Dream Theater are the kings of progressive metal. It is a genre of music that they helped carve out – fusing the epic journeys that were crafted by old progressive bands such as Rush and Yes with the heaviness introduced by Led Zeppelin and taken forward by Iron Maiden, Metallica and the like. This, topped off with the fact that the chaps are some of the most technically adept musicians in the world, has cemented their legendary status. They celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2006 and are showing no signs of slowing down.
Black Clouds & Silver Linings marks their 10th studio album, preceded by Systematic Chaos in 2007. Systematic Chaos saw Dream Theater move in a darker, heavier direction – and the title of their latest release suggests more of the same. So does the cover – it keeps with the dark abstractions of previous cover art, and incorporates the Dream Theater logo in a tasteful way.
1. A Nightmare To Remember
Opeth. This is the first thing that comes to mind after hearing the opening track. A haunting, gothic chord progression opens the song (which introduces us to a theme that presents itself subtly at later stages of the album) – whereby you get kicked in the face with an extremely heavy riff. This chord progression and lead is one of two memorable features of the song as a whole.
Frantic double bass drumming on the part of Mike Portnoy is prevalent throughout the song – very reminiscent of Martin Lopez’s work for Opeth. Clever use of 3s and 4s in bass drum patterns definitely adds to the song. Mike also takes the Opeth tributes further, bringing over his growly death-metal vocals from Systematic Chaos later in the song.
Just before the 5:00 mark, the song breaks into a melodic acoustic section. Lots of chorus on the guitars sets an atmospheric mood, and brings us into the second memorable part of the song – a very powerful ballad style piece which climaxes into a very uplifting chorus at around 7:00, laced with vocal harmonies and dramatic strings.
Following this comes the customary Dream Theater trademarked instrumental section with trade-offs between guitar (John Petrucci) and keyboards (Jordan Rudess). The beginning of the section reminds me a lot of ‘No Returning’ by Age of Impact, in which John Petrucci breaks out a similarly brilliant solo. The later instrumental section is very reminiscent of Dark Eternal Night from Systematic Chaos, and triplet drum grooves refer back to The Glass Prison (from DT’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence).
Not only is this my favourite song on the album – this is up there with DT’s other epic greats. A masterful song through and through.
2. A Rite Of Passage
The first of two ‘singles’ on the album – A Rite Of Passage is clearly more mainstream than A Nightmare To Remember. It follows an identical formula to Constant Motion (from Systematic Chaos): a memorable and infectious riff combined with a sing-along chorus, preceding extremely technical solos from John P and Jordan.
What is interesting about Jordan’s customary noodling this time around is the new toy he uses to create his outlandish sound. At around 6:40 you notice a very high-pitched screeching synth, and naturally assume usage of one of his vast range of expensive modules. Not this time – he actually uses an iPhone, loaded with an application called ‘Bebot’. Jordan demonstrates this simplistic, and yet powerful, application in the video below:
All in all, A Rite of Passage is a decent attempt at another mainstream song. Whilst it’s not going to win any prizes for originality, it does grow on you over time. Plus, it gets bonus points for showing me how to turn my phone into a new musical instrument.
Wither is a punchy hard rock ballad. It reminds me a lot of Alter Bridge, or something of that nature. Whilst it is more mainstream (and I didn’t like it at first for that reason), it is certainly a shining example of the passion and power that a song of this ilk should bring to the table. Topped off with a Brian May-esque triumphant guitar solo, Wither is a brilliantly emotive and memorable song.
4. The Shattered Fortress
This is the 5th and final song of Mike Portnoy’s Alcoholics Anonymous suite – the other 4 being The Glass Prison, This Dying Soul, The Root Of All Evil and Repentance (in that order). Mike wrote the lyrics to these songs to reflect the 12 steps that AA uses to rehabilitate recovering alcoholics. Due to this recurrent theme, the music also incorporates shared themes and ideas.
The Shattered Fortress takes the album back to ‘full-tilt’, and carries on with the themes presented in the previous 4 songs. However, where the other 4 songs managed to introduce their own theme and subtly weave-in references to the other songs in the suite, this just takes entire sections and ‘stitches’ them together. It almost sounds like a medley rather than an individual song.
