Sound — 7
I have a theory when it comes to Dream Theater: that they put out an absolute masterpiece (the first being Images & Words') but then have to go through two album cycles to recharge their batteries to their full potential again. For Black Clouds & Silver Linings' to follow this pattern, I would expect it to be anything from great to mediocre, though of course bucking the trend should never be out of the question. Things start off very nicely with the bulging goliath A Nightmare To Remember' and the rest of the album certainly ticks all the boxes. We've got the stock yet strangely appealing modern DT riffs, the expansive instrumental workouts and the astronomically high notes-per-minute count. Whilst still fairly dark and heavy, the Portnoy-speared METUL!' douchebaggery found on a lot of Systematic Chaos' has cooled down and left more room for traditional proggy sounds, particularly on The Count Of Tuscany' and Wither'.
The most talked-about song after details of the album were first released was The Shattered Fortress', the closing chapter of Mike Portnoy's Twelve-Step Suite', but Dream Theater have shot themselves in the foot with its creation; rather than write a piece which concludes the string of quality songs, they have crammed together as many of the saga's themes as possible and wedged brief moments of original material to fill in the gaps, creating the musical equivalent of a sitcom clip show. In fact the whole album feels like DT-by-numbers and sadly after 10 albums fans should be starting to hear what note James LaBrie is about to hit, predict when they'll reprise the main riff with a half time feel, and speculate on just how much longer John Myung can survive under the rubble of the mix before losing consciousness entirely.
Still, those who gape at the technical wizardry of the band shouldn't be let down; Jordan Rudess and John Petrucci once again play until their fingers blur, though the division between shred' and emotional' soloing has never been clearer. There's some mighty fine instrumental sections on the first and last tracks (incidentally the only two songs which stand out as being particularly great), and Rudess' wide palette of sounds grows even more to include, reportedly, an iPhone. Whatever will that crazy character do next?
Lyrics — 8
I think Dream Theater fans are used to some pretty cheesy lyrics, but some of the material on Black Clouds & Silver Linings' really takes the cake. There's a melodramatic ballad about writer's block and a 16 minute epic about a car crash but the most bizarre song of all is The Count Of Tuscany', a song which John Petrucci wrote about a Count, whom he met in Tuscany, that frightened him in some way. We can only make wild guesses at what on earth happened to that poor guy, but I think it can safely be assumed that puzzled looks were exchanged at the Dream Theater drawing board when the idea was pitched. Aside from sketchy subject matter, the lyrics aren't the best you'll ever see, but they're only explicitly bad on occasion; this is often the case with Dream Theater when they don't appear to have some kind of central theme to work with. The Shattered Fortress', though, for all its musical shortcomings, is a brilliant lyrically and wraps things up the story of Mike's alcoholism in style.
James LaBrie absolutely stuns me on this album. His melodies are often the most interesting parts in the songs and he's definitely found the balance between operatic bombast, unornamented melody and his slightly rougher approach on heavier parts. For a guy who is often seen to be the weak link' in the band when it comes to instrumental virtuosity, he really hits every note in the exact right way. Mike Portnoy's vocal contributions are getting more frequent, and while they aren't half as irritating as they have been in the past, there are times where you have to wonder why they were included. Still, it affects a very small portion of the album and is overshadowed by LaBrie's performance.
Overall Impression — 6
Mike Portnoy has been quoted as saying Black Clouds...' is an album which is like having A Change of Seasons', Octavarium', Learning to Live', Pull Me Under' and The Glass Prison' all on one album. Right you are, Mike, but I've heard those songs before and don't need them again. It may sound harsh, but far too much of this album feels familiar; not necessarily because DT have ripped themselves off' (although the acoustic solo in The Best Of Times' may as well be Hollow Years') but because of the borderline obsessed fanbase they've had for many years; it feels like they are hesitant to take major stylistic steps and instead keep their music progressive' only as far as a song or an album goes, rather than a career.
If this were a debut album, it would be absolutely fantastic and there's no denying that there's a lot of great music here, but it's nothing all that new from this band. Unless they experiment further and truly progress beyond what is expected of them, Dream Theater's newfound popularity in the modern scene may be the only thing that grows.