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A Near-Perfect Effort - 92%

octavarium, May 17th, 2012

After the much-acclaimed 1999 album Metropolis II: Scenes from a Memory, Dream Theater's next four albums would be an interesting forray of experimentation that polarized and heavily divided fans. And signing with record label Roadrunner didn't help either, as many hardcore fans accused the progressive metal outfit of "selling out." And while I found those criticisms somewhat unwarranted and unfair, with the exception of Train of Thought, albums such as Systematic Chaos, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, and Octavarium had their hit-and-miss moments. Those problems are, for the most part, not the case for Black Clouds and Silver Linings, as it proves to be one of their most solid lineup of songs with certain tracks deserving of classic status.

Despite the album having only a surprising six songs, this still remains one of Dream Theater's longest albums, as four out of the six tracks run well past the ten minute-mark. A six-song album certainly has its advantages, as the band clearly took its time and put in a lot of effort on each track. This is not surprising as the title captures the unifying theme of the album: five out of the six songs deal with deeply emotional and at times, traumatic experiences from the bandmembers' (only John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy, mind you) lives. With this in mind, the band is at some of their most emotional and often times in storytelling-mode. And it is in telling stories and capturing their emotions is why the band is at its strongest in this album. Not to mention the instrumentation and frequent solos are as fantastic as usual and James LaBrie's singing is still powerful, melodic, and emotional.

A Nightmare to Remember starts off the album and the Black Clouds half of the album, which is an over-sixteen minute story of a childhood car accident John Petrucci and his family were in. It's this track that the band shows off it's ability to tell a story using its progressive stylings, transitioning melodies and sound from soft and heavy to capture every moment of the story, whether it's the eerie keyboard build-up with rain sound effects in the intro, the aggressive riffs leading up to the accident, and the somber melodies of Petrucci in the hospital. The song is truly a roller coaster transitioning from fast and heavy to slow and melancholic, with Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess trading solos. The use of Portnoy delivering an aggressive verse in the bridge may cause some to raise their eyebrows and the song drags on a bit near the end (it is over sixteen minutes after all) it remains a very strong opening and a sign of what's to come later. The next song is the only non-personal track on the album: A Rite of Passage, which is about the free masons. Although eight and-a-half minutes long, the song is a play to the band's more commercial side, with a catchy and memorable chorus and riff. The intro features awesome bass distortion by John Myung and has Middle Eastern sounds and elements before breaking off into a drastically different-sounding guitar and keyboard solo which features interesting use of an iPhone. While the solos don't flow into the song as well as other Dream Theater songs and come a bit out of nowhere, A Rite of Passage remains one of the best tracks on the album for its sheer catchiness and memorability. Wither falls into a similar category, having the sound of an alternative rock-power ballad-arena anthem with an almost Staind-sounding acoustic guitar intro. It's also short, sweet, and to the point at only five and-a-half minutes (the shortest on the album) and details John Petrucci's diffculties in songwriting. Like a Rite of Passage, Wither is one of the album's best with its catchiness and accessibility.

The Silver Linings half of the album begins with the final song in Mike Portnoy's Twelve-Step Suite about his overcoming alcoholism: The Shattered Fortress. It is unfortuntately here that the album largely falls short of perfection. Although featuring several reprisals of the previous songs of the suite, which are a high point, the song suffers from somewhat overly-simplistic lyrics that don't fit with the aggressive riffs in the opening verse, which is disappointing given the cool build-up at the beginning. LaBrie's vocals in the opening stanzas are also distorted similarly to The Glass Prison and come off as awkward-sounding, as well as the deeply distorted vocals used during the bridge. The reprisals of the other step songs are nice and salvage the song somewhat, but ultimately The Shattered Fortress fails to be the satisfying conclusion it could have been. Luckily, this is the only misfire on the album, as things pick up with The Best of Times. Over thirteen minutes long, it is the touching story of Mike Portnoy saying good-bye to his father, who died of cancer shortly after the song's conception, and remembering the times they spent together. After an extended and melancholic intro featuring both acousitc guitar and the violin, it builds up almost immeditately into a fast, upbeat sound more reminiscent of progressive rock and containing a Rush-like feel. The song eventually transitions once again to a slow and somber sound, before ending with an extended, triumphant-sounding guitar solo by Petrucci. The album closes with the nineteen-minute epic The Count of Tuscany. Giving the album a strong close, it is easily the best track on the album and even outshines past epics such as A Change of Seasons, Octavarium, and In the Presence of Enemies. It tells the story of John Petrucci's meeting of the aforementioned count and his brother at their estate during the Train of Thought tour and how their eccentric lives caused him to fear for his life. The band's storytelling is at its finest here, transitioning from an extended melodic and upbeat instrumental section to a dark and foreboding fast-paced riff. LaBrie begins to tell the story with clear and descriptive lyrics, painting the perfect picture for the listener and delivers one of the album's catchiest choruses. The song breaks down into a melancholic riff before transitioning to an extended, near-silent, ambient bridge featuring only magical guitar wails by Petrucci. After a few minutes, the song transitions to an acoustic guitar and LaBrie returns before the song explodes into its final segment with a reprisal of the intro, finally ending with the sounds of nature and wildlife. All in all, The Count of Tuscany is easily one of Dream Theater's best and gives the album an extremely satisfying conclusion.

Black Clouds and Silver Linings falls short of perfection with the disappointing aspects of The Shattered Fortress and much of John Myung's uniqe bass is used to support the guitar. However, every other aspect of the album shines and is an excellent example of progressive, storytelling music. An essential release by a spectacular band.