As a longtime Dream Theater fan, I was very much looking forward to the release of Black Clouds & Silver Linings, especially after feeling just a bit underwhelmed by Systematic Chaos. Not that SC is by any stretch a bad album, but unlike previous DT albums there were elements about it that I simply didn’t enjoy. Unfortunately, those elements return in force for a second tour of duty on BC&SL…
A couple years ago I bought the Systematic Chaos special edition release that included a DVD featuring the making of the album in the studio with the band. Right away I was a little disappointed by what I saw – Mike Portnoy flipping through a calendar that had all of the “writing” days, all of the “recording” days, and the “end of sessions” marked off and decided in advance. I got the sense that they only permitted so much time for writing each song in the studio, and whatever they had at that point is what got laid down during the “recording days” to follow. Of course, even stock DT material is impressive, but I couldn’t help feeling that they seemingly shortchanged their creative writing process. My understanding is that the band followed the same blueprint for the BC&SL sessions, and I think this is apparent in the end results.
Dream Theater lyrics are typically a mixed bag – past albums have featured some very strong verses mixed with some weaker lines, but the whole was always more than the sum of its parts. SC was the first Dream Theater album that I thought had consistently weak, if not downright juvenile, lyrics (I defy anyone to tell me that ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ lyrics are written by professional musicians of DT’s talent and capability). Unfortunately, BC&SL continues down this same road at breakneck speed. As I saw in the ‘Making Of SC’ studio DVD, the lyrics were basically penned on the spot in the control room by Petrucci and Portnoy. Whatever happened to spill out on the page at that moment is what was handed to LaBrie to sing. The BC&SL lyrics feel like they were written in much the same way – MP and JP grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil, listened to the demo tracks, jotted down some lines, and recorded them the next day. Music this detailed and intricate really deserves to have refined lyrics that complement and expand the themes of each track. I have a hard time listening to many sections on BC&SL because of the throwaway lyrics, although I can’t help but smile at the thick irony of the ridiculously overdramatic and cliche verses discussing writer’s block on ‘Wither.’
Additionally, I have to comment on MP’s newfound obsession with staking out his own vocal territory on each and every DT track these days. He is a drummer with fantastic chops (even if he overdoes it on certain parts now and then) but there is really no need to have the snarling growls on almost every track. I don’t feel that it contributes to or improves the music in any way. The 11:20 mark in ‘A Nitemare to Remember’ is all I need to offer as proof that MP should just stick to the occasional background harmony – come on, guys, you are so much better than that! These days I get the sense that MP really does believe anything he touches will turn to musical gold.
I have listened to BC&SL about a dozen times now, and it just isn’t clicking with me. To my ears there is simply something missing. Much of it sounds recycled and repetitive to me. For example, I know that ‘The Shattered Fortress’ is the completion of MP’s 12-Step Suite, and that each of the other songs have had audible cues from the ones that came before them. However, this just feels like an old and tired concept after several albums now. Did they really need to reprise the deep spoken word gimmick from ‘Repentance’ at the 7:15 mark of ‘Fortress?’ Maybe when they are all pieced together in order as DT has planned to do live, ‘The Shattered Fortress’ will fit in nicely as the epic conclusion to the suite with all of its echoes and allusions back to the previous songs. But as a standalone track on this album it just feels uninspired, like it is there only because it HAS to be there.
I recognize that many other fans love this album and I think that is totally cool. Everyone listens for and is moved by different things musically, and I am not going to insult anyone by saying something as ridiculous as “this album absolutely sucks!” As a DT fan, I really really WANT to like this album, but for some reason I just can’t. Are the performances incredible? Of course. Can DT weave in and out of myriad different melodies and time signatures and make it sound effortless? Without a doubt. They are performers of exceptional talent and skill, but is that enough to make a great progressive album without creative and inspired songwriting?