Rich Wilson, author of the official Dream Theater biography, ‘Lifting Shadows’, has penned the Hammer track-by-track of their latest album, ‘Black Clouds And Silver Linings’.
A Nightmare To Remember
Opening with a creepy piano introduction before some dark and imposing chords, some truly blistering kick drums appear before a weighty riff takes control. A few minutes on, and the headlong pace breaks into a lighter guitar motif, before another guitar melody drifts in. LaBrie’s vocals sound controlled and as with the rest of the album, this is Dream Theater sounding just so much bigger than before. This song lasts a mesmerising sixteen minutes, but at no time does it sound contrived or laboured. With that amount of time to play with, the track has a flurry of time signature changes. John Petrucci is inspired and delivers a fret melting solo nine minutes in, directly followed by keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess cranking out some crazy riffs of his own, before the pair trade off licks and unisons. There are a few of the growling vocals that caused a certain amount of controversy on their last album Systematic Chaos, but they are fleeting and quickly disappear as more curveballs are thrown in. Some typically wacky Jordan Rudess melodies take the track in a new direction before a more explosive version of the original riff from all of ten minutes ago returns. For an opening album tracks, it’s an enthralling and exhausting musical journey.
A Rite Of Passage
How can you follow a song that’s sixteen minutes long? How about one that extends to eight and a half? There’s an eastern influence in the calm guitar opening which lasts for a matter of seconds before catchy riffs take over. Again there are a few growling vocals in there that might raise a few eyebrows. The chorus is a true arms-aloft anthem, which is no doubt why an edited five-minute version has been chosen as the album’s lead single. The production is also noticeably slick and James LaBrie hasn’t sounded this solid in years. Two thirds of the way in, a new ferocious riff grabs you by the shirt and throws you in another unanticipated direction. Petrucci delivers another killer solo in a flurry of tempo changes. He then passes the baton to Jordan Rudess who produces some hyperactive fingerwork of his own. This song encompasses everything that Dream Theater detractors loathe but everything that their fans will adore.
Wither is a break from all the intensity, with a five-minute ballad that’s harmonious and intensely hummable. Much like Vacant on the band’s Train Of Thought album it’s a welcome intermission. There’s even a string section accompanying the immediately infectious chorus and it’s likely to appeal to old-school DT fans. This leads into a lilting piano section before Petrucci provides an almost Brian May like triumphant, song-ending solo.
The Shattered Fortress
This is the final piece of the so-called AA saga, which has seen a musical and lyrical of linking of tracks spread over the last few albums. It will eventually be fixed to the end of Repentance to form a gargantuan concept album to be performed live. The track opens with its own distinctive riff before nodding at the musical motifs from the previous songs in the piece. There are some truly juddering riffs as well as a fleeting return of those growling vocals that might have some fans (who want Dream Theater to sound like Dream Theater and not Opeth) questioning the band’s motives. There’s a muscular reprise of the opening riff from The Root Of All Evil before another change of pace to an almost symphonic, film-score section. There are more melody changes and frenetic keyboard workouts before the track breaks down into a wonderfully clean guitar sound. It’s another exhilarating and unremitting twelve-minute ride.
The Best Of Times
This opens with a beautifully mellow piano motif, before being joined by a string section. The track then rapidly increases in tempo with a driving riff reminiscent of Rush’s Spirit Of Radio. The song is crammed with uplifting melodies, soaring guitars and keyboards and is arguably the most old-school Dream Theater track on the album. It’s also the album’s finest track that will have you straining to press the repeat button.
Lyrically, it’s a touching and heartfelt tribute to Mike Portnoy’s father, Howard, who died at the end of last year. There’s a rousing finale with an extended Petrucci flurry of notes before returning to the tracks signature melody. Utterly bewitching.
The Count Of Tuscany
This is the monster – an epic track that extends over nineteen minutes. The opening section sounds like Yes with bite, before heavier riffs take over the song’s direction.
It’s typically Dream Theater, with a vast array of time signature changes and intermingling melodies – and that’s just in the first three minutes. There are some bombastic heavy riffs that all blend seamlessly with countless melodies. In fact in that regard, it’s reminiscent of the similarly expansive A Change Of Seasons and is destined to become a Dream Theater classic. The latter few minutes are dominated by an almost Pink Floyd guitar elegance, with an acoustic guitar then building to a formidable – if mellow – finale to a compelling album.
There will be plenty of areas of discussion about the merits of the album by the Dream Theater die-hards. But taken as a whole, this is Dream Theater’s finest and most balanced album in a decade. If Systematic Chaos helped them to partially lose the cult band tag, then Black Clouds & Silver Linings with surely take them to the next level.