After finally running out their 13-year, seven-plus album deal with a poisonously indifferent Atlantic Records via 2005's workmanlike Octavarium, progressive metal standard bearers Dream Theater took advantage of their well earned free agent status to enjoy a heated courtship from several interested labels, before eventually settling on the artistically simpatico Roadrunner. But, ironically, Dream Theater's first album for the label that heavy metal built, 2007's Systematic Chaos, was relatively accessible by the group's standards, complementing every epic and complex composition with a comparatively concise and hooky song, thus leaving it to its 2009 successor, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, to really flex the band's progressive metal muscles to their maximum girth. And in fact, Dream Theater's tenth long-player is about as dense and challenging as any album in their daunting discography (and certainly the darkest of spirit since 2003's Train of Thought), by emphasizing not only the virtuoso members' ever stupefying musicianship, but also their most aggressive and thoroughly metallic songwriting tendencies. Sixteen-minute opener "A Nightmare to Remember" and its half-as-long follow-up, "A Rite of Passage" (later edited further for release as the album's first single), quickly establish this agenda via frequently thrash-paced staccato riffing, some of John Petrucci's most blistering guitar solos ever, and the return of drummer Mike Portnoy's syncopated growls (no doubt inspired by his pal Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth), providing contrast for singer James LaBrie's soaring melodic elegance. Third track "Whither" -- a tender ballad and mere babe at five minutes in length -- is this album's only concession to commerce (and one of Dream Theater's better stabs at the form it is, too); but after that it's right back to prog rock in excelsis, via the final chapter in the band's "AA Saga," "The Shattered Fortress," which references songs from previous albums such as "The Glass Prison" and "The Root of All Evil," in emulation of the "Conceptual Continuity Clues" method favored by one of Portnoy's heroes, Frank Zappa. Only two, not surprisingly massive song suites remain now, and interestingly, both pay evident tribute to Rush! First up, "The Best of Times" boasts an extremely Alex Lifeson-like lead guitar motif and verse chords that were clearly evolved from "The Spirit of Radio," later showcasing the most versatile and classically steeped performance on this record by keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess. Second, the revealingly named "The Count of Tuscany" (surely a thinly veiled allusion to the Rush's famed instrumental, "La Villa Strangiato") catches Portnoy in the act of outright Neil Peart worship, colluding with Petrucci on their own version of "Xanadu" before leading their bandmates into another heady prog-metal magnum opus brimming with more ideas, notes, and time changes over 19 minutes than most bands bother with over a ten album career. That last bit sound at all familiar? That's because, at the end of the day, one must admit that Black Clouds & Silver Linings, for all its abundantly positive qualities and minor but clear distinctions from prior efforts, is still an archetypal Dream Theater album; one that's unlikely to broaden their audience all that much, but is conversely guaranteed to thrill their hardcore converts with its renewed devotion to the most exigent and stimulating facets of the band's chosen musical domain.
AllMusic Review by Eduardo Rivadavia