DREAM THEATER’S BLACK CLOUDS & SILVER LININGS IS STOCK DREAM THEATER
Most Dream Theater fans consider the band’s peak to have spanned the era starting with 1994’s Awake and extending through 2002’s double-disc opus Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (excepting 1997’s bland and boring Falling Into Infinity). I’d actually argue that the band’s “golden” era extended one album further through Train of Thought, unquestionably the band’s heaviest offering ever, if not just because of the good songwriting but for the fact that this was the last album on which the band pushed themselves forward. Since then (Octavarium, Systematic Chaos) Dream Theater have settled into cruise control, pumping out decent but ultimately unspectacular prog metal albums that don’t so much tread new ground as walk confidently atop terrain already explored. The band’s latest, Black Clouds and Silver Linings, continues in this vein; it’s the third album in a row to show little to no musical progression (isn’t this supposed to be “progressive” metal?) and as such ends up feeling mostly same-sounding and… meh. Still, it’s hard to knock anything Dream Theater do too heavily; the band already indelibly changed the metal landscape once, and anything they do warrants at the very least a rating of “pretty good.”
To quote the great Lars Ulrich, much of Black Clouds and Silver Linings feels “stock.” John Petrucci could shit “pretty good” Dream Theater-style riffs out his ass for all of eternity, and the band could string them together into epic-length opuses atop Mike Portnoy’s gifted drumming ad infinitum (4 of the record’s 6 songs are longer than 12 minutes). Album opener “A Night to Remember” and “The Best of Times” are about as musically stock (Dream Theater-wise) as they come, though Portnoy’s touching lyrics for the latter — a tribute to his recently deceased father — certainly warrant a few tears. “Wither” is the stock Dream Theater ballad of the record. It’s not that any of these tunes are bad — they’re just fine. But that’s all they are, just fine. Nothing to get excited over.
Not all the songs fall short, though. “The Shattered Fortress” is a fantastic finale to Mike Portnoy’s suite about the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-steps program, spanning 5 songs over 5 different albums. “The Shattered Fortress” expertly reprises and modifies musical and lyrical themes from the previous 4 parts of the suite and ties them together tidily in a way that only Dream Theater can. “The Count of Tuscany” — John Petrucci’s recanting of a harrowing experience he had while abroad in which he met a true Italian count — is a true Dream Theater epic, succeeding in originality and that X-factor where the album’s other long-players fail. It’s got everything you’d want — long instrumental intro, heavy parts, soft parts, good riffs, a million twists and turns, sparring guitar and keyboard shred-fests, gang vocals and a sing-along chorus… and, best of all, it’s not stock.
Still, it’s time for Dream Theater to challenge themselves again. Finally on a record label that fully supports them and allows them full creative freedom, I call upon Dream Theater to push themselves a bit harder, to progress once again. They’re certainly capable. These run-of-the-mill Dream Theater records are alright, but I’d hope for and expect something more.
(two and a half out of five horns)