Rewind: Dream Theater’s Octavarium

Rewind: Dream Theater’s Octavarium

With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here we look back at Dream Theater’s eighth studio album, Octavarium, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on June 7.  

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What is Octavarium? 

Released on June 7, 2005, Octavarium was the eighth studio album by American prog pioneers Dream Theater. This melodic masterpiece, recorded between September 2004 and February 2005, was the last album ever recorded at the famous recording studio The Hit Factory in New York City.

Octavarium has become a priceless Dream Theater classic, which many would call the crown jewel of their discography. In terms of references and symbolism, Octavarium is a deeply conceptual album, in the line of 2011′s A Dramatic Turn Of Events, which is dense in references, both compositional and structural, and their legendary 1992 breakthrough, Images And Words. Octavarium was also the band’s final album on Atlantic Records, prior to switching to their current home, Roadrunner.

What does it sound like?

When the collective members of Dream Theater put their heads together, it’s definitely some of the world’s finest musicians making magic. And though it has some less complex song structures than previous efforts, Octavarium is no lightweight. Even 20 years after forming, the band managed to produce a record that was original, challenging and overflowing with creativity.

Octavarium contains a mix of the technical Dream Theater mastery (“The Root Of All Evil,” “Never Enough”) and softer, more expressive sounds (“The Answer Lies Within,” “I Walk Beside You”), alternating between Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci’s lyrical stylings. But the most remarkable thing about this record is the symphonic characteristics that are present throughout the entire album. It has a brighter soundscape than predecessor, Train Of Thought, and is highly melodic.

The symphonic veil truly reveals itself on the final track, “Octavarium, which is the most significant tune on the record, as well as the longest, at 24 minutes. The epic begins with an amazing intro by keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and includes obvious references to many well-known pieces, including Pink Floyd’s “Shine On Your Crazy Diamond” and Queen’s “Bijou.”

“Octavarium” evolves into a five-part musical journey, ending with the same piano note the album began with, but an octave higher. This accentuates the album’s overlying theme – that everything cycles and repeats itself, ending in the exact place it began.

Why should I care?

Concerning the word Octavarium, the dictionary is quite secretive. If you you’re looking for a quick internet explanation, an apt, albeit figurative, definition would be Urban Dictionary’s “an orgasm for your ears.” The title is presumably based on the musical term octave, which is the interval between one pitch and another with half or double its frequency, as well as the eighth note in a diatonic scale.

As stated earlier, the theme of Octavarium is that everything goes in cycles and ends in the same place it began – just like an octave. A symbol you will see all over album’s liner is the octagon that delineates the 5-pointed star. 8 and 5 are numbers that appear profusely in a musical and symbolic analysis of Octavarium. Whether or not everything is intentional, there’s no shortage of theories on internet forums.

From the booklet – The octagon that delineate the 5-pointed star. (WMG)

Although some theories perhaps can be quite coincident, there’s no shortage of brilliant decisions by the band. Opener “The Root of All Evil” starts with the final note played on previous album, Train of Thought, a tradition they began two albums prior. The ending note on “Octavarium” is the same as the opening note, only a octave higher, after going through seven different keys in the previous seven songs. On this eighth and final song they closed the circle and made a clean start for new creations.

Skeptics say Octavarium is just an orgie of meaningless musical theory and does not have a deeper meaning than a musical octave in terms of symbolism. To say this would be quite ignorant: This masterpiece is stuffed with nuggets, musical symbols, musical references, allegory and figuration, not to mention an outstanding musical journey and a cornerstone of progressive metal.

Where do I hear more? 

Octavarium may be the defining archetype of progressive metal in the new millennium, but predecessors Images and Words and Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory are two of the most remarkable albums ever made.

Released in July 1992, Images and Words was the first album with current singer James LaBrie. The LP was a huge commercial success in both America and Japan, largely thanks to the song “Pull Me Under” – the band’s only song to hit the Top 10. However to die-hard fans, the band’s “biggest hit” is one of the least exciting tunes on the album, or even across their catalogue.

When listening to Images And Words one can imagine a beautiful and bright diamond, yet deadly sharp, never getting dull. The keystone track of the Dream Theater universe is (debatably) “Metropolis – Part 1 [The Miracle And The Sleeper].” With an unmatched instrumental sequence, the album contains what this writer would humbly regard as the finest guitar ever recorded, contained within the powerful, “Under A Glass Moon.”

If you’re still not submerged in Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory, now is the time. The first concept album from the band, as well as their first with Rudess on board, the album is an unabashed progressive classic. Told in two acts, it tells the story of the 1928 murder of a young woman, and a man who is haunted by this crime. In a 2012 readers poll by Rolling Stone, the album was voted the number one progressive rock album of all time. And indeed it is.

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