"This album's a musical and emotional rollercoaster, but most of our albums are," Mike Portnoy says of Black Clouds & Silver Linings, Dream Theater's tenth studio album and second Roadrunner release.
Black Clouds & Silver Linings marks another milestone on Dream Theater's iconoclastic musical journey, which began two and a half decades ago and now encompasses a hugely impressive body of music that's established the durable progressive metal outfit as a one-of-a-kind creative force with a fiercely devoted international fan base.
The new album—produced by band members Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci, who also serve as the group's main lyricists—offers a vibrant manifestation of the world-class musicianship, vivid lyrical scenarios and ambitious, multi-leveled compositions that have established Dream Theater as a uniquely compelling creative force.
Black Clouds & Silver Linings features a pair of concise numbers, "A Rite of Passage" and "Wither," along with four longer pieces that exemplify the band's knack for extended, multi-part epics. Those tracks—"A Nightmare to Remember," "The Shattered Fortress," "The Best of Times" and the near-20-minute album-closer "The Count of Tuscany"—showcase the compositional complexity, instrumental expertise and emotional immediacy for which the quintet has become known, along with spacious, crystalline production that emphasizes the sonic nuances of the band's playing and arrangements.
"I think that this album is taking all the things that our fans love about us and putting them all in one place," states Portnoy. "A lot of the music is dark and heavy, but at the same time it has a lot of soft and melodic edges that are equally important to our sound. I compare it to what Yes did with Close to the Edge or what Rush did with Hemispheres, where they put out a single album with just a few huge songs."
Black Clouds & Silver Linings' title reflects the personally charged lyrical themes that give the album an introspective depth that balances the music's widescreen scope. "Both of those sides have always been reflected in our music, and I think that that balance has gotten more refined as we've continued," John Petrucci says. "I think that a lot of this record is telling stories about things that we've lived through. Sometimes it's fun to write fantasy-based things, but it's definitely more satisfying when you can use real-life situations to tell a story."
"Many of these songs have a very personal attachment to me," says Portnoy. ‘The Best of Times' is about losing my dad, who was battling cancer throughout the making of this record. And ‘The Shattered Fortress' is the closing chapter to a 12-part series of songs dealing with the 12 steps of recovery, which started five albums ago. That's been a big part of my life, being clean and sober for nine years, and a lot of people have told me how much those songs have meant to them."
Dream Theater's knack for balancing the epic and the intimate has been a constant throughout the band's lengthy evolution. The group first came together in 1985, when Petrucci, Portnoy and bassist John Myung were students at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Initially known as Majesty, the nascent combo quickly gained a reputation in the grassroots metal underground, with their cassette The Majesty Demos becoming a sought-after item in the metal community.
Dream Theater made a mainstream splash with their 1992 sophomore album Images And Words, which spawned the MTV-fueled hit "Pull Me Under." The band then began a long association with Atlantic/East West, achieving substantial success with the albums Images and Words, Awake, Falling into Infinity, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Train of Thought and Octavarium. The group's skill and versatility expanded with the crucial additions of lead vocalist James LaBrie in 1991 and keyboardist Jordan Rudess in 1999.
Dream Theater's individualistic approach often put the band at odds with the methods of the major-label world. But their dynamic recorded output and exciting, surprise-filled live shows nonetheless earned the group a large and uncommonly loyal worldwide audience.
"Being on a major label never really felt like the right place for us, but they kept renewing our contract because our fan base was strong enough to justify it," Portnoy says. "They tried to get us onto the radio, and tried to promote us through all of the traditional means, but we always felt like a round peg in a square hole."
With 2007's acclaimed Systematic Chaos, Dream Theater moved to the more hospitable environment of Roadrunner Records. The move yielded immediate results, with Systematic Chaos becoming the band's highest-charting album to date. The album's release coincided with the publication of Lifting Shadows, an authorized biography recounting Dream Theater's first twenty years.
"Once we came to Roadrunner, it really felt like home," Portnoy states. "I think they understand how to deal with a band like us, and they trust us to give us the space to do what we do."
Dream Theater may well be the ultimate cult band, receiving relatively little mainstream exposure yet continuing to make music on their own terms while maintaining a large international fan following, whose devotion is anything but casual.
"We're probably the only band that can fill Radio City Music Hall in New York or Wembley Arena in London or the Budokan in Tokyo and still not be a household name," Portnoy notes. "But in some ways, that's worked in our favor, because we've never had to worry about being overexposed or being a flash in the pan. Dream Theater fans are amongst the most hardcore, lifelong fans you'll ever see. We have fans who follow us around on tour and rework their lives around our tour schedule, and now they're bringing their kids to the shows."
"It definitely takes a certain attention span to be a Dream Theater fan," Petrucci points out. "The fact that we use unusual arrangements and longer song lengths to develop ideas and tell a story can scare people off, because it's not party music that you can just put on in the background. But the people who get it are passionate about it. I think they appreciate that we never phone it in, and they know that they can expect something interesting from us."
"Being a Dream Theater fan is a commitment, but I think that you get out of it what you put into it," adds Portnoy, who oversees the archival official-bootleg and fan-club releases that the band regularly makes available to fans through the band's YtseJam label. "Not everybody is willing to take the journey, but I think that if you're willing to invest the time, it's gonna be that much more fulfilling. And the reward for us is having these fans that have really stuck by us and helped to sustain us."
Dream Theater's restless creativity extends to their high-energy live shows, which have become more ambitious and diverse, as the band's career has progressed. One distinctive aspect of Dream Theater's concerts is their ever-changing set list, which Portnoy oversees to ensure that no two shows are alike.
The band's fans have also enthusiastically supported a variety of adventurous side projects featuring Dream Theater members, including Liquid Tension Experiment, Explorers Club, MullMuzzler, OSI, Platypus, The Jelly Jam, Transatlantic and True Symphonic Rockestra. But it's Dream Theater that commands the lion's share of the five musicians' attentions, and their longstanding creative rapport has never been more riveting than on Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
"This album was made similarly to the way that our last five or six records were made," says Portnoy, "which is that we move into a recording studio empty-handed, without writing anything individually or in advance. We write all the music in the studio and we record each song when it's completed. We've always made records by banging it out together in the same room, bouncing ideas off of each other. Not many bands work that way anymore, but we feel it's very important to work together as a band, because you can't replace that chemistry. You can't make a Dream Theater record through the mail."
That organic honesty gives some hint of why, after nearly a quarter-century of existence, Dream Theater continues to thrive. "We were never an overnight sensation, and we never had the quick rise and the quick burnout that happens with so many bands," asserts Portnoy. "Instead, we've had this long, slow-building, sustained career that's allowed us to develop and evolve and grow. But I think that we still have the same spirit and the same values that we had when we formed the band 24 years ago.
"We're in an amazing situation now, where we have complete creative freedom," Portnoy concludes. "We can make any kind of record we want, and know that fans and our label will support it. We're basically making records for ourselves and our fans, and not having to worry about what anyone else thinks. It's taken 24 years to earn that, but now that we have, it's a great place to be."