Review Summary: Dream Theater begin to rectify their compulsive habits.
After twenty years and ten studio albums, Dream Theater appeared to be slipping into an inevitable downward spiral that many bands inevitably find themselves in. Systematic Chaos
was one hell of a way to leave fans scratching their heads, pondering what could happen next. For many, the picture in progress looked bleak and rather insipid. The play of melodic and thrash-inspired progressive music was here to stay, if Black Clouds & Silver Linings
had any stake in claim. And yet, Dream Theater managed to (once again) miraculously pull off a competent follow-up to a lackluster effort.
Tallying six songs, Black Clouds
has the lowest number of tracks on a single Dream Theater LP, with lengths ranging from five-and-a-half to nearly twenty minutes. Based on those numbers, one would think the immediate successor to Systematic Chaos
would see the band take their musical wankery even further. This isn’t necessarily an inaccurate statement. However, unlike the final stretches on the band's 2007 blunder, most of the band’s technical wizardly is implemented consistently from track to track. Only one track is guilty of the contrary: “A Rite of Passage,” whose solos feel like an unnatural tack-on. Thankfully, this is the album’s second-shortest song, so those couple or so minutes amount to a minor blip in the undulating stream.
One of Black Clouds
’ more surprising pleasantries is the inclusion of an effective ballad. “Wither” might be the album's shortest moment, but the lasting impression is superior to either of its surrounding tracks; “The Shattered Fortress” is the fifth and final piece of Mike Portnoy’s Twelve-step Suite, which hit a stagnant low on “Repentance” from Systematic Chaos
. Between this conclusive track and the band’s inclination to deliberately reuse bits from other songs, it’s of little surprise that this fifth and final act recollects from its predecessors. This unfortuantely sounds better in writing than it does coming from one's music player. There’s an overall disjointed vibe to this particular piece, undoubtedly a result of the group continuing their journey through trash territory. What’s interesting is that the album begins similarly, only “A Nightmare to Remember” is a notable highlight, especially given what the band sounds like when going for the overt metal approach. One reason “A Nightmare to Remember” manages to truly work is its seamless incorporation of melodies that keep the overall track from feeling overwrought. What's more is the welcome lapse in the middle that allows both the band and listener(s) to breathe. Correspondingly, the better half of Black Clouds
is mostly uninhibited by the heavier direction of sound.
Dream Theater continue the motif of ending their albums with two excellent tracks. “The Best of Times” is a song that leaves its listener more fond of it than they probably should be. It’s a decidedly relaxed affair when compared to other, contemporary Dream Theater tracks, even if the sound is still distinctly metal. Except where the preceding tracks (save “Wither”) couldn’t wait to up the distortion and riff power, “The Best of Times” feels closer to a Scenes
emulation. This is definitely the most empathetic, emotionally resonant song on the album.
Finally, we have the then-latest Dream Theater epic, “The Count of Tuscany,” spreading out over nineteen minutes in length. The melodic touch that helped make “A Nightmare to Remember” work is even stronger here, with Jordan Rudess wisely playing more of a background role when James LaBrie joins the rest of the band. Though Mike Portnoy can’t help but lend his cringe-inducing vocals during the chorus, they’re ultimately short-lived and, thanks to a wonderfully atmospheric stretch eleven minutes in, rendered insignificant. The transition from chilling, ambient distortion to acoustic guitar notes is ultimately another way for the band to express their permissiveness, but during points like this, you won’t mind. In fact, you’ll welcome it and hope the music doesn’t end.
If anything comes between Black Clouds
and excellence, other than “A Rite of Passage” and “The Shattered Fortress,” it’s the drastic lyrical tumble from Systematic Chaos
. One of the 2007 album’s only redeeming qualities was the apparent writing behind most of the songs, an all the more baffling fact considering the musical improvement on Black Clouds
. How poor are we talking? I honestly wonder if they made it past the first draft stage. Even on a song as well intentioned and earnestly delivered as “The Best of Times,” the words can become as curdling as Mike Portnoy’s vocals.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, Black Clouds & Silver Linings
proved that Dream Theater could still release worthwhile material two decades into their career. Not only is it miles above Systematic Chaos
, but even the weaker moments work better than the duds on Octavarium
. There’s still a lingering sense of a band who’ve lost their sense of evolution and progression, but at least they make the struggle to recollect themselves sound good.