Monday, July 6, 2009

Soundtrack to a Silver Lining

My thoughts on the new Dream Theater CD, Black Clouds and Silver Linings:

Like many Dream Theater albums, and a lot of progressive music in general, this one is kind of a grower. I'm going to buy any Dream Theater album, but I read a few reviews before getting this one, and most of them printed up adjectives like 'accessible', 'dark', 'heavy', etc. etc.

Any of those descriptors could be good or bad for you depending on why you listen to Dream Theater. They have their soft, wimpy CDs and they have their harder, more metal albums and they tend to more-or-less alternate between those two ends. And I'm talking about overall feel on each album... obviously a soft album might have a heavy song, or vice versa.

So I was surprised reading the reviews, because Systematic Chaos was considered a heavy album in DT terms, so we were due for the traditional wimpy one, in the vein of Octavarium or A Change of Seasons. Being the stalwart metalhead, I prefer the heavy episodes.

Playing it though... enh. Not so heavy. Or so I thought at first. The first song on a DT album is almost always the heaviest, even on the softer albums it can be pretty rockin'. But after that inital cut the rest of it just seemed... well, 'typical'. It wasn't bad or anything. Just not the generator of such superlatives as 'heaviest yet' and 'really dark'.

Dream Theater is one of the bands some music periodicals like to call nerd-metal. It isn't nerdy in the sense of some power metal or progressive metal bands with their fantasy-drenched lyrics (think Symphony X or for the really over-the-top Rhapsody of Fire). Its more the intricate musicianship, with its time changes, multi-part epics, and acoustic interludes all adding up to an obtuse listening experience that makes the fans feel exclusive if not elite. People who listened to Yes or King Crimson in the '70s felt the same way, but they weren't tagged as nerds yet. There's actually a lot of weird, opaque, but accomplished music out there and it usually has a core cadre of diehards as fans of the New York Dolls, the Mars Volta, or VAST can tell you.

Its all nerd music. Anyway. I'm not hearing the heaviness. The album even includes a CD of covers that range from Queen to Dixie Dregs so that ain't really pushing up the metal quotient (Iron Maiden cover notwithstanding) though the DT renditions are not less rockin' than the originals. But the edition I bought also includes an instrumental CD of all the originals. When I put THAT one on, suddenly the heaviness came through.

Huh? Is the music on there different than the primary disc? Not really. There is just something about vocalist James Labrie's singing that softens it all up. I never cottoned to that fact before. Although singers for power and progressive metal bands have to be pretty versatile... so that means they have to be able to sing softly and way high up in the pussy registers... James isn't really a wuss-puss singer. He does a really passable Freddie Mercury impression at the end of the Queen cover on the other CD, but in the main he doesn't have a flowery voice. He doesn't really look wimpy either. He's kind of a big guy and has a really huge mane of long hair with these sort of straight eyebrows that make him look a bit put off all the time. He's a good singer. Nothing wrong with him. But without his vocals the album is a lot more metal. It made me re-listen to the regular CD, and now after quite a few listens THAT one seems heavier too. I'm catching the metal behind the vocals that I'd missed before.

Maybe there's such a thing as listening to a band so much that your expectations actually occlude what you are hearing.

Anyway. NOW I'd throw myself into the heavy camp describing this album. The music is NOT accessible in the old radio-friendly sense. The songs are long, and wend there way through hard and soft passages as progressive rock/metal does. The musicianship is superlative as usual with this band. I thought they'd kind of put the metal back into their music with the last album but this one actually goes quite a bit further. There's really only one track that doesn't have some thrash passage or serious double-bass (if that's your measure of metal) and that's the song Wither... which is the shortest song on here.

So it sounds like the Berklee boys had metal for breakfast. Their jacket photo looks like they are trying to convince us. But the music says that well enough. Wouldn't say it is album of the year for me, but its up there.

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