Issue 2009-029: Dream Theater - Black Clouds & Silver Linings - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: A Nightmare To Remember (16:10), A Rite Of Passage (8:36), Wither (5:25), The Shattered Fortress (12:49), The Best Of Times (13:09), The Count Of Tuscany (19:16)
ALEX: Dream Theater have rightly earned the respect of music fans worldwide for their brand of heavy progressive rock, which they have been writing and performing now for about a quarter of a century. It’s a powerful soundscape - the band certainly put the “rock” back into “progressive” when it started out and they have rarely strayed from that path since. For progressive fans however, it is the incorporation of compositional and melodic inventiveness that has made the music so appealing in such landmark albums as Images And Words, Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence. Their most recent studio album, 2007’s Systematic Chaos, was a slight disappointment for me because on two of its eight compositions - Constant Motion and The Dark Eternal Night - the band seemed to eschew any sense of that inventiveness in favour of an onslaught of undiluted metal mayhem. This was not just 15-or-so minutes of unpleasant music but also, because of the compositions’ placing within the album’s structure and the resulting “album dynamics”, those tracks came close to ruining the actual album overall. Their negative effect certainly dulls my enjoyment of Systematic Chaos. My concern in the lead-up to Black Clouds & Silver Linings was that, because Systematic Chaos had been the band’s biggest selling album, there might be a temptation to repeat or even extend the dose of pure metal and pander to the metal-only faction. Thankfully that has not happened: Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a return to Dream Theater’s top form; there is power, yes, and plenty of it, but there is also beautiful melody and compositional variety, resulting in an album full of the trademark soundscape that has made Dream Theater’s name one of the foremost in contemporary progressive rock.
BRENDAN: Dream Theater’s (DT) tenth studio release, Black Clouds & Silver Linings comes after a long line of successful albums. No introduction needed here, this band is synonymous with the word progressive and their professionalism and consistency have set them apart for many years.
DAVE: Could it really be the case that anyone reading this isn't already a fan of Dream Theater, or at the very least quite aware of what they do? Such is the bands presence and importance in the prog scene that I somehow think not. I'm lucky as I picked up on them fairly early in their career just after the release of Images And Words in 1992/3, when Take The Time was getting quite some airplay on MTV. Needless to say as a long time prog fan even then, I was amazed at this new breed of band playing with such technique and effortlessly crossing over the boundaries of metal, prog and AOR/pop rock. Since then, after a couple changes of keyboard player and a creative spat with the record label they've gone from strength to strength and must surely be considered the worlds top progressive metal band, at least in terms of popularity and pulling power. It's fair to say that they don't release bad albums, but most of their releases tend to split the fan base 50/50 depending on whether they want a balls-out metal approach, as in Train Of Thought or a more gentle approach, as in Octavarium. Like most successful bands they have a very distinctive style and sound which can sometimes make you feel they're just rehashing their previous material. Their challenge is to not stray too far from their path, but to add spice, energy and life into the mix. Which Dream Theater will we hear this time around and how will they sound?
EDWIN: When receiving an album from a new band I always check their site because there is mentioned what the influences are for that particular band. Of all bands Dream Theater must be mentioned the most. There are many Dream-Theater-like bands around but the guys from Dream Theater still manage to keep themselves at the top, a league on their own. The only question when receiving the new Dream Theater album is the nuances, you already know what you are going to get and that it (probably) will be good. The Train Of Thought album showed the raw side of Dream Theater and is by many people regarded as not the best. I deliberately say "not the best" because to me it is still a very good album that still surpasses many other albums from copycatters. The next album Octavarium turned the sound a bit too far to the smooth side for me, I consider this one to be "not their best". Systematic Chaos is a bit of a mixture of those two albums, for some reason this album never reached my CD-player that many times. A person can get an overdose of the Dream Theater sound, especially when so many bands try to copy their style.
