Dream Theater – Black Clouds and Silver Linings

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1. A Nightmare to Remember – 16.10
2. A Rite of Passage – 08.35
3. Wither – 05.25
4. The Shattered Fortress – 12.49
5. The Best of Times – 13.07
6. The Count of Tuscany – 19.16
Apologies to everyone who do not agree with me, who find my review arrogant and subjective. This review is for an intended audience of fans and members of this fanclub, and specific Dream Theater forums. And although I might be focusing too much on some of the flaws, and being picky and analyzing too much into the music, it’s because I am a fan and I want to provide my honest opinions. I am an amateur reviewer, and my first language is not english, so I may have made some poor choice of words. Regardless, I present my review as is, and hope you’ll see that it is with love i critique, not with intent to hurt.

As a whole, I think the new album works pretty well. In many ways this is a very typical Dream Theater album, with a wide range between the different tracks on the album. There aren’t that many surprises here for fans that have known Dream Theater for a long time, and one get a feeling that one has heard most of it before (even to the point that we’ve quite literally have heard most sections of a song before – though there’s a special reason for that as we shall see), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If it works, it works, so why change a winning formula. We find all the hallmarks of a Dream Theater album here, with all that it entails. There’s a lot of wild and melodic guitar solos, fun and wacky synth solos, unison parts and twists and turns on the bass and drums, as there should be on a Dream Theater record.

The album opens with a huge thunder crash, quite literally. Thunder and rain streams out of the speakers before a haunting piano introduces the song. This explodes into the entire band riffing away in prog metal hard Dream Theater style. So this is “A Nightmare to Remember”. Here and onward it’s everything we expect from a strong Dream Theater “opener”. Strong metal riffs with a little slice of scary movie music added to it (ooo-weee-ooo synths), which makes sense considering the song was called “Halloween” on the backroom. The song describes a car-accident, but the text is written in a very straightforward manner, with a step-by-step recounting of events. Not terribly poetic, but it works okay.

After five minutes of great metal riffs, the song breaks into a more quite section. Very pretty, and very moody, with one of the best choruses that DT has ever written in my opinion, and I get some Pink Floyd vibes from the way LaBrie ends his sentences. This is done very tastefully, with sweet layers of voices and beautiful backing of guitars and synths. There is poetry in the lyrics here “hopelessly drifting, bathing in beautiful agony”, and it’s all very good – until we reach the 10th minute of the song, where the now obligatory “let’s share solos” part of the song comes around. JR and JP take turns in playing solos for a few minutes, which in and of itself doesn’t sound that bad, even though the formula is beginning to become a little worn out. The solos themselves are really good, it’s just that when something that used to be unpredictable (like progressive music should be) now becomes a rule, a standard, it makes the experience a little less good and interesting. The music itself may be top notch, but even if it’s complex and fantastic, if it’s not grabbing me emotionally it doesn’t work.

Then we also have a vocal section that I cannot for the life of me understand why they solved that way. MP does his “rap” style vocals, a talking/shouting thing we’ve know come to know and (love/hate – scratch whichever fits), “angry man” vocals. And it ends with a roar – literally. Musically it’s pretty cool, but I don’t think it works that well because the song at that very moment tells us that “oh, it’s okay, everyone survived”, and with that kind of voice it sounds like someone is utterly pissed because it all went well. And that is a thing I feel covers some of the lyrics on this album,  it’s sometimes so strikingly apparent that the lyrics are an afterthought for the music..

Then yet another section of different riffs, large amounts of rhythm changes and riff changes, typical for what we’ve come to know from DT the last few years. We also get to hear MP try out blast beats for a size, which absolutely does not fit the song at all, but oh well. Overall an okay, good song, which I think is maybe a few minutes too long. They could’ve cut the song after 10 minutes, and it would be much, much better, and then rather have reused something of that which we were introduced to in the first half of the song. As the resulting song is, it really feels like two-three songs glued together as one. A good opener that could’ve been better, but still has many memorable bits that I truly enjoy.

