Sound — 9
Having given this (Dream Theater's 10th release) a month or so to settle in to my music collection, I feel that this is the correct time to rate it, so that any initial bias or general feeling can be removed from the brain and a true judgement can be made. It may only consist of 6 tracks but I would still say that Black Clouds and Silver Linings is the group's best album for 10 years or so. The general sound seems to me like a mixture of the best bits off all the Dream Theater albums from Train of Thought onwards, with a bit of oldschool "Images and Words" Dream Theater sneaking in somewhere amongst the mixture. It still has it's faults but for the most part this is a pretty decent offering Opener "A Nightmare to Remember" could fit seamlessly onto Train of Thought, but is better thought out than anything off that album. The intro and the bludgeoning riff that follows really gets the blood pumping and leads well into a verse and a huge chorus delivered excellently by a much improved James LaBrie. This then leads into a more tranquil (but not at all impotent) Pink Floyd-esque section then back into a heavy metal crescendo, featuring excellent guitar and keyboard solo's from Petrucci and Rudess, who finish the section in an excellent and technical unison. The Portnoy "Metulllz" vocals are back but work slightly better this time and fit the song much better than any such attempt on Systematic Chaos did. The song returns to the chorus and back to a melodic and haunting piano line which closes the song. This was a pretty good effort and is an effective opener, but it could have easily been made shorter but cutting the lengthy intro and outro and shortening the mid section slightly, which despite being beautiful and much needed, overstayed it's welcome ever so slightly. The second track is the first single "A Rite of Passage". When Mike Portnoy described the album as having songs akin to "A Change of Seasons", "Octavarium", "Pull me Under", "The Glass Prison" and "Learning to Live" on it, this is definetly the "Pull me Under" of the Bunch. To compare it to "Pull me Under" would be foolish, though. There is hardly any of the Images and Words Dream Theater sound in this song. Sonically it could have been on "Octavarium" or "Systematic Chaos" and is probably a fair representation of the modern Dream Theater sound. The Mid section could have been written by Metallica, although the solos from Petrucci and Rudess are infinitly more competant than anything Kirk Hammett will ever come up with. The main riff is catchy and the verses heavy and it's well sung by LaBrie. This is by no means as good as "Pull me Under" but it's a good song in it's own right and the best choice as a single. Track three is the only track not to have been written collectively by the band, with both Lyrics and Music written by John Petrucci. The song is a short ballad and is concise, to the point and unusually for Dream Theater, quite straightforward in terms of structure. I would liken it to "Forsaken" off Systematic Chaos but it is well beyond that, and probably lies somewhere inbetween Forsaken and "Vacant" from Train of Thought in terms of where it is sonically. The song has serene verses, a huge chorus, soaring keyboard led instrumental breaks and a Brian May style guitar solo from Petrucci. At only 5 mins long this is at odds with most of the album but is strong enough to merit a place on the album and is a welcome break from the heavier progressive madness that fills the other space on the disc. Track 4 "The Shattered Fortress" is the final installation of Mike Portnoy's 12 step "Alcoholics Anonymous" suite, and it ends up being like a Dream Theater clip show, featuring extracts from the previous installments. Some people may slag this off as being uncreative and lazy, but I disagree, they still had to put it together and make it work. You have to judge it as you see it and what it is is a very good ending to the suite. The song stands up well in it's own right and had you not have heard the rest of the 12 step suite, you would probably not notice that it was part of one. It's well put together and there are some excellent moments in there. I especially enjoyed the Keyboard solo which was superbly delivered and despite being rather long, did not drag. This was a fitting end to the 12 step suite and I hope one day they play the whole thing live. Track 5 is the "Best of Times" and was written by Mike Portnoy for his recently deceased father. The song was initially my favorite but is now my least favourite track on the album. The intro is acoustic based, which then leads into a rush like section and guitar intro to the main song. Labrie's vocals shine on this track, but it seemed to me right from the start that I'd heard the main hook of the song several times before. I realised where from. The string lead section at the end and Petrucci's initial guitar melody could be out of any epic movie soundtrack, which lead me to dislike it as it seemed a bit cheesy. The guitar solo at the end was pretty cool, but i'll deal with my main gripes about this section in my review of the lyrics in a minute. Not a bad track, not a great one either. The final track is the outstanding "Count of Tuscany" which is a fitting and epic end to a solid album. The song recalls the "Images and Words" sound that define Dream Theater in the first place as well as incorporating the best bits of newer Dream Theater. The song also contains the best chorus on the album as well as the 2 most beautiful melodic moments (the first section of the intro and the last 8 minutes of the song are outstanding). The solo's are not overloaded with technical wankery, the riffs and time signatures challenging but not ridiculously mind baffling and the vocal delivery is sublime. It's 19 minutes long, but unlike the opening track of this album, it does not drag on for one second. The best Dream Theater track for years and a fitting end to the album.
Lyrics — 7
For all their musical brilliance, Lyrics are Dream Theater's achilles heel. Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci can be very capable lyricists and tracks like "The Shattered Fortress" (in fact, all of the AA saga has incredible lyrics), "A Nightmare to Remember" and "Wither" have lyrics of a suitable quality that wouldn't disgrace any bad. However some of the lyrics on this album are weak. Although heartfelt and loving, the lyrics to the "Best of Times" don't really fit the song and the end section "My heart is bleeding badly, but I'll be okay etc..." is pretty cringeworthy and the melody is pretty ordinary and cheesy. Kudos to Portnoy for giving his father an upbeat song rather than a depressing one though. Petrucci's lyrical nightmare occurs in "The Count of Tuscany" which has a strange subject matter which doesn't translate well in relation to the music and some weird lines which are completly out of place "come and have a taste, a rare vintage, all the finest wines, improve with ages" seems pointless to me, though the last part of the song (Could this be the end?...) seems competant enough. James Labrie's vocal performance however is almost unfaultable. His voice seems much improved since Systematic Chaos, and while he will never regain the power of his voice from the 1990's, he still does an excellent job in delivering the lyrics, and making said lyrics seem better than they actually are. He is not responsible for any of the lyrics on this album (he had singing lessons when the band was writing) and in my opinion should contribute more, as his lyrics are usually better than at least half of Petrucci's and a few of Portnoy's. His voice saves the lyrics and the score in that I was going to award this section has risen because of him.
Overall Impression — 9
On the whole, this is one of the better albums out this year and Dream Theater's best since "Scenes from a Memory". It has it's faults which is have mentioned above. It is not overly formulaic (most bands have a formula, it's how they get their signature sound) but it is cohesive and fairly potent in places. Dream Thater are still the king's of prog metal and on this showing will possess their crown for a long while yet. Download (if you must!): The Count of Tuscany, A Nightmare to Remember, Wither.