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CD Review: Dream Theater’s Octavarium

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So Dream Theater’s new album then. Well I say new, it’s actually been out the majority of half a year. It was released, if my memory serves me a steaming platter of truth, around early to mid June.

I remember the time well; I was slipping into the depths of an Audrey Tautou obsession (one which traversed the flows of manic eBay DVD purchasing and insane preoccupationry thoughts for the next couple of months), in fact, if I recollect correctly, I had just watched A Very Long Engagement the day before the album arrived, although it was the Amelie watching a few weeks earlier that caused the major bludgeon to the cerebellum. But all that’s for another retrospective, one to be undoubtedly penned someday, someday where I’ve finally come to conclusions about what exactly the hell was going on there besides the obvious, and now’s no good because my scatter graphs are currently out in the shed and it’s too cold to go get them.

Well, that was a distraction, unforeseen. Also I saw Batman Begins that week, a Thursday it was, and Octavarium arrived on the prior Tuesday. But I won’t delve into BatBale the Early Years either right now, and probably never will.

Yeh, this album. Now is the time to print a myriad of thoughts, due to back in the day I had not stepped into the b**gging world, and also recently I’ve been dedicating more time to that very neglected area of musicology. (Well one album review).

Octavarium is the eighth studio album by the prog-metal band Dream Theater. I think that constitutes a competent back story to this fable. There’s not a great deal more to say; this ain’t no biography after all.

First track is ‘The Root Of All Evil’, a continuation of Mike Portnoy’s regaling of his time battling alcohol addiction built around the conceptualisation of AA’s infamous 12-step program (this is parts six and seven). In what seems to have become a Dream Theater convention, the song opens with the final note of the previous album (Train Of Thought), and this one always reminds me of the beginning of In Flames song ‘Stand Ablaze’, probably because it’s the same note being played by piano. Then once the song starts up we get this funky riff, which is fun to play on those days when you’ve got your guitar down-tuned a half step, but lacks any real substance to listen to. The song is a far cry from its mythos precursors, ‘The Glass Prison’ and ‘This Dying Soul’, which are both fantastic. In fact its high point is mid-way through when it mimics the chorus of ‘This Dying Soul’. Competent, nothing more.

I’ll admit to never really giving the second track, ‘The Answer Lies Within’, much attention. It’s true that around that time I had read the outraged opinions circulating the roof spaces of message boards that the song imitates a Linkin Park song. I wouldn’t be familiar with that song it supposedly copies, but I trust the vast masses to be anything but wrong on this issue. And to be fair I have just given it a listen there, and it’s pretty poor stuff, obviously that’s backed up by my immense passive listening to it in the past.

‘These Walls’ is a down-tuned seven string heavy-with-sing-along-chorus type of song. It’s decent enough, if not stab-my-ears-with egg-whisks generic.

First thing I noticed about ‘I Walk Beside You’ is the startling similarity the chorus possesses to any number of U2 songs. Great intro and main verse riffery, but that chorus is the sort of faux-uplifting and derivative dull stuff that I’d expect a progressive band to avoid, on penalty of a resurrected Antonin Artaud coming over and screaming French obscenities into your aural sockets.

What a pessimistic and negative review this has been so far, the dismal clouds of mediocrity are sitting somewhere over the O of Octavarium. But hark thy words! Repentance is here in the form of the latter half of the album.

Track five is the point where the album starts to pick up. I dunno what it picks up exactly, I just hope it’s not my Three Colours Trilogy DVD box-set, or at least if it does, it puts it back down where it’s supposed to be.

In ‘Panic Attack’ it’s all heavy baritone guitars, and, more importantly, energy. Much needed, and absent, it finally arrives at the show, chauffeur-driven by the ghost of GG Allin. Great breakdown in the mid-section, lots of keyboard and guitar shredding, wonderful dynamic rhythm in the drum and bass quadrants. The chorus is a bit Muse-sounding, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Now, Muse then. I never got into this band, but they clearly have had an influence on the music here, perhaps especially evident by Petrucci saying things like, “Aye, I like them.” This influence is no more apparant than in ‘Never Enough’. It’s great, but on first listens this struck me with sharp swords of worry. I’ve since then displaced the Muse references in my head, probably because the chances are I’ve listened to this song more than I’ve listened to Muse (which isn’t a huge lot). Another great breakdown mid-section, excellent flowing soundscapes here, Murray Schafer would be falling over himself at this right here. Then a great keyboard/guitar solo unison section (one not based upon bpm), followed by a very dissonant little section of ringing-out arpeggios.