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Next song, A Rite of Passage, is more of a standard heavy rock song, with heavy riffs that open the song after a short intro. This is the first single from the album. And it sounds pretty good, though maybe a bit clichéd and familiar. Cool vocals with nice effects added that “echo” the lyrics, and a chorus that’s pretty solid. It’s singable, and it sticks to your mind pretty quickly. The song itself is about the free masons and their secret rituals. Again in a more of a recounting style than anything else. The bridge reminds me of In The Name of God, with echoes that repeat the vocals. As such this song maybe fits well with the other songs that JP has written about religion and politics.
Then it’s of course into Dream Theater mode, with the yet again obligatory solos. First a bit of riffing, before an artificial break to signify that we’re into the next part of the song. Then there’s a long JP solo, before we move into a long JR solo. Very good solos indeed. The best part about these solos is something that will be (and already has been) criticized by a lot of people, is that JR is experimenting with a different kind of lead sound. A sound that could be more compared to an old sound chip from a Nintendo or a C64 that’s being abused (in a good way). I think it sounds awesome, while many other people hate it. And then we end the song, with some riffs and toms and slowing down the tempo. A strong single that surely will be well accepted by a lot of fans, and probably draw a few new ones in.
Wither… The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this song is The Answer Lies Within, only more powerful. I’ve used the term Power Ballad to describe this song to people several times already. The reason I’m thinking about Answer Lies Within is that this song is pretty much a pep talk song. From what I gather, it is about writers block, and how to tell a story, how to not give up even if one is stuck, and where to go for inspiration. It’s a beautiful ballad, with strong melodies. There’s a great mid section here with just piano and beautiful multi layered vocals that leads into a typical power ballads guitar solo, and repeating of the chorus. Even though there are clichés present, and not very groundbreaking, this is still a very strong song in my opinion, and one of the very best ballads ever done by Dream Theater.
Now we’re fading into a riff playing over and over again, with small variations from time to time. It’s just building and growing into something more and more familiar. Synths and guitars add up increasingly into something we know, until it’s as bright as the sun: we’re of course inside the intro riff for This Dying Soul. Which doesn’t last long, because suddenly we’re in the The Glass Prison main riff. Which is then further developed into an underlying riff that gets a new vocal melody over it, where we pretty much get a complete summary of what the previous songs were about. In fact, the entire song is mainly built using riffs and sections from the old 12-steps suite songs. There are smaller and larger variations that sometimes make them harder to recognize, and other times it’s a complete lift of the section from the original songs. Sometimes they change the entire feel of the section. New solos, and the way they connect everything together is what makes this song very interesting. Everything in this song is references – the text, the melodies, the riffs, the rhythms… And it works really well to build a new song from reused riffs and ideas from the previous songs in the series.

But it’s important to see here that this is the last song of a series of now five songs – The Glass Prison, This Dying Soul, The Root of All Evil, Repentance and lastly The Shattered Fortress. So it should be listened to with this in mind. Alone it’s maybe not that strong a song (because it relies too much on the references to older songs – and these references do not make complete sense all on their own), but as an ending to a concept record it works very well. I myself have done the experiment of making me this concept album as a cd, and it’s really cool. It’s a fantastic concept album, only divided between 5 other albums. The only thing that does not work fully is the transition from Root of All Evil to Repentance, since Root of All Evil flows into Answer Lies Within, so the abrupt ending of that noise is jarring. But the entire AA Suite is absolute fantastic to listen to from start to finish, and is my favorite long coherent Dream Theater piece thus far, surpassing even SFAM and SDOIT disc 2. One thing though, I thought Dream Theater was done with finishing songs and albums like other songs begun…

Further on, we reach the song that I feel is the absolute highlight of the album. The Best of Times is the song that MP wrote for his father, Howard Portnoy, who died earlier this year. The song starts off with a beautiful piano section with violin and acoustic guitars playing slowly and beautifully. Until we break into more of a happy beat, a happy rock song that describes the relationship between a father and his son. Stylistically this reminds me of something from the Falling Into Infinity-era, especially the song “The Way It Used To Be”. This because there is a certain amount of Rush influence present here, with a guitar sound that is pretty similar to that of TWIUTB. This is very strong, and I think it fits extremely well. In the middle of the song, we go more into dramatic music, where the lyrics explain how a family received the sad message about an illness. And this is mirrored in the music with dramatic orchestral synths. The emotions are all over the map in this song, and I think it’s well fitting the subject matter. Of course there’s going to be emotions consisting of happyness, of sadness, of love, of grief. The range of emotions are stunning, and it’s tear inducing and causes goosebumps for even the most hardened soul.

