Twenty years and ten studio albums into their career, do Dream Theater still have the capacity to surprise us? No, not really.
Dream Theater seem to be out of new tricks, but at least they know how to play to their own strengths. Black Clouds and Silver Linings is their tenth full-length studio album, coming a full 20 years after their poorly distributed, little-noticed debut, When Dream and Day Unite. It was 1992's Images and Words that put them on the map, with its minor hit "Pull Me Under". Since that time the band have found a myriad of ways to combine their love of progressive rock and heavy metal with virtuoso playing. They continue to tinker with their established elements, putting them together a little differently each time out. But it's been a while (specifically, look back to 2003's dark, heavy Train of Thought) since the band have hit us with anything that sounded fresh.
Black Clouds and Silver Linings opens with "A Nightmare to Remember", a 16-minute track that seems to announce the band's intention to follow the album title pretty literally. The lyrics tell the story of a terrible car crash on a rainy night that causes serious injuries to a family, but spares all of their lives. Musically, the song is all apocalyptic heavy riffs on each end, framing a soft, melodic middle section as the narrator drifts in and out of sedation in the hospital. When the song goes back to being heavy, we can hear the influence of more modern metal acts on the band. Drummer Mike Portnoy takes over the vocals from lead singer James LaBrie and does a sort of semi-growl/shout that approximates the cookie-monster vocals that many death metal acts employ, without going overboard.
"Nightmare" is pretty much par for the course for this album. It's a strong track, but it isn't among the very best Dream Theater have ever written. The first single, "A Rite of Passage", is pretty forgettable, while the power ballad "Wither" is good, with some especially nice keyboard/piano work from Jordan Rudess. But again, it's not at the top of the list of Dream Theater ballads. "The Shattered Fortress" closes out Mike Portnoy's 12-step program suite, written about his battle with alcoholism. The suite has been in progress for five albums now, and this song comprises movements ten, 11, and 12 of the piece. But there is very little new material among the nearly 13 minutes minutes of music here, making it all seem like a staid rehash. This piece will be very impressive when the band put it all together live, and "The Shattered Fortress" could well be an excellent grand finale, but here, on its own, it seems tiresome.
Things pick up late in the album with "The Best of Times", a heartfelt, upbeat tribute to Portnoy's father, who passed away after a battle with cancer in early 2009. This song mines the major-key prog-rock area that Dream Theater often neglect in favor of being heavy. It's great to hear the band using Rush as a touchstone for a change, and it also brings to mind the bright sounds of the DT side project Liquid Tension Experiment.
The album closes with another epic, "The Count of Tuscany". Musically, this is a pretty interesting song that throws in a little of everything the band does. It's slow, it's fast, it's heavy, it's light, and there are epic guitar and keyboard solos and duets. Jordan Rudess indulges his penchant for using downright wacky synth sounds and the group pulls it off because the rest of them play it straight while he's goofing around. Lyrically, though, this may be the cheesiest story guitarist John Petrucci has ever written for a song, and he's done some pretty laughable ones. It tells the story of an American in Europe who meets "the Count of Tuscany" and is easily persuaded to go for a ride with him. The ride inevitably ends up at a creepy old castle with the count's even creepier older brother. The narrator fears for his life with all the frightening things he sees, and then there's about ten minutes of music. Finally, in the last few minutes of the song, our hero discovers that the Count and his brother were never going to kill him, no! They're just oddballs and he should "Go and tell the world my story". As if the count is somehow trapped in the castle, despite meeting our hero in a city and driving him out there.
Black Clouds and Silver Linings is a good album. It's not great, but it's their best in a while. This is their second album for Roadrunner Records, who know not only how to promote the band but also how to separate Dream Theater's hardcore fan base from their money. The band themselves have been doing this for years, with expensive VIP packages available at nearly every show, and $40 T-shirts. But now they have a record label that's equally on board with this idea. Hence the presence of the three-disc special edition, which includes a disc of cover songs and another disc of instrumental mixes of the main album. I guess the latter is for all those Dream Theater fans who hate James LaBrie but are still into the band enough to buy the special edition? Doesn't seem like that would be very many people. Regardless, neither of the bonus discs add or subtract anything from the album proper, so unless you are way into listening to Dream Theater cover songs from Queen, King Crimson, and Iron Maiden, it's eminently skippable.