Monday, June 29, 2009

Album Review: Dream Theater - Black Holes and Silver Linings

According to iTunes, I've now listened to Black Clouds and Silver Linings eight times, so I finally have enough perspective to give the album a fair review. I'm completely serious: I love the band, but there's something so manisfestly undisgestable about every album Dream Theater has put out this decade that it takes some serious listening time to form a consistent opinion. With Black Clouds..., for example, I blasted the band's Queen covers after my first listen, but after a few more listens I had a change of heart. Clearly, either I found more to like as time went on, or I'm just a fanboy with a large capacity for second chances. Either way, my thoughts on each of Black Clouds and Silver Linings' six tracks:
  1. A Nightmare to Remember: Petrucci's tale of the painful aftermath of a car crash channels a lot of the feel of the songs from the first disc of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulance. There's the now-standard interplay of solos between Petrucci and Ruddess and an awkward use of sound effects to underscore the moment of the crash, but there are two memorable moments: the hospital scene where Petrucci rocks a very King Crimson arpeggio line and the bridge in the next scene where the tension explodes into some lovely soaring melodies and the vocal harmonies that the band has (unfortunately) generally eschewed in their more recent material.

  2. A Rite of Passage: A catchy song with super-transparent lyrics (a common theme for this album). My feelings on this one haven't really changed since I first heard it in early May, except now I've heard a good 20 times and I'm a little sick of it.

  3. Wither: One of those dark ballads that the band occasionally enjoys writing, with lyrics by Petrucci instead of usual suspects Myung or LaBrie. Based on the artwork in the album and the wording, it seems to be about struggling with writer's block. There's a nice constrast between the size of the chorus and the subdued, subterannean feel of the verses, but if you don't like Dream Theater ballads, you aren't going to like "Wither," either.

  4. Shattered Fortress: The end of Mike Portnoy's Twelve-Step Suite, where Portnoy attempted to translate the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program into music. The suite as a whole is full of the references that Dream Theater loves to use in their music, but as with "Forgiveness," the 12-step track from Systematic Chaos, "Shattered Fortress" is not a particularly inspired piece of song writing, stitching together harmonic lines from the previous tracks with an extended Portnoy voice over and - as has become the case far too often in Dream Theater's music - a reliance on the difference between Portnoy's barks and LaBrie's melodies to establish vocal contrast. I should note that even though I'm not a big fan of this track, it took me a good fifteen minutes to write this blurb and even now, I'm coming up with justifications: the song as a whole isn't that strong, but it has some nice component pieces (the riffs from the earlier tracks are among my favorites), the Portnoy barks might be there for consistency, as they're less prevalent on this album than they have been in the past, etc.

  5. The Best of Times: Portnoy's other contribution to the album is a straightforward tribute to his late father that has about as much lyrical ambiguity as a child's picture book. Musically, it's a nice enough track - a combination of "I Walk Beside You" and "Octavarium" with a great coda solo by Petrucci - but by writing such naked lyrics, Portnoy seems to have missed the point of good song writing: ambiguity allows for individual interpretation, which, in the spirit of all good prog, allows the user to find their own way of relating to the song. "The Best of Times" could have been an anthem to anyone who grieves, as Petrucci did so effectively with "Another Day," but instead it's a cenotaph to one man's feelings that leaves me feeling cold.

  6. The Count of Tuscany: By far the album's best track with a delicious mix of ingredients: Start with an introduction that mixes Rush, King Crimson, Dream Theater vintage 1992 and 1999 while building to a driving forte. Mix in lyrics that reprise Petrucci's brushes with the fantastic from Systematic Chaos, telling a story that could be cribbed from an Edgar Allan Poe notebook. Throw in one of those classic heavy Dream Theater verse riffs, a multipart solo section that transitions sections of the plot, and the kind of anthem-like ending that brings "Learning to Live" in mind and you have a great song that becomes this album's saving grace.


Seth said...

For me it is all about Count of Tuscany.

My least favorite Dream Theater record, period.

Sadly I was hoping this record would grow on me too. It is too bloated and those hyper-literal lyrics are now really getting in the way.

Martell said...

Ok, I'm going to have to give this a few more listens based on the review. I ran through it once and said "thats enough for me," but now I'll see what happens.

Song by song review man, good job.

Eric said...

I do it because I care. Or because I'm crazy, one or the other.