~ A Nightmare To Remember ~
ALEX: You want power? You got it! Mike Portnoy is renowned for his drumming but, hey, his performance on A Nightmare To Remember is immense! Portnoy delivers an astonishing barrage of machine-gun drumming the like of which I have never heard, not even in this band’s history: it’s a supreme sound that carries large sections of this song. You can also notice straightaway that James LaBrie is on top vocal form. Compositionally, the band are true to their progressive roots and not only mix up the tempo, even during the more intense passages, but slip in some beautiful melodies, together with variety in instrument and vocal sound textures in order to really nail the song. Good start!
BRENDAN: This disc opens with A Nightmare To Remember with a dark mood and moves into the familiar metal sound that has produced so many imitators in this genre. This track immediately took me back to Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory, which in retrospect is probably my favourite DT era. It takes many turns, and is really an opening salvo of talent for this new disc – a good, strong beginning.
DAVE: What a start, bang on the money. All the elements we love to hear from Dream Theater: theatrical melodrama, a story within the song, too many notes, bombastic, complex and twisting (not too much mind...), but most of all it really falls into the most beloved of categories = sounds quite a bit like Scenes From A Memory. You just know this track's going to deliver as soon as Jordan's doom-laden, forlorn piano plonks out a Hammer-horror style theme. It doesn't disappoint with ferocious riffing from Petrucci underpinning a robust vocal performance from Labrie. There's a typical anthemic chorus, symphonic keys and a strong melody on top of Portnoy's ridiculously manic drums.
And if you didn't think it sounded like SFAM yet wait until the verse where the car accident happens, this is right back to 1999 and I for one am very happy to hear it. A tale ensues about the crash and the recovery (apparently from Petrucci's childhood), the main character (John or the driver?) wondering about the others involved etc, discussions with the doctor. There's a nice slower section a third of the way in where Labrie has the chance to give some softer vocals on top of some nice slow Petrucci arpeggios, but on the whole it's fairly fast-paced. Perhaps the strangest thing going on is some death-metal style vocals - I think it must be mike - during the resolution when we hear everything turns out OK. Oh yes, there's some totally mental drumming about one minute from the end, totally in Opeth/Meshuggah territory! Personally I love it...
EDWIN: A Nightmare To Remember starts with thunder sounds followed by threatening keyboard and suddenly a very heavy transition to melodic heavy metal. In the beginning this song sounds raw and unpolished like on Train Of Thought, powerful metal with many double bass drumming, but it is better balanced on this song than on Train Of Thought. The heavy opening is followed by a couple of minutes of gentle guitar playing and more accessible vocal lines. Of course half way the odd time schemes and fast solos by guitar and keyboard are introduced. Not really over the top but surely satisfying to the Dream Theater fans, this stuff is what you expect. The final part of the song is lead by dark vocals over a fast double bass drumming, death metal like. It is very melodic with a very good part for the keyboards, I really like the threatening sound of Rudess' playing, he does not play too many fast solos but his sound is more in harmony with the overall sound. At times this song takes a turn to very fast and heavy and just as easy it turns into a more accessible part without leaving the listener puzzled.
~ A Rite Of Passage ~
ALEX: A Rite Of Passage is one of the contenders for “track of the album”, this time courtesy of good compositional sense and some impressive guitar work from John Petrucci. There are some really catchy guitar riffs in the two long opening phases, together with some flying lead guitar in the subsequent instrumental phase, which is ably assisted by Jordan Rudess’ keys towards its end. A great sound! Plenty of power here too, with melody, but although the drumming is as strong as ever, the machine-gun effect is silent.
BRENDAN: Next is A Rite Of Passage – the single of this release. At a slower pace and with more harmonization on the vocals, this song is still a bit long for radio play; perhaps a radio edit is going to be released as well? This song still includes a substantial guitar solo and some crafty keyboard work so despite the wider appeal sound, they didn’t let up.
