Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dream Theater: Octavarium (2005) Review

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.

Grade: B

Question of the Day: What's the most inconsistent album you've ever listened to?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dream Theater: Train of Thought (2003) Review

“Darker” and “different direction” are the most wearily common words bands use when pitching their latest album.  Dream Theater never had to bother with the latter, since their sound is constantly changing.  This leaves the oh-so-ominous dark side we’ve since become saturated with in all media and culture (movies, videogames, music, books, etc.).  With Train of Thought, Dream Theater fully exposed the mere glimpses we got of a decidedly bleaker territory.

The note linking Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Train of Thought quickly recedes, leading to a play of foreboding and usually aggressive sounds that refuse to let up.  Even “Vacant” epitomizes the album’s moody nature in less than three minutes, all without help from Myung, Portnoy or Petrucci.  In fact, you probably won’t hear a more depressing Dream Theater song than this.  That’s the kind of album listeners are in for.

Far from catchy, Train of Thought is remarkably light on melody, especially taking the normally-extravagant Jordan Rudess into account.  He might sneak a brief lapse into “Endless Sacrifice” and get a chance to truly appear during “Stream of Consciousness,” but his presence feels notably understated.  This only adds to the album’s more straightforward and, dare I say, base metal sound.  All the songs are traditional Dream Theater length (except “Vacant”) and provide a routine dosage of progressive elements, but not to the same degree as Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

How well does it ultimately play out?  Depends on how you look at it.  Train of Thought is an album that demands the right state of mind in order to be fully enjoyed.  And when it is, boy does this beast deliver.  Other than song length and progressive technicality, this is uncharacteristically Dream Theater.  Every song is an ideal example of how far the band wanted to take their attempts at harsher material, the key culprit being “Honor Thy Father,” far and away Dream Theater’s most hostile song to date.  It’s also a personal favorite in an expanse of consistently solid, if not excellent, tracks.  

While it’s possible to choose standouts, Train of Thought demands being heard from start to finish.  The band’s contentious direction managed to breathe a different--albeit pent-up and decaying--type of life into them.  Perhaps the best overall example of this is “This Dying Soul,” the second of Mike Portnoy’s Twelve-step Suite.  For a while, we have a steady and methodical sound, but come the second half, connections between it and “The Glass Prison” arise along with the pace.  Things get downright explosive.  If any song can get the listener to drop their guard, it would be this one (or the effective “Endless Sacrifice”).  That said, there are no guarantees.

When Train of Thought isn’t ignored, it’s usually frowned upon and seen as a notorious venture.  Just like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, this is both unfortunate and understandable.  As with Falling Into Infinity, Train of Thought is an alienating work for listeners, which is interesting since the albums polarize each other.  Except where one seemed to compromise the band’s integrity, the other saw them take liberties on their own accord.  It didn’t draw popularity or celebration, but it did produce potent material that, regardless of opinion, leaves a strong impression.

Grade: A

Question of the Day: What's your favorite "dark" album?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dream Theater: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002) Review

Dream Theater were already on a musical roller coaster during their first decade together.  Much of this had to do with (outside) pressure to replicate past successes, which resulted in one of the band’s best efforts, followed by one of their worst.  Fortunately, the band quickly recovered from Falling Into Infinity with an album that ultimately topped Rolling Stone’s reader-voted Top 10 Prog Rock albums.  With that kind of acclaim, it would seem the band had played yet another trump card and that the next album would be an inevitable step down.  

Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence is Dream Theater’s longest album, comprised by two parts/discs that, together, span nearly 100 minutes.  The approach taken with splitting the album, in addition to its name, is rather crafty.  Disc one features five tracks and the second, though technically comprised by eight, is really a 42-minute behemoth of a song (the album’s title track).  And just to play up the six factor, “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” describes six individuals, each with a certain mental condition.  If nothing else, Dream Theater at least had a neat structure in mind for their sixth studio album.  

