When we come right down to it, there are few other progressive rock bands like Dream Theater. The band’s powerful stage shows rival that of Pink Floyd (whom they have covered on more than one occasion). The now ten-album-strong catalog pulls elements from Megadeth, Rush, and Journey with “modern gothic” nuances; lead vocalist James Labrie has a distinct cry-for-help passion in his voice, while guitarist John Petrucci is known by many as a leading shredder of his time. Mix in the elaborate and lengthy multi-part songs (even chiming in at over 23 minutes in some cases), and the forces behind Dream Theater become apparent.
In the era of bands like The Mars Volta or Opeth, thematic and deep storytelling on albums serves as the end-all, be-all of modern rock music. While this does prevent a majority of Dream Theater’s songs from reaching radio airwaves, the band has still amassed a dedicated following and stands to keep said fans satisfied on Black Clouds & Silver Linings. The record is not what I would call a stand-out piece, but instead continues a long tradition of complex musical scoring that could put any Guitar Hero to shame. Never trading in sincerity for longevity or hit singles, Dream Theater continues to excite listeners, and also proves that if you do it right, a concept album or song series can make your career.
Opening on “A Nightmare To Remember”, we dive head first into what I can only describe as Dragonforce meets Bela Lugosi. The keyboard (or perhaps keytar) shines through mostly during the latter half, but add this to haunting atmospherics and the expected epic guitar pieces, and you feel embarrassed to touch your Rock Band controller. Coming in at 16:10, this is merely the second-longest track on Black Clouds & Silver Linings; however, you definitely won’t find yourself counting the minutes before its conclusion. Afterward we get “A Rite Of Passage”, which does well as the first single even at 8:36, with an overall Black Label Society touch between verses. It is one of the heavier tracks present and bears a very Hammett-esque solo toward the five-minute mark before going all Turtles In Time on keyboard.
“Wither” is officially the shortest song, clocking in at just over five minutes; however, this does not diminish a powerful piano accompaniment and Portnoy’s reminiscing to Train Of Thought. It feels very introspective, a trait that many Dream Theater albums are known for (see “The 12-Step Suite”). It almost comes out of nowhere, but “Wither” does perform a grander service as the de facto introduction to our favorite Dream Theater-characteristic multi-part track (think “Jesus Of Suburbia”): “The Shattered Fortress”.
This song represents both the band and this particular album, starting off with a slow fade-in and gradually becoming more epic by the moment. Surprisingly, this is still not the longest song (closer “The Count of Tuscany” beats it by a cool seven minutes), but that does not take away one bit from this song’s ultimate capacity for catching the listener by the balls. Each of the three sections has a very distinct feel to it:
“Restraint” – textures of broken glass and lots of string
“Receive” – power chords, shredding, an overload of percussion
“Responsible” – horror film opening, vocal heavy followed by more shredding and bass
The only fault I can really see here is that while this is considered the finale of Portnoy’s “12-Step Suite”, it really does not feel like an ending but instead an elaborate song connecting the first and last piece, constituting a vicious cycle. Granted, structure to that effect is mostly left up to interpretation, so there is otherwise no true issue here.
Following our spiral into absolute chaos, “The Best of Times” tones it down by returning to piano-laden romanticism during the first three minutes before running headlong into the most phenomenal shred present on Black Clouds & Silver Linings. Unfortunately, after this perfection of an intro, they do the same power rock that has been all over the album up to this point. It feels very thrown together, as if Portnoy was fearful of doing a heartfelt song. Luckily, there was plenty of rejoicing upon “The Count of Tuscany”, which not only stands as the longest but by far the best song on Black Clouds & Silver Linings, with a running time of 19:16. As the closer, it properly fades out into static toward the end, and it bounces back and forth like a best-of medley where elements of the band’s best traits shine through completely.
As the entire record feels extremely cohesive, despite “The Best of Times”, the critics have spoken highly of Dream Theater’s continuous excellence in producing quality material. It has also been said that this release will not necessarily bring in new fans but will also not disappoint the current flock, and this is very true. There are no improvements, but no sheer letdowns, either. That being said, Black Clouds & Silver Linings does appear weighted down in finality, and that begs the question — could this possibly be the last of Dream Theater? If not, then should we expect a new direction come their next effort? Until we know for certain, enjoy this profoundly-morbid-yet-illuminating throwback to Octavarium that will no doubt become a mainstay in your prog rock collection.
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