Yes, I can see the reason for this – as a song to wrap up the suite, it obviously tries to go through the previous phases in turn (not dissimilar to how Metal Gear Solid 4 tries to incorporate themes/stages from the previous 3 games). Despite this, I cannot agree with the fact that whole chunks of previous songs are repeated in their entirety. It’s like if The Godfather Part III was comprised of scenes from Parts I and II sewn together with a few bits added in.
The best moment of the song comes towards the end at 10:30 when an entirely new theme is added into the mix. This riff and chord sequence works extremely well – and leaves me wanting more. If they actually made this progression the basis of the song and then had subtle references to the aforementioned 4 songs, The Shattered Fortress would be a masterpiece and would top off an excellent suite.
As it stands, the song is okay when listened to after the preceding 4 songs, but proves to be the weak link of the suite. It certainly feels out of place within the album itself. Oh, and that’s enough “Whoa”-ing there at the end, James. Whilst not a bad song, this is definitely my least favourite on the album.
5. The Best Of Times
A true prog epic – The Best Of Times was written by Mike Portnoy as a tribute to his late father Howard. The riff and verse towards the beginning remind me a lot of Raise The Knife, an unreleased DT song from the Falling Into Infinity recording sessions. The sonic quality of this song brings me back to a classic 90s Dream Theater – think A Change of Seasons, and songs around this time.
A nice Beatles style lead theme runs through this song, and into the extended guitar solo, which takes the song to its close. This is John Petrucci’s climax on the album – another epic guitar solo to go into the record books. The solo is surely one of Petrucci’s best – typified by not just a demonstration of technical ability, but also a strong sense of melody. Beautiful.
The one thing that may have made this song even better is maybe an extension of the acoustic/strings opening. A play on this and a more gradual transition into the faster paced opening verse could have extended this song into the realms of Octavarium. As it stands, the song feels a tad short – even at 13 minutes!
6. The Count of Tuscany
The last time Dream Theater didn’t end an album with the longest song on it was 10 years ago. That record is ongoing, as we move onto the 19-minute progressive showcase, and the final song on Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
Whilst the lyrics are not the most inspiring (about Petrucci’s frightening encounter with a Count in Tuscany, would you believe?), the music certainly is. So many references are laden within this song – the beginning shares Transatlantic/Neal Morse sensibilities, Opeth-like strummed chords towards the end, and the main chord progression is similar to the staccato break in Pull Me Under (the song that put Dream Theater on the map way back in 1992).
Progressive really is the word here, with time-signature changes, key changes, and dramatic shifts in the mood (including a revisit of the theme from A Nightmare To Remember); along with as great a haunting and atmospheric close to the album as the opening is.
Dream Theater also decided to spoil us by including a second disc of covers:
- Stargazer by Rainbow
- Tenement Funster / Flick Of The Wrist / Lily Of The Valley by Queen
- Odyssey by The Dixie Dregs
- Take Your Fingers From My Hair by Zebra
- Larks Tongues In Aspic Pt.2 by King Crimson
- To Tame A Land by Iron Maiden
By far the best of these is Odyssey – an amazing classic progressive instrumental topped off by amazing musicianship all round. The violin-like synthesised guitar sounds towards the beginning are very awe-inspiring indeed. You can definitely see here that John Petrucci found tremendous inspiration in Steve Morse.
Although the second disc brings an interesting (and much more progressive) change of tone, if I were Dream Theater, I would have made the second disc into ‘the AA disc’ – with all 5 of the songs from the AA suite on it, re-recorded with seamless transitions between the songs. Moving The Shattered Fortress to the second disc would leave a space for another original DT song on the main disc. Maybe even an instrumental like Odyssey, for example…
Although I have one or two gripes with parts of Black Clouds & Silver Linings, I cannot stop listening to it. It is a brilliant album, and unlike some past Dream Theater albums, hooked me almost immediately. It continues Dream Theater’s dark and heavy edge, but maintains their progressive sensibilities wonderfully. If you are a DT fan, this one is not to be missed – and music of this calibre certainly warrants a listen even if you are not.
Dream Theater will perhaps never replicate the classic albums of the 90s – another Images and Words or Metropolis seems to be elusive. Once you take the album at face value, and accept that the guys have moved onto a heavier sound, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is still a compositional marvel, and a step upwards from Systematic Chaos. However, I do miss the more progressive Dream Theater that we haven’t really heard since Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (and the title track of Octavarium).