Let me preface this review by stating that I truly am a fan of Dream Theater. Since discovering them six years ago, they’ve been a major influence and have served as a gateway to discovering dozens of other bands. Hell, 1999’s Scenes From A Memory is one of my favorite albums ever; it’s simply a masterpiece. That said, they’re newer works have shown the band leaning towards a more commercial sound, whether it be more generic metal or cheesy pop aesthetics. Their tenth album, Black Clouds and Silver Linings, is no different. In fact, it concretely shows that they’re repeating themselves by this point. Unfortunately, Black Clouds… is about 30% innovation and 70% redundancy.
With a career spanning twenty years, Dream Theater is undeniably one of the pioneers of progressive metal. Drawing their sound from 80s legends like Queensryche, they paved the way for literally hundreds of newer bands (most of whom are sub-par emulators). The line-up hasn’t changed since their 1999 concept album Scenes From A Memory. The quintet is made up of James Labrie (vocals), Jordan Rudess (keyboards), Mike Portnoy (drums), John Petrucci (guitar) and John Myung (bass). These are some of the best musicians in the genre, and Black Clouds… shows that middle age hasn’t slowed them down at all. However, while they can still play as great as ever, they’re no longer striving to create as originally. The result is an album that even diehard fans (some of whom I’m friends with) have to admit is all too familiar. If you’ve heard the last couple releases, you’ve essentially heard Black Clouds and Silver Linings.
“A Nightmare to Remember” begins with their usual instrumental section. It’s a synthesis of crazy prog sounds and the heavy riffing and double bass drum Dream Theater notably began emphasizing with 2003’s Train of Thought. Labrie attempts his usual rough vocals that never quite work (he has a great voice in the right situations, but he never does sound too threatening). The music is simultaneously awesome and ordinary; very impressive and engaging, but not new. About five minutes in, things slow down and Labrie sings about “hopelessly drifting…” in an extremely beautiful, hypnotic melody (one of Dream Theater’s best for sure). If the whole album contained melodies as wonderful as that, it’d be amazing. Following this is more instrumental “wanking” (as fans like to call it). It’s both refreshing and sad that after so many years of gaining massive success, they’re still basically showing off like teenagers trying to get laid. Afterwards, we hear the embarrassing, useless attempt of Portnoy laying down some evil growls and warnings, which leads into Rudess’ typical Frank Zappa wizardry before reprising the opening of the track.
A synthesis of more generic Dream Theater riffing with a power ballad chorus comes with “A Rite of Passage”. We have Portnoy’s voice echoing Labrie, and it still doesn’t fit. The verse and bridge are stale and the chorus is uninspired. It also continues their current obsession with clichéd lyrics about self discovery, existential crisis and the like. To be exact, Labrie sings “Turn the key, walk through the gate. The great ascent to reach a higher state…unlock the door and lay the cornerstone. A rite of passage.” C’mon guys, you could’ve come up with a more subtle and meaningful way to express these sentiments? Petrucci and Rudess have an awesome solo battle though.
“Wither” is perhaps the lamest song this band has ever done. It legitimizes every stigma that comes with the term “power ballad.” This is Dream Theater completely devoid of testicular drive; it’s suited for sappy Disney channel shows involving that one outcast girl who finally gets the attention of the dreamy jock. I feel like vomiting, guys, and this is coming from a guy who likes Dream Theater’s softer side. “Wait for Sleep” from Images…, “Disappear” from Six Degress…, and “Vacant” from Train… are great songs, to name a few. Why? Because those were well written and emotional; they had nice melodies and accompanying music. They weren’t this corny, commercial crap severely lacking any humility.
Finishing Portnoy’s “AA” suite (one song per album since Six Degress…) is “The Shattered Fortress.” Petrucci shows some nice variation in playing the same lines in different octaves, and the rest of the band keeps up perfectly. But, as I’ve said, it’s all too familiar. Portnoy still sounds quite out of place vocally, and the first half of the song is your standard Dream Theater metal outing. Luckily, some true innovation (I told you there was some, didn’t I?) comes when the band reprises the previous songs in the suite (with some new techniques added) in the second half. It’s very exciting to suddenly hear some of the band’s more popular songs brought back in little snippets, interwoven into the instrumental expertly. This conceptual continuity will polarize fans; some with this it shows a complete lack of ideas while others will think it’s simply brilliant. I’m of the latter opinion.
Beginning with a nice piano and acoustic guitar duet, “The Best of Times” soon launches into more unashamed virtuosity before revealing itself as another power ballad. If “Wither” played during a pivotal scene from a lame teenage drama, this track would suit the credits. Labrie maintains his pure voice, singing the song with sufficient enthusiasm. I just wish he was singing a better song (which, as I’ve shown, they are capable of writing).
The “epic” finale, “The Count of Tuscany” is a three part exercise. The first contains the most original instrumental work Dream Theater has shown on Black Clouds…, and Labrie’s chorus is finally complemented with a Portnoy vocal that fits. Good job. Rudess continues to use his wacky timbres for his keyboard parts, and it’s still interesting. The second section is blatantly inspired (if not plagiarized) from the ending section of “Gates of Delirium” by YES (one of the best epic pieces in the genre). It features chimes and Petrucci using a violin effect just like Steve Howe did. The third part begins with warm guitar chords and another simple but great melody by Labrie (probably the second best on the album). Things build up and it’s hard not to be entranced by the end.
Black Clouds and Silver Linings is, obviously, a mixed bag from Dream Theater. Fans like myself will enjoy it, but again, you can’t deny how familiar it all feels. I’ve noted where they succeed and fail at their respective duties, and overall it’s not necessarily their worst album. But, with such brilliant work as Images and Words and the genius of Scenes From A Memory (if you haven’t heard that album, please, go buy it…now!), it’s certainly not their best. It’s clear that by this point in their career, they’ll never top themselves, and maybe we shouldn’t expect it. Maybe all we should want from them is what they delivered on this tenth release; another record of expertly performed ideas we’ve heard already, with a few standout moments in the mix.