Friday, June 26, 2009

Music Review: Black Clouds & Silver Linings

For the past month, I've been counting down the days to the release of Dream Theater's 10th studio album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings. This Tuesday the CD was released and I have been listening to it nonstop for the past few days. As Dream Theater is my favorite band, I have very high expectations for their music. Despite my high expectations, this album does not disappoint in any way. The album has six tracks ranging from Wither (5:25) to The Count of Tuscany (19:16). As someone who loves long, well-written tracks, I am quite delighted to have 4 tracks longer than 12 minutes.

A Nightmare To Remember
The album begins with a peal of thunder and the distant sound of haunting piano melodies. Soon the whole band comes in with a slow and epic opening and then breaks the music down for a more progressive groove. The lyrics tell a very emotion-filled story of agony and pain. After a while, the dark and heavy mood of the music lightens significantly as James Labrie recounts the man's experience. One part of the song has some very beautiful layered vocal harmonies--some of the most memorable that I have heard in any of Dream Theater's work. All the transitions are seamless and smooth, the story builds very well, there is lots of musical variety from section to section and there is exceptional use of the various melodic themes and motifs. One section even uses a blastbeat, which is quite unexpected given Portnoy's usual drumming style.

A Rite of Passage
As the album's single, I listened to this track a lot before the album was released. Singles are often hit-or-miss and so I wasn't sure what Rite of Passage would sound like in the context of the album. Having listened to the entire album quite a number of times, I am quite happy with how this fits in the rest of the album. This track has a very deliberate pace and excellent use of stereo sound placement. Both John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess pull out all the stops on their respective solos. Petrucci uses the entire range of the guitar and lays down some insanely complicated note flurries. Rudess has fun experimenting with different sounds and uses a really unusually tasty patch for the final part of his solo.

This track feels like the most unique track on the album. In some ways, the music and lyrics both remind me of a couple tracks on Falling Into Infinity. Wither is definitely one of the most pop-rock flavored songs they have written in quite a while. And yet, rather than sounding generic and ordinary, the execution is actually quite incredible! The mixing definitely brings the bass and keys to the front of the mix and lets the guitar sit in the background a bit more than some of the other tracks. John and Mike sing a few notes of really tasty vocal harmonies during the chorus, which is one of my favorite things about the song. While the song starts with a very mellow and minimalistic sound, it builds and adds some amazing layers, climaxing with a short, yet powerful, guitar solo. The string parts add more depth and power to the song as it grows in intensity. James Labrie really shines with his expressive singing, which clearly stands out throughout the entire song. Despite being a very short track compared to the rest, I have to say that Wither is definitely one of the strongest selections of the album.

The Shattered Fortress
Beginning with a driving rhythm guitar line, The Shattered Fortress shifts the album into high-gear and delivers a powerful and rocking track from start to finish. It concludes the Twelve-Step suite that Mike Portnoy has been writing for the last 7 years, which follows the story of his rehabilitation from acoholism. This album and the last four each have one track with 2-3 movements of the suite. Both musically and lyrically, this track concludes the suite with style, heart-felt emotion and incredible musical composition. As the final track, The Shattered Fortress recapitulates and exands on parts from each of the previous tracks, including both musical and lyrical references to The Glass Prison, This Dying Soul, The Root of All Evil and Repentance. With nearly all of the references, The Shattered Fortress changes the melodies and lyrics in such a ways that new meaning is added and even the melodies are modified slightly to give things a new feel. The resulting conglomeration is something that simultaneously feels new and familiar. A brilliant conlusion to a heavy and powerful suite.

The Best of Times
Beginning with a very mellow piano part and featuring Jerry Goodman on the violin, this track is really pretty and has an overall happy feel to it. This song was written by Mike Portnoy in memory of his father, who died at the beginning of this year. This song is melodically driven and the melody switches between the guitar and the keyboard, resulting in a very nice blend of sounds. Jordan's string parts are very written and performed, and I really enjoying hearing such a different sort of sound compared to his usual keyboard parts. The guitar solo near the end of the track is more slow and expressive than most of Petrucci's solos, although he certainly is unafraid to show off his virtuosity with some classical-inspired licks and some impressive sweep arpeggios and flawless trills.

The Count of Tuscany
Weighing in at 19:16, this track is quite a progressive masterpiece. There are a wide range of different sections ranging in sound from mellow guitar arpeggios to complicated progressive riffs. Some parts of the songs are driving and powerful, while others are more expansive and deliberate. On the progressive side, Mike Portnoy lays down some complicated grooves over odd time signatures. John Myung has the opportunity to show off his bass skills with a tricky melodic bass groove in the middle of the song. One section of the piece is very spacious and open, creating a nice period of rest and beauty with some lovely sustained notes on the guitar. The lyrics tell a story of an experience John had, and as such it is very interesting to see how the story progresses and ends. The music follows the lyrics closely in the mood they convey and the emotions they express. The energy builds up somewhat as the song finishes, but doesn't reach for a high level of intensity, and the album ends with peaceful outdoor nature sounds.

Taking into account all factors, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is an incredible album. It is brimming full of creativity, with a emphasis on emotion-filled lyrics and compelling storytelling. Though some bands sound very similar from album to album, Dream Theater has crafted a unique sound with Black Clouds & Silver Linings, with music and lyrics that are quite distinct from any of their previous albums and yet are creative and fresh in their own way. Starting out very dark and heavy, this album definitely takes the listener on a musical journey, eventually ending with a happier mood and a very peaceful album outro. During the course of the six tracks, each member of the band has a chance to shine and display their own individual creativity and musical virtuosity. The production is absolutely flawless, as there is never the slightest faux-pas or section where an instrument is too buried in the mix. Each track has it's own defining moments and all of long tracks bring such an energy that they never feel tedious or repetitious. As a whole, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a musical delight from beginning to end. I am thoroughly satisfied and look forward to enjoying such amazing music for years to come.

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