2003 was an interesting year for Dream Theater fans. It saw the release of "Train of Thought", DT's heaviest album to date. Some critics loved it, calling it their best work yet. But many fans were left with a bit of a cold feeling in the pit of their stomachs, wondering what had happened to their beloved progressive metal band, and who were these angry guys who had taken their place. A three disc live release (with accompanying DVD) improved my opinion of some of the songs from ToT, and helped to smooth out some of the ruffled feathers. Still, anticipation for their next disc was high, and the internet rumor machine was running in full force about the direction the band would take on their newest release.
A single note on the piano quietly begins "Octavarium". This slowly builds, as more sounds coalesce for what becomes a thundering opening with "The Root of all Evil". The third installment in the series written around the AA 12 step program, this is by far the strongest of the three. It also demonstrates some of the more significant changes to be found on the latest Dream Theater release. Prominent in the mix is John Myung. This has long been one of my complaints of Dream Theater records. If you have an amazing, talented bass player, you really ought to ensure he be heard in the music. While "Train of Thought" was a step in the right direction, as far as the mix is concerned, "Octavarium" really gets it right. The music is warm and full, very well balanced, and no single instrument seems dominant. With any Dream Theater album, the performances are top notch. However, too often the players demonstrate their proficiency with long passages of needless noodling. That is gratefully kept in check on "Octavarium", with the performances working to push the song forward. Finally, this album brings back some of the balance found on Dream Theater's best albums, balance that was lost on "Train of Thought".
As an album, "Octavarium" has a little something for everyone. Fast, heavy metal tunes, mellow, soulful ballads, accessible pop-rock, and a fantastic 20+ minute prog epic fill the album to near bursting with great music and great performances. It really seems that the members of the band were exercising their creative muscles while writing this one. Familiar territory is tread with songs such as "The Root of all Evil" and "Sacrificed Sons", as both deal with lyrical topics that have already been visited. But the music is fresh and refrains from becoming mundane. Lyrically, there is less anger and more reflection and even hope on this disc than in the past as well. While still dark and heavy at times, the disc ends with a feeling of lightness and hope that makes the album that much more enjoyable. Finally, enough cannot be said regarding the mix and the production of this album. Both are masterfully handled.
Tracks to catch: "The Root of all Evil" is an excellent start to the album. Building slowly with instrumental and ambient sounds, this one erupts into a great, powerful song. Also, hints of the previous songs in this cycle are found, helping to unify them all. "The Answer Lies Within" is a bit saccharine at times, but is a welcome return to Dream Theater's surprising ability with the ballad. "Panic Attack" harnesses the frenetic energy of LTE and turns it into Dream Theaters fastest, most energetic and focused song ever. This song is truly a stunning piece of progressive metal. "Sacrificed Sons" revisits the concept of religious fanaticism. It begins with eerie voice overs from the 9/11 tragedy, moves to a slow, plodding ballad, then erupts into a powerful, poignant piece of music. Finally, the title track "Octavarium" is a meandering 24 minute epic that covers a sonic landscape that nearly overwhelms in its variety. A long, extended introduction build slowly to carry the listener through quiet introspective moments, frantic cries for freedom, and orchestral interludes that keep the listener riveted throughout.