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== Background Information ==
Dream Theater, in short (do check previous reviews of mine to learn more!), are a progressive rock/metal band from Long Island, New York, who have been together for some 25 years. Black Clouds and Silver Linings is their 10th studio album, and their latest release.
After 2005's Octavarium, Dream Theater signed up with Roadrunner Records, and this began a new chapter. Roadrunner Records are known for producing metal and heavy metal music - the likes of Trivium and Avenged Sevenfold. Subsquently, their music veered in a new direction for 2007's Systematic Chaos, which, although not quite as heavy as 2003's Train of Thought, was heavy in it's own respect, but was rich in areas too. For Black Clouds and Silver Linings, Dream Theater took a very similar approach...
== About the album ==
Black Clouds and Silver Linings is exactly what it says on the tin. It was an interesting title but a relevant one. Five of the six songs on the album are based on true events - the band members' experiences. For example, Track 6, The Count of Tuscany, tells of guitarist John Petrucci's trip to Tuscany in Italy many years ago, where he came across a bloke who told him that he was the Count, and took him some church, and Petrucci thought he was going to die.
The line up on the album is as follows: John Myung (bass guitar), James Labrie (vocals), John Petrucci (guitar, backing vocals), Mike Portnoy (drums, percussion and backing vocals) and Jordan Rudess (keyboards, continuum).
== The Songs ==
The track list is as follows:
1. A Nightmare to Remember
2. A Rite of Passage
4. The Shattered Fortress
5. The Best of Times
6. The Count of Tuscany
1. A Nightmare to Remember (16.11)
This song is based on an accident that occurred early in one of the band member's lives (not sure which!), and is gritty and ballsy. It opens with the sound of thunder, which I feel was very ineffective and cheesy, but then the piano enters, which hints strongly at Linkin Park influences, before the rest of the band enter.
The song features some cool vocals and some great guitar riff. The two verses and chorus are very heavy and establish an aggressive feel for the album, with some fantastic musical touches, such as vocal harmonies. However, after the second chorus, the song enters a new section, that is far more atmospheric and chilled out. This features a new set of verses and choruses, and the choruses in particular are fantastic - epic and beautiful, typical of Dream Theater. Petrucci particularly shines in this section.
The heaviness returns for an instrumental break after this, where Petrucci and Rudess exchange solo parts, before returning to a very heavy bridging section, which at the end of, Portnoy growls. Growling is one thing I hate in modern music, so I was disappointed with this. Portnoy's vocals in general at this point are quite misplaced and not great, to be honest. The song progresses into quite a 'proggy' section, before returning to heaviness, preparing for the return to the original chorus, followed by an outro.
Apart from the odd groan, I do really like this song. It is cool, rich and musically interesting.
2. A Rite of Passage (8.36)
This was the first song to be released off the album (and was cut down, to allow it to be considered 'radio friendly'), and is the only song not to discuss an event experienced by a band member. This song is based on freemasonry and the rituals involved (the 'rite of passage' being the initiation ritual, I suppose!).
The song opens with a strange bass riff, and soon the rest of the band enter. The synth sound provides the song with quite an Indian feel, but the very low guitars and the punchy drums maintain the heavy feel created in the first song. Labrie's vocals are nothing to shout about, and neither is the music itself to be honest, but the song in general is quite good. The chorus, as always, is dramatically more...dramatic! With underlying bass and guitar parts, the vocal harmonies take centre stage and sound fantastic.
The song takes a verse-chorus form, and features two of each before entering an instrumental break reminiscent of Anthrax (sounds like Madhouse!). There is a guitar solo which is technically very good, but is far from Petrucci's best in terms of how it sounds. After this guitar solo comes a solo provided by the most interesting instrument used in the whole album, or in Dream Theater's history - an iPhone! It sounds very strange, but works, oddly enough. The song returns abruptly to a final chorus followed by an outro, which sounds very similar to the intro.
A Rite of Passage is not the best song on album, as it doesn't really show what Dream Theater are about, as it is more 'single material', but is pretty cool nonetheless.
