30 June 2009
There are some things in this world more life threatening than reviewing a Dream Theater album. I’d try to list them, but as most of them deal with handling toxic or nuclear waste, and/or wrestling large wild animals, I’m not sure such a list is necessary or desired.
I exaggerate some, but not much. In the world of progressive music, not many bands have a fan base as…well…fervent and devoted as Dream Theater does. Quite a bit of this is warranted; the band does go it of its way to give their fans as much as possible, with constantly revolving set lists in concert, a regular series of official bootlegs containing demos, alternate tracks, and live shows. From their 3+ hour ‘evening with’ sets to the last two Progressive nation tours, they make every effort to give the fans as much bang for their buck as possible. So their fan base is well deserved.
The down side to this, if I am to be perfectly frank, is that the fan base tends to turn on its own. The majority has a tendency to eat the minority at almost every juncture. If an album is loved by the majority, no criticism, no matter how intelligently spoken, will be tolerated…until such time as time allows people to look back at the material without the freshness of newness and see it more accurately…then the tables may turn (or, of course, they may not). If band member A says song B sucks, all of a sudden song B sucks, even if the week before people were raving about how wonderful it is.
And so it goes.
I am not trying to denigrate the DT fan base…I am a fan of their music. But I don’t follow blindly. I like what I like because it resonates for me, not for any other reason. And so it is with trembling fingers that I begin to type out a review of Black Clouds & Silver Linings, the 10th studio album from Dream Theater. Like their last release (Systematic Chaos), the album has been released in two basic editions to retail; a standard single disc and a special edition. This year’s special edition is a 3-CD set; the first disc is the album proper, the second is a selection of 6 newly recorded cover versions, the third disc is the album in instrumental mixes. This is the edition I am reviewing.
The six songs on BC&SL can each basically be broken down to single sentence descriptions:
A Nightmare to Remember (ANTR) – this is a song about a car crash and its aftermath.
A Rite of Passage (ARoP) – this is a song about Freemasonry.
Whither – this is a song about writer’s block (seriously).
The Shattered Fortress (TSF) – this is the final part of Mike Portnoy’s 12 step suite.
The Best of Times (TBoT) – this is a song about Mike Portnoy’s dad who had recently passed away.
The Count of Tuscany (TCoT) – actually, I am still not sure what this song is about.
Of course, the songs deserve more than a single line of description. ANTR, as I will abbreviate it, features some relatively heavy DT playing, along with one of the prettier mid-tempo ballad sections I have heard from them in some time. Like many recent DT songs, the structure is somewhat abrupt, going from the quiet, restrained Yes like passage to pretty straight ahead metal thrashing with wild, widdly Petrucci and Rudess solos that at times almost feel out of place. Yes, we know they can play…they have proven it time and time again. The more sustained lines around 10:20 in or so, followed by Wakeman like synth runs, are far more enjoyable than the out of control sweeps and arpeggios that usually feature in instrumental sections.
The wah-ed out bass opening of ARoP (again with the abbreviations) is pretty interesting and enjoyable, but the song then settles into a mid-tempo Megadeth type groove (my girlfriend, in fact, called to me ‘Hey, I didn’t know you were listening to Megadeth’ as it played). James LaBrie sounds quite good, and the playing behind the vocal passages is solid and tightly arranged. As far as the lyrical content is concerned, well…as someone with more than passing knowledge of eastern esoterica and metaphysics, I’m not sure that the lyrics tell a very accurate story of freemasonry, but at the very least I can say that they don’t seem overly negative. Each of the last two Dream Theater albums has seen the band moving toward more of a metal sound rather than progressive, and this song is no exclusion.
TSF completes Mike Portnoy’s epic 12 Step Suite. I have to give him major commendations…across the five songs that make up the suite (nearly 60 minutes of material), he’s spilled his heart and soul out more than the rest of his prodigious lyrical content combined. Addiction is a horrid beast to overcome, and the fact that he has allowed his listeners in to his process is pretty inspiring. The suite has had high points and somewhat less high points, but TSF wraps them up pretty nicely. After the much more restrained and sombre “Repentance” on Systematic Chaos, I had a feeling the final movement would have to up the ante some energy wise, and I was not wrong at all. Heavy double bass drumming, slabs of metallic playing, gruff LaBrie vocals…all are here in spades. There are plenty of musical quotes and repeated motifs tying this into the rest of the suite…an arranging toy that some may find weak, but I feel was almost necessary. Is this my favourite movement in the suite? Not by a long shot (that acclaim is directed toward “Repentance,” in case you are truly curious), but I think it’s a solid conclusion.
I am not going to touch TBoT. I think it’s a pretty song, it feels a little lightweight musically, but I won’t deny the personal lyrics or the fact that some of Petrucci’s most lyrical playing in years can be heard here.
This brings us to The Count. Where to begin? I think musically this is the most solid piece of material the band has put together in the last ten years. I think it features some of the most progressive rock sounding stuff the band has issued since “Octavarium.” I think it shows that when the mood strikes them, they can create a piece of prog rock that shows they can be more than just a metal band. I think in a lot of ways this song rivals some of the material Dream Theater released on their first few albums (yeah, I went there…). But then we come to the lyrics. I am being honest here…I really don’t know what to say about them, mostly because I am still unsure what the song is about. It is apparently, from what I have read, inspired by an event that happened to John Petrucci in Italy…but what? Was he taken to some palatial estate where wine is made from the bodies of the dead? Did he fear that the same fate was going to befall him? I don’t know. I know, as a prog fan, that I have to really take lyrics with a grain of salt…after all, this is a genre where mountains come out of the sky and then stand there…but I just don’t know what to make of the story this song is telling. Instead I listen to the music and am satisfied that the band wrote a 19 minute epic that sits alongside their best material musically.
