By N. Lynn

It has been said that you cannot judge a book by its cover, and the same can probably be said of albums as well.  But when the album cover was first unveiled and the track listing revealed, Black Clouds & Silver Linings became subject to a lot of speculation.  With the Majesty logo and imagery reminiscent of some of Dream Theater’s earlier albums, expectations were already pretty high.  That and the fact that Dream Theater is often the standard by which others are compared, which makes anything they release subject to more scrutiny.

There’s nothing really groundbreaking here, but this is no mere retread of what the band has done before.  With four of the songs running over 12 minutes, expect the usual staples of a Dream Theater album – changing musical styles, frequent time changes and the usual complement of finger blistering solos from John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess as they continue to push their instruments of choice to the limit while John Myung and Mike Portnoy work in tandem to keep things moving along, the drums occasionally coming to the forefront.  James LaBrie does an exceptional job here, sounding as good as he ever has, with Portnoy and Petrucci adding some depth to the songs with backing vocals.

“A Nightmare To Remember” starts off the album with a killer introduction that sounds like something you might hear from a ‘heavier’ band, progressive metal or otherwise (think gothic or symphonic metal, perhaps even some of the darker stuff out there).  It then shifts into more familiar material, with lyrics by Petrucci about an accident he was in as a child.  Expect to hear some explosive guitar and keyboard mastery in between passages of relative calm.  Mike Portnoy’s vocals seem out of place and the grunt (or whatever you want to call it) at the end of his verse kind of ruins it, but fortunately doesn’t kill the rest of the song.

The only song that isn’t about the personal experiences of Petrucci or Portnoy is “A Rite Of Passage”, a song about Freemasonry.  Out all all the songs on the album, this one is probably most like Dream Theater from their last few albums, climaxing with a keyboard/guitar duel before the band wraps things up.  Next up is “Wither”, the only song written entirely by John Petrucci.  The shortest song on the album, it’s a ballad about dealing with writer’s block.  It’s a decent song, but it hasn’t left a lasting impression on me one way or the other.

As with previous songs in the suite, it features shared lyrics and music and ends with the same chord that opened “The Glass Prison” on Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence.  It’s a nice way to end the suite, featuring some of the best material (musically and lyrically) on the album, even if borrowed from previous songs.  With all five parts completed, the suite comes to just over 57 minutes in length, possibly appearing together in the future.

“The Best Of Times” was written by Mike Portnoy for his father about their relationship over the years, a touching and fitting tribute that Mike’s father was fortunately able to hear before he died earlier this year.  It’s certainly a highlight of the album that some fans can connect to.

The album ends with “The Count Of Tuscany”, the longest song on the album, telling of an encounter that John Petrruci once had.  While Portnoy’s vocals may be hit or miss, this song is where his contributions may be at their best.  At over 19 minutes in length, it may be a bit harder to get into at first, but it has all of the elements (and then some) that make this an epic that can be probably be mentioned in the same breath as “A Change Of Seasons” or “Octavarium”.  A lot going on here and a great way to end the album.

So, after over twenty years and ten albums (plus A Change Of SeasonsGreatest Hit and their live albums), Dream Theater have delivered something that should appeal to most of their fans, with plenty of ‘old school’ moments combined with some of the streamline elements they have picked up over the years.  This is not a comeback, though – they never went away or derailed themselves.  Black Clouds & Silver Linings may not be the second coming of Awake or Scenes From A Memory (nor should it be), but it could be one of the strongest albums of their career.

As good as the album itself turned out, I feel that I can’t overlook the material from the Special Edition, if only because of how impressed I was with the cover songs.  All six are as good as can be expected from Dream Theater, but I think the first two go above and beyond what Dream Theater has done with covers before.

Rainbow’s “Stargazer” kicks of the CD, which I think should be considered one of the best covers Dream Theater has ever done.  It retains the feel of the original, thanks in no small part to the guitar and keyboard.  Though James doesn’t sound like Dio, but there are times when it is possible to hear a bit of him in LaBrie’s voice anyway.  This may be the best song on the CD, but it’s not as impressive as what follows.  Their Queen ‘medley’ consists of “Tenement Funster”, “Flick Of The Wrist” and “Lily Of The Valley” as a single track, rather than a trio of overlapping songs as on Sheer Heart Attack.  Petrucci’s guitar is true to what Brian May does and like with Dio on the previous track, LaBrie is able to pull off some Freddie Mercury-like vocals at times (the tremble in his voice comes to mind), aided by vocal touches in the background that help identify this as material from Queen.

The Dixie Dregs, King Crimson and Zebra also get the Dream Theater treatment, leading up to the first of the covers to be recorded, Iron Maiden’s “To Tame A Land” (which appeared on Kerrang’s Maiden Heaven tribute CD last year).  It’s as good as any of the other cover songs, but the sitar sound present throughout the song helps set it apart.

The third disc contains instrumental mixes of each of the songs from the album. It’s okay for a listen or two, but without the vocals or the solos, this disc has limited appeal.  Some will like it, some won’t.

That said, the Special Edition is worth grabbing if you can get it.  The covers are well worth it and had they been included with the ‘regular’ edition, they could easily steal the show.  Don’t get me wrong though, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a great album on its own.  Consider the covers to be like a dessert.