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Dream Theater - Black Clouds & Silver Linings CD (album) cover

BLACK CLOUDS & SILVER LININGS

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.44 | 1197 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

captainragamuffin
2 stars My eleventh grade English teacher once described my efforts as having "flashes of brilliance." This basically meant that for the most part, my work was fairly pedestrian and uninspired, although I was capable of pulling something special out of the bag on occasion. These same sentiments could also be expressed to describe the latest Dream Theater album, "Black Clouds and Silver Linings".

As their second offering on the Roadrunner label, BC&SL (as the acronym will be forever known) is a curious collection of songs that ultimately doesn't deliver what I hoped it would. Yes, there are indeed flashes of brilliance on this album...but that is about the most complimentary I can be towards this. To be honest, there are aspects of this album that are truly awful ? chief among them being the song-writing. Never before have I been so appalled at the lyrics on a Dream Theater album and I am honestly unable to enjoy large parts of this record, because I cringe. And then I cringe some more. And just when I'm about to press the stop button, a section of music comes along and redeems the record to a more palatable level. Somehow I've managed to get through to the end on several occasions, but I'm left with the same feelings of disappointment. The brilliant sections are simply not plentiful enough to save the record from the substandard lyrics which serve as an anchor, dragging this record down to the depths of mediocrity.

While I hate to harp on about the issue, I simply cannot express how bad some of these lyrics truly are. It appears that the band (namely, Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci, as the captains of this ship) have elected to write in a more literal, straightforward manner than ever before. At times, it's like listening to storytelling or poetry from a 15 year old, and it saddens me to think that these are the same people responsible for such heartfelt and deeply personal lyrics as "Scarred", "A Change of Seasons", or even the AA saga.

In the past, the band has written some less than impressive lyrics at times, but for the most part, they've maintained a reasonable standard. They were criticised for resorting to fantasy lyrics on the last record, "Systematic Chaos", but I actually found some of those lyrics to be quite metaphorical or symbolic in some ways (namely, the "Dark Master" component of "In the Presence of Enemies").

Although this isn't a review of that particular album, I do want to mention one major gripe I had with it: the band's apparent fondness for making songs with overly drawn out instrumental passages that lent nothing to the song. Some may argue that they've been doing this since their inception, but as someone that's enjoyed their music for 15 years, this hasn't always been my experience. On SC, there were several tracks which I grew very tired of listening to, simply because of the musical masturbation sections. I'll call them the Steven Segal moments, basically because they contain a lot of chops but ultimately no feeling, much like Segal's movies. Live in concert, this routine with the band showing off in almost every song, as James left the stage, was just ridiculous. We get it, we know you can play, so why not utilise your talent to craft some better songs?

On this record, there are again a handful of Steven Segal moments and I'm frankly bored of hearing the band go through this process of elongating a song just for the sake of putting in an instrumental section. The worst part of these sections is that they convey virtually no emotion and often feel very disjointed next to the regular parts of the song. Take "A Rite of Passage" for example. It's a very rocking track that has a great riff and some enjoyable verses (although it is let down slightly by the chorus). The album version includes some boring Segal moments then abruptly returns you to the track, and it feels like you've been slapped about a little ? it's very disconcerting.

This review actually started very positively, but the more I've reflected on BC&SL, the more negative aspects I seem to draw from it. At this point, it's probably a good idea to consider some of the positive aspects of it, so let's see what we've got here...

The album starts off interestingly enough with "A Nightmare to Remember", which has a very gothic, almost evil sounding vibe thanks to the keyboard layers, cool guitar swirls and double-bass drumming. Then the mood suddenly changes and the track begins to rock out with a really dirty guitar riff. Unfortunately, when James starts singing, the cringe factor hits ("A nightmare to remember, I'll never be the same. What began as laughter, so soon would turn to pain..."). Move ahead to about the four minute mark and this is where this track becomes truly enjoyable for me. It slows right down and has a very laid back feel about it, but the highlight is the singing here ?from James, John and Mike. This is the "hopelessly drifting, bathed in beautiful agony" section, and it's really beautiful, but gets ruined when they return to the Segal moments shortly thereafter. Petrucci goes nuts, Jordan Rudess then has a turn on the keys... it's just like they're competing with one another and it's a bore for me to listen to. At around the ten minute mark there are some new ideas thrown in, with some of the cheesiest vocal effects employed by the band. I'd describe them as growls except that they're more like imitation growls and sound horrible. It's nice to hear them attempt new things, but not for the sake of trying to be trendy or cool.

Sorry, I was supposed to be discussing the positive aspects. The best thing about this track, besides the mellow section, is the ending because "A Rite of Passage" is next and it's a pretty damn good track (despite the aforementioned Segal moments which do tarnish the song slightly even though they only last two minutes or so). I'd have to say that this is my favourite track on the album ? from an overall perspective.

The ballad on the album, "Wither ", comes next and it also has one redeeming value ? it's not very long so the blandness of the track will soon be forgotten.

The conclusion to the AA saga, "The Shattered Fortress" was initially a highlight for me but on repeated listens I seem to enjoy it less. The recycling of themes from "The Glass Prison", "This Dying Soul", "The Root of All Evil" and "Repentance" was kind of interesting at first but then seemed like a lazy way to wrap things up. It simply doesn't feel cohesive at times, as if smaller chunks of music have just been stitched together to make it. So there are time changes, mood changes and some more Segal wankery...it's the epitome of DT these days really.

