By Sean K. | Music | July 15, 2009 |
By Sean K. | Music | July 15, 2009 |
To be frank: I’m not entirely certain who I’m planning to reach with this review. Any fans of Dream Theater in all likelihood already have this album; we tend to be a pretty devoted bunch, and are not generally on the fence about buying DT’s latest. No matter how I extol the record, it’s going to be a hell of a task to pull pop listeners to a progressive metal album with an average song length of over twelve minutes. Maybe, though, out there in Pajibaland, there’s a few metalheads who, for some reason or another, are not on the Dream Theater train. To you I say: what the hell are you waiting for? Or, in a more punny manner: all aboard. (Ick.)
That said, I could probably sum up this entire piece right now by staying: this is a Dream Theater record, and a good one. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of their catalog would do well enough with that alone. But for those who may know less about the band, I should elaborate. Black Clouds & Silver Linings is Dream Theater’s darkest album in some time, both musically and thematically. Not necessarily their heaviest, mind you, though it certainly is aggressive. Where much of their recent material has revolved around fictional tales of darkness, devils and history, these songs traffic in personal tragedy and reality; five of the six concern the writers’ personal experiences. A jarring car accident, the death of a father and a terrifying encounter in a foreign place—these subjects reflect the record’s title. While there may be silver linings and relief in some resolutions, they don’t make the experiences any less frightening.
“A Nightmare to Remember,” John Petrucci’s sixteen-plus minute tale of an auto wreck, opens Black Clouds & Silver Linings in appropriate fashion. It’s difficult to put many of my favorite musical descriptors—driving, thumping, grinding, etc.—to Dream Theater’s songs, because there are so many changes in rhythm, key, tone and feel that I’d be here all day describing them. But “A Nightmare to Remember” manages to evoke the kind of apprehension with which one might recall such an event, as the opening minutes describe the lead-in to the accident with an uneasy urgency. The crash itself, the awakening, the panic for knowledge of other passengers, the slow recovery—all is played to be genuinely unsettling. Here, as throughout the album, are all of Dream Theater’s hallmarks. There are Petrucci’s face-melting riffs, drummer Mike Portnoy’s spectacular percussion, flowing melodies, lengthy guitar and keyboard solos, and James LaBrie’s limitless vocals, which here often less refined and smooth and more growling and aggressive. This collection of musicians is arguably the most technically exceptional in rock music today (and possibly ever). Each note is both composed and played with a stunning precision that allows the group to convey a wide range of emotions through changes in playing style or effects. The notion of stories told through music is rarely more evident than in a Dream Theater composition.
Choosing a song to share here is a bit of a dilemma. I don’t expect very many readers to sit through a twelve or sixteen-minute tune as an intro to Dream Theater. At 5:25, “Wither” is the shortest track on this record, but—aside from a killer solo—isn’t really an apt example of the album as a whole. I’ll go with the obvious choice: the album’s single, “A Rite of Passage.”
This is a pretty decent representation of Black Clouds & Silver Linings despite its 8:36 run time. It’s an ominous song about a real subject—Freemasonry—and boasts a complexity that belies its length (in relation to the rest of the record). Although the chorus does conjure memories of Metallica’s “Until It Sleeps,” the depth of the writing and performance here quickly overshadows those terrible thoughts.
Also noteworthy is the culmination of Mike Portnoy’s “Twelve-Step Suite.” Each Dream Theater album since 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence has contained a song about Portnoy’s battle with alcoholism and various stages of recovery. The fifth and final song, “The Shattered Fortress,” both revisits and completes the musical themes established in the previous ones. It manages to reflect those compositions while still feeling like an integral part of this record, as its resolution—though triumphant over the addiction—seems anxious under the weight of newfound responsibility. The whole of Black Clouds and Silver Linings, in fact, reflects many of the musical styles of Dream Theater’s past four releases, while adding new dimensions to each. There’s a bit of Six Degrees’ theatricality, some of the weight and bitterness of Train of Thought, and more of the strong riffs, melody and a bit of the accessibility that marked both Octavarium and Systematic Chaos. Yet this record still comes across as more aggressive and accomplished than the group’s previous two outings. After “The Shattered Fortress,” Black Clouds & Silver Linings takes a slight detour in tone, as “The Best of Times” (an ode to Portnoy’s late father) is much more bittersweet in its reminiscence. Musically, it borrows heavily (almost intentionally so, it seems) from early-80’s Rush, recalling both “Red Barchetta” and “The Spirit of Radio” in its first half. The final track, “The Count of Tuscany,” shares this similarity, opening with strong flashes of “La Villa Strangiato;” though both of these songs molt into their own distinct compositions as they progress.
All in all, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is an engaging album and a worthy addition to Dream Theater’s already impressive portfolio. One need not be a metalhead to enjoy this record, though an appreciation for technical prowess and instrumentalism (basically, for music beyond pop hooks) and an adult attention span are helpful. This stuff isn’t Pantera, but it isn’t arena rock, either; it might not be thrash and it certainly has melody, but it’s undeniably metal. It’s loud, it’s long and it’s intricate, but if you have an ear for such things, it’s completely satisfying. Dream Theater is the best in the business at what they do, and though they do it without a whole lot of fanfare, they deserve your attention. This record might not pull anyone away from top-40 radio, but for anyone with a little lead in their ears, I ask again: what are you waiting for?
Sean Kufel is an engineer who, sadly, does not drive trains. He can be found in Marietta, Ohio, writing about music during breaks in his nerdery.