Review Summary: Dream Theater expand their metal influences and deliver a collection of actual songs in the process.
Dream Theater have gained a reputation within the metal community as the kings of musical masturbation. Whenever a negative comment is made about the band it generally includes the fact that they can’t write actual songs and only seem capable of jerking off their instruments and blatantly emulating their influences. Of course, fans know that these accusations are false but even they’d have to admit that actual songwriting doesn’t seem to be as big of a priority as it used to be. There was a time when the band put musical composition first and integrated their need for extended instrumentals into that structure. This formula worked well and resulted in two of the band’s most highly regarded albums - Images & Words
. It wasn’t really until Jordan Rudess joined that the focus seemed to change from songwriting to extended jams. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since it did result in Scenes from a Memory
, but the lack of actual songwriting has still been missed. With the release of Black Clouds and Silver Linings
it won’t have to be missed anymore.
sees the band moving back towards songs that are as much complete compositions as they are progressive and technical. A large reason for this is due to the band’s continued push into metal territory. John Petrucci has become much more proficient at writing heavy, memorable riffs that are capable of providing a solid foundation. These riffs dominate most of the songs and help create a sense of consistency that allows the band to go through their various movements while still maintaining an underlying uniform sound. The strength of these riffs as both an outlet for the band’s metal influences as well as a tool to provide stability within constantly changing songs is reinforced by the playing of Mike Portnoy. Mike’s willingness to deliver enough simplified patterns and standard double bass fills is the final element required to completely establish the riffs as a solid, static element in which the songs can remain anchored to despite any number of transitions.
It turns out, though, that Mike isn’t the only one willing to exercise a little bit of restraint when a song calls for it. Dream Theater’s two biggest showoffs have always been Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci, but even they’ve toned it down a little bit. Both of them contribute a large number of melodies and solos that actually fit the songs and don’t just jolt them in totally new directions. This self-control is displayed on every song, but it’s mainly on the more expansive closing songs where it really shines through. In the past, the band’s longer tracks generally suffered from underdeveloped melodies and an overabundance of random soloing turning them into chores to finish. This time John and Jordan provide enough simple, solid melodies that the songs don’t suffer when they inevitably move into something more self-indulgent, and make no mistake, the self-indulgent sections are still present - they’re just fewer.
Another element that is still present is the vocals of James Labrie. In the past, he seemed to occasionally struggle with heavier parts of songs but he seems to finally be comfortable with his voice. He is now just as capable of belting out the metal parts in his Mustaine-inspired rasp as he is the singing that he was originally hired to do over 17 years ago. Mike Portnoy has also continued his effort to provide deeper, harsher vocals to accentuate the heavier sections of each song. As on past albums, his vocals border on cheeseball self-parody and just barely miss ruining the parts he chooses to contribute to. The near-growls that he provides in a few sections aren’t bad, but he either needs to start delivering whole-heartedly or give up because this restrained, spoken word delivery that he does isn’t very good.
What is good is that Dream Theater have finally started exercising their song writing skills again. This makes for an album that is able to deliver great songs that also display the musical showmanship that fans expect. The result is the kind of solid album that the band hasn’t written since Scenes from a Memory
combined with songwriting skills that haven’t been this consistent since Awake
. Basically, Black Clouds & Silver Linings
is an album that continues the band’s increased use of metal riffs combined with extended musical interludes but also brings in strong compositional skills that give the songs the kind of consistency they require in order to be truly memorable and engaging.