The static noise which concluded Scenes from a Memory returns, introducing us to one of the band’s best songs in “The Glass Prison.”  As far as sheer sound, the album opener is one of Dream Theater’s darkest songs, especially at this point in their career.  The first half features aggressive guitar playing that would make any nu metal musician blush; the second half has a barely catchy chorus to hold things back until the band hits overdrive during the final stretch.  It also begins the Twelve-step Suite conceived by then-drummer Mike Portnoy, continuing on Train of Thought’s “This Dying Soul.”  

One of Scenes from a Memory’s fundamental flaws was the on/off (though usually off) lyric quality.  Not the case here; Six Degrees features some of Dream Theater’s best, most consistent songwriting.  This is in no small part thanks to the album’s serious subject matter.  While Scenes was far from light-hearted, Six Degrees feels like a significant maturation.  All one has to do is look at the concept for each song; themes range from alcoholism to religious uncertainty, stem-cell research and death.  And that’s without the mental notes from disc two.

There’s no way to pitch Six Degrees without making it sound like a daunting, heavy-handed experience.  Yet in spite of the aforementioned aspects, Six Degrees isn’t a difficult album to indulge in.  The first disc could’ve used less meandering and more tightening, but the 97 overall minutes don’t feel so long when the final note is struck.  In particular, the motions “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” takes us through are varied to the point of alternating outright heaviness (“War Inside My Head,” “The Test That Stumped Them All”), mellow calms (“Goodnight Kiss”) and quirky upbeats (“Solitary Shell”).  These sudden transitions work more fluently than they probably should, making the album’s final 42 minutes feel remarkably short.  If the idea of a song this far into the double-digits intimidates you, give it a chance anyway.  You might be surprised.  

Along with its immediate successor, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence has mostly slipped under the radar.  This is just as understandable as it is unfortunate, since the band tackle a number of unifying and, depending on who you are, personally empathetic issues (“Solitary Shell” right here).  There’s a lot to appreciate too, especially since the band miraculously avoid bludgeoning us with any of the individual themes.  You may go in expecting to feel overwhelmed, but resolute listeners will find themselves either hitting the repeat button, or seeking out the band’s next chapter.  

Grade: B

Question of the Day: What's the longest song you've ever heard?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dream Theater: Scenes from a Memory (1999) Review

Setbacks, like failure, have a way of testing one’s resilience.  Dream Theater had their share during the 1990’s, which seemed to culminate in the oft-dismissed Falling Into Infinity.  It was a rough time of transitions, each taking the band further away from what made them an overnight success.  This trend continued in 1999’s Scenes from a Memory, a concept album and follow up to “Metropolis,” from Images and Words.  And though Dream Theater weren’t about to regress their sound, they were about to release what many consider the band’s most pivotal work.

Scenes from a Memory quickly establishes that this will not be a misstep like Falling Into Infinity.  One listen to “Overture 1928” and the listener is immediate grabbed, ready for the story to come, primarily told through lyrics that read like a stage play attempt.  Even album closer, “Finally Free,” begins in a way that seems to mimic something you’d hear in a theater.  This approach to storytelling, admittedly, produces mixed results.  The focus is more on the album, less on the individual tracks.  Theoretically this choice is understandable, but in practice it makes some points difficult to swallow.  Dream Theater have always bounced around when it comes to how good or bad their songwriting is, and Scenes from a Memory is hardly divergent.  

Outside of lyrical merit, Scenes from a Memory has few faults.  The disconcerting direction from Falling Into Infinity is completely abandoned, with the band expressing a newfound freedom to emphasize their progressive edge.  Then-newcomer Jordan Rudess (replacing Derek Sherinian on keyboard) certainly had a role to play in this, coming from Liquid Tension Experiment.  He doesn’t simply gravitate towards overzealous stretches of sounds, he seems to bathe in them.  If Dethklok added a keyboard player to their line-up, chances are they’d pick Rudess.  While these exaggerated moments are distracting, they mostly exist in longer tracks with the rest of the band following suit.