3. Wither (5.26)
Wither was written entirely by John Petrucci (most songs are composed by Dream Theater in general, so this is an interesting addition), and discusses writer's block. The lyrics and music are way over the top for a song about writer's block, but if you ignore the content, this is a beautiful song. It was the second song on the album to be released, and the EP also featured a piano version, and a version sung by Mr.Petrucci himself.
The song enters with a solo guitar riff, and after a short intro, the drums, bass and vocals enter too, with the lyrics 'Let it out, let it out'. Keyboards provide an eerie background effect, and after two phrases, the song enters a dramatic bridge with sustained distorted guitar chords, that prepares the listener for the chorus...
'So I wither, and render myself helpless' is sung with harmonising vocals over a sustained accompaniment. The first chorus is three lines long, sounding unfinished, but it breaks down for a second verse, followed by a bridge and extended second chorus - this one consists of a regular four lines. Labrie sings 'Like reflections on a page, the world's what you create', as the music enters a short break that features choir synth over heavy backing, creating an epic, stormy feel, evoking feelings of frustration, desperation and power. Labrie enters with some equally desperate vocals, that feature a very noticeable climax. This breaks down to a short interlude features beautiful piano and some great vocal harmonies. After this interlude, Petrucci plays a far more impressive guitar solo to A Rite of Passage's. Although not technically challenging, it sounds fantastic, and compliments the song well.
We hear one final chorus, followed by an outro similar to the intro. I love this song. It is the 'ballad' of the album, but maintains the heavy feel. It's brilliant.
4. The Shattered Fortress (12.49)
The fourth song of the album is the final step in Mike Portnoy's 12-step suite, reflecting his journey to soberness, influenced by Bill W.'s Alcoholic's Anonymous programme, whom Portnoy dedicates his 12-step suite songs too. Heavy is back.
Within the song, we hear echoes and reprises of earlier songs in the 12-step suite as Portnoy and Dream Theater bring the suite to a close. The song opens with an Indian feel, very similar to A Rite of Passage. The song builds up over a long time period, before the song breaks into a guitar solo that harks back to the first song in the suite, The Glass Prison. The song is very heavy and eerie throughout, except for some more dramatic sections. For example, the song escalates into a variation of Systematic Chaos' mellow Repentance, the previous song in the suite. However, the heavy feel is still maintains, and returns to full power after this brief reprise.
There is also a variation of The Root of All Evil (see my review on Octavarium) after a break down and further variation on Repentance, and this is where mood and emotion pierces the heaviness. It sounds great, but it doesn't last long, as the Root of All Evil main riff takes over, bringing the music back to the heavy side again.
The final section, whilst being heavy, is epic nonetheless. It concludes the suite fantastically, and tells all listeners that Portnoy is 'responsible'. Reprises and variation of the four previous songs sound, including the haunting low piano note heard at the beginning of The Root of All Evil, and the song fades out.
5. The Best of Times (13.09)
This song is again related to Mike Portnoy, and deals with the death of his father. Although the song begins with a melancholy tone - meaningful piano, a melodic violin part and a Spanish-sounding guitar part from Petrucci - the music is brought to a close, and a Petrucci enters with a guitar riff that is extremely reminiscent of Rush's Spirit of Radio. This song is a celebration of Mr. Portnoy's life.
The main riff itself is very reminiscent of Foo Fighters' Times Like These, and Labrie enters soon after a few plays of the riff. The lyrics are meaningful, and I hate to say it, due to the context of the song, but they're not great. However, they mean something to Portnoy and he wrote very close to his heart. After a few verses and choruses, the song enters a more laid-back section, where the melancholy sound is returned to somewhat. However, drums and bass are in the mix now, and the bass line in particular is very interesting.
The song overall is quite cheesy, but meaningful, and after a few listens, I did begin to like it. The final singing section is epic, and the song is concluded by a 3-minute guitar solo. The use of a guitar solo to finish the penultimate song of the album has been put into action for the last two albums now, and it works. The song ends on an epic note, as the songs fades out, ready for the finale...
6. The Count of Tuscany (19.16)
This is my favourite song on the album, and the final one. It tells of Petrucci's trip to Tuscany when he was younger, where he met the 'count', who took him on a trip...
