After a relatively disappointing effort (by Dream Theater standards) two years ago with Systematic Chaos, the progressive pioneers return with Black Clouds & Silver Linings, their second studio LP under Roadrunner Records. Apart from the two singles (A Rite Of Passage and Wither), the new release is a monumental collection of epic tracks, those four in particular all being greater than twelve and a half minutes in length, with the monster final track (The Count Of Tuscany) reaching perilously close to the twenty-minute mark. With Black Clouds, Dream Theater has produced what might qualify as their most ambitious work since Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence.
1) A Nightmare To Remember (16:11) – This track gets off to a (literally) thunderous start, and is absolutely relentless with frenetic guitar work by Petrucci, thrash-inspired double-bass percussion from Portnoy, and excellent vocal and lyrical work depicting a chaotic and terrifying situation.
2) A Rite Of Passage (8:36) – The main single, with lyrics inspired by Freemasonry (and other secret societies) and tight, cohesive instrumentals that are at least somewhat evocative of Dream Theater’s classic song “Pull Me Under”.
3) Wither (5:26) – By far the runt of the litter in terms of length, Wither is also a complete curveball, being more than slightly similar in nature to an 80’s hair metal power ballad. While it seems almost too straightforward compared to its brethren on this album, it is still a song more than capable of standing on its own.
4) The Shattered Fortress (12:49) – As the final chapter of Mike Portnoy’s “Twelve Step Saga”, The Shattered Fortress not only returns to the blistering nature of The Glass Prison and This Dying Soul (as opposed to Repentance from Systematic Chaos, a rare slow, soft point in the suite), but ends up tying up elements from all of the other songs in the sequence together into one high-amperage compilation. This may be the real treat for die-hard DT fans on this entire album, although it may be more than a bit unapproachable to the newcomer due to its heavy reliance on melodic ideas from previous albums.
5) The Best Of Times (13:09) – Any critic of the band who claims Dream Theater cannot write an emotionally evocative song would be well served to take a listen to this track, written by Portnoy in memory of his father, who passed away during the making of the album. Slower and softer than most of the material on Black Clouds & Silver Linings, the lilting guitar and touchingly personal lyrics make this a complex, sophisticated, and beautiful composition.
6) The Count Of Tuscany (19:16) – Lately, what has any self-respecting Dream Theater album been without an epic track to close it out? The Count Of Tuscany, for its nearly twenty minutes, is a deep, labyrinthine track with more twists and turns than many bands have in their entire career, with a fascinating lyrical story to match. It’s telling when a single track can nearly be an album in and of itself, but The Count Of Tuscany, like In The Presence Of Enemies, Octavarium, and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence before it, certainly is up for the task.
The Special Edition also includes six cover songs (all of bands that influenced Dream Theater, such as Queen, King Crimson, and Iron Maiden) and instrumentals of the above tracks.
Overall, while this album may be borderline intimidating to those new to progressive rock in general or Dream Theater in particular, the sum total of the collection results in possibly being one of the band’s top two or three albums of all time.