On the brink of the millennium, a new beast was created from the ashes of an old one. After yet another lineup change behind the keyboard position and a relatively commercially unsuccessful album, the future of the band was clouded in doubt. Scenes From a Memory was the ray of sunlight that pierced through that veil, dispersing any doubt as to the future of this great band. Sporting the newly added Jordan Rudess on keyboards, back when he was in a more supporting role, it featured some of the best produced and composed tracks in the band’s career. Its brilliant live DVD also added to its appeal, featuring a memorable show in the band’s home-town of New York.
“Finally Free” is arguably the most ambitious track on the album. Bringing all the threads of the by-now well known concept of the album, it’s large not only in scope but also in execution: LaBrie has never sounded larger, swimming over one of the best solos Petrucci has ever played. The track channels not only the theme of the album but also its recurring musical elements: tidbits from the preceding tracks are woven into a whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts.
A special place must be given to Rudess’s exceptional supporting role on this track. The string parts emanating from his keyboard are exceptional, tying the whole track into something which can be understood and made sense of. They are truly the glue that tie the band together on this track and it’s easy to see why he quickly became such an integral part of the band. “Finally Free” is the crowning glory of what is arguably the most widely acclaimed Dream Theater album ever. And with good reason.
Where do we begin with this album? Arguably the band’s most ambitious, the double album combined 2 discs and over 90 minutes of music to create two humongous beasts. One one hand, you have the brilliant first disc, featuring some of the band’s most memorable tracks. On the second disc, you have a brilliantly executed collection of eight songs combining as one large concept, a performance you can see on their Score 20th Anniversary DVD that shows just how fantastic the entire second disc truly is. For now, however, we’re going to focus on a song on their first disc, and arguably one of their most important.
“The Great Debate” is a neutral song about stem cell research, asking a lot of general questions while not bending to one side any more than the other. It is over 13 minutes long, and once the music starts, it doesn’t slow down until the very end. The entire song builds up as one giant crescendo, moving from the ambient intro into some amazing guitar riffs and into what would be considered the chorus, since the song really doesn’t have one. Portnoy’s drumming is the real standout part of this song. As a drummer myself, I can play the entire song, but it’s definitely one of the hardest to execute well, particularly due to its length, the stamina you must have, and also its complexity. This song has all of that and more, brimming with pure prog metal excellence.
The song never got as famous as the album’s opener, “The Glass Prison,” but I tend to think they belong in the same conversation. However, “The Great Debate” has some really flawless guitar work both at the beginning and the end, over some really haunting and epic keyboard ambiance. Not many Dream Theater songs have that, and I think it makes the song unique. To me, it’s the only Dream Theater song that’s constantly building up to a climax, and the only Dream Theater song that reaches that climax towards the last two minute or so into the song. “The Great Debate” is one of the band’s hallmark track from their most ambitious album, and still retains its original intensity and intrinsic value.
Octavarium was something of a turning point for Dream Theater. It was their eighth and final album with Atlantic Records, rife with elaborate musical easter eggs and bald-faced nods to the band’s various influences (“Never Enough” is very nearly a cover of Stockholm Syndrome by Muse and “I Walk Beside You” features almost as much slobbering over U2 as Tim Cook did at the iPhone 6 release). Most notably, Octavarium was really the last time Dream Theater truly expanded their sound – their subsequent albums featured an increasing number of retreads, often seemingly deliberate. For me, post-Octavarium Dream Theater has always felt distinct from the band that released those first eight albums.
The album’s sprawling, 24-minute title track, then, represents the final thrust of what I’ve always considered Dream Theater One-Point-Oh. The eighth track on a record packed with numerological nods to the musical octave and the number eight, “Octavarium” is ushered in with plenty of pomp and circumstance. Thankfully, it delivers on the implicit promise of the album – it’s a fantastic celebration of just about everything that was ever worth loving about Dream Theater. It opens with an extended, dreamy Jordan Rudess odyssey, prominently featuring sweeps and swirls from his then-novel Continuum keyboard. In true Dream Theater fashion, this beautiful display of technique and grandeur goes on for just a LITTLE too long before the track finally reveals its explosive fanfare – one of Dream Theater’s most memorable melodies.
