Dream Theater - Black Clouds and Silver Linings
In a word, Dream Theater’s tenth album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is…spectacular. But Dream Theater albums are, for me at least, very difficult to review. For one thing, they are some of the most talented musicians in rock, and they make music in the genre of progressive metal. What does that have to do with anything? Everything. DT fans tend to have extremely high expectations, are prone to analyze everything to death, and can be hard to please. So, subjectively, we not only tend to build the newest DT release up in our minds until we envision something the band could probably never live up to, but we also fail to cut the guys any slack and realize that the music is still far superior to the vast majority of what else is out there.
It goes without saying that James LaBrie, John Myung, John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, and especially Mike Portnoy go above and beyond in trying to keep their fans happy. Even the harshest critics of the band usually agree that few care as much about pleasing their fans and working hard to give them what they want than Dream Theater. Really, given the tension between wanting to please fans who analyze everything and the desire to be true to the band’s own vision, it is a wonder they don’t just go out of their minds trying to come up with new music—especially in this day and age where thousands of opinions are voiced every day on the Internet for the world to see.
And that brings us to the present album. Once again, fans are very vocal about BC&SL, whether in singing its praises or pointing out perceived flaws. Honestly, it is far too early for me to rank this album among Dream Theater’s catalog. Like most of their work, there is just so much to take in and digest that I cannot possibly hope to do a comprehensive review after having the album in my hands less than a day. But I will say this: In the months leading up to BC&SL, despite my best efforts not to do so, I built this album up in my mind to be something HUGE. And the great thing is that even with my unrealistically high expectations, the album does not disappoint in the least. To this fan’s ears, album #10 is clearly worthy of the Dream Theater name.The Big Picture
My biggest disappointment with Systematic Chaos was that it felt inconsistent to me. The first four tracks are among some of the best Dream Theater have ever written. But the last half of the album, while still having some shining moments, just didn’t do it for me as a whole. BC&SL, on the other hand, is consistent throughout. It is a great blend of heavy and light, progressive and metal. But it is quality from start to finish.
Musically, the band sounds tight. The songs are very well written and for the most part flow very well. The songs show off the musical prowess Dream Theater fans have come to expect, while not meandering and losing the listener. Instrumental passages with lots of timing and key changes are still here, but are a lot more focused and, at least to me, really fit the songs and enhance them.
Lyrically, the album ranges from good to great. Are the lyrics chock full of all kinds of literary and poetic devices like some of the Moore- or Myung-penned lyrics of the past? For the most part, no. But they are solid nonetheless. Good lyrics fit a song and convey whatever mood or emotion the song is trying to convey. These lyrics do that and do it well. No, the lyrics on BCSL don't harbor the secret cure for cancer and AIDS all rolled into one. They do not bring about world peace. They do not even make children like brussel sprouts. But they don't have to. The lyrics are good, and I really don't find any arguments that they are somehow objectively bad to be credible in any sense.
Overall, the album is incredibly solid from start to finish. To this fan’s ears, this is one of the most consistent albums from the band ever.The Theme
The album seems to more or less follow a theme suggested by the title of "every cloud has a silver lining," "the glass is half empty/half full," or however you want to word it. This is borne out by the subject matter of the individual songs as well as the album artwork. This is not a “concept album” in the traditional sense of the word. But it does have a loose theme that runs throughout, much like Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence and Octavarium. I’m sure fans will be finding tie-ins and “nuggets” for a long time to come.The Songs
A Nightmare To Remember, the album’s leadoff track…well…completely slayed me. Awesome metal track with a softer middle section that is PERFECT. Fans of the metal side of Dream Theater, rejoice! You will be pleased. Those who do not may likely hear this and fear that BC&SL is Train Of Thought pt. II. (Don’t worry—it isn’t. But there is plenty of heaviness to keep the metal heads happy.) The solo tradeoff spot is very well done. And the later continuum solo really shows off that the continuum is a very unique instrument that is so much more than something to mimic guitar sounds. The subject matter is interesting. The song is about a life changing car accident that left both physical and emotional scars on those involved that they will have to deal with for their entire lives. Not the typical subject matter for a rock band, but that is part of what make Dream Theater special. This song also features some of the harshest Mike Portnoy vocals yet. And…they really sound GOOD! But for those who aren’t a fan of Portnoy on the mic, don’t worry—the lead vocals are done sparingly.
