Update: I’ll raise my score to 8,5 of 10. Why? I have been listening constantly and liking most songs more and more. Still no 10, because I still think that you can hear that writing took place without Mangini. But the album has definitely entered my top 5 DT album list.
After the first listen, I was ready to put all my dismay into reviewing this album that I was very much looking forward to, especially since Black Cloud & Silver Linings was the first Dream Theater album in a long time that I really liked. However, after giving it some thought (and some more ear-time), I am not so sure anymore. Some primers: I have been listening to Dream Theater since some time between Images & Words and Awake. From the Awake tour to Scenes from our Memories I have seen every tour, sometimes even caught more than one show. Collected countless live tapes back in the days. Watched “The Spirit Carries on” relieved and fascinated. Favorite albums are I&W, Awake and Scenes from a Memory.
When I read the early reviews and many interviews and two things started bugging me: The constant comparison of the new tracks with older hits, and the fact that they wrote the album without the drummer. Let’s do a quick run-down of the songs before I cast my verdict.
On the Back of Angels – The teaser track. I didn’t get it at first, but after more than 10 listens I think it works quite nice, opening up the ears for what’s to come.
Build me Up, Break me Down – Think Linkin Park meets Dream Theater. It’ll go down as ADToE’s You not me, very radio-friendly. And no, I am not a fan of LaBrie going back to the screaming department.
Lost Not Forgotten – People will say the opening sounds like Under a Glass Moon, and it does. A lot. But then it doesn’t match the variation of the original. After some high-speed wanking the song really starts, and is not my favorite. This song shows the missing red thread of the album, actually the song has not red thread in itself…
This is the Life – This is actually a beautiful song. Great melody that highlights LaBrie’s vocals. Balladesque, not as dreary as Wither, nice guitar solo.
Bridges in the Sky – (Formerly titled The Shaman). I don’t care much for the chorus hookline nor the lyrics I have to say, but basically all this is just build up to a long instrumental section.
Outcry – Finally a guitar riff to my liking. Not quite About to Crash nor Finally Free, but very catchy.
Far from Heaven – A real ballad, no drums at all. Really beautiful melody, I like the lyrics as well as the string sections.
Breaking all Illusions – Great song, including the instrumental section. Long. I like.
Beneath the Surface – Another ballad. Also catchy.
So, what’s my early verdict? I am sure composing without a drummer partly lead to two songs no drums at all and an additional ballad. I like those three songs. I have an issue with the other songs though. Nothing against Mangini’s playing but if anybody had doubts whether he’d be able to fill Portnoy’s shoes he won’t find the answer on this album. Sure he can play it all, but the drum parts are somewhat disconnected in the song structure. They don’t sound programmed per se (although that’s how they wrote the songs, with a drum computer), but I am sure the songs would have sounded much better if Mangini had been part of the composition progress. Many of the songs sound great from Petrucci, Myung and Rudess’s point of view, and then the said “ok, what can we do with the drums here”. Melody-wise and also guitar sound-wise I felt myself thinking about Scenes from a Memory quite often, unfortunately the composition isn’t quite there.
Concluding, this is not a bad album. But it also isn’t the holy grail of prog and “return to DT as it should be”. I’d say 7 of 10 points, and please consider to include Mangini in the composition process next time.