Additionally, with regards to "TSF", the ending had a very sinister vibe about it, almost as if there's a suggestion that overcoming addiction is never something that happens completely. My interpretation of this is that perhaps temptation (or a Dark Master) is potentially lurking around every corner. Kind of interesting I guess.

It's really touching that Mike wanted to pay tribute to his father who sadly passed away earlier this year after battling cancer. As such, I really had high hopes for the track "The Best of Times" but it also possesses some more awful lyrics that are also quite unlistenable. I respect the message behind the words, but the presentation is just...terrible. It sounds amateurish, basically. Consider the following sample, "My heart is bleeding bad...but I'll be okay...your spirit guides my life each day". Petrucci's soloing on this track is actually pretty impressive though, despite being of the widdly diddly variety. It manages to not stray too far from the recurring melody of the song and shows that he can indeed play fast but with heart.

"The Count of Tuscany" is a track that has received a fair bit of attention online, with some claiming it as the best thing the band has ever written. It starts off promisingly enough and for the first three minutes, this is exactly the kind of Dream Theater sound that I love. Petrucci sounds brilliant, Mike is Mike, John Myung is...somewhere in there, and Rudess is playing with a typically frenetic but tasteful pace...but then it escalates into another of those annoying Segal moments and the vibe is killed off for me. When James joins the fray and begins to "tell" us the story, it goes downhill very quickly. "Seven years ago, in a foreign town, far away from home, I met the Count of Tuscany. A young eccentric man, bred from royal blood, took me for a ride, across the open country side..."

Just reading through those "lyrics", it's hard not to smirk. This is monumentally awful lyric writing, but sadly, it actually gets worse! I can't help but wonder what the guys were thinking when making this album because these lyrics are really so incredibly poor. And I don't even want to sing along because it sounds so stupid to sing "I...want to stay alive...everything about this place just doesn't feel right...I....I don't want to die, suddenly I'm frightened for my life". I understand that this is based on a real experience that Petrucci had, but whatever serious mood they hoped to convey is lost in a torrent of laughter over the lyrics.

The track changes pace again at around the 11 minute mark and this is one of the highlights of the album for me. This section has emotion oozing all through it, showing me the aforementioned flashes of brilliance. Petrucci does some really nice ambient guitar work, reminiscent of "To Live Forever" (the Live in Tokyo version) while Rudess provides a subtle layer behind it. Acoustic guitar then accompanies James' final reflections - "Could this be the end? Is this the way I die? Sitting here alone. No one by my side." Rudess then adds a wonderful recurring melody, which sounds very unfamiliar (from his bag of tricks anyway) and it's a welcome sound to my ears. For some reason, I have thoughts of Porcupine Tree when listening to this section, probably because of the melancholy feel to the keyboard sound. Mike then rejoins the track as it starts to build up to the finale, and we go back to electric guitar again. Petrucci solos in a very tasteful manner, Mike provides some typically enthusiastic and energetic fills, and James throws in some "woah-ohs" to take it all out. Before you know it, the track has ended and it actually seems kind of abrupt. There's no grand finale, it's just a finale. It almost feels like a letdown!

For me, this is an album with a few highlights, but ultimately, too many lowlights. As I kept reiterating throughout the review, the lyrics are often stupefyingly awful. Even in that final Porcupine Tree-esque moment in TCoT, the lyrics aren't too impressive. Overall, I can't help but wonder what could've been as there are some really nice musical moments on this album.

Some final comments: In recent promotional interviews, Mike Portnoy has spoken of this album with a kind of nonchalance and robotic predictability (in terms of his answers), that seems to resemble a lack of real passion towards it all. In fact, in one interview he even said that it's just another album for them. It doesn't really fill me with any excitement if the creator or co-creator isn't that buzzed about their work.

Based on Mike's attitude, it's as if the band has moved from "Chaos in Motion" to simply "Going Through the Motions". Maybe that's what the upcoming tour should be called... They have a process (or formula) which they stick to without deviation and it seems to work for them. And somehow, they seem to be getting more and more popular with each album and tour, despite their gradually declining lyrical quality and increased musical wankery. Hey, if that's what the kiddies want to listen to and it provides Mike et al with a comfortable standard of living, then good for them. Maybe that's why they're happy to pose with a dark, "metal" image nowadays because it makes them look hip and cool. Personally, I think they look ridiculous.

I'd love for this band to again try and write songs that have depth, meaning, insightful lyrics and a balanced musical score. After all, they've done this in the past very well ? Awake, FII, SDOIT. And there are ways to show your chops without resorting to these ridiculously long shred-fests which have become so commonplace on DT albums of late (the last 3 at least).

Maybe it's time for me to move on though because I've clearly become rather bored with a lot of this band's music. Wishing for a band to alter their course is completely pointless too, especially when that band still seems hell-bent on achieving mainstream acceptance. As such, they'll more than likely continue in future to churn out the same kinds of records, which are mostly free of heart, soul and true feeling. Unfortunately, it appears that this is exactly what people want to hear.

So although I had high hopes for this record, I can only rate it 2 stars. Revised to 2 stars from 3 after more thinking and reflecting.

captainragamuffin | 2/5 |

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