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Black Clouds & Silver Linings

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  • Dream Theater’s 10th studio release finds the band in top form musically. Most of the amazon reviews are correct – this is possibly the best DT album since Scenes from a Memory. It is engaging without being overwhelming (as Scenes is often accused of), fresh without being forced (as Train of Thought is often accused of), and diverse without suffering from incoherency (as was certainly the case with both Octavarium and Systematic Chaos). The arrangements generally avoid the “dueling keyboard and guitar” pitfall that has plagued the last few releases. LaBrie is the only member who doesn’t quite live up to earlier glories here, probably due to the inevitable loss of range that we’ve witnessed with other stratospheric singers like Walsh, Geddy Lee, etc. No matter, his lower range lends itself well to the band’s typically darker sound of late. In some places he sounds downright sinister (as on A Rite of Passage) but it’s much better tempered than many of the aggressive tracks on Train of Thought. In other words, this is a band that is aging well, still growing and experimenting, while retaining the sound that made them unique in a sea of prog-metal and neo-classical metal bands. They still have that spark that always seems to be lacking in other bands such as Symphony X or Iced Earth. And they’ve certainly aged better than many of their influences like Metallica, Megadeth, Yes, or Iron Maiden.

    So why only three stars? On repeated listens, the lyrics are just terrible. Other’s have said it in their reviews and I’ll repeat it here – the lyrics are cringe inducing in places. Objectively they may stand up to their contemporaries or label mates like Slipknot or Trivium, but those bands have insipid lyrics on every possible level. One of the primary things that made DT stand out from the crowd in the early days was the fact that, like most bands of this style, they weren’t singing about dragons and mystical spaceships. The themes were mysterious and even “new-agey” (thanks to original key player Kevin Moore), then went on to deal poetically and intelligently with every imaginable subject from addiction to family conflict, death, the afterlife, re-incarnation, and social issues. It was “thinking man’s metal” not just because of the technical skill of the band, but because they were writing lyrics that were relevant, empathetic, and smart.

    Something changed with Systematic Chaos and continues here, due mostly to John Petrucci’s lyrics. SC was an interesting diversion into Dark Masters, prophecy, vampires, undead pharaoh zombies, ghosts, and other stereotypical prog/death metal fodder. Most of it was good (Dark Eternal Night, Forsaken, etc.). I think most fans took it for what it was, breathed a sigh of relief that it was over, and moved on. If BCASL had more of the same, I wouldn’t be as critical. Unfortunately, most of the lyrics on this album have taken on subject matter that is less interesting, more mundane, and much less smart that what DT fans have come to expect from such excellent lyricists. Again, the bulk of the blame falls to Pettruci (and possibly Portnoy and LaBrie for not sending him back to the closet with a fresh piece of paper). Car wrecks, free-masons, writer’s block, a count who ’scared’ him on a trip to Florence? What’s so painful is that the music behind these lyrics is absolutely phenomenal – I fear I’ll be listening to the instrumental versions more than the normal one, just to avoid the embarrassment of the lyrics. Portnoy’s tribute to his father aside (The Best of Times), it’s very painful to compare most of the themes and lyrics to past gems, or even to Systematic Chaos, which was already the weakest album lyrically thus far. Even the conclusion to the Recovery Suite (The Shattered Fortress) feels tacked on, thrown together, and retreads too much familiar ground, even for a finale (there’s simply no comparison to “One Last Time” from SFAM, or the finale of SDOIT). I’m not sure what’s happening here, but it is disappointing at best, frustrating at worst.

    I wish DT was a band I could listen to for the music only and ignore the rest. Fortunately, these guys are usually “the whole package” – music, lyrics, images, artwork, live shows, attention to detail, great concepts, etc. When another band falls short in one of these areas, I tend to give them a pass. Maybe DT deserves one after 10 albums and 20 years, but it’s difficult to let them off the hook two albums in a row for the same crime when we know how much more they are capable of.

    My recommendation – get the 3 disc set. If you can tolerate the lyrics, good for you. If not, there’s always the instrumental version to tide you over until the next LTE release. Regardless, DT deserves all the respect and awe given them by their fans, and it would take much more than bad lyrics to put me off buying anything they did. I’m just trying to be fair in my review, and hopefully my love and admiration for the guys shines through the criticism (can you tell it pains me to criticize them at all?).

    Posted on December 21, 2009