Then we go into a more quiet section that is more ballad like, where the lyrics mainly is a thank you letter from the son to the father for everything he had given the family. And we end the whole thing with a 3 minute long JP solo. This song is just perfect. Maybe a tad too long, but I never find it boring, and they kept it tasteful without unnecessary parts that could’ve destroyed the emotions that are behind the song, and they keep it straight from start to end. This really feels like a coherent song, which is something I would say has been missing from many of the long Dream Theater songs the past 10 years. So this is absolutely something of the best they’ve done in a long while, in my opinion. It literally gives me goosebumps and brings me almost to tears even after listening to it 20 times. A perfect song, and along with Wither they really make the album. Which is kinda strange, considering they are the two songs that are least “Dream Theater” of the lot!

Finally we’ve come to the song The Count of Tuscany, a song that’s already become an instant meme on several sites online because of its curious name. Starts with a beautiful clean guitar, pretty standard Dream Theater again. This is a prog rock song if I’ve ever heard one. Neat time changes, fun rhythms, and would you look at that, a nice Zappa reference. I like the synth sound alot in this song, even if it’s not something I’d expect JR to put on a DT album (not that JR sounded bad before, but change is good!). Kinda reminds me of the Dance of Eternity, only a little more coherent – a little less playful. A very worthy progressive intro to this track that is solid gold.

But then something happens, where they add a weird section I’ll refer to the Count section, because it makes it utterly clear why Count is a part of the song name. I do not like the transition, and it breaks the flow completely. Thankfully it only lasts a few second. Awkward, but forgiveable.

So we move into a more standard heavy rock song, with pretty good vocals. A bit metallica. The lyrics, however, are among the most horrendous lyrics I’ve ever heard from Dream Theater. It does not fit the music at all. The chorus is pretty good, and would probably have been a lot better if the song’s story made any sense. This entire section works very well musically, but the lyrics ruin so much! Oh and that Count section is repeated, and still doesn’t work. But we go into yet another longer instrumental part, with rhythm changes and unisons which is pretty cool, and works well. Overall this section is very good musically, got a very strong metallica-ish vibe with some dream theater twists added to it. Fans will surely enjoy it.
And we finish the song, apparently, because we get the outro guitar solo that we’ve come to expect from a Dream Theater song, and the tempo slows… but hang on. My clock only says 11 minutes into it. Hmm, what’s happening? Here’s JR playing chords with moody pads, changes them every minute or so, while JP plays slow and soaring notes with long delay on them. Pink Floyd in a nutshell. This is beautiful. Stunningly so

But I feel that it’s a bit disconnected to what came before, as I can’t get a fix on a reused theme, and I don’t understand how it fits the story. After three minutes we go into an acoustic part that continues the theme that was introduced in the “Pink Floyd” part, and still I feel like I’m listening to a completely different song. They build and build on this, and ends with a large “Rock Anthem” finish, that in fact is very good. A very worthy ending to the song, and a good ending to one of the better albums of Dream Theater.

The song feels a bit like a few different songs mashed together. A nice prog rock intro, a good heavy metallica-like song with some twists, and a pink floyd rock anthem song. Each on its own is very good, together they’re a bit too different, and the lyrics that is supposed to connect it all is pretty bad. But it’s not a –bad song-, it’s just not as good as it could be. And in fact, in hindsight, aside from the “Count” riff, the silliness that ends the “metallica part”, and the lyrics, this is in fact a very good song, and it has only improved with time for me. I discovered that if I ignored the lyrics, the song was lifted several notches in quality for me. The thing is, though, I know Dream Theater can do so much better, as they have proven with several albums that have come before, and this seems a bit uninspired.

As an overall; The album starts strong with a good prog metal song that unfortunately lasts a bit too long, goes into a more straight rocker thats pretty solid overall, into the best ballad this band has written, to a fitting ending of a long series of songs, to a fantastic tribute to a person dear to mike portnoy, and ends quite strongly with a song with some flaws that i can manage to ignore. Out of 75 minutes, theres perhaps 5 minutes i could’ve been without, and that’s not bad at all (i usually have more problems with a regular DT album, even my favorites). The rest is very solid, and is some of my favorites from dream theater the past 10 years.
These were my thoughts about the album, so look forward to hear it for yourself (or not).

7/10

 

 

 

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