This will be the first of possibly a long string of CD reviews I'm writing and posting here, so, to get myself into the groove, I thought that I'd review an album which I know from start to finish. Since Dream Theater were my favourite band for the longest time, it seems logical for me to pick something by them. I was going to review Images and Words, but on reflection, there's little I can say about it that's not been said before, so I thought I'd offer up my opinion on their latest work, Black Clouds and Silver Linings.
The album itself has a structure which would be considered challenging by most. There are six songs, four of which cross the ten-minute mark; the opener, A Nightmare To Remember, is 16 minutes and 10 seconds long. Of the two shorter songs, one is eight and a half minutes- the other is a five-minute power ballad. Not an easy setlist to swallow for some, but then, this is progressive metal, and long songs are a staple. Personally, I have a love of epic song lengths, so it's not a problem for me. Typically, albums with fewer but much longer songs tend not to have any weak material on them (see: Close to the Edge, Wish You Were Here), but we'll see about Black Clouds.
Now let's go through each track. A Nightmare To Remember sets the album off with a bang, unleashing a crash of metal thunder to cut through its introduction of a sampled thunderstorm and chilling piano. This one is fairly straightforward, sticking to mighty metal riffage for the most part- the metalhead in me cheers and throws the horns- but it's cut up with some beautifully serene sections led by some of James LaBrie's most emotional singing. It's especially notable for some blinding shredding by guitarist John Petrucci halfway through, and Mike Portnoy's faux-rap section towards the end. This section has attracted a lot of criticism, some saying that it nearly destroys the track. I don't mind it, personally, but it's hard to take seriously. Then again, the lyrics- telling the story of a car crash Petrucci was involved in as a child- are slightly ridiculous themselves, missing the poetic subtlety mark by a few notches.
Overall, however, the track is a good fun ride, with the positives well overriding the negatives. A strong start for Dream Theater's tenth.
The second track, A Rite of Passage, is almost half the length of the first, at 8:35. This one has a regular structure seen before in songs like The Dark Eternal Night; an introduction, two verses, an instrumental section and then a final verse. A Rite of Passage is strong for the most part, with an Eastern tinge to its chugging progression and very solid vocals from James LaBrie, but some of Jordan Rudess' soloing towards the end of the instrumental section is beyond the pale. The sound is less of a note and more of a squeak, sounding like a Martian equivalent Morse code. Besides that, the instrumental section is a typically thrilling ride, with the speed amped up and Petrucci's usual high shred standard. Another good fun song, if you can stomach the keyboard noodling.
The third track, Wither, is our power ballad. For the most part, I find this one to be quite bland, in all honesty. It goes through the motions well enough; it's got a powerful, heart-wrenching chorus, decent lyrics and another solo from Petrucci, which is really the only other standout. Overall, it's enjoyable- not unmemorable, but not on the same par as, say, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd.
After Wither, which does serve the typical metal album purpose of winding things down a notch, it's ramped back up for the album's heaviest and hardest rocking track, The Shattered Fortress. Dream Theater fans will probably know this as drummer Mike Portnoy's final song in his series about the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program, known as the Twelve-Step Suite. For the uninitiated, the Twelve-Step Suite is notable for starting with The Glass Prison, a song held by many to be Dream Theater's best track. The four songs in the Twelve-Step Suite have consistently been highlights of their respective albums (with the possible exception of Repentance), and the fifth is no different.
Its style is reminiscent of the other three hard rockers in the Suite, winding around in complex loops without a set chorus or verses, utilising crushing riffs and placing extended solos here and there. I have only one complaint about The Shattered Fortress, however: nearly all of its riffs are variants of riffs from previous songs in the Suite. If it wasn't for that, then The Shattered Fortress would easily be the best song on the album. Despite that, the song is still up there, and it's a rollicking ride. It even puts some nice dynamics into play when it reprises The Root of All Evil for a slower, piano-led section. Compositionally, it's superior to the rest- it's just not inventive enough to pull itself fully ahead of them.
The fifth song is probably the one that I would pick as the highlight. Another of Portnoy's works, The Best of Times is a touching, heartfelt epic written for his father, who was dying due to cancer, and who just lived to hear the band perform it for him. It's a soaring, gorgeous song which owes more to Rush than to Metallica, but for once, the instrumentation isn't what I'd focus on. Through LaBrie's voice, I, for one, really felt Portnoy's love for his father, and that's a special quality- an edge which lifts it above and beyond the other songs on the album, for me.
The final song is also the longest of the lot. At 19:16, The Count of Tuscany is an epic in terms of both length and structure. It starts off with a peaceful, perhaps beautiful introduction, which breaks like the crest of a wave to give way to more metal. Lyrically, it tells an odd story from John Petrucci's childhood, about meeting a count and becoming frightened for his life. Really, these lyrics seem a bit ridiculous, as the situation could only have been born of childish naivety, but he writes as though from the perspective of an adult, which makes it seem all a bit preposterous. This is not helped by the return of Mike Portnoy's shouts (LET ME INTRODUCE! MY BROTHER!) which come off as more ridiculous than brutal. It's a good song, though, with a satisfying and emotional conclusion, but it doesn't live up to the standards of other Dream Theater epics such as A Change of Seasons or Octavarium. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the song to tracks like those, however; both of them are two of the best tracks I've ever heard, and it would take something truly special to live up to that standard.
Overall, Black Clouds and Silver Linings provides a more optimistic look on Dream Theater's future than Systematic Chaos did with its at-times-mindless self-indulgence, but it's all a bit contrived. The songs aim to be deep and complex, but for the most part they come across as a little less than that, and even slightly silly in places. That said, it's not a bad album. It's just nothing to write home about compared to some of their past works. I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5, all in all, and I'd hope that Dream Theater's work gets a bit more deeper than this for their next album.