There was much to like about Dream Theater‘s latest, self-titled 2013 release. Despite that neither of its two trailer singles, The Enemy Inside and Along For The Ride immediately grabbed me; and that the album as a whole does little to expand the band’s musical horizons. it’s an album that I’ve continued to play sporadically since purchase and has grown in my estimation with repeat listening. Understated harmonic references to the band’s own career history are juxtaposed with less-subtle allusions to its influences (particularly Canuck power-trio, Rush) and whilst they’ve not skimped on compositional depth and complexity, there’s a smoothness and accessibility, combined with expert pacing, to the songs which makes it compelling: very much an album-long listen rather than playlist fodder. It’s revelatory rather than revolutionary: a consolidation and refinement of what they’ve learned over their 30+ year career.
So if you’ll forgive me, I’m not exactly criticizing that album when I say I think they’ve managed this particular balancing act as well if not even better before. Octavarium (2005) is regarded by many as the definitive DT album, alongside the Images And Words sophomore effort: I favour the former. DT‘s first three albums (and also the A Change Of Seasons mini-album) have a thrilling exploratory quality, reflecting an ambition to marry classic pop and hard rock influences to ’80s metal bombast . Ironically, whilst not so well-received by some fans, it was their forth, ‘trying too-hard’ (for accessibility) – Falling Into Infinity (1995) – which marked a turning point. Octavarium represents in some ways a return to that mode of writing, albeit undertaken in a more honest spirit: there are parallels with the career of one of Mike Portnoy‘s musical influences, Marillion. Both bands had an unlikely ‘hit’ (Pull Me Under and Kayleigh respectively); both faced record company pressure – to no avail – to write another; and both gravitated of their own accord towards a more streamlined ‘pop’ mode of writing later on in their careers, and significantly, once said company pressure was lifted. Intriguingly, both albums (Octavarium and .com) climax with an archetypal prog epic featuring headfuck widdly keyboard solos that explode out of nowhere (Octavarium and Interior Lulu).
…[so] this is where we came in…
Of Mike Portnoy‘s ‘12-Step suite‘ – which in light of his and the band’s parting of the ways is now unlikely to be played in full as a live set, more’s the pity – The Root Of All Evil is perhaps the track that works best as a stand-alone song, certainly since 6DOIT barnstorming opening gambit The Glass Prison. If you own the Score DVD/Blu-Ray – a must-buy for any hardened DT fan, as well as a perfect introduction for newbies wishing to explore their varied career-history – you’ll know that it’s also a showstopping intro to their live set. ‘…tidily mixing heavy riffs with some progressive moments…’ to quote band biographer Rich Wilson. They follow it – in that show – with I Walk Beside You, a song which the band freely admitted showcased the members’ love of more commercial stadium rock acts including Coldplay and U2.
Now, DT has attracted its fair share of fan-disapprobation over the years for wearing its influences too boldly on its collective sleeve at times – of especial note, in addition to the above is Systematic Chaos (2007) which appeared to ape both Evanescence (melodically and lyrically, on Forsaken) and Muse (Prophets of War). Cynics have on occasion interpreted these as attempts to leaven their determinedly-virtuostic compositional approach with a little popular appeal. Actually, I’m not sure I completely disagree; but I’m certain that I don’t object. Sure, I can hear what said detractors are hearing, but I could care less because all the aforementioned are great songs.
The Answer Lies Within reminds me of nothing so much as a superior Elton John, even – horror of horrors, Robbie Williams - ballad. Lyrically, it benefits from a simplicity that suggests (guitarist and lyricist) John Petrucci didn’t spend too long sequestered away with his thesauruses and dictionaries; and the string accompaniment from a stripped-down contingent of Jamshied Sharifi‘s Octavarium Orchestra is tasteful. It’s a strong piece of songwriting. Later, both Never Enough and Panic Attack (the former especially) attest to Portnoy‘s and the band’s love of Muse (the band occasionally performed Stockholm Syndrome, a song witha passing resemblance to DT, at soundcheck or as an encore). The latter’s song Assassin – from Black Holes and Revelations (2006) – might lead one to wonder if the Teignmouth trio haven’t returned the inspirational compliment: the resemblance to Panic Attack is uncanny and it’s not insignificant that Black Holes… is, in this writer’s opinion the finest example in recent years of progressive ambition and mainstream appeal coexisting in sweet, mutually-beneficial harmony.
The album ends with two satisfyingly ‘proggy’ epics; Sacrificed Sons and the five-part title track. The former features a rare lyrical credit for secretly-Canadian singer James LaBrie, inspired by 9/11. To quote Wilson (above) again ‘…The danger of such a topic, is that it could become over-politicized, mawkish, insensitive or even sanctimonious … the band just about carry it off…’ I think Wilson’s being less-than-generous: LaBrie handles the subject matter deftly and humanely, avoiding the obvious pitfalls of glorifying ‘The West’ and demonizing the Islamic terrorists. Musically, it’s dramatic not melodramatic and the second track to utilize the added depth only an orchestra can bring.
Octavarium (the song) is 24 minutes of showboating and homage, yet the attention to musical detail and obvious fun had by the band in composing and performing it save it from becoming a leaden exercise in indulgence. In classic ‘symphonic’ mode it moves smoothly (with one notably-dramatic exception) and confidently thru five ‘movements’ building drama along the way. It’s a masterclass in tension and release; surpassing their previous ‘symphonic’ high water-mark A Change Of Seasons and pointing the way to The Count Of Tuscany (Black Clouds And Silver Linings, 2009) which remains for me the apotheosis if DT‘s take on that style. The live version documented on Score (and backed by a full orchestra, below) takes the song to even greater heights.
Like Dream Theater, Octavarium derives much of its strength as a piece from both its allusions to the band’s own history and its influences, albeit clever and well-chosen ones, delivered at times with a nod and a wink and at others with subtlety and reverence. It’s a conceptual album in more ways than one, with an overarching theme metaphorically relating the career of the band at that point to the musical octave (from which the title, Octavarium also derives, it being DT‘s eighth album) and also chock full of ‘nuggets’ of musical detail for attentive listeners to unearth. A whole blog post could be devoted to this aspect alone, and helpfully, one enterprising fan has already done just that. A couple such nuggets Spetang appears to have missed (in reference to the aforementioned titular song-cycle) are a bar of the Phantom Of The Opera theme at 11.37 and a the first phrase of Jingle Bells interpolated at 17.47. There are probably more yet…
Octavarium is the most complete DT album for me: it showcases every facet of their musical style and the songwriting is consistently-strong. The title track alone is worth the price of admission.