Dream Theater - 2005 Octavarium

richardbrichardb Poole, Dorset


ARTIST: Dream Theater
ALBUM: Octavarium
LABEL: Atlantic
SERIAL: 83793-2
YEAR: 2005


LINEUP: James LaBrie - lead vocals * John Petrucci - guitars, backing vocals * John Myung - bass * Jordan Rudess - keyboards, continuum, lap steel guitar * Mike Portnoy - drums, percussion, backing vocals

TRACK LISTING: 01 The Root Of All Evil * 02 The Answer Lies Within * 03 These Walls * 04 I Walk Beside You * 05 Panic Attack * 06 Never Enough * 07 Sacrificed Sons * 08 Octavarium

RATING: image


Now I'll be the first to admit that I don't really 'get' the Prog Metal genre - heaven knows how fans find the time to listen to all these bands when most of their songs seem to weigh in at over 20 minutes! However I do make the odd exception, Dream Theater being one of them.

What I particularly like about the band (judging by what I've read on the net) is that despite the erudite nature of their concepts, they don't appear to take themselves too seriously. This makes a refreshing change from the po-faced posturing of some of their contemporaries (e.g. Tool).

'Octavarium' is Dream Theater's eighth studio opus (naturally) and considered by their legions of loyal fans as being their most complex and reference ridden concept album. For some people the very words 'concept' and 'album' together in the same sentence, has the capacity to conjure up a number of emotions - apathy, dread, loathing or obsession (if you're anything like the guys over at mikeportnoy.com).

However as I feel confident that the readers of our site are broad minded and lovers of intelligent and thought provoking music, hopefully what I'm about to write will pique your curiosity if you haven't previously acquainted yourself with the band or this album.

The central theme of the album is the idea of a perpetual cycle, for example an octave in music (on which Octavarium is purportedly based) starts and ends on the same note. Octavarium continues the pattern which started with 'Six degrees of inner turbulence' which contained six songs, 'Train of thought' which had seven songs and 'Octavarium' - well I think you get the picture.

The history of the word 'Octavarium' reveals an historical book in the Vatican called 'Octavarium Romanum' notable for containing a (if you'll pardon the pun) number of 5's and 8's. Perhaps unsurprisingly then there are numerous visual and musical reference points for the fans to pontificate over until their hearts content.

For example the album jacket contains eight pages revealing the full Newton's cradle (eight balls naturally) and the heartbeat at the end of 'These Walls' is beating at 58 beats per minute. I could go on, but I'll stop now because I want our readers to stay awake and the Ed to keep me on the writing staff.

The Songs

To fully appreciate the many subtle (and some not so subtle) musical nuances of this album, I'd recommend listening through a decent set of headphones, when the kids are in bed and the missus is glued to the TV watching the latest property programme (yep there are still some around despite the global credit crunch). As you would expect from Dream Theater there is a great deal of intricate musical flair evident here coupled with the highly effective use of orchestral arrangements. OK, let's get on with the songs.

'The Root Of All Evil' is the third instalment in Mike Portnoy's Alcoholic's Anonymous Suite which covers the sixth and seventh steps of the 12 step AA programme - namely the individual's acceptance of their addiction and willingness to seek redemption.

The music is suitably dark and foreboding given the subject matter and opens with Mike Portnoy's rapid fire machine gun like drumming, which evolves into an onslaught of brutal metallic riffing, pounding drums and manic vocal mannerisms from James La Brie. Definitely not one for the faint hearted, you'll either love it or hate it.

'The Answer Lies Within' is a beautiful soaring piece, opening with the sound of a distant bell ringing (eight times naturally), delicate piano and is rounded off with a string section and soul searching lyrics. What's more John Petrucci keeps his six-string exhibitionism to the bare minimum this time choosing not to bludgeon the listener into a state of submission. It allows you a period of convalescence after the previous assault on your ear-drums.

'These Walls' also demonstrates a more melodic (dare I say it radio friendly) side to the band even if it is nearly seven minutes in length. The expansive verses give way to a melodic chorus of punchy guitar and symphonic keyboard textures from Messrs Petrucci and Rudess respectively.

'I Walk Beside You' is probably the band most commercial piece to date and has a notable U2 inflection in the song structure, particularly the guitar work and chorus. On second thoughts perhaps that should be infection? I hope I don't offend but I've never been a U2 fan (that makes two of us, and BTW, your job is safe. Ed), as I always found it difficult to get past Bono's posing (whilst wearing his ubiquitous shades whatever the time of day).

There are obvious religious and spiritual references too. For instance the lyric 'step inside this sacred place when all your dreams seem broken' is an obvious fit.

If 'I Walk Beside You' is derivative, then 'Panic Attack' has Dream Theater's unique identity stamped all over it. Equal parts frenzied guitar riffing and frantic drumming (laced with OTT keyboard runs) it manages to be both skull crushingly heavy and symphonic at the same time. James La Brie is the proverbial icing on the cake with his expressive vocal delivery which at times is almost pseudo-operatic, I feel sure the late, great Freddie Mercury would have approved. Of course the trouble with being a band with such a devoted following is that your fan's behaviour can at times border on the obsessional invading your privacy as a result.

'Never Enough' is Mike Portnoy's articulate riposte against ungrateful fans that continually make unreasonable demands upon him and the band - the antithesis of Journey's cloyingly sentimental paean to their fans 'People and Places' perhaps?

'Sacrificed Sons' discusses the theme of religious fanaticism and the effects and motivation behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It opens with 8 voice clips reporting on the tragedy and eerie atmospherics ('no clues, a complete surprise, who'll be coming home tonight?') The song then builds into a typically bombastic and electrifying instrumental delivery which never fails to send shivers up and down my spine every time I hear it.

Saving the best until last, the sprawling title track is over 24 minutes long and consists of 5 chapters which bring the album's central theme to a full circle. Epic in every sense, it's a prog rock /pomp fan's delight. If you're a music anorak then you'll have hours of fun dissecting the numerous musical reference points. Pink Floyd, Queen and Styx are just a few that are immediately apparent.

A lengthy keyboard intro from Jordan Rudess introduces the opening chapter 'Someone Like Him' which draws from the Carpe Diem theme (i.e. seizing the moment) that was explored earlier with a 'Change Of Seasons'. Though it has also been suggested that it represents John Petrucci's state of mind in his early days before he made the decision to take up a career as a professional musician.

'Medicate (Awakening)' seems to follow a concept of the patient played by Robert DeNiro in the film 'Awakenings' in essence a patient awaking from a catatonic sleep and reverting back to it at the end.

Styx fans will love 'Full Circle' as the Jordan Rudess sequential synth lines are straight out of the Dennis DeYoung song book, it certainly put a broad smile on my face.

Elsewhere throughout there are some extremely clever lyrical and musical reference points, The Beatles, The Doors, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Queen, Styx and The Who are just some of many names which spring to mind. Is this an ode to their musical heroes or an implication that they have joined the ranks of these musical legends? I'll leave you to decide.

'Intervals' heightens the intensity if you listen carefully you can hear eight snippets from previous tracks.

The lyrics once again reinforce the theme of a perpetual cycle. This is further re-inforced by the fact that 'Razor's Edge' ends with the same piano note the album began with.

In Summary

If you've got this already then I'm probably already preaching to the converted, though if you like me you to tend to dip in and out of some artist's back catalogues, then I urge you to pick this one up if you missed it first time around.

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