Thursday, June 25, 2009

Album Review: "Black Clouds & Silver Linings" by Dream Theater

Fair notice: This review is written by a fan of the band. It's going to be constructively critical but overall very positive. Skip it if that bothers you.

Dream Theater has, to their credit, found the musical equivalent of the late fantasy author David Eddings' path to fan-pleasing stardom: Their songwriting and touring has become the musical equivalent of peddling dope. Dream Theater's latest offering, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, is made up of what has become an excellent par vintage of their particular crop.

Eddings made his literary mark with the Belgariad and Malloreon series, in all a ten-book tale that blended well-established swords-and-sorcery fantasy tropes with humor, folklore, and a lighter tone than most books in the genre. Suitable for all ages, Eddings' books were a hit, and his deeply-developed characters became beloved of his readers to a greater degree than the denizens of his other novels. After fan demand prompted Eddings to write more of the story of Belgarion & Friends, Eddings crafted two prequel books as stories-within-stories. The bookending story continued following the lives of the characters after the BelMal, while the substories were the actual prequel material, ending right at the spot the Belgariad begins. By creating an endless loop of sorts, Eddings enabled his readers to continue to enjoy the full story over and over ad infinitum. He then commented that his readers have been running around in that circle for years since, making his writing "the literary equivalent of peddling dope."

So turned the career of Dream Theater after a near-miss in 1998 during which drummer Mike Portnoy contemplated hanging up his octobans and walking away. Dream Theater, before that turning point, had experienced the sudden and vacuous stardom offered by the MTV-centered pop industry, survived some personnel changes, and struggled for creative control with their label. The suits wanted nothing more than for Dream Theater to shed their progressive leanings and become reliably-profitable arena metal -- after all, they had the arena metal look, and that was all that mattered, right? From 1989 to 1998, the band struggled to maintain a balance between creative productivity, the more mundane facets of music industry work, and interpersonal and family relationship time, all in the face of a merciless calendar that had them on the road for years at a time promoting Images and Words, Awake, and Falling Into Infinity. After the latter tour, the band finally recovered creative control over their work, and on a roughly biannual clip thereafter, have released albums that allow them to publicly and professionally embrace their role as flagbearers of the progressive-metal genre.

Dream Theater's 1999 magnum opus Scenes from a Memory, a CD-length concept album, is as much a reaction to the band's previous musical constrainment as anything else. Most fans consider it their masterpiece, despite the record being close to worthless commercially in mainstream-rock-radio terms. The 2001 interval was covered by Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (technically streeting in 2002, but only barely), a two-disc progressive feast with even longer, even more exploratory prog-metal, including The Glass Prison, the first part of Portnoy's five-album-spanning epic Twelve-Step Saga about alcohol abuse. Sated that their legacy in progressive circles was no longer in question, Dream Theater flipped MTV a mighty bird in 2003 with Train of Thought, a mostly straightforward metal album that brought them back to radio and welcomed in a newer and younger generation of fans hungry for something more substantial than Maroon 5 and Franz Ferdinand. Train contained This Dying Soul, part two of the Twelve-Step Saga.

Dream Theater settled into a comfortable blend of metal and prog by 2005 with Octavarium, their final album on their original label. The album's title track is the very essence of prog, spanning 24 minutes of scintillating virtuosity, and the album opener, The Root of All Evil, covered part three of the Twelve-Step Saga with a flourish. The heaviest track on the album, Panic Attack, drew notice on the Gigantour concert bill, and introduced yet another new wave of fans to the band by appearing in the video game Rock Band 2. Dream Theater signed with a new label and released Systematic Chaos, seizing the momentum that Octavarium had continued from Train of Thought. With so many new fans accepting Dream Theater "as they were," Chaos saw unexpected mainstream success with new music video clips and a Rock Band downloadable-content appearance, this time for lead single Constant Motion. Chaos' contribution to the Twelve-Step Saga, part four: Repentance, was a bit understated, but the song's more mellow dynamic set the stage for the thrilling conclusion to come... and it worked.

Black Clouds & Silver Linings closes the Twelve-Step Saga with part five, The Shattered Fortress, and Fortress is every bit the dope Dream Theater's fans hoped they would peddle. It quotes and reprises every other song in the suite, it runs 12 minutes but does not seem that long, and it practically blasts its way off the page, aggression and emotion at every measure. Fortress suffers somewhat in that it sounds at times like more of a patchwork of the previous songs in the suite than a truly integrative finale, like Dream Theater did with Finally Free, Losing Time, and The Razor's Edge, Rush did with 2112 Grand Finale, and Queensryche did with Eyes of a Stranger. Even in the absence of an integrative finale, a thematic denouement or "epilogue" could have worked as well, like Rush did with The Sphere, Spock's Beard did with Made Alive Again/Wind at My Back, and Schonberg & Boublil did with The Sacred Bird. Still, the gallery-of-reprises style has been used to great effect: Down Once More/Track Down This Murderer, Andrew Lloyd Webber's finale to Phantom of the Opera, is a masterpiece of patchwork conclusion composition. Time will tell whether Fortress, in hindsight, closes the Twelve-Step Saga as brilliantly as Down closed Phantom.

