Given that I tend to appreciate albums in their entireties, and favor complex, layered sounds over, for example, the bare production of typical ’90s power pop, it’s no surprise that my tastes have recently gravitated towards progressive metal.
Pause for a conversation about genres. “Metal” encompasses a hugely diverse group of sounds, from the fast, aggressive riffs in thrash metal, to the melodic, punk-inspired metalcore, and even the stupidly violent, distorted…sounds…of grindcore (ugh). Progressive metal, a highly complex, technical genre, often doesn’t sound like metal at all. Dream Theater is one of the oldest, most successful bands in the genre, and in my opinion, the best.
Apparently, they’re one of those bands everyone either loves or hates. All the album reviews I have found are either too raving, or–ack! they just don’t get it at all!–somewhat confused and unimpressed. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who listens to them in serious moderation. (As a side note, while I was looking through the last.fm API, I discovered that many examples are about Dream Theater; I was confused until I realized that Audioscrobbler’s founder is a huge fan.)
Octavarium is probably my favorite album of theirs, though I had a hard time deciding whether to write about it or Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, a double album ending in a namesake 40+ minute eight-movement epic. (Note to Dream Theater fans: I’m sorry; I just don’t get why everyone thinks Metropolis Pt. 2 is so good!)
Octavarium isn’t their best example of extreme technical proficiency, and isn’t particularly metal, but it’s just so rich. It’s absolutely their most progressive album, in its diversity of sounds and abundance of self-reference. Even if you don’t like metal, I think the title track at least is required listening for everyone reading this post. It’s just a totally different way of doing music.
Their eighth studio album, Octavarium is a sort of concept album about cycles, filled with the numbers eight and five in surprising places. (Here’s a ten-page summary of little details people have found in the album.) In particular, the dominating cycle in the album is that the first track starts on F, the next on G, and so forth until the eighth and final track, which starts again on F and ends with the same piano note which begins the album.
“The Root of All Evil” starts out the album, centered around a driving, heavy guitar riff. Written by their drummer about his past alcoholism, it’s actually the third song in his five-song “Twelve-Step Suite” mirroring the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and is full of references to the previous two songs.
“The Answer Lies Within” is, in stark contrast, a slow, melodic ballad dominated by piano and strings. This track perhaps best showcases James LaBrie’s soft, soaring vocals. This is one of the two songs on the album which almost sounds like it could be played on the radio.
“These Walls” is a mellow, atmospheric song which slowly builds to a climax that just washes over the listener. Ensemble doesn’t get much better than this.
“I Walk Beside You” was Dream Theater’s attempt at a single on this album; it’s rare to see a DT song clocking under five minutes (or often, even eight). It’s catchy and interesting, and I do wonder why it wasn’t actually released as one.
“Panic Attack” is the virtuosic performance on the album, with a strange guitar riff and constantly morphing, complex rhythms. It only gets stranger (especially starting around 4:39) but somehow captures the breathlessness of a panic attack.
“Never Enough” is a rant about ungrateful fans, a pretty unique song in DT’s catalog if only for how much it sounds like Muse.
“Sacrificed Sons” is about 9/11, a dark, largely instrumental track with a long introduction and gothic-sounding vocals. It’s definitely my least favorite track on the album: it’s a bit too slow for me, and the instrumental break at 4:15 is, while great, rather incongruous.
“Octavarium” is, in my opinion, Dream Theater’s best song. I really don’t want to give much of it away, so I won’t say too much here. It starts with a fantastically expansive four-minute solo on the Haken Continuum, before a flute melody leads to the first of five sections. The first two sections are downtempo and soft; the third, “Full Circle,” (13:48) is an upbeat wordplay tribute to many of the bands which influenced Dream Theater. But the fourth section, “Intervals,” (18:30) is my favorite part. It references each of the tracks on the album, in order, while distorted samples from the tracks play in the background; crescendoing masterfully from a low growl to a hair-raising climax (“Trapped inside this Octavarium”).
Seriously, listen to this album. At least the last track. YouTube quality doesn’t really do it justice, so try to find a better-quality version somewhere (or just ask me). And do comment here if you listen to it; I’m interested to hear what other people think.