Register Forgot login?

© 2002-2019
Encyclopaedia Metallum

Best viewed
without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
or higher.

Privacy Policy

Detail and Craft - 99%

Merquise, July 3rd, 2009

After two years of wait, here we are with Dream Theater’s tenth studio album – and, as befitting an album filling the first double-digit spot, it serves as a fine example of album craft in the progressive genre and features the most appreciable sort of songwriting – cohesiveness that lends itself to meaning and expansion of the musical themes presented. This album has six songs, four of which extend past twelve minutes, giving us seventy-ish minutes of music that doesn’t become boring and gives us what Dream Theater does best: songs with depth and musical worth.

Systematic Chaos, the band’s previous album, was written by that exact process; simply moving the band into the studio and recording as ideas came. This emphasized some of the problems with that process – in places, the songs felt disjointed, some sections felt out of place, and some songs were too long for their own good. While it was still a decent album and had its own merits, Black Clouds and Silver Linings cleaned up the process and tightened the songs by consequence (Parts were recorded by stages here, as far as I know). Chunks are differentiable without becoming unrelated; songs like album-opener “A Nightmare to Remember” make use of heavier portions (Even allowing drummer Mike Portnoy to venture into blast beat territory) as well as calmer, more melancholic sections and transition between them almost seamlessly. This trend continues throughout the album as a whole. “Wither”, a softer, power ballad-like song, is juxtaposed with heavy-hitter “The Shattered Fortress”, to name one example. There are a lot of different ideas contained here, but unlike some of the songs on Systematic Chaos, they work with one another instead of being conflicting and distracting.

“A Nightmare to Remember” opens the album, and as said before, it combines some of the heaviest parts of the album with some of the most morose and fragile. The storm noise intro at the beginning is a nice touch; it does a good job of conveying the point of the lyrics (About a car crash). A fast, heavier section at the beginning lasting about five minutes and rushing through a little more than half of the lyrics transitions into a slower, more somber and more ambient section featuring some splendid Continuum work by keyboardist Jordan Rudess and quiet, calm vocals from James LaBrie. As a person who focuses a lot on vocals, I consider this part some of my favorite voice-work on the album; it conveys the sense of destruction felt after an accident well. That then leads into Mike Portnoy’s oft-criticized (I think somewhat unfairly) lead vox section – Portnoy has since explained that he wanted to put in a full death growl and the “Constant Motion” style vox was the result of a compromise with guitarist and lyricist for this song John Petrucci. Portnoy posted a sample of the death growls on his forum and I actually liked that version more, but I think most of the problem here was misplacement of the heavy voice on the last four lines (The “everyone survived” part). I think that the speaker isn’t giving us as listeners all the information and I’ll spare my own ideas about what the speaker is trying to convey, but I’ll say that I think the choice of emphasizing the fact that everyone lived and nothing more was deliberate.

We then move to album single “A Rite of Passage”, and while it doesn’t have the epic scope of some of the other songs, it is a solid rocker with a very catchy chorus. Bassist John Myung gives us an incredible bass intro and solid work throughout, even though he tends to be somewhat inaudible unless whatever you’re listening to this on happens to deliver some very low-end, but as a whole the mix for this album is much more balanced than, say, Octavarium or Systematic Chaos. While it’s certainly not the most technical work on the album, it’s a very good song with the sort of feel that “Pull Me Under” from Images and Words did.

Next up is a lighter ballad addressing the subject of writer’s block, “Wither”. John Petrucci brought this song into the studio as a complete work, and he accomplished what he was going for well – a softer break in the album that focuses more on emotional aspects than the most technical musicianship. Rudess and LaBrie deliver another very good performance (If you happen to have the Producer’s Edition mix CD that came with the box set of this album, try mixing this song with just the keys and vocals, it’s lovely). I think opening the verses with repeated lines is a nice touch; it expresses the sort of stream of consciousness that occurs in writer’s block (Repeating one phrase, usually a self command like “come on, come on” in an attempt to break through a block). It’s a nice song and a good break before the next trio.

