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

BLACK CLOUDS & SILVER LININGS

Dream Theater

 

Progressive Metal

3.44 | 1209 ratings

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TheMasterMofo
5 stars Many people have wrongfully written this album off. Look at the last ten or fifteen negative reviews of this album, then look at the negative reviewers' review history. Most of them have made less than five reviews total. Hmm, odd that they should choose newer Dream Theater albums to review out of everything else that they've probably listened to.

A look at a lot of the other negative reviewers will show you that they've rated pretty much every DT album from Train of Thought on as three stars or less. OK, clearly they either are spiting DT's change into heavier metal, reminisce about the "good ole days" of I&A and Awake and can't expand themselves to like anything beyond those albums, or maybe they just don't like heavy metal at all. In that final case; why listen to it then?

There are legitimate negative reviews of this album, but I feel that a lot of them are unwarranted or disingenuous. I'd also like to caution people against phrases such as "Back to their roots", "DT back in form", "Heading back to their I&A and Awake days", etc. The truth is that this album is NOT a back-to-their-roots album. It's way heavier than anything of old, the song structures are nothing like their early albums, and the music itself is not written in the same vein as their earlier stuff. If you listen to this album expecting "Awake", you WILL be disappointed because this album is nothing like "Awake". Instead, try listening to the album for what it is, because that will allow you to actually really enjoy it.

As for me? Black Clouds is one of my favorite Dream Theater albums. I gave it 5/5 stars because I think it's simply an outstanding album. Sure, it's extremely heavy and in your face. Sure, there are some growls, yells, and even a blastbeat. Sure, a few of the lyrics are pretty lame. Despite these shortcomings, this album blew me away from day one, and now, three years later, I'm still impressed by it. Just about every song is an epic, a very difficult feat to properly accomplish, and besides the forced and recycled "The Shattered Fortress", not a single song fails to deliver. But enough of the bloviating. Lets look at the individual songs to discover why it's such an essential album:

1. A Nightmare to Remember - 5/5. This song is just downright nasty. It begins with a very chilling, haunting piano version of one of the main riffs, thunder in the background. The guitars then grumble in, much like the thunder, angry and ominous. The keyboard synths behind the guitar are fitting and add greatly to the haunting atmosphere of the song.

About 1:40 into the song, the drums stop and a killer riff begins. BOOM! Then the drums kick in and you can't but headbang, even if you don't usually do it. Listen to the cymbal fills at 2:09 - 2:20. They're freaking awesome. That's how good this song is; even some tiny thing in the background for eleven seconds has the power to stand out.

The vocals are of the "Tough Labrie" variety, but unlike most of the times he's done this, he pulls them off pretty well here. There are plenty of crazy guitar leads to fill in the spaces. The section after the first verse "Life was so simple then..." is a nice slower break from the heavy metal riffage. The section after this, leading into the chorus, is really cool-sounding. The vocal lines are sort of broken up and the guitar mimics Labrie in the background (And Portnoy yells in the background, too). As the chorus begins, "Stuuunned and bewildered" you get this feeling of some epic disaster taking place, which is fitting, as this is a story about a wreck John Petrucci experienced as a kid.

The first chorus trails off into the second section, which is a very beautiful, chilled out soft section. The guitars are really mellow, the drums groove with perfection, and Labrie tells the story of Petrucci waking up to a strange man. The phrase "bathing in beautiful agony" stands out as a moment of lyrical creativity. By itself, it sounds a little emo, but the way it comes out in the song is actually quite thought-provoking. This leads into the chorus, which captures some solid emotion and carries the momentum into the second verse of the second section, which is the same as the first but with more aggressive guitar work (Still subdued, though).

