Review Summary: Dream Theater have struck a musical balance between their metal and progressive side.
Since the new millennium (pardon the pun), Dream Theater have begun to incorporate metal elements into their music, disappointing older fans while at the same time drawing in new fans. The string of albums they have released in the 2000s have been strong overall, but objectively not quite reaching the heights they have achieved with Images and Words, Awake or Scenes from a Memory (I subjectively say they are merely different), albums that are mainly regarded by fans as their best. Fans have complained that Train of Thought/Systematic Chaos was too heavy, or how Octavarium was too soft or overblown. On this album however, they seem have to struck a musical balance between their metal and progressive side.
This album is darker in tone than most of their albums, each song on the album except for “A Rite Of Passage” is based on a negative or traumatic personal experience (a black cloud) and how they worked through it to arrive at a more positive mindset (a silver lining). Musically, the album sounds more unified and cohesive, One of the reasons for this is because of the stronger use of musical themes, having them recur throughout the song gives them a stronger sense of unity and cohesion.
James LaBrie sounds very mature and very at ease with his voice on the album, capable of doing a Mustaine-esque growl as well as utilizing a softer timbre that DT fans know very well, this is demonstrated particularly well in the opener “A Nightmare To Remember”, a song John Petrucci wrote about a car accident he was involved in as a child. Starting with a haunting keyboard melody, the song then launches into what is unquestionably the heaviest and spookiest intro in DT history, this theme recurs throughout the song, the main riff to this song is one of the catchiest Petrucci has ever written. The song takes a drastic turn around 5 minutes in, with a soothing clean guitar melody and LaBrie’s soft vocals singing about the character “in the hospital”, this section recalls a more intimate DT style and is as close as they sound to the “days of yore”. This section lasts for about 3 minutes then the song veers back into the heaviness with a "mandatory" Petrucci and Rudess solo trading session, followed by an insane unison. Shortly afterwards, Mike Portnoy gets some time in the limelight with a growled section, it is passable but I can see why people dislike this. He also provides blast beats during the outro in this song, the only appearance of such a technique in a DT song, but it sounded more like an afterthought so I felt it was unnecessary. As technically proficient Portnoy is, I feel he could do better than this.
“A Rite Of Passage” is a song about Freemasonry, it is the lead single of the album but one of their weakest songs to date. John Myung’s bass intro is sadly one of only two times in the album he is really heard. The main riff repeats far too many times and the song in general trudges laboriously and lacks direction, Labrie sounds uninspired and the whole band sounds like they’re on autopilot, but the song is saved by a somewhat catchy chorus and a very impressive solo from Petrucci, one of his most technical to date. “Wither” is a ballad, with lyrics by Petrucci about writer’s block. It is a very melodic song but somewhat cheesy, Petrucci plays a short but sweet solo near the end of the song which is a musical nod to Queen, it sounds like a reworked version of the first solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
“The Shattered Fortress” is the fifth and final song in the AA Suite, a suite which Portnoy penned the lyrics on, it is about him as a recovering alcoholic. The song is a ride through the past 8 years or so as it has themes and melodies taken from the earlier songs in the suite, with some new sections thrown in (particularly near the end) so it sounds more like a medley than an actual new song. Portnoy mentioned that this song rounds off the suite as they intend to play it in its entirety in the future (which probably isn’t possible now that he isn’t in the band anymore). Some may enjoy the idea of rounding off the suite in such a manner but others may be disappointed that they heavily plagiarized themselves instead of writing a new song.
The last two songs of the album in particular are tributes to Progressive rock, especially Rush, one of their biggest idols. “The Best of Times” is a heartfelt ballad written by Portnoy about his father who passed away, it recalls “The Spirit of Radio” from Rush’s “Permanent Waves”, and Rudess’ string patch in the intro strongly recalls Rush’s 80s synthesizer era. Petrucci delivers an absolutely emotional solo in the outro, similar in character to the outro of “Octavarium” and “The Ministry of Lost Souls”.
“The Count of Tuscany” is written by Petrucci about a real life encounter in Tuscany, it starts with Petrucci playing a melodic solo over a clean guitar backing before the launching into the main theme with the band, the theme of which, in my opinion, is one of the strongest and most melodic material DT has ever written. Clear influences of Rush are present, especially with Rudess’ choice of keyboard patches and Petrucci’s guitar sound emulating that of Alex Lifeson’s. The song takes drastic turn at around 4 minutes and changes into a more straightforward metal outing, the song’s slightly frantic pace along with Labrie’s vocals during the verses really reflect how (scared and slightly apprehensive) Petrucci feels meeting this count. The song goes through many key changes and showcases a three-way unison between Petrucci, Rudess and Myung (who gets his other rare moment to shine) around halfway through the song. The song takes another drastic turn after this, mellowing out with a spacey dream-like patch from Rudess and a slow melody from Petrucci, re-enacting ‘Trial of Tears”. The song ends on a softer note than expected, going through an acoustic section and then the whole band accompanies Labrie’s catchy and soaring “woah–oh” outro, this part coupled with Rudess’ choir patch in the background, is a section that I can only describe as “angelic”.
I admit to having a soft spot for Mike Portnoy, and sadly, this would be his final album with the band before departing in 2010, whether or not his actions are questionable after his departure, we are not here to debate that, but there is no doubt he was an important and integral member of Dream Theater (especially live) whether people like it or not, he has penned some of the band’s best songs like “A Change of Seasons”. Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a very musically balanced album, almost perfectly combining the bands masterful progressive tendencies with their more recent metal sound, it is the album most reminiscent of their early days (until A Dramatic Turn of Events).
A Nightmare to Remember
The Count of Tuscany