Penultimately is ‘Sacrificed Sons’. A song which opens with a collage of news soundclips based around on-going international crises concerning terrorism and Jihad and whatnot. Given that, it’s not very political a track, mainly just about “don’t be silly with your misinterpretations, it won’t do no good.” Probably more focused on the likes of suicide bombers, as opposed to any deep political dialectic. Musically, another excellent song, lots of riffs pumped into that ten minutes, including a lovely melodic melancholic lead somewhere in the middle, and a heavy staccato power chord riff under the final verses, which rules greatly.

So here we are kiddies. Hope you’ve been keeping up with the narrative so far, maintaining your instalment payments, and so on. The final track is the epic title track, twenty-four minutes of proggy goodness, split up into five sections (probably to aid reviewers, in that they won’t need to go “that bit at 16:32 rules”).

The intro (which doesn’t even warrant its own official section apparently) is a superfluous mix of ambient sounds and understated keyboard, often shamelessly skipped by me.

I think I’d have to recognise the first section to be my favourite section, a glorious acoustic, melodic composition. Mainly because of its sublime third-person lyrics by John Petrucci, which I misconstrued as a positively uplifting message that life doesn’t have to go the conventional and banal way of education-job-retirement-death. But on closer inspection since those early-preconception days, it seems to be more about how one’s life philosophy can alter, someone’s motivations and ambitions can change course and transmogrify into something else (perhaps that which you previously avoided and resented).

Still, ignorance is gliss (or so I read, although that might have been a typo).

Moving on a bit, section two is another nice euphonious piece. Section three is where the musical maestros escape their cage. It opens with lots of rapid keyboard squiggles, then onto the vocal segment. Then the customary instrumental part, multitudinous time signature changes, keyboard/guitar unisons, tempo changes, all the usual fare to be expected, but brilliant I must add. Fourth section verse-based heaviness, final section comprises a rousing vocal part followed by one of John Petrucci’s best solos. A slow moody beast of a thing it is.

Christ, I’ve yakked on way too long about this, and not nearly enough Bruce Campbell or Kafka references! I’ll digress and sum up: a good album, undoubtedly, flawed and patchy at times, but worth it for the excellence that is on there.

Pertinent question: where does it be placed on the Dream Theater discography ranking then?

I would say above Falling Into Infinity and Train Of Thought, but below the rest. This is actually the first time I’ve thought about that rhetorical; I never before realised I warranted it such a low position. I guess I always look upon the optimal material on there, of which there is easily a sufficient amount.

For more meanderings visit me here: Generic Mugwump.
ed/pub:NB

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About Aaron Fleming

  • Guppusmaximus

    I’ve always wondered how someone who isn’t into a particular band can actually do a review without any bias… “Octavarium” is a crappy album and leaves me to believe that it was done out of either contractual agreement or a massive brain fart on part of the band. This sonic garbage was also witnessed on Mr. Labrie’s latest solo effort. Some people may not like the complex dwellings of a band ahead of their time but this does not mean that they should toy with a formula that has been rewarding just to please the D-tuned Nu-Metal brainless twits!! “Train of Thought” was a far superior album and “Falling…” actually showed some maturity for it’s time. I won’t even start in about the mentioning of In Flames in this article….

  • nugget

    what the hell are you talking about? Was all of that necesssary? Review the music and quit talking a bunch of horse crap.

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Guppusmaximus – you seem to be accusing Octavarium of aiming at the mass nu-metal market, yet praise Train of Thought, which I like, but take off This Dying Soul and Stream of Consciousness and you’re left with an excess of banal downtunery that does just that.
    Falling Into Infinity is fine, but is just, compared with the rest, poor.

    I don’t quite get your opening remark, are you saying I’m not into the band?