The second-best track on Black Clouds is definitely The Best of Times, a song Portnoy wrote about his recently-departed father. Even in Dream Theater's more somber, emotional moments, such as Take Away My Pain, Goodnight Kiss, Medicate (Awakening), and Vacant, they have never produced music as moving, authentic, and absolutely heart-rending as The Best of Times. It may be difficult for anyone who has not lost a loved one to understand how completely Portnoy hit the nail on the head with this one, but trust me: he did. I don't see Dream Theater topping this one, as far as songs of this style and content are concerned.

It was a pleasure to see Dream Theater returning to a more experimental, eclectic mode of songwriting for the album's opener, A Nightmare to Remember. In a similar fashion, Awake's 6:00 and Infinity's New Millennium stood out from their respective albums and offered a distinctly different flavor of Dream Theater while remaining essentially progressive and true to the band's style. On the other albums, the opening tracks have served other roles, either introducing epic or concept pieces (Regression, In the Presence of Enemies part 1), presenting a piece of the Twelve-Step Saga, or laying down a straightforward opening anthem (Pull Me Under, As I Am). Nightmare is textured, yet percussive; twisted, yet smooth. John Petrucci's nights poring over literature and channeling Walt-freaking-Whitman paid off with a vivid, flavorful bridge: "Hopelessly drifting / bathing in beautiful agony / I am endlessly falling / Lost in this beautiful misery." Nightmare stretches in multiple directions, even giving Portnoy a chance to do some cookie-monster growling at one point, and in most cases, the stretches hit paydirt. This song is no Scarred, but it certainly belongs at the feast.

Wither is the outlier at this point -- unless this song starts to age amazingly well, I will be consigning it to the "meh" bin with Prophets of War, Never Enough, and Just Let Me Breathe. Songs about writer's block just don't work on a very fundamental level, because the audience is interested in the composer's ability, not the composer's inability. Musically, Wither is sound enough, not covering new ground but not laying an egg either. It's a shame to waste such a great song title -- there are only so many simple but evocative verbs out there that work as song titles -- but I suppose there's that to redeem the song, at least. It has the potential to be a single down the road, due to length and accessibility, so it could succeed on that level also.

A Rite of Passage is Black Clouds' radio and video cut, and it was well chosen as such. The song is absolutely accessible, contains a nice instrumental interlude, and is planted thick thematically with the kind of mysticism that stokes the curious minds of most younger prog fans who are still developing as aficionados of music. Your average rational older adult will dismiss everything about the lyrics and just enjoy the instrumental aspects of Passage, and the song stands up capably on that level. This is mainstream metal with a touch of prog, very much in line with what we've heard lately from Muse, Lacuna Coil, and Metallica, and if it had been subtitled "The Dark Eternal Night, part 2," I don't think anyone would have blinked.

The remaining track on Black Clouds, the sprawling, 19-minute epic The Count of Tuscany, is a Petrucci-penned sweepfest with about the thematic depth of Forsaken and all the musical gymnastics of The Dance of Eternity. I'm sure the hardcorest of the hardcore are having a blast with this one, but I'm not sure it stands up compositionally to some of the other tracks on the album or in Dream Theater's wider stable. Oh, fear not: Count will get raves from concertgoers and will add points to Dream Theater's ever-growing well of Prog Cred -- it's not a failure on any level -- but this is no Octavarium or In the Presence of Enemies; it's not even In the Name of God. Count is absolutely the brand of dope that Dream Theater has learned to peddle to their fans, and their fans find that flavor satisfying, so why shouldn't the band do likewise?

Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a genuine accomplishment for Dream Theater, concluding a decade-long suite, reaching new heights in both new and old directions, and serving as a pleasurable listen even in its weaker moments. The album gives fans exactly what they want, and more of it. The future promises a year-plus of touring, half a year of writing, and a new tome of tales in 2011 that are right up the fans' alley, and hey, why shouldn't Dream Theater proceed exactly that way? Capitalism works, after all. But if, instead, they take a chance and it falls flat, at least we'll know full well what their posture was, and we can appreciate why they rolled the dice instead of commencing the scheduled harvest.

Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll find out what's been happening on Faldor's farm...

1 comment:

  1. Constant Motion was on RB as a download before RB2 came out. Though the song is more recent, it was the first.

    My blog will have a review of its own before the night is over. You and I have a couple differences of opinion on the album, but in the end, we both approve of it.