Dream Theater - _Black Clouds & Silver Linings_
by: Jeremy Ulrey (
Ah, how I wish for the glory days of _Falling Into Infinity_. It was a shit album, mind you -- probably more incapable of being salvaged than most fans are willing to concede -- but at least there was -drama- back then, a "will they or won't they" sense of bated breath to see if their next release would be a logical progression (_Awake_), a return to form (_Scenes From a Memory_) or a left field turd (_Infinity_). But now it's 2009, and for over a decade Dream Theater's career has resembled the lock groove that the recurring use of vinyl static to open and close each album symbolically represents, just one long self-reflexive soap opera that eschews closure for a never ending series of narrative cliff hangers. Well, that's not entirely true: we do finally wrap up Mike Portnoy's interminable "Twelve-step Suite" with the fourth track on this year's _Black Clouds & Silver Linings_, "The Shattered Fortress". If that sounds like a tossed off, unimaginative comic book micro-series to you, don't expect other entries in Portnoy's suite to dissuade you of that notion: "The Glass Prison", "This Dying Soul", "The Root of All Evil"... Portnoy and the other contributing lyricists all strive so hard to infuse their material with emotional resonance to match the dramatic dynamics of the instrumentation, but even at their most heartfelt they're prone to blurting out clumsy, witless stanzas such as "look in the mirror / what's that you see? / the shattered fortress / fly now, be free".Lest we forget, prior to the 2002 double-CD _Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence_ officially kicked off the "Twelve-step Suite", Portnoy was already penning paeans to the bottomless bottle way back on 1994's _Awake_ in the form of "The Mirror". Get it? "Look in the mirror / what's that you see?" from "Shattered Fortress" (sorry, "-The- Shattered Fortress"; DT are sure fond of their definite articles) is a recursive reference back to previous work that tackled the same subject! Joy! The problem is that this constant stockpiling of references and musical footnotes is the sum total of what constitutes emotional depth and narrative scope in Dream Theater's world. The band position all this as an ouroborus-like nod to the cyclical nature of life and the universe feeding back on itself, but it comes off as a once proud group content to circle the drain while dropping Scooby snacks, all in a calculated attempt to keep the fanboys hanging on every release, petrified that they might miss something, fall out of step with the canon and lose the respect of their fanboy peers. Or, to throw out another comic book analogy, it's like when Marvel circa 1990 would do one of their summer crossover events, which was really just a cynical cash grab to force people to buy horseshit like "Dr. Strange" or "Cloak and Dagger" if they wanted to keep up with what was going on.Yes, alcoholism is indeed a complex and powerful subject, but you can't keep writing about it forever, and the shallow insights Portnoy brings to the table are too maudlin and cliché-ridden to give fans any kind of articulate glimpse into his or any other victim's psyche. His other lyrical offering is "The Best of Times", which was an empty platitude going back to at least Dickens, so shame on you if you automatically assumed it a Styx cover. The chorus, as expected, reeks of an unimproved first draft or even placeholder lyrics: "I'll always remember / those were the best of times / a lifetime together / I'll never forget". Snore. I'd point out another "fun" coincidence in that the band's initials are identical with the abbreviation for delirium tremens, but I don't want to encourage another six-part epilogue on future releases. According to Wikipedia, Portnoy revealed on one of his instructional videos that the group plan to perform the existing epic in its twelve part glory and release it on one of their future live DVDs. Suite love of Jesus, kill me now.Portnoy's primary lyrical foil -- barring the rare James LaBrie or, if you -really- want to go back, John Myung contribution -- has been John Petrucci, and together they pen the entirety of _Black Clouds_. Petrucci, eager to show he can milk a limp dick trope with the best of them, opens the album with "A nightmare to remember / I'd never be the same / what began as laughter / so soon would end as pain". You can't blame the emo kids for this crap. DT have been doing the touchy feely, bleeding heart thing since well before Killswitch Engage or My Chemical Romance arrived on the scene. The drawing room psychology angle has permeated their lyrical enterprises since the debut, _When Dream and Day Unite_, which came out way, way back in 1989, not long after Rush (definitely Portnoy's primary influence, if not DT's as a whole) began abandoning sci-fi and tech-based social commentary and turned inward... for the worse. Since then, even [Rush drummer] Neil Peart has gotten uncomfortably saccharine in his songwriting, and while