Friday, November 11, 2005

Dream Theater - Octavarium: A Retrospective

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, chauffer 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, which there is easily a sufficient amount of.


Blogger David Amulet said...

Thanks for the review -- I have avoided this one because I loved Train of Thought so much and feared DT's return to more keyboards ... but you make it sound appealing. I'll have to check this out after all!

-- david

2:06 am  

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