July 09, 2005

Dream Theater: 2005 Octavarium

Every time Dream Theater releases a new album it usually takes between three and five listens before I'm really able to wrap my mind around the music and decide if I like it or not. Of course, I always end up loving it and can't imagine them making any new albums that don't sound like this. Then after a couple years they release another album that sounds very different from the last and the whole process starts over again.

Now that I've finally fallen in love with the newest release, Octavarium, and have been listening to it non-stop for well over a week I thought I'd post my personal ranking of Dream Theater's studio albums. I’ll post my thoughts on one album per day, starting with the lowest ranked and moving upward. Here we go!

4. Octavarium

I’ll be honest, this middle part of the list is a little muddy. Truth be told the difference between any one album on this list and the two albums ranked higher and lower than it is really small and I wouldn’t have any problem swapping some of these. The real reason this one is probably ranked as high as it is is because it’s new and I’m just excited about all the songs. This isn’t to say it’ll drop to the bottom when I tire of it, because I probably won’t tire of it, just get used to it.

I think this is probably Dream Theater’s most straightforward sounding album, which is just nice to have in the catalogue. I like to view DT’s discography as the ingredients for a live show, so it’s good to have a good mix. Put out an album of rich, complex tunes, then balance it with a more straightforward album. This one fills the latter quite nicely and the tunes are extraordinarily catchy for Dream Theater. The melodies and hooks in this album are approximately a bunch more catchy than previous albums. Moreso than other albums I find myself humming the tunes from this album when I'm not listening to it, but more importantly, when I'm not thinking about it. If you've ever found yourself absentmindedly humming some tune you didn't even realize you were humming, you know what I'm talking about, and to my mind it's that type of stuff that tells me something is really catchy.

This isn’t to say that it’s a shallow album. Quite the opposite, but I’m still just starting to unwind all the different layers of the album and look forward to doing for a quite a while.

1) The Root of All Evil - Part three of the multi-album spanning tale of dealing with alcoholism. The themes from the previous two parts of the epic blend nicely with the new stuff they've presented here and I think this is probably my favorite of the three thusfar.

2)The Answer Lies Within - A slower more contemplative song than most of the rest of the album, this one didn't grab me at first and it wasn't until I found myself, as noted above, humming the tune absentmindedly that I appreciated it more. No solos or virtuosity to speak of here, which is a good departure for a band that likes to spread itself out stylistically.

3) The Walls - I think this is my favorite song of the album. Like most of my favorites from DT this one grabbed me the first time I listened to it with a nice catchy-ness mixed with some nice rich technical composition to back it up. This is the type of song I can just sing along to or choose to follow any of the members of the band and enjoy what they're playing. Jordan Rudess layes down some nice atmospheric keys; Mike Portnoy's laying down a rock solid percussion along with some great little flares to spice it up; John Myung manages to completely disappear in the mix, not because he's not there but because it blends so well you don't notice that he's doing really cool stuff unless you listen for it; and John Petrucci is keeping it nice and crunchily rocking then switches to a wonderfully clean and simplistic solo. I can't wait to see this one live.

4) I Walk Beside You - I was skeptical when I heard people, including Casey in his review posted below, mention this song in the same sentence as U2, but it's there. Don't take that to be negative, which it certainly isn't, and this is actually one of the things I like most about DT. They can do a U2-ish song while still sounding like Dream Theater, then the next second do something completely different. Can U2 do Dream Theater? Don't know that they've ever tried, but I've never seen a more versatile band than Dream Theater and this song is another example.

5) Panic Attack - John Myung doesn't often get a chance to shine because he's so often happily just playing his complex bass riffs in the background, but every once in a while he gets to come out front, as he does at the beginning of this song and show what he can do. A balls out rocker, this is one of the more "in your face" songs on the album, while at the same time sometimes I'll be listening and pick up a bit of lyrics and realize how well I think they match the quick rocking going on underneath. This song also lets the band put in a couple nice quick packed-with-notes solos which is pretty rare on this album, even though these solos are reletively short.

6) Never Enough - Another rocker, though at a bit of a slower clip than the last one. The thing I appreciate the most about this one is the rock solid platform provided by Portnoy on the drums and Myung on the bass. The two of them just drive this song forward with a head bobbing groove and amazing precision. Like most of the album there's reletively little soloing going on, but it's impressive how much milage they get out of what little they indulge in.

7) Sacrifice Sons - This is the song I'm least sure about on the album, though it has nothing to do with the music. Dream Theater has a history of taking on controversial topics (stem cell research on Six Degrees of Inner Turbulance and religious fanaticism on Train of Thought), but doing so in a rather amazingly even-handed way, refusing to take sides in the debate. Given my political leanings I'm a little wary of jingoism and that's the impression I first got from this song. Sure, DT's a New York band and they probably have a lot of personal feelings about 9/11 and I can begrudge them an outlet in a song, I'm just careful about what the messages in songs like that might be. That said, it took me a while to find the other side being presented in the previous political songs and in the end it took sitting down with the lyrics and headphones and breaking the song down, which I haven't done with this one yet. I can say that I like the music though, so it's already got that going for it.

8) Octavarium - Ah, the epic song of the album. While the rest of the songs on the album are shockingling short by Dream Theater standards (only one half the album's songs break 8 minutes), this one clocks in at a hefty 24 minutes flat. There are two ways that I can think of to make a song longer: 1) Add solos, and 2) Make movements. The former can be interesting every once in a while, but it can become rather tedious, especially as the songs get longer. I've heard some songs that broke the twenty minute barrier that probably shouldn't have, none by Dream Theater of course, and those aren't all that fun. Movements is the much more practical and interesting thing to do with long songs, but still, I think in our radio trained culture of music listening people just don't "get" long music anymore. Mahler wrote a symphony that lasted an hour and a half and calls for upwards of a thousand (that's right 1,000) people, though you can get away with less. There's nothing inherently wrong with long music, but it seems to me that today anything that goes over five minutes is written off as self indulgent.

Anyway, to get to the actual music, this song has eight movements, each falling under one broad theme which ties the work together. Some of the movements I like better than others, and while this isn't Dream Theater's best long song, it's an excellent song to work your way through. I'm only starting to break this song down and really "get" each of its parts but I am starting to understand that this song is made of puzzle pieces and that this song is a part of the larger puzzle presented in the album as a whole. I'm not quite sure where it's going yet, but musical themes are quoted throughout the album both from previous albums and between tunes on this one. This one's going to take me a good long while to fully digest, but that's what I love about this band. I'll be listening to this song regularly for a year and it won't feel old in the slightest.

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