Most of the album’s heavier moments occur in the first half; “Beyond This Life” is immediately memorable, no small thanks to the band going all-out and almost never letting up, save an oddly distorted recurring line (“our deeds have travelled far...”).  Although, the emotional ballad “Through Her Eyes” is followed by perhaps the best individual track, “Home,” which begins and closes with a brilliant tribal vibe that Myrath must have taken after.  From there on, the album begins to wind down as instrumental number “The Dance of Eternity” transitions to fan-favorite, “The Spirit Carries On” and finally, “Finally Free.”  In addition to the initial theatrical vibe, the album closer feels less like a song and more like a way to conclude the story with a debatable ending.  Regardless, “Finally Free” does squeeze a few chilling keyboard notes in, along with a distorted ending that would begin the meta album sequence, continuing on Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and concluding with Octavarium.

What Scenes from a Memory accomplished for Dream Theater, especially given its predecessor, is a sense of redemption and progression.  With just one release, the band quelled one storm and began another, all while completing an ambitious story that became one of the most acclaimed concept albums ever.  What can be contested is the mark of perfection many bestow the album with; as said, the lyrics don’t always work and there are moments the band goes too far.  That said, Scenes from a Memory remains an encompassing stepping stone for Dream Theater, one that contains a few of the band’s best songs and some of their best performances as a whole.

Grade: B

Question of the Day: What are some of your favorite concept albums?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dream Theater: Falling Into Infinity (1997) Review

We hear enough about studios and record labels to infer that they're generally annoying.  In Dream Theater's case (circa 1997), it's particularly baffling.  Failing to so much as mimic Images and Words' radio success was apparently all that mattered when Awake came out.  And as we all know, metal songs are guaranteed radio hits (cue sarcasm).  So the pressure was, once again, on.  Only this time Dream Theater's record label wanted something specifically meant to pollute American radio stations.  Apparently they failed to notice that said band released a 23-minute epic two years prior.  

The end result of Dream Theater being shoved in and confined was Falling Into Infinity, an album that's been bestowed with as much praise as James LaBrie's vocals.  The comparison isn't arbitrary, either, as Falling Into Infinity was the first LP LaBrie did after his food poisoning incident.  A lead singer with ruptured vocal chords, record label pressuring accessibility from a progressive metal band…you do the math.

Though the Dream Theater fan(boy) in me would give Falling Into Infinity a pass, given its background, listeners will ultimately take the album as is.  And as it stands, Falling Into Infinity is a drab assortment.  What's interesting is that while the album is the opposite of beguiling, you can hear a true Dream Theater album struggling to get out.  Power ballads like "Hollow Years" and "Take Away My Pain" might not necessarily scream "put me on Train of Thought," but just from opener "New Millennium" you can tell the band were held back.  And it's not like control inherently prevents Dream Theater from providing quality music--Awake was proof that they can benefit from it, but here the restraint is overbearing.  The best example(s) of this come from Falling Into Infinity's two epics.  90% of the time Dream Theater epics are the ultimate form of audible comfort food; "Lines in the Sand" and "Trial of Tears" are in the other 10%.  Calling either of these tracks "bad" would be an overstatement, but both are guilty of being utterly forgettable.  Save Doug Pinnick's backing vocals on "Lines in the Sand," each is listenable, but unlike Dream Theater's other epics, neither will stick with you.

This kind of predicament is what comes to plague and, ultimately, define Falling Into Infinity.  Whenever there's a moment or entire song that seems like it might normally work, something gets in the way.  Oftentimes the shoddy production and ill direction are to blame.  Remember how When Dream and Day Unite suffered due to lackluster production (among other things)?  Similar situation here.  Except where the band's debut was true to itself, within its confines, Falling Into Infinity buckles under the conflict of the band's aspirations and their record label's impositions.  The result is a musical mess that doesn't sound half as interesting as it should.

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What do you consider some of the worst follow-ups to masterpieces (albums)?