The song is by far the most atmospheric and evocative, with rich guitar sounds and enhancing synths. There is a prolonged instrumental introduction, before Labrie enters after around 4 minutes. This song really does show off all 5 member's musical skills, whilst sounding brilliant at the same time. The introduction travels through a long string of mini-movements, each sounding very different, so if you don't like one of them, you may like the next.
Now, the verse is in 9/4 time, which creates a sense of irregularity. But overall, the verse is very cool. It makes you want to scrunch your face up and nod. Well, it does me anyway...the only nag I have about this song is the lyrics. It's storytelling, so it's extremely cheesy, and really not great. The verse also visits quite a few different mini-movements.
The chorus is full of vocal harmonies, which again takes centre stage as the instruments provide a flowing accompaniment. It is not particularly epic, but sounds great. After another verse and chorus, the band enters a progressive bridge that enters a rather progressive instrumental break, which prepares one for the uneasy-sounding guitar solo - although it sounds great, I feel that is meant to reflect what is occurring in the story; Petrucci fears for his life. The solo breaks off at an imperfect cadence, and now comes one of the most atmospheric moments of Dream Theater's career, provided by Mr. Jordan Rudess. With a ambience underlying loop, Rudess plays a continuum solo similar to the one at the beginning of Octavarium, from the album of the same title. I feel that here, they are trying to create an effect of dreaminess, and perhaps the notion that Petrucci was in purgatory.
The solo fades out as a final section begins. This is very euphoric and chilled out. Petrucci provides a beautiful acoustic guitar chord sequence, as Labrie enters, providing quite restricted vocals, that have an effect on them that sound like he is in a very small room. Keyboard enter, drums enter, bass enter, and a feeling of conclusion is arriving. After a few more phrases, Labrie begins to sing an octave higher, whilst Petrucci provides sustained distorted guitar chords. This is the final moment of drama, and it sounds amazing. An instrumental outro follows the final lyrics: 'The Count of Tuscany', and Labrie then provides some 'wooah's, as the song approaches the end. A strange seagull synth sound ends the album, which I don't quite get, and I tend to just turn it off at this point. But I can look back at a fantastic song, and feel that it is one of Dream Theater's finest.
== Special Editions ==
Also worth mentioning is the different versions that Dream Theater released. Firstly is the normal edition, which featured only the above six tracks on one disc. The second version featured the six tracks on one disc, instrumental versions of the six tracks on another disc, and on the third disc, are six covers of existing songs. Now none of these covers are your run-of-the-mill songs, but there are some familiar bands in there. The track list is as follows:
1. Stargazer - originally by Rainbow
2. Medley of 'Tenement Funster', 'Flick of the Wrist' and 'Lily of the Valley' - originally by Queen, off their Sheer Heart Attack album
3. Odyssey - by Dixie Dregs
4. Take Your Fingers from My Hair - originally by Zebra
5. Larks' Tongue in Aspic, Pt.2 - originally by King Crimson (fantastic song!)
6. To Tame a Land - originally by Iron Maiden
An acquired taste, and I had never heard any of the above tracks before getting this album, but I think that they are all (bar track 6 - not quite sure why Dream Theater chose that one!) great songs. And having heard the original recordings now, Dream Theater have done them all justice (especially trying to imitate the incredible vocals of the late great Ronnie James Dio of Rainbow).
There was also a Deluxe Collector's Edition box set, which featured not only the above three discs, but also a Double LP, a DVD featuring all tracks in their isolated instruments (a great addition for all musicians and wannabe producers out there!), a lithograph (which is some sort of stone print) by cover artist Hugh Syme (who has worked with the likes of Rush), and a mouse pad. I only bought the second edition one, as the Deluxe Collector's Edition was near £100, but I imagine it was worth it!
== The Artwork ==
Just a quick word on the album cover, which you should be able to see at the top of this page. Despite Hugh Syme being in the CD cover business a long time, and worked with some great artists, I was really disappointed with this cover. He has tried to use symbols and arrange them in such a way, but I feel that it is only that, and not really art. It doesn't really set the tone much for the album. However, inside the booklet, there is more to offer. One worth noting is the image that sits beside the lyrics to 'Wither', featuring an elephant painting a wilted flower on an art easel. However, the scene in front of him is an open field with a stormy sky above it. Symbologists please?
