I still remember when I picked up the first Dream Theater record, or more accurately cassette, When Dream and Day Unite, a week after its release in 1989. I bought it solely because it was described to me as a Rush-like band, and since Rush are my favorite group, I figured I’d take a listen.
While the album was somewhat rough and the vocals were not the best, I was hooked. But I started losing interest in the band around the album Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, which I found self-indulgent and lacking the good songwriting of their previous releases (with some exceptions, including the excellent “Forsaken” off 2007’s Systematic Chaos).
Black Clouds & Silver Linings, their latest release, may be one of the strongest works they’ve done. The fans have appreciated it as well, giving the band their highest chart debut in their over 20–year career.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear some memorable hooks and melodic singing from James LaBrie sprinkled throughout Black Clouds & Silver Linings, along with some of the heaviest riffs the band has ever recorded. The record opens with “A Nightmare to Remember,” rolling in with a dreary Gothic dirge sound and some excellent vocals by LaBrie. The excellent production is immediately apparent. It’s not too loud, and gives each song breathing room.
“Whither,” the shortest song on BC&SL, is a song about writer’s block, but it’s also a bland ballad, not really up to the songwriting strength of the rest of the album. The other short song (at a brisk 8 minutes), “A Rite of Passage” is a song about Freemasonry and another scorching showcase for guitarist John Petrucci. “The Best of Times” is a song written for drummer Mike Portnoy’s father, who died last year from cancer. It’s a well-done piece with some excellent instrumental passages.
Which brings us to the magnum opus of BC&SL. “The Count of Tuscany” is inspired by an incident that happened with John Petrucci, and is the best long-form song the band has ever done. Heck, I’d say it’s one of the best things they’ve done, period. At over 19 minutes, it never seems forced and has enough of a giant chorus to pull the song through the ebb and flow of acoustic interludes and soaring riffs. The music, for all its noodling, sticks to the ears. The lyrics may be too literal; they’re not the best Petrucci’s done. But they’re not enough to dampen the exuberance of the music. There’s even an homage to Rush’s “Far Cry” (starting at 3:28).
Dream Theater may get too complex for their own good at times, but when they step back and showcase their songwriting, like on BC&SL, they show that even at this stage of their career, they are just getting into their prime.