Portnoy may be the logical successor to Peart on the skins he has been cribbing Peart's lesser lyrical influences all along.For the majority of fans, though, either they won't admit the lyrics are daft or they just don't care, and in the latter case that's perfectly understandable: Dream Theater are exalted first and foremost as musicians, not as poets, and there is little to criticize in the individual dexterity of each band member when they lay into their respective instrument. Portnoy has one of the more monstrous kits in the history of drums, and there's nary a bell nor whistle on that sucker that he lets go to waste. John Myung is probably one of the more unheralded bassists out there, easily capable of dueling G3 alum Petrucci, although Myung usually restricts himself to a more subtle supporting role and lets Jordan Rudess play Jon Lord to Petrucci's Blackmore. _Black Clouds_ finds the band in as fine a form as ever, stretching out their interplay to epic lengths on four of the album's six tracks (and that's assuming you don't consider the 8.5 minutes "A Rite of Passage" chugs along as 'epic'). Album opener "A Nightmare to Remember" takes over 8 minutes to get to the money shot, but the dueling guitar/key solos that dominate the rest of the song are something to behold. After a round or two of the ol' back-and-forth with Petrucci, Rudess employs some histrionic, space rock synth squeals, but -- as with the extended solos on the rest of the album -- much of it sounds orchestrated to be marveled at on the stage rather than through the headphones.In fact, for the past decade much of Dream Theater's entire ethos seems to center around pumping out obligatory, familiar material as an excuse to maintain their road warrior status. When they're not producing studio albums at a steady average of two years apiece they're inundating fans with a slew of live albums, DVD releases and "official" bootlegs, all with the intention of keeping the DT brand in the public eye and generating ticket sales. Sound crass? Cynical? How else to explain that since 2001 they've released a live DVD at the pace of one for every studio album, and that doesn't even take into consideration the slew of assorted bootlegs? Five studio albums in eight years is nothing to scoff at ordinarily, but sit down and compare those discs and a picture of artistic malaise starts to emerge.Following 1999's comeback effort, _Scenes From a Memory_, DT took three years to craft the mammoth followup, _Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence_, a sprawling two disc set that took nearly an hour to knock out five songs on disc one before topping their own unchecked penchant for bloat with the single song, 42-minute title track on disc two. In spite of the unquestionable indulgence -- perhaps in this one instance only even because of it -- _Six Degrees_ may be Dream Theater's finest hour if you can excuse some truly execrable lyrics (this is, after all, where the dreaded "Twelve-step Suite" first reared its toothless head). _Scenes From a Memory_ was somewhat bogged down by its ponderous story line, but with _Six Degrees_ there's a certain gleeful unleashing of talent throughout, having gotten over the compromised, commercial nadir of _Falling Into Infinity_ and winning back both their fans and the record label with the success of _Memory_. Truthfully, the 42-minute disc two, while intending to represent a single song, is sequenced on the CD as eight separate tracks, and despite the continuous flow of the music it doesn't feel any more of a piece than any of their subsequent records.Speaking of the DT penchant for alternately threading together disparate musical elements into one piece then arbitrarily carving them back up again -- or not, depending on the band's seemingly random whim -- it occurred to one of these pranksters somewhere along the way that _Six Degrees_ was their sixth album, and if you consider the title track just one song that makes it an even half dozen with the five epics on disc one (hmm, is that why "Six Degrees", the song, comes off like one of their crammed together live medleys?). 2003 saw the release of _Train of Thought_, the seventh DT album, which contained -- wait for it -- SEVEN songs. That's right! Fun, huh? There's more! In 2005 -- back to the two year gap now that DVDs and their accompanying live albums are routinely following every studio release -- we get album number eight, which not only features eight songs but is dubbed _Octavarium_, so you even get the numerology angle factoring into the album title as well! Where did these guys ever come up with this shit???Now, far from Morbid Angel's innocuous theme of naming each subsequent record according to the alphabet, like some demonic cross between "Sesame Street" and Sue Grafton (look her up), deciding in advance that for some gimmicky reason you want x number of tracks on a CD, and still use up almost all of the 80 minute running time in each instance, certainly paints the band's commitment to meaningful songwriting