After the second second chorus (stutter problem!) That nasty 5/4 heavy headbanging riff comes back in as John Petrucci shreds your face off. Rudess then has some keyboard synth fun. I'm not a huge fan of his solo here. Wait, here's Petrucci again and he's bending some notes with attitude before unleashing a flurry of notes again. If you like shredding, this song is orgasmic. Rudess follows this with another synth solo, this one sounding like he's on the continuum, leading into that opening melody again before Rudess and Petrucci do some harmonized melodic shredding. The drums vary with all of this and maintain your interest well. Then the drums have a strong driving feel to them as Portnoy yells "Day after day...". This is one of the eyebrow-raising moments in the song. It isn't actually poorly done at first, but then Portnoy kind of goes "Huuaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhghghghghghghghghghghhghgg........." and it ruins the moment.

Anyway, we're 12 minutes in, so why not another instrumental break? This instrumental is pretty playful and I like it a lot. Then the guitars just chug out a slowed down riff from earlier and it makes you want to act like one of those lame metalcore kids at local metal shows before you realize that you'd then also be lame, so you refrain.

From here, the song hits one more chorus, goes back into the opening riff, has a blastbeat, and ends. Yup. Wait, did I just say blastbeat? Yes, I did! Don't worry about it, seriously. So many people made such a huge deal about this blastbeat when the album first came out and I find that to be absolutely ridiculous. It's a whopping 14 seconds in an album that's nearly 80 minutes long (The main disc, anyway). Get over it.

Oh, by the way, if you're looking at the length of this review already, that covers the first song. Yeeaahh... Don't let it scare you; the main reason it's so long as because there are just so many things going on in this song.

2. A Right of Passage - 3/5. This is a mediocre song. Basically, think back to Systematic Chaos' "Constant Motion" and you've got "A Right of Passage". The songs don't actually sound the same, but the structure and purpose (radio single) for both songs are identical. The intro is an eastern-sounding riff. It's nice, but nothing spectacular. The verse itself is not that inspiring as it's chugging mostly on one chord as Labrie yells at you. The refrain that leads into the chorus is nice and the chorus itself is really nice. The vocals are catchy and Petrucci does some really tasteful stuff in the background. Anyway, the second verse features Petrucci playing some pretty fast licks beneath Labrie. If they'd used this for the first verse as well, it'd have been really nice. This builds perfectly into the refrain and the second chorus.

The intro riff is repeated with a pinch harmonic or two before going into the instrumental riff. This part immediately makes me think about "Constant Motion". Then Petrucci starts shredding. Really fast. Insanely fast. He keeps going. Then he goes into this really cool-sounding broken shredding where he flurries, pauses, spazzes, stops, continues, etc. Of course Jordan Rudess can't be left out, so he adds in some keyboard shredding that sounds similar to Petrucci's solo.

The song ends on one last chorus.

3. Wither - 5/5. This is a song about writer's block and it's the staple ballad of the album. The structure and chord progression are fairly simple, but they fit the song pretty well (And in a way are ironic as it's a song about having a hard time writing and the verse chord progression is fairly common and thus not creative in a way). The song is really laid back and is easy to tap your feet to as you sing along.

After two verses and chorus Rudess stakes over with a beautiful soft synth lead that is very tasteful, slow, and brooding. The key to this song is that everything fits and nothing is done in poor taste. The song builds up from here before everything cuts out and Labrie sings over nothing but acoustic piano. It's really a lovely interlude. Beautiful.

Then John Petrucci plays a solo unlike anything he's really done before. Honestly it sounds like something almost straight out of Brian May's (Queen) playbook, but it fits the song so wonderfully that it makes sense. There's nothing elaborate to this song, but that's what makes it so enjoyable.

4. The Shattered Fortress - 2/5. I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of the AA Suite (If you're not familiar with DT and don't know what this is, basically it's a series of songs over many albums that deal with the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous. Each song is written by Mike Portnoy and is meant to inspire people to defeat alcoholism. It's a noble goal, but the latest songs have seemed forced). If you want to know what this song sounds like without ever actually hearing it, listen to the AA Suite: The Mirror off of "Awake" (This is more of a prelude to the actual AA Suite), The Glass Prison off of "Six Degrees", This Dying Soul off of "Train of Thought", The Root of All Evil off of "Octavarium", and Repentance off of "Systematic Chaos".

