THE GRATEFUL DEAD have become a genre unto themselves; they have developed a sound and an audience that's largely separate from the rest of rock 'n' roll.

Their music doesn't really rock so much as it rolls along, buoyed by rumbling drum rolls and elongated guitar phrases; their lyrics reflect not so much an individual voice as passed-along folk aphorisms. Their appeal has often been an indecipherable code to the uninitiated, but their first studio album in seven years, "In the Dark," breaks down that code to let the rest of the world in. The result is their best record in 15 years and their highest-charting album ever.

The record works because the band treats the seven compositions as real songs rather than as mere vehicles for generic Dead music. The songs actually boast memorable melodies, focused narratives and rhythmic momentum. Many of the songs address the issue of aging, which creates a welcome tension with the band's usual romanticism.

Several tunes rank with the best the Dead have ever written: Jerry Garcia's parable-ballad, "Black Muddy River"; Brent Mydland's rollicking train song, "Tons of Steel"; Bob Weir's call-and-response metaphysical boogie, "Throwing Stones"; and the band's first-ever hit single, "Touch of Grey."

THE GRATEFUL DEAD --

"In the Dark" (Arista AL-8542). Appearing all weekend (and sold out) at Capital Centre.