Dream Theater - Black clouds & silver linings 5/5

Reviewed: 6-26-09


1. A nightmare to remember
2. A rite of passage
3. Wither
4. The shattered fortress
5. The best of times
6. The count of Tuscany

Dream Theater either created the genre of progressive metal or is the flag-bearer of it, depending how much credit you want to give them. This is their 10th full-length CD and it finds them continuing a recent trend of hitting a peak more than 20 years into their existence as a band. The CD clocks in at well over an hour and, yet, contains a mere 6 tracks. The tracks don't feel like they have been extended for the sake of length, however; Dream Theater has perfected the art of putting pieces of tracks together and making the breaks and changes sound natural and not forced.

"A nightmare to remember" sounds like it's going to be the centerpiece of the CD when you first hear it. It's a 16-minute journey through all that makes Dream Theater great, instrumental pieces, slower and faster parts. For variety it also continues, from the last CD, Mike Portnoy doing a small amount of rougher vocals. It is a great track that would be the highlight of a career for most bands; however, while it is a high point for this CD it is not the centerpiece - that comes later. "A rite of passage" would be considered merely an above average track if not for the crazy keyboard solo in the middle but even without that it's a solid track. "Wither" is a standard fare Dream Theater ballad but it's a very good, powerful one. Slow but not lacking for power.

"The shattered fortress" is the final part to drummer Mike Portnoy's "AA Suite", his emotional journey through alcoholism rehab. The Suite has had one track on each of Dream Theater's last 5 CDs and the 5 tracks have had 12 subparts, representing the AA 12-step program. "The shattered fortress" is a fascinating combination of new ideas combined with pieces taken from the other 4 parts of the suite. The different parts are combined wonderfully into this track. "The best of times" is Portnoy's tribute to his Dad who died of cancer during the making of the CD. Like so many Dream Theater tracks, it goes through several phases, from the slow opening to a part that sounds like 80s era Rush. While excellent through this point, the track finishes stronger than is starts. It slows down while the lyrics thank Portnoy's Dad for some excellent memories and the track ends with John Petrucci playing a wonderful, emotional solo. When you know what these tracks are about it is impossible to not be touched by them. Are the lyrics cheesy at times? Perhaps to some. But they are real - real feelings and real emotions; believe it or not, a progressive band can have decipherable lyrics and still be cool. What hits me the most is that these tracks are both about Portnoy's life and, yet, the band, especially singer James LaBrie and Guitarist John Petrucci, sing and play as if it's their lives that went through these experiences. This is something that I think can only be achieved by a band that has been together as long as Dream Theater; all members except the keyboard player have now been together at least 20 years and it really shows. They are truly a band in the fullest sense of the word.

The finale is "The count of Tuscany", which lasts almost 20 minutes. It's reminiscent of "A nightmare to remember" in that in rolls through the whole gamet of Dream Theater styles all wrapped up nicely in one track. Some softer, melodic parts, a great instrumental in the middle and a good sounding "duet" between LaBrie and Portnoy's more aggressive vocals - this is only brief but it sounds excellent. This is another fine track on the CD, it ends on a little slower pace than it could but it's effective and brings the CD to a finished feel.

One of the problems with reviewing a Dream Theater CD is whether to compare it to the quality of other Dream Theater CDs or to that of other bands. In almost every case, a good Dream Theater track is still a great track when compared to normal quality music. I've heard the complaints about this CD already: Mike Portnoy should stop singing. John Petrucci is more interested in playing fast than fitting into the track. The tracks are too long and sound forced. To that, I say it's all garbage. Few would be happy if Portnoy did all the vocals but the small amount he does fit in very nicely here. Yes, Petrucci can, and does, play fast but he plays as melocially and emotionally as you'll ever head anyone play at times on this CD. And the length of all the tracks here feels very natural, they do not sound like they forced lengthy tracks to look cool and progressive when you look at the track length. My one complaint? There are some great base lines on this CD but John Myung's bass is always mixed too low on Dream Theater CDs for my liking; he's a great player, let us hear his playing more.

Overall, this is another excellent CD as you would expect from Dream Theater. Although 'Images and words' or 'Awake' may still be considered their best CD, I consider Dream Theater to really be peaking right now as they have hit a period of extreme consistency with CDs that have the same quality and feel to them, but at the same time are wholly unique when compared to their predecessors. 'Black clouds & silver linings" is a little more accessible than 'Systematic chaos', without the pop feel of 'Octavarium'. Between top musicianship and a variety of style and emotions, this CD is another top marker in this amazing band's career.




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