A Rite Of Passage: The lead-off single of the album is a fitting representation of the band and the album. Overall, it is a very good song. . Perhaps it is the weakest track on the album, but that is a testament to how strong this album is. The song is a bit formulaic by Dream Theater standards, but that's okay. It reminds me a lot of Constant Motion, which I love, but has its own unique character as well. Heavy, melodic, and just very, very good.
Wither, the album’s shortest song, is very straightforward by DT standards, but honestly one of the best straightforward ballady songs they've done in a long time. I suspect my interest in this song may wane over time, but it is very solid, catchy, and just all-around good. Another interesting topic as well: writer’s block. This song features perhaps some of the most poetic and thoughtful lyrics on the album. Another winner.
The Shattered Fortress: In short, I like. The use of the heavy instrumental riff from The Glass Prison as the main riff under the vocal part for a lot of Restraint is incredible. I wouldn't have ever thought to use that as a main riff during a vocal part of a song, but I cannot emphasize enough how much it works. The reprises, for the most part, work very well. And while some may feel they are overdone, it seems a fitting end cap to this 7-year, 5-album journey. The only thing that didn't seem quite right to me was the transition to the TROAE reprise in the middle of Receive. Once there, the reprise was grand. But even for a band that makes abrupt transitions its signature, this transition just felt forced. Maybe I'll get over it after repeat listens. The transitions into and out of the Repentance reprise were great. Very good song overall, but there is a LOT going on. At times, the song even feels like it is just frantically trying to fit as much into under 15 minutes as humanly possible. But I think that is the point. I cannot wait to hear the entire 12-step suite with this as the closer. Oh, and the ending...pretty close to perfect. It's not the huge epic ending a lot of people were probably expecting, but it really is the perfect way to have ended the saga. (I won’t give it away for those who may not have heard it yet, but you will likely find yourself smiling and nodding your head during the final seconds)
The Best Of Times was written as a tribute to Mike Portnoy’s father, who died during the recording of BC&SL. This is just a terrific song. After a very beautiful, somber piano intro, the music is actually fairly upbeat. This is a fitting, since the lyrics focus on all the positive memories Portnoy had during his life with his father. I expected the song to be much more melancholy sounding. I like that it wasn't all darkness and minor chords. The lyrics are beautiful and full of the kind of common, everyday events and descriptions of events that would sound trite if written about a different topic. But as it is, they fit the mood of the song nicely. Mike did a really nice job with this one.
The Count Of Tuscany is really a lot to take in. The album definitely has its metal side. But this song does the prog side some justice. This is definitely the “A Change Of Seasons” or “Octavarium” of the album, and has lots of different themes, keys, time signatures, and everything else Dream Theater like to cram into their mega-epics. If you like that sort of thing, which I do, you will likely find the music sublime. The lyrics are also well done. Yes, they are a bit silly. But, as John Petrucci has done ever since writing songs like The Killing Hand, he tells a light narrative that is creative, riveting, and just fun from start to finish. Overall, Petrucci just does the whole "narrative that paints an interesting picture and isn't to be taken too seriously" thing so well. They lyrics really take you on a journey, keep you on the edge of your seat, and end with an unexpected twist. Finding out that this song was based on an actual real life experience makes it even better. The Cover Songs
I bought the three-disk deluxe edition, which means I got a disk of six cover songs ranging from Rainbow, to Queen, to the Dixie Dregs, to Iron Maiden. I am not going to give a comprehensive review of the covers. But suffice it to say, they sound really, really good. And they cover a pretty wide variety of material, some of which is fairly well-known, while the rest of somewhat obscure. Disk 2 is a nice addition to the package.The Verdict
I am not going to give the album a rating, a grade, or a score. To do that so soon after buying the album would not do it justice. I will simply say that I am a very happy Dream Theater fan. This album is not perfect, but it fires on all cylinders and is nothing short of great. This is why I love this band so much. They deliver yet again.