in a questionable light. _Train of Thought_ is often cited as a musical departure after _Six Degrees_. It's not. It's just heavier. _Octavarium_ is often cited as a musical departure after _Train of Thought_. It's not. It's just weaker. They upped the quality again with 2007's _Systematic Chaos_ (only eight tracks this time, sorry) but that brings us to this year's _Black Clouds and Silver Linings_: it sounds an awful lot like _Chaos_ to anyone who hasn't pored over the prior record with a fine tooth comb, which is the problem with modern day Dream Theater in a nutshell. They've fallen into a rut of pleasant interchangeability. _Octavarium_ really only disappointed in its first two songs, otherwise there's no compelling reason for the casual fan to prefer any latter period album over another, including this new one. Each of these records features unflagging virtuosity and an almost manic dedication to being the best at their chosen instrument, but you have to go all the way back to _Awake_ to find any kind of consistency in actual standout -songs-, as opposed to -compositions-. If all you want is compositions DT can churn those out with workmanlike precision eight days a week, just don't expect any given one of them to be more memorable than another.The last thing I want to cover is the extra content on the special edition. It's 2009, after all, and you can't make those ducats anymore without putting together a little something extra for the fanboy with deep pockets, so on top of the barebones album itself _Black Clouds and Silver Linings_ is also available in a three-disc Special Edition and a Deluxe Collector's Edition box set. The latter has all three discs from the merely "special" edition but also pulls out the stops with a 180 gram vinyl LP, a DVD with the isolated audio tracks for each instrument (!) and some other junk I'm not going to go into. Suffice to say that regardless of how useless the extra shit is, you're helping Mike Portnoy add a new toy to his drum set, and we'll leave it at that.The special edition complements the album with a second disc of cover tunes and a third disc of instrumental versions of all six album tracks. In the past this bonus material would have been released directly through the band's own Ytsejam boutique label, but they're on Roadrunner now, and if you're not already aware of how much Roadrunner looooooves to milk the hell out of a release through multiple editions, then you haven't been fleeced by the best (I myself plan to be buried in a Roadrunner coffin, but don't tell nobody).The instrumental versions are worthless to anyone other than fanboy musicians and karaoke geeks, so there's no need to even discuss them at all. If you're buying the special edition you want the cover tunes, and more power to you for that. As much as I take beef with the band for regurgitating the same wank fests over and over instead of writing songs, I do salute their taste in music, and I'm the first to admit that it's always entertaining listening to them cover other people's tunes. That said, when they do so, it does bring into focus the relative weakness and uninventive nature of James LaBrie's vocal interpretations. Now I agree he's got a hell of a set of pipes, but I've always contended that he's failed to develop a truly original voice or nuanced singing style over the years, and when he puts himself up against some of the all time greats, it casts these inadequacies into stark relief.LaBrie chews his way through the scenery of Rainbow's "Stargazer" with teeth gnashing aplomb, but there's no sense of the pathos Ronnie James Dio infused the original story song with courtesy his anguished howling. Similarly, there's arguably no more divisive vocal effort in the hard rock genre than Zebra's hilarious yet affectionately scrappy 1983 classic, "Take Your Fingers From My Hair", but even though LaBrie irons out the more jarring (and screechy) vocal transitions of the vintage recording, he makes no attempt to improve upon them, sounding as if he's going through the motions more so than ever. One may argue that at least James isn't rehashing the original's vocal delivery, but I'd counter with the notion that singing every cover tune as if it were a Dream Theater outtake neither does justice to the source material nor truly honors the original artist either. I'd also go so far as to say that his singing on even DT material can get uncomfortably close to the AOR schmaltz of Richard Marx on its quieter moments, but we'll pick on James again the next time the band xerox an album and put it out under a different title. In the end, LaBrie's shortcomings are those of the group as a whole, and by now their steadfast refusal to play by anyone's rules other than their own offers great comfort food to their fan base, and in portions that rival any Vegas buffet you will ever stumble across. So come, my children, eat of their flesh, drink of their blood, and don't forget to buy another DVD while you're at it.
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