DAVE: Hmmmm, this is a little more predictable and heavier in the style of the Train Of Thought album but still with hints of SFAM, especially in the pre-chorus. The chorus itself ruins the track for me, it's just totally lame and isn't helped by Portnoy singing on top of Labrie, can someone close to the band please remind Mike that he's a drummer, a very good drummer of course, but not a singer, thanks.
The opening half lacks dynamic, is way too linear, but may well appeal to the more commercially inclined DT fans. All is not lost though as we have an excellent instrumental mid-section where all hell breaks loose on the guitar and keys. Petrucci starts with a very technical solo which I find interesting in the way that despite its fast sweeps and scales it returns from time to time in sync with the band playing underneath - you need to hear it to understand perhaps my point. I find it really quite masterful and will be looking forward to see if they pull it off live. After this we're treated to Jordan's keyboard fantasies which start up pretty predictably before going haywire on some king of Moog patch - it sounds a bit random at first but is in fact following the melody quite well. I'm certain this will be a talking point for many fans - Jordan has his crazy moment on every CD and this is the one for this release. Personally I like it a lot, it has character and is interesting, I much prefer it to endless scales up and down, up and down... but I don't think all will agree. This section certainly falls into the more/faster/crazier is best category. The track then returns to the chorus and finishes up. A dull track overall which is saved to a certain degree by the freak-out instrumental.
EDWIN: A Rite Of Passage has an industrial metal start. This song is more accessible and especially the chorus has a high sing-a-long feel to it. Not many Dream Theater songs stroll on in a predictable way nor does this one. When the solos kick in Petrucci and Rudess are on it again. The guitar solos are fast but not overdoing it on the speed and odd timing, on Train Of Thought Petrucci claimed time only to show his technical ability, that is not the case here. The first keyboard solo is good but the second one misses me completely, no melody just hammering on some keys. Nice to do live but I do not like it on a studio recording, Rudess can do better than that. A rite of passage is a compact rock song that if not for the solos would have been a common metal song.
~ Wither ~
ALEX: Excellently placed on the album in terms of overall pacing and effect. This is not only the shortest song on the album, it’s also the slowest and the emphasis is on melody over power. It acts like a deep breath, following on from the exertions of the opening numbers, gaining strength for the rock to come. The melody is just short of being a “killer”.
BRENDAN: I have never been a fan of the “pretty song” elements found on most Dream Theater albums. James LaBrie’s excessive exhalation into the microphone on the ballads does nothing for me (you know what I’m talking about.) Wither is the token pretty song, there is obviously some demand for this from the fan base and we have come to expect a couple of these songs in each successive album. Even the powerful shred-fest Train Of Thought was not immune.
DAVE: Well this is a pleasant track, but a let's be honest, rather boring. Instrumentally it bears little or no relation to Vacant from , but Labrie's vocal is so reminiscent that you can't help bringing it to mind. This isn't the case in the chorus though, this is more typical DT ballad style that they've played so many times before. As in many DT ballads there's the mind-numbingly bad symphonic climb to a crescendo with James belting it out before reverting to solo piano and voice. It just doesn't work for me, the melody is lost and it sounds lousy. To make things worse I reckon that drummer's singing again. And guess what came next? Yes, it's a radio-friendly, anthemic guitar solo.
- think Live Another Day all over again, badly. The album would be better without this track.
EDWIN: The song Wither is a very normal song, it is a ballad with a "normal" structure and no long solos or odd timings. James LaBrie shows he has a marvellous voice, he sounds very soulful. You can still hear it is played by Dream Theater but the die-hard fans will take note of this song and continue with the next song. It would have been better if this song was extended by some instrumental parts. Later on this album this is the case with The Best Of Times but that one is extended too long, it would have been nice to have a better balance.
~ The Shattered Fortress ~
ALEX: Despite being a strong number, on an even stronger album this is probably the weakest track. The first phase is pretty intense, then easing for a second before doing so even more for the third with its mix of melodic singing and semi-growl-speak. This phase is the highlight of the song, which goes through a couple more phases. Good, but even the brightest star fails to shine in full sunlight!
