Sound — 8
I feel Dream Theater fans split into two broad camps (if they split at all): those who like their earlier material, up to, say Train of Thought, and those who enjoy the heavier metal style of that album and their later work. Black Clouds and Silver Linings is the band's 10th studio album and takes a fairly balanced step, though with considerable bias towards the heavier repertoire, a style similar to that of the rather disappointing Systematic Chaos. The opening track A Nightmare to Remember is disappointing: Petrucci opts for a much more crunchy and biting guitar sound than on some earlier work, choosing to forego the traditional Dream Theater subtlety. The deep vocals or shouting that could be heard on the Dark Eternal Night ("Systematic Chaos") and was frankly embarrassing is back and occupying far too much valuable disc space. Portnoy employs a lot more slamming drums and fills, characterized for instance by aggressive double pedaling, nonetheless impressive but forfeiting his usual complexity. Not to overstate the faults: this is still Dream Theater, still leaps and bounds ahead of most other metal acts in terms at least of pure skill. In fact, the odd time signature changes dotting Petrucci's solos on Best of Times are some of his most impressive; Rudess is still brilliant and Myung as always in the background but amazing. Unfortunately, these moments and qualities seem fewer and somehow less impressive than in years gone. Having said all that, the album does pick up about half way in with the Shattered Fortress, resuming the epic song progression carried over the last five albums, starting with The Glass Prison in Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and continued in This Dying Soul (Train of Thought), The Root of All Evil (Octavarium) and Repentance (Systematic Chaos). It is also perhaps the strongest track on the new record, reprising several notable riffs in a different tonality and time signatures but also adding a very strong original compliment. The mellower moments and tracks on the album are in the usual Dream Theater vein, with either LaBrie (Wither), Rudess (the usual riffs, fills and insane keyboard solos) or Petrucci's clean/Spanish guitar providing a gentle and moving accompaniment (intro to The Best of Times or the beautiful end to The Count of Tuscany). Having expressed worries over their new sound, I also have to admit that the latter half of the album pays a lot more homage to their older material and old school fans.
Lyrics — 7
I do not think Dream Theater have ever been particularly great at lyrics. They may be better than usual run-of-the-mill metal themes but certainly not on a par with their technical excellence. There have been some notable exceptions through the years (Images and Words for instance) but Black Clouds is unfortunately not one of them. The lyrics range from describing a car crash Petrucci was in as a child (A Nightmare to Remember) to remembering Portnoy's father, who recently passed (The Best of Times).
Overall Impression — 8
The Dream Theater sound and complexity are still unmistakably and gloriously present. The experimentation with time signatures is at times some of the best they have attempted (see for example the instrumentals in The Count of Tuscany) and at least half of the album progresses in an extremely satisfying fashion. However, much like their last record, a lot of this brilliance is watered down by some poor choices and attempts to go in a new direction, particularly at the start of the record. While a band cannot be blamed for trying new things, especially after over twenty years in music, it does change the fact that at least for me the album is not nearly their best and gives a poor first impression. However it also goes on to creep up and pleasantly surprise the listener, culminating in a truly epic experience. The additional content provided on the Deluxe Edition is definitely worth the extra money, even if one is not a diehard fan. The covers of Rainbow, Queen, the Dixie Dregs, Zebra, King Crimson and Iron Maiden are very interesting and strongly reminiscent of the covers on A Change of Seasons, showing off LaBrie's range a lot more than the band's original material. The instrumental version of the whole album on the third disc is clearly intended for the diehard fan and gives a much clearer appreciation of the complexity involved in the band's craft while providing a perfect exercise for the guitar player.