    Insinuations of bias? Well obviously I’m biased, this is nothing beyond a subjective writing.

    Oh, and the In Flames mention was a very minor reference (an elucidation of an association I get), and do recognise that Stand Ablaze was on the Subterranean EP, a good five years before they started peddling crap.

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Nugget – you’re lucky I even mentioned the music, surely you’ve seen some of the reviews around here, I could have had an essay about tying my laces twice in the space of an hour and the terror I felt at the constant gradual loosening of said laces, and how the laces were purchased from a Harry Potter devotee, and how in the financial exchange misunderstandings led to harsh sneers, and etc etc, oh and by the way the album’s alright.

  • http://www.pitriff.com Chris Akin

    I love when people write that same dumb line that “if you aren’t into a band, you shouldn’t review it”. Uhhh…that’s exactly who should review it. If you ARE a fan of a band, then more times than not you are willing to overlook the bad points of a recording and accentuate the positive points of it. An 8/10 review from a fan almost always translates to a 5/10 review from someone that isn’t a fan. As another non-DT fan, I’d have to say that Octavarium goes back to what this band has done over the last decade – it meanders on way to long to let all the instrumentalists noodle around. Dream Theater has always been, and continues to be, the best instrumental band out there. They also continue to be the single most undisciplined band out there, because they aimlessly create 8-15 minute songs where 1/2 of the musical meandering is unnecessary and pointless. Octavarium is another Dream Theater album that no one will talk about a year from now – period.

  • Eric Olsen

    I too am a non-fan of the band but a great fan of the reviewer: I enjoyed being brought into an entertaining thought process and tagging along as it puttered about poking this and that. Thanks Aaron!

    To get a real feel for the status of any work of art, I want to hear about from both a fan and a non-fan – then I can vector it

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    No, thank you Eric. Compliments are always welcome, especially from yourself!

  • Guppusmaximus

    Chris,

    You proved my point… As a non-fan you wouldn’t give the album an indepth look because you are already sold on your own biased view. I, being a fan since the beginning with a fond memory of their prior fantastic “noodling” having made the mistake of purchasing this waste of plastic that lacks the integrity of their prior releases, has some emotion at stake. Having to admit that a truley loved band in my collection came out with an utter train wreck(oops, maybe that was the last album…but I actually liked “train of thought”)is quite a hard thing to do but considering I am perched,most of the time, ready to attack other not-so-loved bands, I still have to be a true music critic. Maybe you don’t like progressive music? Maybe you don’t like Metal? But, getting a review from the likes of you or a non-fan about a purely talented, successful band wouldn’t be accurate… So, I would’ve still purchased this awful CD.

    So, Eric here is your review from a fan:

    “Octavarium” seesm to me like a polished attempt to get in with the Nu-Metal brainless jackasses…Period.

  • nugget

    “I too am a non-fan of the band but a great fan of the reviewer: I enjoyed being brought into an entertaining thought process and tagging along as it puttered about poking this and that. Thanks Aaron!

    To get a real feel for the status of any work of art, I want to hear about from both a fan and a non-fan – then I can vector it ”

    no. It was just lame. An insider’s joke apparantly. I’m not much of a fan, yet I wanted to read a real review. I didn’t count on a parodying blogcritic jag-off thread.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    and that lester bangs. how dare he wax on about this an that for three pages of a Slade review?? dammit to hell!

    Sir Fleming, this is wonderful, nothing less. and i enjoyed reading about Dream Theater!!! really enjoyed, in fact, which, being a non-fan, is something i never imagined happening. but there it is!

    (and i agree about the waxing regarding Harry Potter devotees and shoelaces. who can be bothered with anything of the like…)

  • nugget

    the circle jerk is now completed.

  • Guppusmaximus

    Nugget,

    Thanks for noticing the shameless ass kissing session on this thread…

    Was this actually about Dream Theater or a suave attempt to further a hack’s credentials on a band he obviously has no love for? This is one instance where a band with virtually unlimited talent and resources “dropped the ball” and I agree that Mr. Fleming could’ve been straight to the point without all the meanderings and the obvious apologetic intro that proves he doesn’t care enough to write an accurate review…

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Hahah, fucking hell, this is some insane heckling going on right here.

