouldn't you guys rather that all music on the radio was this good?

"Panic Attack"...I admit I don't feel as much just from the music (a very heavy track in contrast to what went before it)--but let me tell you something: this is about as authentic to the real experience of a panic attack that you can get. PETRUCCI has hit the nail on the head with the lyrics, LaBRIE has successfully worked the nameless fear into his singing especially with the intentionally-exaggerated vibrato in places, and even the outro, with the obsessively-repeating note, very much evokes the obsessive looping of a mind locked into a true panic attack. On "Never Enough", JORDAN RUDESS decisively proves what he's made of. While he's low in the mix at times, he really makes his synth blend with the music, and his solos are well-planned, not ever feeling like they were "noodled-through" on the fly. MIKE PORTNOY's cymbal fills caught my attention. As for the lyrical content...this seems to be a sequel to "Honor Thy Father".

For "Sacrificed Sons", I warn anyone who suffers severely from remembering 9/11 to skip to "Octavarium", because this is very evocative, using real TV clips from that day, not to mention a very powerful, emotional musical atmosphere--mournfully soft at times, ragingly heavy and angry at others. During PETRUCCI's solo, he lets out some bone-chilling sounds: he imitates emergency sirens...and not long after that what sounds like a muezzin's call to prayer. I give credit to JAMES LaBRIE not only for singing--but for setting on paper feelings that I think any American can identify with. Thank goodness...this isn't a war protest--rather, it's the cry of shock and indignation that I think every one of us, regardless of political affiliation, felt after the attack on America. The terrorists deserve the lyrical roasting LaBRIE hurls at them--but I commend him for not sinking to the nastiness of a ROGER WATERS even with the mournful sarcasm this justifiably brings out of him.

"Octavarium"...this was the final test DREAM THEATER had to pass: to prove that they had (re)learned to write a cohesive epic. The first four minutes literally bring me to a halt in whatever I'm doing--this moody, spacy section evokes both PINK FLOYD and AYREON. I'm not exactly sure what this song is about, but here's my best guess at it: it seems to show someone who is alienated from this modern era and under severe psychological strain because of it. The section subtitled "Awakening" is a real lyrical clue--go to IMDB for a summary of the movie Awakenings to understand. The next section's disjointed references to the great works of the 60s and 70s (including lyrical nods to GENESIS and PINK FLOYD) help confirm my impression. The musical build- up from section to section is very well-composed and powerful to hear...and not only that, towards the end LaBRIE goes from a dark, spoken vocal up to the kind of screaming, snarling sounds I haven't heard out of him since Awake--and for me, it's great to have that back. I should also add that RUDESS is in fine form...and without him there's no way the band could successfully pull off an epic of this caliber. By the time the end arrives, you find yourself reflecting sadly that "Octavarium" would go on forever. It is an incredible ride.

The only thing I noticed that might keep this one from knocking Awake to second place is a murky mix that sometimes threatens to swallow LaBRIE's vocals. If you've heard Blind Guardian's A Night at the Opera, that should give you a clue what to expect. But like that example, the composition and performance itself is solid...and it won't blow your head off if you listen on earphones! I also had one little complaint with a passage from RUDESS in "The Root of All Evil" that sounded a bit too video game-ish and reminiscent of the things that got on my nerves in previous albums-- but he stopped within seconds and after that he truly shined. Neither of these things are nearly enough to knock Octavarium to four stars.

This is the real McCoy...DREAM THEATER is back!

(And the "meandering" torch is hereby passed to me!)

FloydWright | 5/5 |


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