== The Verdict ==
Overall, a very good album in my opinion. I don't feel that it is Dream Theater's best album, but I feel that they've got a good balance of progressive and metal. There are elements that bring this album down, and many will be disappointed because it sounds nothing like the 'old' Dream Theater, but times change, and Dream Theater have changed with the times. I really like this album, and I feel it is the cornerstone of the new-wave of Prog that is upon us.
Dream Theater are back with "Black Clouds and Silver Linings" with their 10th stoudio album (change of seasons is an ep) release.
Let's take a look at the elements of the songs and the overall feel of the album:
The lyrical themes of the songs are based on personal experiences.
"A nightmare to remember" (16:10 min.) is the first song of the album, which describes a bad experience of a young boy at the hospital, after having had an accident with his familly in their car.
I like the sci-fi keyboards at the start of the song and the fantastic riff-solo from Petrucci.
I didn't really find fitting the Death-like vocals from Portnoy.
"Wither" (5.25 min) is the ballad of the album and a song that could be easily played by radio stations.
"A rite of passage" (8:35 min.) talks about the free-masons world, and has this eastern-like sound and a memorable refrain. Of course the music is of high quality and you will travel between solo battles of guitar and keyboards, accompanied by the ecxellent drumming.
"The shattered fortress" (X. Restraint, XI. Receive, XII. Responsible) lasting 12:49 min. is the fourth song of the album (on the vinyl is the third). This is the last chapter of the "Alcoholic anonymous twelve step swite" in which Portnoy started writing the lyrics since previous albums. Here you will find elements and passages from the other songs of the concept. Problems of the alchoolism are described.
"The best of times" (13.07 min.) it is a sad song that turns more optimistic as it unfolds, and it is written for Mike's Portnoy father who died from cancer. Portnoy had another beautiful song from Images and Words album, "Another Day" which was written about the struggle with the illness of his father. Petrucci here is showing his love for the Rush band.
When I listened to the first notes of "Count of Tuscany" (19.16 min.) I said whooooa. I felt beautifull and memories filled my mind back from the 90's, where I discovered Dream Theater and their kingdom. This song has everything we loved from this great band and gives me hope, that they still have great albums to come. A dark epic song about an experience that happened to Petrucci while being in Italy. Somewhere in the middle of the song, there is a pause with a slow guitar and keyboards sounding in the background, which gives you time to think and aknowledge better the music played from this Great band.
The album is released in three editions. The first one is the regular, the second is a 3-cd limited edition package, which includes the album on the 1st cd, some cover songs on the 2nd cd and instrumental versions of the albums songs on the 3rd cd.
Lastly we have the Deluxe Collector's Edition Box Set, which includes the limited 3-cd package with the covers and the instrumentals, a dvd which includes stem mixes of the standard CD (try your hand at producer with isolated audio tracks of the entire album).
Original lithograph of the cover art, numbered (plus 100 lucky winners will find a litho signed by Hugh Syme), Limited edition audiophile 180-gram double-LP set with exclusive artwork from Hugh Syme. Dream Theater mouse mat. And some maybe will find a silver foil ticket (100 lucky fans win a M&G w/ band). I didn't :-(
As veterans of this kind of sound, who helped to expand and put it on the map, they have only themselves to try to surpass each time. Some believe that Theater have nothing new to offer, and they criticise, that this is already happening on the last couple of albums.
For me the truth lies somewhere in between.
So, what is it that makes "Black Clouds and Silver Linings neccesary for the fans? Each of us can give a different answer, which depends on the expectations we have from the band.
For example, some songs are reaching the length of 15 minutes, a thing that most probably is happening for the pleasure of the band but in reality, the listener could have just as easily enjoyed a more concise verison. On the other hand, this is the meaning of progressive music. Big chaotic and daedalus compositions requiring more than a few listens for comprehersion in order to discover the secret underlays...
Black Clouds and Silver Linings is a mix of older and newest elements from Dream Theater's music.
For those who haven't had the chance to have listened anything by Dream Theater, I recommend their three best albums for start: "Images and words", "Awake" and "Scenes from a memory (Metropolis pt. 2)".
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 A Nightmare to Remember
2 A Rite of Passage
4 The Shattered Fortress
5 The Best of Times
6 The Count of Tuscany