Disc 2 features, as mentioned above, 6 specially recorded cover songs. We start off with a solid take on Rainbow’s “Stargazer.” I am a huge Rainbow fan, and I was satisfied by this rendition. LaBrie is no Ronnie James Dio, but he acquits himself well here. The same can be said of the band’s so-called Queen ‘medley,’ actually a very nicely done take on “Flick of the Wrist,” “Tenement Funster” and Lily of the Valley” from the seminal Sheer Heart Attack album by Queen. This was one of two covers that caused my nerves to go through the roof, but DT came through with a great cover that even caught the ear of Brian May. “Odyssey” follows, originally performed by the Dixie Dregs (Steve Morse’s original band). Thankfully DT invited Dregs’ violinist Jerry Goodman to guest here, and so we’re treated to real organic violin rather than keyboard samples.
Goodman also guests on the group’s cover of another seminal prog instrumental, King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II.” It’s a solid enough cover, but sadly the mix doesn’t push bassist John Myung high enough up. Wetton’s driving bass was what propelled the original, not Bruford’s drums or Fripp’s searing guitar, and without a similar punchy Myung bass, this cover feels a bit flat and lifeless. Zebra’s “Take Your Fingers From My Hair” precedes the Crimson cover, and…well, I’m not too familiar with the original, so I can’t vouch for the integrity of this cover. This also means that in some ways this cover should be the more intriguing one to me, yet it does little. I’d perhaps have liked to see DT cover another Z band, like a Zappa song, but this would probably mean another instrumental, and that’d not be overly fair to LaBrie.
The set is closed out by A solid performance on the Iron Maiden tune “To Tame a Land.” This is the only cover not specifically recorded for this set, having been issued on a magazine cover disc in the UK as a tribute to Iron Maiden. DT has proven in the past that they are more than adequate Maiden interpreters, and they do not disappoint here. In fact, one might be tempted to say that Dream Theater may well be the pre-eminent active cover band, but I am sure that is an appellation they’d not be too proud of having, as it certainly overshadows the quality of their original work.
Disc 3 features the original studio album in its entirety a second time, this time without any solo performances. This, there’s no guitar soloing, no (or minimal) keyboard widdly widdly, and no LaBrie singing. Ever wanted to solo along with your musical faves in Dream Theater? Here’s your chance! Have a DT karaoke party! The options and opportunities are only as limited as your imagination. Honestly, I think the idea of the instrumental disc is a good one, and I’m glad in a way that they didn’t just remove the vocals. This gives listeners a chance to check out some of the stuff you’re not usually listening to as the rest of the band flies wildly up and down their respective instruments over these musical backings.
“Now wait a minute, man…”
In the final reckoning, where does BC&SL lie? Is it a return to Dream Theater’s progressive roots? Is it a release riddled by the band bowing to label pressure to write a dark, spooky, metal album with 3 discs, each with 6 songs on them (oh my god it’s 6-6-6) to appeal to the black clothed metal masses? It’s not really either. The days of Dream Theater releasing material like they did on Images & Words or Awake are as long gone as the years 1992 and 1994 are. That band is gone…they have grown, changed, and this is the band the way they are today. Taking the cover songs out of the equation (as one should), I look back at the albums the band has released following their creative rejuvenation (which I date to 1999 and the release of Scenes From a Memory) and tally the number of songs I still feel are fresh and playlist worthy today:
6 Degrees of Inner Turbulence: 2 (The Glass Prison, The Great Debate)
Train of Thought: 2 and sometimes 3 (Vacant, Stream of Consciousness, sometimes In the Name of God)
Octavarium: 2 (The Root of All Evil, Octavarium)
Systematic Chaos: 3 (In the Presence of Enemies…yes, despite the cribbed lyrics, Forsaken, Repentance)
Black Clouds & Silver Linings: too early to tell after 1 week, but “The Count of Tuscany” will likely be one despite the wonky lyrics…
In the end, it’s a Dream Theater record. I know this is a cop out. But let’s face it…you’re either going to like it, or you’re not, and there’s not a blessed thing I will be able to do to sway your mind one way or the other. “All the finest wines improve with age,” but only time will tell if this album is a fine wine or destined to be little more than vinegar…
Studio album tracklist:
"A Nightmare to Remember" 16:10
"A Rite of Passage" 8:35
"The Shattered Fortress
XII. "Responsible" 12:49
"The Best of Times" 13:07
"The Count of Tuscany" 19:16
Cover album tracklist:
"Tenement Funster / Flick of the Wrist / Lily of the Valley" 8:17
"Take Your Fingers From My Hair" 8:18
"Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two" 6:30
"To Tame a Land" 7:15
Instrumental Mixes tracklist:
"A Nightmare to Remember" 15:39
"A Rite of Passage" 8:36
"The Shattered Fortress" 12:47
"The Best of Times" 13:20
"The Count of Tuscany" 18:47
James LaBrie - vocals
Mike Portnoy - drums, vocals
John Petrucci - guitars
John Myung - bass guitar
Jordan Rudess - keyboards