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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Dream Theater

Octavarium

Review by Steve Alspach

For years I tried. Honest, I tried. But for whatever reason, I just wasn't able to make the connection with this talented outfit. I saw one of their live shows and it kicked, I have two or three of their CDs, but I wasn't really getting into them. Until now, that is. I guess it's a matter of timing and patience, but in this case I give thanks for perseverance. I'm really digging Octavarium, and I think you will too. It has that prog-metal wallop that we've come to expect, but the songs sound a bit more accessible. Rush fans will get a kick out of the CD cover art by Hugh Syme, the art director for so many Rush CDs.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
The Root of All Evil
Guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung play a matching riff while drummer Mike Portnoy goes ballistic on his drum kit. (I'm not sure if it's a typo or by design, but this song is divided into parts VI and VII - perhaps a continuation to the five-part suite that closes the album?) The song, with lyrics by Portnoy, are a self-examination of his failures and willingness, however apprehensive, to give up his old ways.
The Answer Lies Within
This is one of the most un-Dream Theater songs I can think of. This is a slow ballad with all the elements - the quiet intro, the gradual buildup. Petrucci's lyrics are simple but straight to the heart.
These Walls
Petrucci's grunge guitar sounds like it has a hard time getting started, but kick-starts the band into a 6/8 groove. Portnoy's dance play on the hi-hat and ride cymbal is very tasty. The chorus has one of the more infectious melodic lines in the album. The song, although clocking at 7:36, is not far removed from the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus formula. Some things just take time to develop, I guess.
I Walk Beside You
At 4:29 the shortest song on the CD (and therefore the no. 1 choice for a single), "I Walk Beside You" is, pure and simply, a textbook example of creating a popular (as opposed to pop) song.
Panic Attack
Anyone who's had one knows how scary it can be, and Dream Theater show their mettle on this highly intense. Mike Portnoy, who is in amazing form throughout this album, is almost beyond description on this song. Petrucci's guitar is at its metallic crunchiest, and he also gets to burn up a fretboard with his solo. Jordan Rudess adds the perfect dramatic touches on keyboard. All in all this is Dream Theater at its most muscle-flexing.
Never Enough
Portnoy seems to be wearing his recovery on his sleeve on this track. His lyrics on "Never Enough" are borne from anger. Petrucci and Myung are more than able to convey that anger and tension on this high-energy rocker. The instrumental break shows Rudess and Petrucci shredding the keyboard, fretboard, and the scale of whatever key they're in, taking no prisoners as well.
Sacrificed Sons
As "Never Enough" reaches its end, voices, apparently speaking in Arabic, are heard. We then hear sound bites from news reporters on September 11 - a rather chilling effect. The tempo is a slow 6/8 in the verse and chorus, and the melody maintains an edge to it. Labrie's lyrics, though not overly insightful, ask the right questions and look at the conundrum of the idea that "God's true love / are acts of hate." The song quickly builds in intensity before breaking loose in one of those instrumental sections that is full of fire, intensity and complexity that only Dream Theater can pull off. The question, though: does it belong? Perhaps they were trying to emulate the chaos of that morning between Petrucci's guitar and Rudess' more stately melodic lines, but one wonders if a different kind of instrumental arrangement - one more muted - may have been in order. With a string section at hand, it may have been worth a shot.
Octavarium
"Octovarium" plays out as a suite, much like the work of Transatlantic, especially "Duel with the Devil." Many of the movements or songs can all stand on their own, but are all joined to form a cohesive whole. The first four minutes or so of this 24-minute closer are very Floydian in nature a la "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" as Rudess and Petrucci paint a dreamscape. At one point a flute, played by Pamela Sklar, joins Petrucci's 12-string acoustic to sound a bit like early Genesis. The first piece in the suite, "Someone Like Him," continues to sound like mid-70s Genesis. This movement is rather restrained and stately in its arrangement.

The band then shifts gears abruptly in "Medicate (Awakening)", a semi-acoustic movement. After
the pyrotechnics of the rest of the album, this is a welcome shift.

A tasty keyboard solo by Rudess precedes "Full Circle" which features Portnoy's humor in his stream-of-conscious lyrics ("Lucy in the sky with diamond Dave's not here I come to save the day for nightmare cinema show me the way to go home"). Here the band cranks it up a notch and after the vocals, the band goes into another hideously complex arrangement before breaking loose with Petrucci playing his "Flight of the Bumblebee"-tempo solo.

"Intervals" continues the intensity of the previous movement. James Labrie's vocals go from a growl to a scream over the fast-paced riffing which, although in 4 (or 8, perhaps), feels very much like 7. At the breaking point the string section comes in to carry the piece to its end.

The coda, "Razor's Edge," carries the entire piece to its end. Labrie's vocals are almost lost in the power of the band coupled with the orchestra. Petrucci's solo is a bit restrained and keeps to the tenor of the orchestral arrangement.

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