    Obviously attempt to write a review with some personal annecdotes and humour and it clearly means you could care less for the band in question.

    Clearly the fact that one Dream Theater fan could have a different opinion from another is mind-blowingly insane, and would never ever happen!

    No love? Because I rate it above two other albums? Here, don’t forget those magnificent albums that reside above Octavarium. Perhaps this should have been an depth thesis into why that bit at 4:19 in Under A Glass Moon is better than all of Octavarium put together.

    Here’s an idea, there’s a whole Internet teeming with straight reviews of this album, go and read them.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    “Here’s an idea, there’s a whole Internet teeming with straight reviews of this album, go and read them.”

    and that is the crux of the situation.

    what lunacy, what madness! and i never for a second got the impression you couldn’t be bothered writing about them so you wrote about other stuff. i got the impression you cared about the record so much, in fact, that to present anything OTHER than this kinda personal where-i-was type affair woulda been a damn cop-out.

    this heckling is indeed somethin insaniacal.

    and how come positive remarks are “ass-kissing” and “circle jerkin” an the like, and yet negative comments ain’t ever given any sort of categorical analysis or nothin. maybe some sort of syphilis could be attributed, if we’re gonna go with ass kissin an circle jerkin for the other.

  • Guppusmaximus

    “Here’s an idea, there’s a whole Internet teeming with straight reviews of this album, go and read them…”

    Yeah,but this is BlogCritics.org,”A sinister cabal of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, technology, and politics.”

    Where’s the superiority? Wouldn’t being superior imply that you could write a review that would capture the essance of the cd at hand better than the other supposed websites??

    “I’m not much of a fan, yet I wanted to read a real review. I didn’t count on a parodying blogcritic jag-off thread.”

    I guess I will have to just agree with nugget even though I am a fairly huge fan…

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Sorry, I probably should have included a track-by-track rundown of the album, followed by an overall summing up, oh, wait a second…

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Also, according to yourself the album is crappy, and I assume from your negative comments that you think the same of my review, so therefore does it not indeed capture that essence of which you speak. A parallel of garbage you could say.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~proy1/ Paul Roy

    Great review Aaron. I am a fan of the band, but I can’t really disagree with most of your review. Octavarium is just OK. Equivalent to Train and Six Degrees, but not as good as the rest. They sorely need an outside producer – and replacing that annoying keyboard virtuoso wouldn’t hurt either.

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Thanks Paul.

    Oh and don’t listen to those crazies, I am indeed a big fan of the band.

    I don’t mind Rudess, but it surely wouldn’t be a bad thing if Kevin Moore were to return.

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    What are you people talking about? Aaron so totally reviews the friggin’ album. He talks about the songs, and the music, and the lyrics, and the…no well that’s pretty much it. But its all there.

    Great freakin’ review, Aaron.

    And can I get into that circle jerk? Sounds fun.

  • http://www.genericmugwump.blogspot.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Cheers Mat.

    Of course man, we’re having a great time in the circle and it is our desire to have you participate. Circle jerks for all!

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I guess I actually liked Train of Thought better.

    Even great musicianship requires an occasional hook. Jordan Rudess kind of kills it for me sometimes. I hate those random keyboard squiggles. If you don’t have anything to play, then don’t. Also… not enough Portnoy. That guy is boss.

    Our circle jerk is becoming a trapezoid. Good review, Aaron.

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    Circle jerks for all!

    You should, nay you must, run a political campaign based on that slogan.

  • Gear

    Went to my first DT concert this autumn, the Octavarium tour, and I must say, they were at least as good if not better live. They are so incredibly tight.
    The live version of the song Octavarium blew me away. And what the great tune it is on the studio album anyways?! The synth solo is the best Ive ever heard. Makes the album worth it even if you dont like the rest of the songs. Ive even converted two of my roommates..
    Great album this, from some of the best musicians on the face of the planet.

  • Jack

    I thought it was a good review for a pretty bad album. You were right when the last half picked up, and the track “Octavarium” is an orgasm of prog.

    Props, mate.