Black Clouds & Silver Linings
posted on 7/2009 By:
*This is a special dual review. The entire review is a collaborative effort between myself and Zach Duvall. Zach's scores are presented at the end.
Their record sales won’t show it, but Dream Theater is a band in crisis. Before they hit rock bottom with 2005’s Octavarium they had been fairly consistent with quality, but the erratic nature of their albums had been sending a quiet warning. Scenes from a Memory was a full-on concept album/rock opera, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence featured their most experimental work, and Train of Thought was by far their darkest and heaviest album to date. All three were exceptional, but ensuing albums have borne the wilted fruits of fully sapped inspiration. The band’s 10th album Black Clouds & Silver Linings offers cautious hope for Dream Theater’s hopelessly romantic fans, two of which present their thoughts on the new record here.
JR: I’ve been listening to Dream Theater since 1992. Images and Words marked perhaps the greatest evolution in my metal listening by introducing me to the wide, wonderful world of heavy progressive music. They’ve remained my favorite band over the subsequent years, although they’ve made it hard at times. Actually, Zach, I think the three albums mentioned in the introduction represent my favorite DT era precisely because of that eclectic experimentalism. Given their stagnation in the intervening years, though, it’s nice to see them get a little closer to the consistently great songwriting that defined the first leg of their career.
ZD: My history with the band is just over a decade long, since just before Scenes from a Memory was released, but I was first introduced through the Images and Words and Awake albums. I’ve been extremely worried lately, but things are starting to come around on Black Clouds. James Labrie toned down his more diva-ish tendencies and put on quite a performance, and guitarist John Petrucci is finally back to playing addictive riffs. "A Rite of Passage" is full of these, from the thrash of the verses to the Queen-like hook in the chorus, not to mention that beastly guitar solo. Too bad keyboardist Jordan Rudess follows it with a solo full of barely-musical tones…
JR: I was almost instantly impressed with the return of balance for Labrie and Petrucci. They display their astonishing array of skills as well as ever, but much more fluidly this time. On the last couple of albums, they just sounded overpressed and mechanical.
Jordan really loves his own virtuosity, it’s true, but at least this time he has refrained from the random club/electronica stuff he started on Train of Thought and ran into the ground on the last couple. He is one of the most amazing keyboardists I’ve ever heard but, yeah, a little restraint is always appreciated. As an example, the keyboard backing to the intro on “A Nightmare to Remember” is very effective, perfectly setting the mood for that suspenseful track.
I miss Kevin Moore.
ZD: Well yeah.
JR: I agree that the sound is improved, mostly because they deepened and darkened the textures to a level not seen since Train of Thought, which is to say that they finally feel like a prog-metal band again, which is awesome. The riffs are often chunkier and thrashier and they tend to create their own momentum. Bassist John Myung probably doesn’t get enough credit for his role in propelling the riffs and rhythms but, as usual, he is in top form on Black Clouds. His little wah-laden intro on "A Rite of Passage" is excellent and might be the most interesting part of that song. I’m glad that track, as the first single, is much better than its chopped up radio/internet version.
ZD: Well I think the band has begun to refocus on songcraft. "A Nightmare to Remember" is full of tempo and mood changes, twists and turns, but repeated listens reveal it to be a very well thought-out piece (except for Portnoy’s rap…), despite being a bit too long. There’s also "The Best of Times," a rare modern Dream Theater song that stays focused on one idea, at times bringing to mind the nostalgia of “Surrounded” from Images & Words. Sure the lyrics are sappy, but Petrucci's soulful soloing more than makes up for it.
JR: “The Best of Times” excited me at first with the sort of inspirational sentiment I love so much about the early works, but it doesn’t seem to want to stick for me. And here’s where we start talking about influences: Dream Theater have always been very open about it, every album having some obvious homage, but, whoa, the intro to this one is damn near a carbon copy of Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio.” You’d swear Alex Lifeson has made a guest appearance. But, besides that, the early guitars on “TBoT” have a substantial constitution that complements the song’s emotional heft but they’re dismissed later for light, airy remembrance. I appreciate the sentiment of a dedication to Portnoy’s recently deceased father, but the song just doesn’t have legs for me.
ZD: Speaking of Portnoy’s lyrical showcases, "The Shattered Fortress" is the final (thank GOD) movement in his "12-step suite.” Luckily it’s the best part of the suite since "The Glass Prison" way back in 2002, and is surprisingly cohesive considering most of the music is borrowed from previous entries. The song’s coda (the “12th Step”) is especially effective and really showcases Labrie.
JR: Yes, the much anticipated last chapter. And, given the band’s love for the extra’s CDs, I won’t be surprised if we get the sixty minute, re-mastered Shattering the Glass Prison before this time next year. I completely agree with how surprisingly well "The Shattered Fortress" works. I just can’t lose the bad taste left by the notion that the whole song is bits and pieces of other Portnoy creations. You can even hear slices of Liquid Tension Experiment in there. I certainly don’t have a problem with his borrowing from other entries in the series and, as you note, it works pretty well; it would just be so much nicer to get something fresh.
