Metal Mondays: Revisiting Dream Theater’s “Black Clouds and Silver Linings”

04blackcloudsAs Dream Theater celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it seems only fitting to take an in depth look at some of their music. 2009’s Black Clouds and Silver Linings marks a huge turing point for the reigning kings of progressive metal, for it was Mike Portnoy’s last album with the band. It is clear that no one knew that at the time of recording, not even Mike, because this album finds the band at the height of their technical ability and creativity. In fact, this album was probably their best output since 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2 Scenes From a Memory, which is one of the greatest albums of all time.

For all those that complain that Dream Theater “lacks soul” or “sucks,” I have a question for you: have you listened to Black Clouds and Silver Linings? I mean actually listened to it, and not just once, because this album has more “soul” than a gospel singer at a revival meeting! It also has enough head banging, window shattering, old-people enraging heavy metal to please even the most obsessive of metal enthusiasts. It has enough prog to fascinate the proggiest of prog fans. It has enough heart wrenching lyrics and moving solos to make a man weep, as I’m sure it did to those who wrote them.

Interestingly, the first time I listened to this album, I didn’t think all that much of it, apart from “The Count of Tuscany.” The whole thing seemed too overly loud and inaccessible. However, I soon became hooked by “Wither,” and then by the moving “The Best of Times.” Soon, I gave the whole album repeated, thorough, listens, and it was like a revelation! I finally realized this album for the brilliance that it is, and it is one that I now regularly return to.

The album gets off to a rather dark start, with the 16 minute long “A Nightmare to Remember,” a story about someone getting into a horrible car accident during a bad thunderstorm. The story ends well enough, with the band revealing that “its a miracle he lived; its a blessing no one died.” Supposedly, this song, which was written by guitarist John Petrucci, is based upon a childhood experience. Nevertheless, it sets the album with a dark tone, which only makes sense considering the circumstances. Mike Portnoy’s father was dying of cancer during the process of making the album. Mike wrote “The Best of Times” as a tribute to his Dad before he passed away. The band has never performed this song live, because it was too painful for Mike to play after his father passed. The song features what is arguably John Petrucci’s best guitar solo. Long, epic, and soaring, it is everything a rock fan could want in a guitar solo. It is like David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” solo on steroids. He combines his technical shredding capability with the soul of the late, great BB King. It is awe inspiring to listen to. Petrucci also thrills the listener with a quiet, moving acoustic guitar piece at the beginning of the 13 minute song.

The entirety of the album contains the best elements from all of Dream Theater’s previous albums. The album contains conceptual pieces, driving metal songs, and heartfelt rock ballads, something Dream Theater is incredibly gifted at crafting, albeit underrated. “Wither,” is the shortest song on the album, at 5:26. It is a ballad written by Petrucci about his personal process of songwriting. “A Rite of Passage” is, strangely enough, about freemasonry, and “The Shattered Fortress” completes Mike Portnoy’s twelve-step suite spread across several albums. The twelve-step suite is about Portnoy’s earlier struggles with alcoholism, and it references Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve-step program. The songs in the suite are: “The Glass Prison,” “This Dying Soul,” “The Root of All Evil,” “Repentance,” and “The Shattered Fortress.” In their entirety, all the songs were originally supposed to create a single concept album across multiple albums.

When listening to the album, “The Best of Times” seems like the natural end of the record. However, as soon as that song ends, Dream Theater blows us away with the nearly 20 minute long “The Count of Tuscany.” This song is like Rush’s 2112, in that it is both brilliant, conceptual, and around 20 minutes long. While the concept is nothing like 2112, and it didn’t have nearly as great an effect on Dream Theater’s career (at that point, DT were firmly established, while it can be argued that 2112 was a make-or-break album for Rush), it contains many similar elements of musicality. The song is supposedly about an actual encounter Petrucci had while visiting Tuscany, in Italy. I won’t make an effort to describe the song, because I would never be able to do it justice. All I can say is, it is brilliant.

Black Clouds and Silver Linings finds Dream Theater at their musical best. They perfectly balanced their heaviness with their technical skill. At many points in the album, the band utilizes the jazz staple of members performing individual instrumental solos before passing the solo off to someone else. It is almost as if they are playing live on the album. The band shows off their thundering bass, outstanding drum work, blistering guitars, and wizardly keyboards, and it is a thrill to listen to. Portnoy’s drums are just so good that words cannot describe them. It doesn’t seem humanly possible that he can be doing so much at one time, but he does it! Outstanding.

James LaBrie’s vocals are good, with some points stronger than others. His voice is definitely better on their 2013 album, Dream Theater. It is remarkable how long it has taken for his voice to completely heal from that incident in the 90s. He stated during their last tour that his voice feels better than it has ever felt, and it showed on their last album. On Black Clouds and Silver Linings, there are points where he chooses to sing in a more violent manner, rather than his more natural high notes. That can likely be attributed to the heavier nature of the music, along with his lack of confidence in his voice at that point. Never fear, though, because it doesn’t detract from the album at all. If anything, it simply adds to the heaviness of the music. I must add that Portnoy and Petrucci offer excellent backing vocals to the album. They are probably more involved vocally than on any other album.

Black Clouds and Silver Linings sadly marks the end of the Portnoy Dream Theater era, but he went out in style. The album finds the band on a musical high note. They created one of the best records of their career, demonstrating the maturity of their musicianship and the creativity of their songwriting. It is a long album, but it never drags on. Everything is just as it should be, and the hidden nods to Rush throughout the album are a treat for the careful listener. This album demands repeated listens, and it demands them loudly.

Rock on, Progarchy, and enjoy your metal Monday.