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Album Reviews : Dream Theater – Black Clouds & Silver Linings

By on August 22, 2009

dream_theater_-_black_clouds__silver_liningsA canvas of black clouds and silver moons; an elephant standing atop a stack of tomes holding a paint brush in his trunk, as a little white mouse silently watches on; a shattered bottle lies on the ground; in the corner you can see a black crow swooping down precariously, hidden within the shadows of the black canvas; and a little boy stares out through an open door into a vision of endless blue skies and white clouds with strange curiosity.

The cover art of the new Dream Theater album graces us with a surreally dark piece of art, almost bizarre in the way the various objects are set up. It is a strange blend of humble darkness and astute wonderment.

I choose to start my review with a description of the cover art because in today’s world of digitised music, the trivial aspects of the album cover are easily overlooked or forgotten. The cover art, however, is an indication of the care put into this album; to not only create a brilliant piece of music, but a work of art.

Black Clouds is, rather than an album of songs, a collection of small anecdotes that share personal pieces of the writers’ lives.

With 4 songs over the ten-minute mark, each creation joins together the influential elements of their predecessors with the modernising changes of today’s metal scene. A natural progression from Systematic Chaos, the chugging riffs and harsh vocal additions from Portnoy on “A Nightmare To Remember” and “The Shattered Fortress” showcase the desire from the band for continuity and evolution with modern standards.

Clearly a product of the most despised metal record label on the planet (Roadrunner Records), hardline elitist metalheads will be largely displeased with the artificial sound in some parts of the album, particularly the aforementioned Portnoy vocal additions. No arguments there, as the voice sounds fairly out of place on the first two tracks of the album and tarnishes what is an otherwise genuine and heartfelt attempt at writing beautiful, complex music.

Criticism aside, the new label does leave room for the band to experiment with their own traditional style and there are plenty of musical callisthenics and touching moments on the album to please the majority of their fan base. “Wither” provides a short, relaxing interlude for the album, with some inspiring vocals from James LaBrie, who is in full splendour on the song, giving a sincere performance to a piece of music that manages to capture some truly beautiful moments.

Portnoy’s private mental battles are made public in “The Shattered Fortress”, a song about the final phase of his battle with alcohol abuse, and “The Best Of Times”, an ode to his much beloved father. The former is a very dark, energetic piece of music that carefully puts the listener through a set of feelings and emotions ranging from anger to melancholy acceptance, the only song successfully blending the old with the new with relative ease.

The latter, an awkward recollection of sadly charming memories of a happy childhood that is beautiful in its simplicity, but failing in creating any sort of emotional attachment for the listener to the subject at hand. Nevertheless, the pleasant piano-violin and piano-acoustic guitar duets at the beginning are splendid and are a highlight of the album.

The album ends on a high, with the 20-minute epic “The Count Of Tuscany” a well-delivered musical offering, summarising the album with a commercial vibe that’s been applied to lengthy prog mastery. Never lacking excitement, the album finale is a superb mix of elegant guitar work, gentle piano touches, odd time changes, dark moodiness and commercial accessibility; such aesthetics that you could only find on a Dream Theater album.

Brilliant and entertaining, Black Clouds & Silver Linings will keep your busy for a few weeks while you enjoy the beautiful melodies and the subtle technicalities that comes with a Dream Theater album.

It’s not perfect, it’s got some faults, Portnoy is a great musician, but his vocals and lyrics are the two large detractions from this album. I wouldn’t fire the guy for a few sub par, uninspired moments, but a solemn shake of the head is definitely in order. For a great band of its calibre, Dream Theater have released an album worthy of their name that should please their fans and satisfy their own creative ambitions, and Roadrunner for all its infamy, should be lauded with praise for keeping their bands fresh and caring enough to see them succeed in a quickly deteriorating industry.

If you get one of the 3CD special editions, you will also be rewarded with a handful of wonderfully done covers and an instrumental-only version of the album – just in case your hatred for LaBrie’s voice detracts from your listening experience. The cover CD is definitely worth your time and money, even if for the cover of Rainbow’s “Stargazer” alone.

Probably the most ambitious song they could’ve taken on, vocally at least, but they do a commendable job on it, which is much more than I can say about any other band or singer that has ever attempted (with massive shortcomings) to recreate this classic song. The Queen medley was praised by Brian May himself, and rightly so, it’s superb. The rest of the covers are good, but nothing to write home about, still well worth shelling out the few extra dollars for 2 extra discs, and that warm fuzzy feeling you get for supporting good music. 8.5/10

Band: Dream Theater
Album: Black Clouds & Silver Lining
Year: 2009
Genre: Progressive Metal
Label: Roadrunner Records
Origin: New York, USA

Track listing:
1. A Nightmare to Remember 16:10
2. A Rite of Passage 08:35
3. Wither 05:25
4. The Shattered Fortress 12:49
5. The Best of Times 13:07
6. The Count of Tuscany 19:16 <- Reviewer’s choice

Reviewed by:  Mike Rapoport


Mitch Booth is the owner, designer and grand overlord of Metal Obsession. In the few seconds of spare time he has outside of this site, he also hosts a metal radio show over on PBS 106.7fm in Melbourne (Australia) and organises shows under the name Untitled Touring. You should follow him on Twitter.