If Dream Theater albums were organized via an accessibility spectrum, with Falling Into Infinity and Train of Thought representing the tip of each end, then Octavarium would wiggle itself somewhere in the middle. With the band’s 2003 effort leaving many fans to curdle, there was no direction to go but back to the traditional melodies. Between that and statements about the album being “quicker to appreciate,” as well as boasting a 24-minute epic, it would seem Octavarium was poised to win back former fans and gain a few new ones along the way.
Out the gate we get our final continuation of Dream Theater’s meta album cycle, as “The Root of All Evil” smoothly transitions from its predecessor. After an ambient first minute, the heaviness from Train of Thought leaks over, but not without some evident changes. As commanding as the song is, LaBrie’s vocals are less forced and, therefore, melodic again. This extends to Rudess regaining his prominence, but it’s also at the expense of the meaty bass sound, leaving Myung to often sit in the background. Still, this particular track functions as yet another example of the band pushing forward with a definite direction, and is one of the album’s highlights.
Less enthusiasm can be bestowed upon “The Answer Lies Within,” a piano-laced ballad that could have worked better as an instrumental. But ballads put vocals and lyrics at the forefront, the latter being the song’s crippling blow. Though simplistic words come to define the album, here it’s straight-up cheddar with little flavor. Similar comments can be made towards the overly upbeat “I Walk Beside You,” yet another attempt at instant satisfaction. Unfortunately, if moments like these are supposed to immediately click, then a couple plays will be enough to make listeners discard them into their “Nope” folders.
Other than the aforementioned tracks (and “Never Enough”) making the middle of the album feel like a fissure-ridden field, Octavarium has some stellar material. “These Walls” is an interesting number, featuring a slow to moderate tempo complemented by an apt atmosphere that masterfully builds from desolation to passive aggression. Fan favorite “Panic Attack” is easily the most intense song musically, with the name letting listeners know precisely what to expect before those first bass notes come up. Given the song’s popularity, it might as well be considered Octavarium’s “Pull Me Under,” give or take a few blood surges.
Where Octavarium truly shines, however, is in its two closing tracks. Past the news-laden intro, “Sacrificed Sons” begins in a ballad-esque way, except unlike “The Answer Lies Within,” here it avoids feeling forced. Coming from a band like Dream Theater, especially on a track tackling the aftermath of September 11, this is saying a lot. Even LaBrie delivers a heartfelt performance, which is interesting since he’s Canadian. Of course, this being a ten-minute song, we can’t forget to step things up. Although “Sacrificed Sons” is no stranger to escalation, the band miraculously keep themselves in check; it’s one of their few songs where the instrumental stretch doesn’t feel overdone.
Then there’s the album’s tour de force, a 24-minute title track that has earned distinct praise from the band’s many hardcore fans. Anyone can see (or hear) why, just from the opening minutes. We’re drawn in with no sense of being rushed or suddenly swept away and, until the song’s second movement, hints of a steadily building track are easy to miss. Come the twelve-minute mark, however, evidence becomes difficult to ignore. Ultimately, this is a song to completely lose yourself in. That, combined with the cycle coming full circle during the final few seconds, will compel some listeners to begin again with “The Root of All Evil,” those dud tracks be damned.
In providing just as many classics as it does eye-rollers, Octavarium becomes one of the Dream Theater’s most inconsistent efforts. If the band took more time and combined these standouts with those on Systematic Chaos, no one would have missed anything. What we received instead was a still-competent album with an incontestable masterpiece. It’s just a shame we couldn’t be spared the lackluster moments, something that would only be repeated in the future.
Question of the Day: What's the most inconsistent album you've ever listened to?