“Octavarium” is divided into five unique movements, each of which seamlessly flows into the next in a way that sets the track apart from Dream Theater’s other uber-long epics. “Someone Like Him” is a gentle, uneasy diversion driven by piano and James Labrie’s airy vocals. The next movement, “Awakenings,” features one of John Myung’s few significant standout bass grooves and bizarrely follows the story of a lesser-known Robin Williams movie of the same name. “Full Circle” is where the band starts to really hit it off here – the time signatures start to get wonky, Mike Portnoy starts showing off (his goofy lyrics in this movement – like “Jack The Ripper Owens Wilson Phillips” – are emblematic of both his weird sense of humor and occasionally groan-worthy writing style). The track steadily ascends into a long Moog synth flourish that comes across as joyous Yes worship, followed by a buzzing, dizzy guitar line, and reaches a driving, metallic climax in which James Labrie screams “Trapped inside this Octavarium!” over and over again in a decidedly silly voice. Dream Theater are many things – subtle has never been one of them.
The track slows down upon reaching its final movement, “The Razor’s Edge,” a swell of synth strings and mighty, operatic vocal proclamations (“This story ends where it begannnnnnn…”) that culminates in what might, in retrospect, be my favorite John Petrucci guitar solo. It’s Gilmour on steroids – slow, bendy, contemplative, with just a few well-timed speedy bursts that drive up the tension until it’s all gloriously released in a repeat of the song’s fanfare theme. The little french horn ornamentation that closes the affair is pure, delightful Dream Theater excess. “Octavarium” is an exceedingly well-crafted showcase for every member of the band at their best, exemplifying the over-the-top nature of their music without ever feeling gratuitous or self-important. To me, this is Dream Theater’s best composition, and a moment in their discography I still like to revisit years removed from my teenage prog metal obsession. It’s 24 minutes I’m never upset about losing.
To some, Dream Theater died when Mike Portnoy left the band back in September of 2010. After a search for a new drummer spanning the likes of the masterful Marco Minnemann to the technically precise Derek Roddy, Dream Theater brought Mike Mangini into the band. The following year, A Dramatic Turn of Events was released. Overall, the album was average at best for Dream Theater. Flash forward two years after a relentless tour schedule. Dream Theater begins writing and recording their self-titled album, Dream Theater. This time around Mike Mangini had free reign on the drums and was quite accustomed to drumming for Dream Theater. Dream Theater has slowly but surely creeped into my top three favorite Dream Theater albums of their career.
One track that stands out to me on the album is “Behind the Veil.” For only clocking in at 6 minutes and 53 seconds, this song packs in a lot of content and dynamics. Even though the first half of the song is the standard verse-bridge-chorus-repeat formula, Dream Theater keeps things fresh by introducing variations to the riffs at the repeat. To me, the first half of the song harkens back to an Awake-era Dream Theater with its groove-based verse, minimalistic bridge, and powerful chorus. James LaBrie sounds really does sound great on the chorus of this track. He is not singing as high as he used to but he has found the sweet spot in his voice that is both powerful and well-supported. The chorus in “Behind the Veil” is easily my favorite chorus on the album.
The second half of the song features a unison section with guitars and keys as well as ripping solos by both Rudess and Petrucci. Right after Petrucci’s solo, the song goes into a live, jam-band type feel with a hard hitting groove and a little bit of extra guitar soloing. This small section shows just how comfortable the group has become since Mangini joined the band. It just sounds like the band is having fun together once again.
“Behind the Veil” isn’t as flashy as “The Glass Prison” or “Under a Glass Moon” but it holds its own in terms of memorability. I often find myself humming along to the chorus or playing through the solo section in my head. Dream Theater was definitely worth the honor of being the self-titled album. Petrucci, Myung, LaBrie, Rudess, and Mangini were able to channel aspects of the band’s 30-year-long career into one, cohesive album that captured the band’s signature sound. If you are a fan of Dream Theater’s ballads or even glanced over the self-titled album, “Behind the Veil” is a great place to start.