BRENDAN: The Shattered Fortress is the return to normalcy and another jump into a musical journey at nearly 13 minutes. I should also mention that the keyboard work for Jordan Rudess in this album is superb, even different in respect to the form his work takes. It is as if he was much more a part of the composing than just the kick-ass keyboardist who fills some jam space. This is the song that continues and maybe completes the running suite of songs based on the “12 steps” of recovery that began with The Glass Prison, This Dying Soul, The Root Of All Evil, Repentance, and now The Shattered Fortress. This has been an enjoyable series and all of these songs in this suite have been highlights of each successive album.
DAVE: Of course this is the final instalment in Mike's "Twelve Step" cycle and let's face it, thank God/Allah/Dawkins for that! I fancy there's going to be some discussion on this one, some will say it's a cheap rehash of old themes, others will point out that being the closing movement of what is effectively a one-hour epic it's only normal to revisit those themes. I suspect the truth of the matter lies in both camps. First few times I heard it it sounded contrived and tired, but repeated listens have been rewarded. Most significantly stringing the five songs together (The Glass Prison, This Dying Soul, The Root Of All Evil, Repentance & The Shattered Fortress) and listening in one shot bears fruit and puts the track in a better context. What's to be enjoyed with this instalment is the energy in the themes we've hear time and time again as new life is breathed into these well worn tunes. Also of note are the links between each piece which adds an extra dimension, particularly the climb-down in to the Repentance part (although the slowed-down voice sounds a bit contrived). Conversely the next change into the This Dying Soul section is too abrupt and sounds like a bad edit. I don't think anyone would deny the gravity of the subject and the importance to Mike, but the whole thing sounds too preachy and I, for one, am glad now to see the back of it.
EDWIN: After two relative "easy" songs The Shattered Fortress takes things back to the complex heavy metal. The song deals with Portnoy's rehab process, through out the Dream Theater catalogue several songs deal with this subject. The twelve steps Portnoy took in order to get rid of his alcohol addiction are processed in five parts and this is the final part. Very heavy song with many changes and this time plenty of room for Rudess to make his fingers fly across his keyboard. Later on Petrucci is doing the same thing on his guitar, this time no alternating between them and no spectacular duet.
~ The Best Of Times ~
ALEX: The beautiful melodic motif that is the centrepiece of this composition is introduced immediately in the first few bars: wistful romantic piano, then synths, then violin, then acoustic guitar and piano - gorgeous. Then, rock! It’s a stunner! Yes, you can build entire compositions around simple motifs when they are strong enough, and this one is. The song is written in honour of Portnoy’s father, who fought a losing battle with cancer during the making of the album, and it’s a very fitting and memorable tribute. Clearly a very personal song - as is The Shattered Fortress of course - being the closing chapter of a series of songs chronicling Portnoy’s fight against alcoholism - but on The Best Of Times Portnoy and the band have really hit top compositional form. Its emotive effect puts me in mind of probably my favourite Dream Theater moment: on The Spirit Carries On from the live album Score, when the crowd starts singing along with LaBrie it just brings me out in goosebumps all over. It’s a wonderful moment and I can see this song also becoming a strong fan favourite. It’s not perfect however - quibbling here - but rather than the fade out from Petrucci’s virtuosic and dazzling passage of the motif and its variations, I would have stuck in another chorus reprise!
BRENDAN: The Best Of Times comes next with a slow and gradual introduction and once it gets going, it sounds very much like the sub calibre material we got on the second disc of Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, which was the weak half of a great release. Even after it does get going, it still feels like it is deficient. Maybe being a fan of this band has made me a bit impatient?