The last three songs on the album are all long songs over twelve minutes in length, the first being Steps ten eleven, and twelve of Portnoy’s multi-album suite dealing with the Twelve Steps of Recovery from Alcoholics Anonymous, “The Shattered Fortress”. A below reviewer harshly criticized this song as highly derivative from prior songs, such as “The Glass Prison”, and like, and it is – but the reviewer doesn’t seem to understand those songs are part of a unified suite and the fact that it is very derivative is absolutely intentional, as it is the closer of the suite and is used to recapture the prior ideas from earlier songs for the thematic purpose of reflection and is not laziness on the band’s part in any form. True, this song is at its most enjoyable if the listener knows the previous four songs in the suite, but even so it’s a very good standalone song; it’s very easy to listen through the near thirteen minutes without growing bored or annoyed. I especially like how the band made the “Repentance” quote stronger and I like how smooth and quick the transition into that part was. Another of my favorite parts of the song is how it ends, but I won’t spoil that for you (It’s neat if you know the other songs of the suite). By the by, the lyrics for Step XII: Responsible are a nearly exact quote of the AA motto, and it’s a good tribute. I very much like this song and it’s one of my favorites on the album, but I can understand how people might think it lazy if they don’t understand the intent of the band (Though I would caution against the use of caustic language to attack in light of this ignorance).

Afterwards we get another Portnoy lyric song, “The Best of Times”, a tribute to Portnoy’s father (Who passed away in the creation of the album). This track has amazing violin work courtesy Jerry Goodman, a classical key section courtesy Jordan Rudess (His Juilliard training shows here) and a classical guitar melody from Petrucci. The song is very touching and while the lyrical form can be a little cliché, it’s natural and appropriate. It has a lot of major key work, something absent from recent Dream Theater recordings and woks very well, and the ending guitar solo is nothing short of majestic. This song showcases Dream Theater’s return-to-form (That form, ironically enough, being musical diversity on a theory level).

We end with the longest track on the album and the obligatory epic closer, “The Count of Tuscany”. This track opens with a long instrumental intro that feels Rush-like in scope and concept, it’s grand and floats through a number of very harmonic musical ideas. We then descend into a heavy lyric section. The lyrics nominally detail a run-in John Petrucci had with a count in Tuscany a few years back. I say nominally because I’m fairly certain that the lyrics are intended to be a simultaneous tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and a rejection of his philosophical outlook, but I won’t delineate my reasoning for that here. Although this is a very long song at nineteen minutes, in contrast to other Dream Theater epics, it isn’t segmented – the whole thing follows the same song structure, as opposed to something like “In the Presence of Enemies” or “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” which are both broken up on their respective CDs or “Octavarium”, which isn’t broken up but does feature a number of sections which aren’t necessarily integral to one another. After the heavy section comes a lower section featuring a set of chimes that works absolutely brilliantly before launching into a final, more positive, and very epic final section and beastly instrumental work from all of the members. The song ends with some ocean noises, contrasting the opening storm and illuminating in the album’s final moments the overall concept, a Newton’s Third Law sort-of thing that essentially says “For every black cloud, there is an equal and opposite silver lining”.

This album is well-written, well-executed, and is the epitome of what band should be doing ten albums and twenty years into their careers. While there are some odd moments, they’re minimal, do not detract from the album at all and are likely more a result of my preferences more than any flaw integral to the album. This is a *very* good album and is accessible, at least for the genre in which it exists – while it wouldn’t be the first album I’d give to introduce someone to Dream Theater given that the majority of the songs are very long, even if they don’t feel as long as they are, it’d definitely be a good second or third choice. Finally, get the three-disc version if you have the chance. The second disc, featuring covers from Rainbow, Queen, the Dixie Dregs, Zebra, King Crimson, and Iron Maiden is great (Especially the Queen cover, praised by Brian May as “Possibly the best Queen cover ever”) and showcase a batch of Dream Theater’s influences extremely well. The instrumental disc is a nice touch too, even though they removed the solos from these tracks and I don’t think I’ll listen to it too often.

A very worthy purchase – go get it if you haven’t already.