Time signature changes and virtuoso instrumental breaks result in an orchestrated triumph.
The new DREAM THEATER album has been the talk of the prog metal world for the past year and it has received mixed reactions gaining new fans while alienating old ones. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this latest entry, having heard and enjoyed all of DREAM THEATER's previous albums.
The album begins with the falling rain, a storm brewing, and a soul chilling piano begins. A chorus of voices over a distorted crunching guitar follows. Portnoy's pounding double kick drums are as ominous as thunder and it builds to the killer riff that rips through the stratosphere in head banging glory. Thus begins the ultimate DREAM THEATER track 'A Nightmare to Remember'. LaBrie sounds seriously aggressive as he blasts the enigmatic lyrics: 'The sky was clear and frigid, the air was thick and still, now I'm not one to soon forget, and I bet I never will,' the chorus breaks into a crawling pace, a chugging guitar is heard and the soundwave of a car screeching to a sudden crash. 'Stunned and bewildered, cold and afraid, torn up and broken, frightened and dazed...' at 4:55 it breaks into an off kilter acoustic flourish, and the sound of police sirens is heard. A gorgeous guitar lick follows and LaBrie's vocals are calmer reminding me of his performance on Ayreon's 'The Human Equation' and in fact the track here is a similar scenario: a man is put in hospital and close to death as a result of a horrific car accident. 'Hopelessly drifting, bathing in beautiful agony, I am endlessly falling' ... no doubt LaBrie was inspired by his Ayreon experience. The man in the scenario loses his memory in a similar way and is reflecting on his life. This scenario appears on other prog epics such as Spock's Beard's 'Octane' and is equally powerful. We learn that the man is lapsing into a recurring nightmare as he replays the events in his mind. At 8:36 there is a slick guitar solo with very fast picking and virtuoso musicianship from Petrucci. Rudess has a trade off moment with Petrucci as Myung pounds the rhythm; when these guys play off each other, the result is pure DREAM THEATER magic. It is played effortlessly and with complex arrangements: DREAM THEATER on a grand scale. At 10:30 the track changes direction in another time shift returning back to the main melody showcasing Rudess' keyboarding again. The bio- hazard-style vocals begin on the next verse with Portnoy and LaBrie singing similar to the 'The Dark Eternal Night' from the previous album. I prefer it when they steer clear of this gravel vocal style as it does not sound sincere and a little forced for my tastes. However, the music more than makes up for it. A classy riff begins at 12:00 which is off kilter and strange, not quite on time with the drums. The police sirens return at 14:00 ... the recurring nightmare signified by recurring riffing. It comes full circle with the minimalist piano and thunder. In conclusion, one of the best DREAM THEATER tracks and the definitive highlight of the album.
'A Rite of Passage' is the freemasonry themed track that features great power riffs and more special effects to enhance the style and feel. 'Beneath an ever watchful eye, the angels of the temple fly...' LaBrie muses on blood oaths, rituals, symbols and the illuminati; as dangerous as one may find it, the track is encapsulating on every level. The music is very melodic, sections that are heavy are counter balanced by calmer moments. At 4:50 the band launch into a breakneck power chord progression and Petrucci blasts out a lead break, with Rudess joining in: it is pure bliss to hear the band in full flight.
'Whither' slows things considerably with the beautiful ballad style that has become a mandatory trademark of DREAM THEATER albums. There is a memorable chorus and the lyrics are emotionally charged and sung with passion. There is an excellent soaring lead solo towards the end to cap off another very good track.
'The Shattered Fortress' features a glorious dark metal riff to carry it along. The growelling vocal trade off with Portnoy and LaBrie returns, and once again, not exactly a welcome addition, but I guess we are stuck with it now that DREAM THEATER seem to be relentlessly using this style. Moving onto the music, there are some amazing sections amidst this mini epic. The broken bottles artwork in the booklet reflects the mood that is punctuated by the broken drum patterns and shattered metrical shifts. Listen to that awesome instrumental break with Rudess and Petrucci duelling one another. The track is broken into parts continuing the magnum opus begun on previous DREAM THEATER albums, continued from 'Systematic Chaos' to this album. Part X 'Restraint' speaks of a 'fateful ascent through darkest fires, and now I have finally seen the light, sometimes you've got to be wrong and learn from mistakes'. Part XI 'Receive' includes a deep voice over of regrets and hopes: 'where there is doubt, faith' .... a similar theme to 'Systematic Chaos' tracks. The slow pace is welcome here to allow breathing space. The real treat for DREAM THEATER fans is the return to the familiar songs of DREAM THEATER history ... when heard it is likely to send chills down your spine, as the familiar melodies are heard, you will recognise the tunes immediately, and I felt that it showed great respect to fans to include these. Part XII 'Responsible' (the third Re-) concludes the saga that has relayed the trials and tribulations of Portnoy's alcohol soaked addictions ... a brave move to come out with this and it works as a lengthy saga that DREAM THEATER will soon be playing from start to finish in a live performance. These three parts cap off the saga beautifully bringing it to a final denouement as the rain falls solemnly washing away the pain and restoring peace.