DAVE: Lyrically this is a tribute from Mike towards his father, who died from cancer, the lyrics are very straight-forward, almost twee in that respect, but the sentiment is clear and any father would be moved to hear his son speak thus. Musically it starts very gently with some nice piano followed by acoustic guitar (not totally unlike the intro to Hollow Years, but much slower) before the track proper begins. At first I couldn't place the influence in the playing, it's really not like any DT we've heard to date. After a few listens it hit me, it's Rush, pure Rush - the chords, lyrics, James' delivery, Mike drumming and perhaps most of all Pertucci's best Alex Lifeson impression. Think Counterparts period... A large part of my being want to dislike this track, but I don't, I love it. I can't put my finger on why though, perhaps it's that total Rush feel playing on my subconscious, who knows... It doesn't really go anywhere or do anything, sure there's a symphonic keyboard break and a quieter vocal/ piano/acoustic section, but really it just keep going on and on like the Duracell bunny. But it works, it's good stuff - catchy melodies, uplifting and enjoyable. Hell, even the stock solo by Petrucci towards the end doesn't spoil things.
EDWIN: The Best Of Times is written by Mike Portnoy to honour his father who died during the making of this album, he sang this song at the his funeral. The violin part at the start of the song is done by Jerry Goodman (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The song brings a personal message of grief but it is not completely a ballad. A fast guitar transforms this song into a rock song, the majority is a bit slower and the final part is a long guitar solo. The lyrics by Portnoy are very personal and you can visualize him during his youth together with his father. I must say that thirteen minutes is a bit too long for this song. The solos are beautiful but it would have been better if these solos were played on Wither and make that a longer ballad. The Best Of Times is a moving song but I cannot see myself sitting through thirteen minutes every time I play the album.
~ The Count Of Tuscany ~
ALEX: Finish on a high - always a good ploy in terms of album pacing - and The Count Of Tuscany does just that. Kicking off with a phenomenal long instrumental introduction it moves on to a less interesting phase through the sung verses before the pace is softened for a beautifully lush, symphonic movement played out on simple, long sustained notes from what sounds like the guitar - very effective; and the final phase’s acoustic guitar and pretty sung melody are a wonderful juxtaposition to the previous music, leaving you feeling completely satisfied as the album draws to its close.
BRENDAN: The Count Of Tuscany rounds out the disc and is an incredible tune and is another testament to the abilities of this group. After 20 minutes of music that moves like a great story it finally winds down to a very atmospheric and thoughtful dénouement that portends to an ending very unlike their previous albums that typically end in a “to be continued” feel.
DAVE: This about an experience Petrucci had in Italy? You're telling me that one of the world's premier guitarist jumps in the car of a total stranger who claims to be "The Count Of Tuscany" and goes off to his castle somewhere? Does anyone else think John might be a little naïve here? It's a little difficult to work out the exact experience from the lyric, but it's clear that John went off and got freaked-out in a crypt somewhere that he thought was full of ghosts, or something like that... Anyway, the music is great, a true 20 minute prog epic from DT. Sure they have Octavarium, but that was a bit of a joke track. This is the real thing - building nicely from a gentle guitar into through complex instrumentals before heavy guitar starts the main theme chords. And what chords they are, really addictive. The story ensues and although I think it's not really clear the actual mechanism of telling a story works really well with DT and James, he puts it across excellently - perhaps it's his operatic style that enables this? There are four distinct sections which are repeated - verse, bridge, pre-chorus and chorus. Each one is appealing and they cycle round until we get to a complex instrumental part (again with a SFAM feel), there's a totally wonderful section with the bass, guitar and keyboards all intermingling on the halfway mark which breaks into a nice soaring thematic guitar solo. Unusually for DT this drops into a slow Rush-like moody keyboard/guitar section, I'm reminded of Book V in Hemispheres. This is really pleasant, and totally left-field, but it's not really clear what's going on with the story here.
A variation in the main theme played on acoustic guitar with some fantastic vocals from James. The track then, perhaps a little predictably, builds up layer by layer to a big (but not overly so) ending. This is a fabulous track though and will certainly appeal to the more prog-minded of the fan base and I feel it's one of the strongest tracks they've done to date.
