Twenty-five years into their career, Dream Theater are sounding more energetic and inspired than they have since 2003's "Train of Thought."
And that's a good thing, because while most great bands have capsized by that point (just look at the careers of Led Zeppelin, Yes, Metallica, and so on), more is being expected from Dream Theater by the fans and, presumably, the label than ever before. Fortunately, "Black Clouds & Silver Linings" does not disappoint, and actually works as a great starting point for most newcomers.
"A Nightmare to Remember," the opening track, is a good example of everything Dream Theater are doing right on this one. It begins with a crash, followed by what is uncontestedly the heaviest introduction in Dream Theater history- it's the type of Progressive Metal fireworks that we've heard before on songs like Honor Thy Father and This Dying Soul. Though the song takes a drastic Pink Floyd inspired turn at the five minute mark, about three minutes later the band quite violently pulls us from the eye of the storm, and delivers the obligatory back-and-forth soloing from Mr. Petrucci and Mr. Rudess, which is followed by a genuinely "creepy" unison, and then some instrumental stuff which calls to mind the type of thing you'd hear at the end of an old silent film- one of those parts that means to say, "it's over, but there's still something lurking behind that corner."
"Wither," and "A Rite of Passage" are great songs in their own right, too. Both are the singles, and both are arguably stronger than any singles the band have put out since Pull Me Under.
The central song on the album is probably the weakest, and that is "The Shattered Fortress." While the song isn't bad, it certainly pulls more from the previous songs in the saga than the others have. There's very little original music here, and while the first half is great, especially James vocals, the rest, barring the outro, is simply forgettable. The whole things sounds like an overture moreso than an actual new installment, which is unfortunate as it's the last.
"The Best of Times" and "The Count of Tuscany" serve as a one-two punch at the end; two "classic" style DT fans that are abound to impress even the most skeptical of fans. With its harmonic intro, violent middle section, spherical middle-part and acoustic fade in, it's bound to draw some comparisons to Yes' "Gates of Delirium." Some will object to the latter song's all-out goofiness, and, alas, this isn't "Voices," but it's definitely Dream Theater having fun at what they do while not taking themselves too seriously. As an epic, it's easily better than "In The Presence of Enemies," and I'd say that some fans will even like it better than "Octavarium" and "A Change of Seasons."
What else is there to say? Rudess and Petrucci both stand out incredibly here, with Petrucci literally beasting each of the songs with one of the best guitar solos you've ever heard. James LaBrie is in top form, as usual, and Mike Portnoy is playing more tastefully than ever. John Myung seems to have been turned up in the mix, also. And, of course, there's the cover songs, which I haven't even mentioned yet. The songs, which were released one at a time in the weeks leading up to the album, are for the most part fresh takes on Dream Theater's classic influences; and though there's only six of them they still amount to over forty minutes of additional music. Dream Theater cover some relatively obscure stuff like Dixie Dregs and Zebra, their obvious influences like Rainbow and Maiden, and, of course, what has already been described by Queen guitarist Brian May as the "best Queen cover ever."
The album sounds better than Systematic Chaos, looks better than Systematic Chaos, and goes by its seventy-plus minutes without any of the predecessor's drag or boring moments. Of course, there's some things left to be desired. For example, it'd be nice to see the band take the time to put out another album with a unified lyrical and musical theme again, and one of the albums songs, "The Shattered Fortress," doesn't work so well on its own as much as it effectively closes out the five album spanning "12 Step Suite," but those are hardly gripes that warrant any kind of serious disappointment. The bottom line is that Black Clouds & Silver Linings is the best album Dream Theater have made in a long time, and it's also a very accessible album that is a good starting point for anyone who wants to know what they've been missing out on for the past twenty years. Dream Theater fans should pick it up without hesitation, as well as anybody who likes good rock and metal music that's also a little bit more.
I give the album a 90/100; which just barely rounds up to 5 stars.