Since 1994, Dream Theater has followed an uncanny pattern in album excellence. “Awake” was unbelievable – “Falling Into Infinity” was pretty good – “Scenes From a Memory” is the best album of all time – “Six Degrees …” has its creative merits – “Train of Thought” is an unstoppable beast. So, by this logic, their next album will be good, but not a towering sonic monolith.
So, is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s hard to tell.
“Octavarium”, Dream Theater’s ninth studio album, is definitely a change in direction from “Train of Thought”, which was a guitar-heavy album. Dream Theater’s newest release is an atmospheric composition that focuses more on symphonic keyboard textures than it does on meaty guitar riffs. This particular ambience (along with the addition of a symphony) has taken over the spotlight, making each song more structured, accessible and consistently catchy, which was not the case with their last release. Petrucci and Rudess’ virtuoso deliveries (more commonly known as “shredding”) are kept down to an absolute minimum on this album. One may suppose that the band realized that the songs on “Train of Thought” were following a decipherable pattern: intro, verse, chorus, long instrumental fireworks, chorus, finish.
So what do we have, exactly? We have an album that explores various areas of the progressive world. We have “The Root of All Evil”, a continuation of Portnoy’s multi-album suite (beginning with “The Glass Prison” and continued by “This Dying Soul”), which starts the album on a relatively heavy note. In it’s 8-minute run, it re-visits riffs, rhythms and even lyrics from its predecessors (namely “I can feel my body breaking – shaking”) and a shaky, unimpressive chorus that borrows from James LaBrie’s forgettable experience with Tim Donahue. “Panic Attack” is a look back to Liquid Tension Experiment’s rapid fire guitar riffs and blitzkrieg drums, never slowing down in its spectacular 8-minute duration. It is the fastest Dream Theater song to date and an explosive standout track.
Aside from those songs, the rest of the album is considerably slower and softer than anything we have heard from Dream Theater since the collection of ballads found on 1997’s “Falling into Infinity”. The serene “The Answer Lies Within” begins with the sounds of crickets and a lonely piano, leading into a soothing song where Rudess’ delicate melodies journey alongside a quiet troupe of strings, which have a brief “solo” where Petrucci would normally show off. The song is very (and I mean *very*) reminiscent of “The Spirit Carries On” in its folksy, feel-good song construction and melodies. But it is nowhere near as poppy or infectious as the upbeat, radio-ready “I Walk Beside You”, which is the closest Dream Theater has come to sounding like Hoobastank or the Goo Goo Dolls. It’s still a great song, despite the predictable and sugarcoated rock riffs.
Speaking of predictability, Dream Theater have yet another politically interested song, following in the footsteps of 2001’s “The Great Debate” and 2003’s “In the Name of God”. In fact, this album’s 10-minute “Sacrificed Sons” is, most accurately described, “In the Name of God Part 2″ with the same lyrical theme (religious fanaticism) and similar threatening atmospheres as its predecessor.
Then there’s the surprise. The 24-minute prog-rock title track. I didn’t know what to make of “Octavarium” at first as it was a complete surprise. It is a total departure from “A Change of Seasons” (the band’s other 20+ minute epic). It seems that Portnoy’s prog-rock experiences with Transatlantic have leaked out into Dream Theater. The metal is gone, replaced by a softer rock that sounds a lot like IQ and Spock’s Beard with synchronized guitars and keyboards, and a myriad of different sounds (like juxtaposing a solitary acoustic guitar for a few seconds and stomping on it with a catchy prog melody). After the first painfully long four minutes, the guitars kick in, paving the way for a truly memorable experience, headlined by acoustic guitars, soothing vocals, lots of piano, a curious flute (a surprise) and later a full symphony (a shock).
The symphony is difficult to digest. Dream Theater have always proved to be masters of their craft by working wonders with their instruments – and their instruments only. Now we have a symphony adding a supporting fill to their already organic songs. Fortunately, it isn’t ubiquitous (à la Nightwish’s “Once”) or thinly spread out (à la Pain of Salvation’s “BE”). Instead, it’s prominent and heavy at select times like an active volcano. The strings punch out in short bursts at the majestic end of “These Walls”, subtly guide the keyboards of “The Answer Lies Within” and, with the help of some horns, bring “Octavarium” to a stunning finish.
Every song on the album is unique one way or another (except “Never Enough”, which doesn’t take off until its instrumental delivery 2/3 of the way into the song) and form the parts of yet another great Dream Theater release. Although the album may not survive the test of time like “Images and Words” or “Scenes From a Memory” have, it is still a delightful listen and an impressive creative output.
Sure, they *are* my all-time favorite band, so my standards are extremely high. Despite the surprises and occasionally awkward moments, “Octavarium” passes my intense scrutiny.
See also: Dream Theater – “Falling into Infinity”, Dream Theater – “Images and Words”, Transatlantic – “SMPT:e”, Spock’s Beard – “V”