Thursday, July 01, 2010

Dream Theater - Black Clouds & Silver Linings (2009)

Dream Theater doesn’t ever really do anything “small.” They are the quintessential band of musician’s musicians. Even those who aren’t necessarily fans tend to respect them for their musicianship.

Black Clouds & Silver Linings is no exception to that rule. The album is essentially a return to form that takes all of the things the band did right on 2007’s Systematic Chaos and builds on them making for a truly exceptional album.

They also delivered in spades by releasing the album in 2 different formats—a single CD standard version with a very attractive sub $10 price tag (depending on where you purchase it) for those minding their budgets in these economically difficult times and a more auspicious 3 CD Deluxe edition which features not only the full album on Disc 1, but also a CD of Dream Theater covering some of their favorite material by the likes of Rainbow (Stargazer), Queen (a medley of Tenement Funster/Flick of the Wrist/Lily of the Valley), The Dixie Dregs (Odyssey), Zebra (Take Your Fingers From My Hair), King Crimson (Larks Tongue in Aspic Pt. 2), and Iron Maiden (To Tame a Land), and a third disc featuring an instrumental version of the album. The instrumental version of the album truly gives the listeners a chance to hear things they might have missed, those delightful moments that sometimes get hidden underneath the operatically trained vocals of James LaBrie.

Whether you choose to get the standard or the deluxe edition, you’re in for a treat. This is arguably the band’s best and easily their heaviest album since 2003’s Train of Thought.

With A Nightmare to Remember the album starts with a crack of thunder followed by a soft but ominous keyboard intro in minor chords by Jordan Rudess before Petrucci and Portnoy join in on guitar and drums respectively. Portnoy’s drumming is frenetic yet precise like a runaway train with Casey Jones as the engineer—no brakes but still fully in control. Thanks largely to Rudess’s keyboard work, the song sounds and feels like a classic horror movie. It tells the story of a car accident and how it changes the lives of those who survived it and the general loss of innocence experienced following the accident.

A Rite of Passage is one of the most accessible and radio friendly songs on the album. Anchored by a killer guitar riff by John Petrucci the song is about secret societies and organizations (in particular the Masons). The vocal harmonies are some of the strongest on the album (perhaps surpassed only by the harmonies on the Queen covers on Disc 2 of the Deluxe edition) and the guitar riff has hints of both Led Zeppelin and Metallica but when Petrucci’s guitar solo starts at about 5:18 into the song it’s purely Dream Theater. The solo is trademark Petrucci at his absolute finest.

Wither is also quite accessible but not quite as catchy as A Rite of Passage. It’s also easily the slowest yet shortest song on the album, giving the listener a brief (five minutes, 25 seconds) respite before the band kicks it back into high gear.

The Shattered Fortress is the final piece of Michael Portnoy’s 12 Step Suite that he began on 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence with The Glass Prison and has continued with a new piece on every studio album since then. It’s a brilliant finale to his seven plus years in the making musical epic. With thematic elements of the other pieces in the suite, the band has brought the 12 Step Suite full circle and given it an exclamation mark of an ending.

Sadly, Mike Portnoy’s father died in the time between this and Dream Theater’s last album (Systematic Chaos) prompting Portnoy to write The Best of Times, a moving tribute of his love for his father. His bandmate, John Petrucci did the same on 1997’s Falling into Infinity with Take Away My Pain. As different as the two songs are, they are both rather moving expressions of grief suffered at the loss of a parent. The song starts with a subtle and beautiful piano solo by Jordan Rudess that segues into a moving guitar/piano duet with John Petrucci before Petrucci’s acoustic guitar is replaced by an electric one at about two minutes and forty seven seconds into the song. Unlike Take Away My Pain which was a moving plea from a grieving son, The Best of Times, is more a celebration of a life. Portnoy’s lyrics reflect on the happy times he spent with his father and the positive influence his father had on his life.

On the Count of Tuscany, the guitar work by Petrucci is exceptional as always. The sense of harmony in his work on this song is brilliant. He and Jordan Rudess play guitar and keyboard (respectively) so tightly that the two instruments nearly sound as one. At over nineteen minutes long The Count of Tuscany makes for a long and quite musically adventurous closing to the album. The vocals don’t even begin until almost four and a half minutes into the song (@ 4:21). The song also marks a continuation of John Petrucci’s penchant of telling fictional stories in his lyrics. Some fans enjoy this lyrical approach, but personally it’s the music far more than the lyrics that grab this listener.

From start to finish Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a technically proficient, hard and driving heavy metal onslaught of an epic album. It is best enjoyed start to finish in one sitting, if you can manage the time to do so. Given the skill and talent of the band, there is so much depth in this music that it’s quite easy to listen to this album several times and never hear it in quite the same way twice.

Related Links
Dream Theater (official site)
Dream Theater (wikipedia)
Mike Portnoy (official site)
Mike Portnoy (wikipedia)
John Petrucci (official site)
John Petrucci (wikipedia)
John Myung (wikipedia)
James LaBrie (official site)
James LaBrie (wikipedia)
Jordan Rudess (official site)
Jordan Rudess (wikipedia)

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