August 20, 2009

Music Review: Dream Theater - Black Clouds & Silver Linings

Dream Theater recently released their tenth studio album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings. Just like most of their studio albums, this is a much-anticipated album from this generation's benchmark of progressive metal music.

The album artwork, which was created by renowned graphic artist Hugh Syme (who made memorable album art for notable bands such as Rush, Queensr├┐che, and Megadeth) is impressive, as expected from any Dream Theater production.

Black Clouds & Silver Linings features six new tracks; four tracks are in the 12-to-19-minute range, and the shortest track is about five and a half minutes. There are several box sets and packages available for the die-hard DT fan and memorabilia collector. The 3-cd Limited Edition Set includes a second disc that features 6 covers, and a third cd that features instrumental mixes of the new materials. In this review, I would focus on the main/standard cd.

On a drummer's perspective, Mike Portnoy's performance on the new album is what most Portnoy disciples and fanatics would expect from the 2004 Modern Drummer Hall of Famer - the usual Portnoy licks, grooves, polyrhythms, dominant double bass footwork, and unison playing with bandmates, plus his uncanny ability to play for the song in spite of the technical, over-the-top, "more is more" nature of Dream Theater's music. His drumming seems to become more aggressive with age, with no signs of mellowing nor slowing down. Portnoy is burning in this album!

The tracks that blew me away the most are A Nightmare To Remember (Track 1, 16:10), The Best Of Times (Track 5, 13:07), and The Count Of Tuscany (Track 6, 19:16).

Portnoy's thrash-inspired double kick grooves are the major drumming highlights of the opening track A Nightmare To Remember, a song about guitarist and co-producer John Petrucci's childhood car accident experience. His aggressive double bass attacks are like an unstoppable train, shifting from straight-ahead triplets to sixteenths to sextuplets, and back. Plus, watch out for the round of blast beats near the end of the tune for the win! Despite all that heavy drumming, my most favorite part of the song is the scene change at the 4:56 mark, which I thought was appropriately done. The changes in mood and dynamics fit the story and emotions being told in the song.

The Best Of Times is written by Portnoy in memory of his father Howard Portnoy, who passed away early this year. Obviously, this is a heartfelt and very personal song, which the drummer presented to his father before the latter's death. I can sense that Portnoy's personality and emotions are well-reflected in this piece. The track opens with a melancholic piano and violin section, then a guitar riff at the 2:46 mark signals the rocking 7/4 entry, which has this old-school-prog feel that reminds me of early 80's Rush works such as Red Barchetta.

The Count Of Tuscany has the most interesting instrumental intro I've ever heard from Dream Theater in the longest time. Dream Theater seems to be leaning more on their shred-heavy, thrash/metal side in the last few albums, so it's quite refreshing for me to hear an opening part which represents more of Dream Theater's progressive rock side. I notice several old-school progressive rock influences in this track, mostly from the school of Rush. It's also interesting to note that this song is about an actual encounter Petrucci had in Tuscany.

As for the other tracks... Dream Theater is in their "Metallica mode" on A Rite To Passage (Track 2, 8:35), the album's carrier single. Wither (Track 3, 5:25), a Petrucci song about writer's block, is the shortest track on the album, and has the simplest musical arrangement (based on Dream Theater standards). Portnoy just lays it down and adds just enough embellishments. The Shattered Fortress (Track 4, 12:49) completes Portnoy's Twelve-Step Suite, and is one of the heaviest tracks on the album.

Overall, I am digging Black Clouds & Silver Linings. It's the archetypal Dream Theater album; a balance of old-school progressive and heavy metal/thrash influences. This is a strong effort from the progressive metal supergroup, and probably one of their best studio works. Plus, it is testament to Mike Portnoy's pursuit to defy age and his status of being the current flagbearer of progressive metal drumming. This album is steadily rising to become one of my personal favorite Dream Theater albums.

*****

Special thanks to my sister Karen Dio for getting me a copy of this album, which she bought from her recent Singapore trip.