ZD: And "The Count of Tuscany" is that something fresh, and the best musical piece Dream Theater have composed in a long time. The lengthy intro calls to mind Rush's "Xanadu" before settling into over six minutes of blinding prog-thrash, an ambient third act, and an outro that brings it all home musically. Really, enough cannot be said for what the band has composed here.
JR: I think “The Count…” is very nearly a masterpiece. It’s one of those rare, superlong epic pieces that just doesn’t seem very long because it’s written so well. If it weren’t for those terrible lyrics, which hamper Labrie’s delivery more than once, it may stack up against “Metropolis, Pt. 1” and “A Change of Seasons.”
ZD: Well to me the lyrics in "The Count" are more campy fun than totally bad, but the brilliant music here deserved better than campy fun. Overall the album’s music is an improvement, but I’m still not completely sold. "Wither" is a bit of a cookie-cutter prog ballad, and could have been cut altogether.
JR: I’ll disagree just a little on “Wither.” Granted, it is the weakest song on the record, but it’s a beautiful song, really, and showcases Labrie in top form, especially in the uber-catchy chorus. And even if some of their weepy ballads are pitiable in their frailty (e.g., "The Answer Lies Within,” despite its honesty), this one has a darker, sort of heartfelt distress to it from which I get a real sense of legitimacy, a little like the slower pieces on Six Degrees.
ZD: Oh it’s still an enjoyable song, but it feels too typical. But I’ll tell you something that isn’t enjoyable: Mike Portnoy’s voice. He is a phenomenal drummer, we know this, and we appreciate what he does behind the kit here and everywhere. But the man can’t sing, and he desperately needs to stop. With a singer like James Labrie, why is the tone-deaf and nasal drummer still singing harmony and backup? Furthermore, why the hell is he doing a terrible rap that nearly de-rails the quality album opener? Microphones the world over should get a restraining order against this man.
JR: What else can you say about that? It was a mild annoyance when he first unveiled the growl/shout on “The Glass Prison” but I gave him the nod because it was his personal piece. But, jeez, we’re five albums on now and he keeps piling it on. It’s particularly distracting on the opener.
ZD: Yeah… But ANYWAY… Dream Theater has provided a damn fine bonus. The three-disc version includes both an instrumental mix of the album and a bonus disc featuring covers of Rainbow, Queen, Dixie Dregs, Zebra, King Crimson, and Iron Maiden. Really nice hearing Labrie go nuts covering Ronnie James on "Stargazer."
JR: My favorite of the covers, which they’ve always done well, by the way, is the Zebra tune, “Take Your Fingers From My Hair.” Labrie capture’s Randy Jackson’s tone really well. I will say that I don’t particularly care for the Iron Maiden cover. They handled The Number of the Beast pretty well, but this just doesn’t seem a proper fit.
ZD: So it sounds like we’re happy that Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a large step in the right direction, and mops the floor with the two albums that preceded it. But it is only a step. This is still not the Dream Theater that built its legend with Images & Words and Awake.
JR: Agreed. I am excited that this record has compelled repeated spins but it only flirts with excellence.
Dream Theater have obviously refocused, but they remain on the thin ice they've created. Hopefully Black Clouds is a sign that the band is once again working on the quality-over-quantity side of things, but with a multitude of minions who make an album debut at #6 on Billboard, do they really have the incentive to?
An open letter to Dream Theater:
Not all of your fans think you're infallible. Not all of us buy every Modern Drummer featuring Mike Portnoy or every Guitar World with John Petrucci. Some of us thought recording with a symphony only furthered you from the metal world. We have grown weary of songs crafted from a formula that draws from buckets of old riffs and hooks. Over and over again. Yes, a good lot of us are utterly dismayed by recent activities. Even early on there were little things, like trite lyrics and weepy ballads, but these were largely excusable given the sheer genius of the music. Then, everything came crashing down with Octavarium, a bloated mess that created more memorable cringes than it did songs, many of which fell flat attempting to integrate novel elements into the band's sound. Systematic Chaos was merely a forgettable improvement. The riffs, solos, and melodies that had for so long dug so deeply into the listener's cerebral cortex were conspicuous only in their absence, usurped by pretense and lackadaisical songcraft. Black Clouds & Silver Linings is refreshing, but also suffers from much of that hardheaded reliance on old tricks and grandstanding. In short, we want you to try harder. Maybe take some time off from all those side projects. We are well aware of your ability to sit down and write out an album's worth of insane shredding in three weeks, but what we really want is an album's worth of great Dream Theater songs, even if it takes you three years.
posted on 7/2009 By:
My part of this review is contained within the body of the other one on this page.
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