Review Summary: Dream Theater finally rediscover their knack for songwriting, and deliver their best album of the past years...
Dream Theater, for me, have always been an important band in my life emotionally. This may seem like a contradiction in terms, for it is always posited that Dream Theater play the most technical, masturbatory, boring music on the planet, and that their instrumental virtuosity is a plain destroyer of beauty. It always seemed like the most paradoxical thing that a band so talented would waste their time on writing such songs, but of course, Dream Theater have always had songwriting skills. Take Awake’s Space-Dye Vest, or Images’ Wait for Sleep. The pinnacle of DT was always reached when they combined their tunefulness with their insane display of technical skill; in fact, I have always vouched that if only DT could continuously combine the two, they would be one of the strongest acts on the planet.
Black Clouds and Silver Linings is the first album since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence that goes a long way towards showing the band’s songwriting skills, which seem to have been reinvigorated. After two decent but tunefully lacklustre albums in Systematic Chaos and Octavarium, the band finally decided to return to the drawing board and see that they were doing what they were good at: composing long, epic tunes, that somehow never lost sight of the song. The six songs they have come up with this time all hold their individual merit on the album, which is the first in a long while; the band’s continued dive into metal territory only helps expand this notion, because for the first time, there is a solid riff foundation on which all of the songs are built that underpins the band’s newfound coherency. In fact, this may be the strongest album, tune-wise, since Awake. It was a long time in the making, but finally DT’s experimental groove has seemed to set on a solid formula: underpin the melodic, progressive edge with some real metal, and finally, the tunes start to appeal.
The prime examples of the band’s newfound style is are the two epics sandwiched at either end of the album, in particular the first song. Opener A Nightmare to Remember is quite possibly the heaviest DT song to date, complete with bombastic strings, blastbeats, more of the angry spoken word delivery that featured on Systematic Chaos, and even a semi-growl. The primary influence now seems to be Swedish metallers Opeth, which almost makes it seem like returning the favour: Opeth have always been influenced to an extent by the band, but Opeth’s trademark sound seems to reappear in Dream Theater. Particularly in Portnoy’s playing, who seems to be content with delivering double bass marathons and rein in his playing extremely well to suit the song, it almost seems like this is Dream Theater’s stab at internalising the well-famed Opeth sound. And apart from the cheeseball death metalisms at the end, as well as the lack of Mikael’s more engaging poetic material, they seem to be very adept at musically taking another person’s idea and transforming it into a monster of their own. Particularly the middle section, in which they switch from metallers to soulful prog rockers, again a volume switch inspired by Opeth, is a classy well-done part that points out why Dream Theater continue to float atop the progressive metal scene today.
The other songs on the album are more pedestrian Dream Theater material by comparison, but all still retain a signature sound. A Rite of Passage is the album’s heavy metal rocker and seems to be another Metallica inspired tune. Portnoy seems to take a more lead role vocally still, continuously providing backup vocals during the verses. Wither is a sole John Petrucci tune, surprisingly sacrificing any lead solo wankery for a gem of a melody and keeping the solo so reined in that instead of Malmsteen, he seems to be channelling Brian May. It almost seems to hearken back to an updated Images and Words/Awake era sound, almost like what Another Day could have become had they put a few actual riffs behind (much like how Nightmare refers back to Scenes sonically and how The Count of Tuscany has a clear Falling into Infinity section).
The Shattered Fortress continues the territorial push into metal riffs, complete with self-plagiarism (this is the final 12-step suite song), and lavish This Dying Soul/Glass Prison/Root of All Evil thefts. Again the song is solidly anchored in these riffs, although the continued cropping up and reuse of previous material probably makes it the weakest song on the album, songwriting-wise. The Best of Times is the closest to classic DT, complete with a lead solo out of the old Petrucci school and a riff that sounds particularly like Rush (the last time DT sounded influenced by Rush was Images and Words). Even though the lyrical matter is the height of cheese “your spirit led my life each day” and seems to be a tribute to Portnoy’s late father that could have done with a bit more elaborate metaphors and some working out instead of saying it so flatly, the tune is to die for. And closing epic The Count of Tuscany continues the trend of inane lyrics combined with excellent music, which again leads the band to return to their past glory days, channelling A Change of Seasons, Trial of Tears, and Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence all in one swift motion. In fact, musically, this is probably the band’s strongest epic since In The Name of God.
It’s one thing for Dream Theater to lose their lyrical penchant for intelligent metaphors, a curse that has seemed to haunt the band since the loss of influential keyboard player Kevin Moore. But it’s a whole other thing to see them musically returning to the level that those albums with Moore were at; and with a bit more lyrical effort, Dream Theater’s continued ascent in the metal pantheon seems well-deserved. Emotionally they may have lost their touch slightly, but they have lost none of their compositional skill, and with this new album actually boasting six solid tunes for the first time in a long while (Dream Theater’s later work always hinged on inconsistency), I am proud to welcome one of my old favourites back into the kingdom of greats. I suppose that now they are there, the best of times can finally ensue. A rite of passage, indeed…