Did you listen to those songs? OK, good! Now you've heard The Shattered Fortress. I'm not knocking the idea... It makes sense that the final song should incorporate riffs from all of the other AA songs. The problem is that several of the later AA songs, namely The Root of All Evil and Repentance already incorporate riffs from previous AA songs, too, so you wind up with a 14 minute deja vu sessions. At 1:40 you get the intro solo from This Dying Soul which flows into a riff from The Glass Prison, and... Eh, you get the point.

Now, some ignorant people will claim that DT is "stealing" or "rehashing" riffs and lyrics and that this makes them lazy. No, it doesn't make them lazy at all. They're doing it on purpose! The problem is that I'm not really big fan of it. I haven't really talked about the song itself... That's because it's mostly other songs. Granted, there are a few original riffs in here and they are good, but for the most part, this is a thematic song that wraps up the AA Suite. It doesn't really fit with the rest of the album, but the AA Suite had to be finished somehow...

5. The Best of Times - 5/5 This song begins with beautiful, slow, piano that meanders around a melody and makes you reflect gently to yourself about something painful that's happened in your life. Then there's a short violin solo covering one of the main melodies from later on in the song... Artistically and perfectly done. John Petrucci then enters with some acoustic guitar picking that fits the solemn mood of the song. It's nice to see Petrucci so restrained and brooding every now and then. He shreds so much that people tend to overlook or forget that he can play with great particularness (if that's a word), too.

Nearly three minutes in, the band goes into a very Rush-sounding riff. It's upbeat and uplifting: a stark contrast to the sorrowful intro. Petrucci plays a really wonderful lead line over this, adding to the tastiness of the song. This song feels like it'd fit well with About to Crash Reprise off of "Six Degrees".

The first verse more or less begins to tell the story of Mike Portnoy and his father having a great time growing up together. There's a melodic instrumental break before the second verse, followed by the "I'll always remember... Those were the best of times!" line. Then the music changes suddenly as Portnoy laments that "Then came the call... Our lives changed forever". This leads into a synth version of the main melody again. Somehow this part seems to capture sadness and happiness at the same time. Sadness from Portnoy losing his father, but the happiness of remembering the good times they had.

Then everything gets softer (Something you do NOT want a lady to say about you) with acoustic guitar and piano, tasteful bass and soft drums as Labrie sings. This eventually leads into what I'd call the first main chorus, which turns out to be a great tribute to Portnoy's father. I think that this song really can connect with guys who have had good fathers. I know that's becoming rarer these days, but with me writing this review at 4AM the morning of Father's Day, I would like to comment that this makes me think to all of the crazy heavy metal concerts that my dad took me to when I was younger, not because he, a Southern Baptist music minister, liked heavy metal, but because he knew that I did. My dad and I can both be seen on the second disc of the Score DVD in the very final scene of the DVD, showing fans in the lobby of Radio City Music Hall... That show was one of the highlights of my life and my dad was there with me. Thanks dad!

Any song that can make you reflect fondly upon your own life has certainly fulfilled its purpose. The solo played by John Petrucci after this is very refined and beautiful. It's certainly my favorite solo on the album. It lasts until the end of the song.

6. The Count of Tuscany - 5/5. This song starts with clean guitar arpeggios before Petrucci plays a slow, melodic guitar lead that sets the tone for what is to be a really spectacular song. The lead goes away fairly quickly and the acoustic guitars begin to build up momentum before the drums and bass jump in and Petrucci's electric guitar starts to play some nice fills that will remind you of classic prog. Then Petrucci begins to riff, but it's melodic riffing that's broken up by some nice harmonized solos. Nothing is overdone here and neither part carries on for too long. Eventually things get really frantic tic tic tic tic tic toc (Bad Metallica allusion there) and some crazy riffage leads into the first verse, which tells a "chilling tale" of a guy driving down the road one day before he runs into a really crazy dude.