'The Best of Times' took a while to grow on me and actually is yet to resonate with me in the same way that the rest of the album does. It feels very radio friendly and mainstream although it clocks at 13 minutes. The music is the real star of the track, as the lyrics and vocal performance are second rate in comparison to what has been heard previously. There is a terrific intro with a sublime violin and an acoustic solo. The rest of the track sounds like a different band and guaranteed to alienate many fans as a result. I was not taken with the style and hope they never return to this live ... it is an unwelcome transformation. Although, it is a nice paean to Portnoy's deceased father. The lyrics even remind us to 'seize the day' a familiar DREAM THEATER theme. The lyrics seem a bit over the top and I guess in the right mood you might be able to hook into this. Let's move onto the next track ... which is sensational.
The glorious epic 'The Count of Tuscany' explodes the myth that DREAM THEATER have forgotten how to construct lengthy compositions. The time signature changes and multi instrumental breaks are all here and this is an orchestrated triumph that will rate highly with any DREAM THEATER fan, alongside 'Octavarium' and 'A Change of Seasons'. It begins with an acoustic progression and a lead solo overlayed. Then the harmonics and cymbals are the calm before the storm. Portnoy takes off with triplets and drum embellishments, a melody locks in and it feels as if it is building to a crescendo. The intro is demonstrating the peak of DREAM THEATER's powers, the band are working as a unit, taking turns with solo sections until the riff slams into gear. It is a wonderful heavy riff that chugs along relentlessly. The way the riff breaks unexpectedly throughout, chopping off rhythmically, is prog at its best. The vocals are very good, and then the dreaded growelling vocals return ... tsk, tsk. Rudess has another solo stint and it's brilliantly executed. And the musical inventiveness and prowess of Petrucci cannot be underestimated. The track gets into a complex rhythm and then slows down at 10:54, and there is even the sound of tubular bells twinkling, and then my favourite part as Petrucci violins his guitar adding to the ambience and tranquillity: like sunlight bursting through clouds. I had never heard him play like this. The soaring violining continues for a few bars then at 14:30 an acoustic chord sequence is played with LaBrie turned up in the mix. 'Could this be the end, is this the way I die, sitting here alone, no one by my side... what did I do wrong, I just don't understand.' It is emotionally charged but this works as we really believe what he is singing. The heartfelt pleas continue and challenge our senses in a melancholy sense. At 17:00 the music builds again with another scorching lead solo. It is truly magical when DREAM THEATER lose themselves in these epics, and it is wondrous to get lost with them. It concludes with a beach scenario, gulls screeching and waves lapping on the beach.
Bonus CDs are always intriguing and here we have a full CD bonus disk 2 of cover songs as diverse as Zebra, Rainbow, Queen, Iron Maiden, and King Crimson. The version of 'Larks Tongues' is precision playing with reverance to the classic. I love the rocker montage from Queen and Dixie Dregs. It's great to hear these versions and well worth getting hold of this bonus disk.
Bonus disk 3 is the karaoke version of 'Black Clouds and Silver Linings' - it sounds empty without Labries vocals but its a weird experience listening to these instrumentals - sing along if you must or just listen to that musicianship and marvel. Soak yourself in the CD as a background noise or discard - your choice. I managed to get through three tracks before turning back to the original versions again.
Did I mention the booklet? It features sensational artwork and works well complementing each track, enhancing the experience, better than the usual artwork in CDs these days. The 3 CD package features a great layout, with each CD cover having a distinct look to differentiate between each, and the CD artwork itself is masterful. How does one conclude on all this? DREAM THEATER have formulated a successful return to brilliance. Each track captures the essence of the band: scorching blistering solo performances, reflective lyrics and epic themes. 6 tracks... 4 brilliant. Not quite a masterpiece, but its growing on me with each listen. Don't take notice of the reviews that are blasting this album: DREAM THEATER most definitely hits the target with 'Black Clouds and Silver Linings'.