EDWIN: The first ten minutes of The Count Of Tuscany are what to be expected of the final song on a Dream Theater album. Many technical bits and odd timings that may make many easy listeners crazy. Very dark song with dark lyrics and the keyboards of Rudess are again doing their threatening part, I like that on this album. The long atmospheric piece in the middle and the end part are not very interesting. At about eleven minutes I will press stop and this album is over for me, still more than enough music to enjoy.
ALEX: It all works very well together: there is ample variety virtue of the compositional inventiveness of these six tracks; the album pacing is good; there is metal, there is power, there is catchy melody, there are engaging sound timbres from the thoughtful instrumental arrangements and, as you would now come to expect from Dream Theater, the performances from the band are top notch. It’s a very good Dream Theater album; and whilst it is always difficult to determine exactly how good an album is until the passage of time - months and years - has allowed the music to settle, I think it is fair to say that Black Clouds & Silver Linings will join the pantheon of the best Dream Theater albums, along with the likes of Images And Words, Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence.
BRENDAN: This album is a departure from their catchy riff/jam/riff-some-more formula, but even with that style shift, by the time the album is through I can’t help but leave with the impression that I have heard this before; die-hard fans will find that a welcome criticism.
Their music has been highly rated in the past for very good reason: it’s good and the musicianship is impeccable, not to mention the superb sound quality every time. One major drawback worth noting for Black Clouds is that prolific bassist John Myung has taken a bit of a back seat on this one. The bass intensive melodies and interplay are not present like they have been in the past.
Perhaps offsetting the bass drawback, vocalist James LaBrie seems to have had an increased role in the making of this product. The tone of Black Clouds & Silver Linings feels like his normal role of laying the vocals when the album is pretty much finished has been set aside for a more active approach. I have really enjoyed his solo work, and although none of this reminds me of his past work, its good to see his talents more utilized.
The good substantially outweighs the bad is my final thought, but if Dream Theater doesn’t change it up more next time, I’m afraid they will be left behind in this ever changing and progressing prog world.
DAVE: My first experiences with the CD left me feeling quite disappointed, but fortunately repeated listening has paid off and I find much that I like. However, with the exception of Best Of Times and The Count Of Tuscany there are precious little new ideas. Yes of course the musicianship is top-drawer and the production is decent enough (although more bass and general presence would be better), but on many levels it fails to excite. It's competent without sticking its neck out too much. And yet for all this it would claim a position in my top 5 Dream Theater albums purely on the strength of the good tracks, but overall my feelings are somewhat ambivalent. Of course all DT fans will buy it and most will find something they like. It's a decent enough album to start with as well if you're new, not too over the top, however classics like SFAM, Awake and Images And Words would be a far better departure point.
When I was a lad at school they'd give a C for effort, B for attainment for this, that's a 8.5/10 for DPRP...
PS If you read this Mike, the blue beard looks daft ;^)
EDWIN: Overall Black Clouds & Silver Linings is again another masterpiece. It cannot reach the classic albums Images And Words and Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory but from the most recent works I rate this the highest. There are always things to complain about on a Dream Theater album, too many/few solos, too much/few ego-tripping by Petrucci and too much/few odd time schemes. Black Clouds & Silver Linings is just like Systematic Chaos in style a mixture of the (too) raw Train Of Thought and the (too) smooth Octavarium. I found that on Systematic Chaos Dream Theater was searching for a new style which in my opinion resulted in some misses, the Muse sound surely put me off. On Black Clouds & Silver Linings Dream Theater sound like themselves again, if you want something new then you will not find it on this album. What makes this album better than some other works lies in the details, the solos are not extremely over the top, the production is perfect and the songs are very well composed (what I mean to say is that songs do not suddenly stop for fast solos and then suddenly continue again). Dream Theater is still at the top of their own league.