Musically, everything is really tight and entertaining. Lyrically, maybe not so much. The "Get into my car! Lets go for a drive!" line is something that I had a ton of fun with... When this CD came out and for the next, oh, year or so, every time I picked my girlfriend up to go somewhere I would pause the song right before this line, pull up to her house, roll down the window, and when she came to my car I'd hit play. Thankfully she put up with my Dream Theater obsession and thought it was actually pretty funny at first, but eventually it just started to irritate her. I guess it worked out kind of like a Jordan Rudess keyboard solo. ZING! Anyway, worthless anecdotes aside, the lyrics are kind of weak in places, but the story itself is actually pretty cool. Still, lines like "All the finest wines improve with age" are not what you want to stand out lyrically.

The song maintains a tense atmosphere throughout the following verses as the man enters the Count's home and begins to get really scared as the Count tells him of an ancient tale of many soldiers disappearing as they entered this very place. That's not exactly what you want to hear a stranger tell you in a deep, dark place... The chorus' lyrics, on this other hand, I find to actually be very good. They're pretty honest... "I don't want to die..." "This may be the last time you see me alive..." and sound like something someone might actually think to themselves in a situation in which they think they might be killed.

Anyway, we're 9 minutes into the song and have been singing for a while, so we're overdue for an instrumental section. This section starts off pretty melodic and slow, but it picks up the pace as Petrucci and John Myung play a very VERY nice dual solo. John Myung definitely doesn't get much credit, but he deserves a shoutout here because his bassline rocks. Rudess jumps in and we get a three part solo that fits very well together. Petrucci then plays a "haunt mode" lead line that leads into.... Serenity.

For the next three minutes we get droning layered keyboards, extremely soft and peaceful. Petrucci plays cautiously over these with tentative guitar leads that eventually pick up the pace slightly but never lose that almost shy edge before leading into an acoustic guitar strumming chords. These four chords are a common progression, but they serve so well in telling a tale.

Labrie asks, "Could this be the end? Is this the way I die?", reminding you after six minutes of instruments that the main character is in a pretty deep bind here, afraid that he's about to die. What I find to be really impressive here is how Dream Theater has captured the emotion and progression of someone in this situation so well. At first the music is very tense, alarmed, and frantic as the guy, in a panic, wonders if he's about to die. Eventually, though, it's as if he's finally accepted his situation as his panic rolls away and he asks himself again if he's going to die. Not in a panic like before, but genuinely and honestly wondering if these are the last breaths that he'll take. This is also shown as he looks around the place and takes in exactly how everything is as it might be the last thing he sees.

Finally, the guy builds up the courage to ask the Count if he'll consider giving him a chance, if there's anything he can do not to die... He just went for a ride, wanting adventure, and now he thinks he's going to die... And the Count says...:

"Wait a minute, man, that's not how it is, dude. You're confused!" I took some liberty with the quote there, but as corny as this response is, I actually like it a lot... It would be like in a horror movie if the main "Killer" was stalking a group of teenagers around, scaring them out of their minds, and when he finally corners them and they're begging him not to kill them, if he was just like, "Oh wow, no, y'all have it all wrong. I just wanted to ask y'all if you were interested in coming to hear my band's show this weekend down at the amphitheater".

It's slightly corny, but it's really a nice song. It ends with some guitar leads and a crowd-pleasing "Whoooaaa ooohhh ohhhh ooohhhh" section.

All in all, this album is a very good one. There are some parts, like Right of Passage and The Shattered Fortress, that don't belong, but the rest of the album is so great that it pulls them up to what I would probably call a 4.75 rating rather than a 5. Obviously it makes more sense to round up than down in this case, which is why I've given this album five stars. Don't listen to this expecting early 90's Dream Theater, and don't listen to it trying to equate it to Systematic Chaos (It does have some similarities, but it is a million times more well-done). Instead, listen to it with an open mind. You'll be glad that you did.

TheMasterMofo | 5/5 |

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