LaBrie has produced an album that is less instantaneously gratifying than previous solo efforts but overall is a more varied and satisfying listen.
James LaBrie is a name familiar with most readers as the singer for prog metal heavyweights Dream Theater. He’s had that role for three decades now, having joined the band just prior to their breakthrough album Images And Words. For whatever reasons, LaBrie’s contribution to the writing of Dream Theater’s material over the year has been limited. It is even quite rare that the lyrics are credited to him. It’s therefore no surprise that he’s used time off from Dream Theater to progress his own solo career, firstly with two albums as part of a group he put together called MullMuzzler, and a further three under his own name. Beautiful Shade Of Grey is now his fourth solo release, and sixth away from the Dream Theater mothership.
LaBrie has been careful to avoid aping Dream Theater, eschewing the long virtuoso pieces that the band is known for. Nevertheless, his solo work so far would still fall under the prog metal category, with diverse side influences – speed metal on 2010’s Static Impulse and even death metal on 2013’s Impermanent Resonance. One could say he’s explored all the beautiful shades of prog metal! But if prog metal is the colour grey then this album is…..well, pink. It is just so very different from what LaBrie fans might expect. It is devoid of any prog metal influences. Actually, it is just about devoid of any metal influences. There’s a whole lot more acoustic than electric guitar on this album. But it’s not all soft pop ballads by any means; this is still a rock album, just a little more subtle and laid back than most. LaBrie fans might baulk at the change of direction, but those who listen with an open mind will find plenty to enjoy.
The genesis of the album lies in the relationship between LaBrie and Paul Logue (Eden’s Curse). LaBrie met Logue when contributing vocals to Eden’s Curse’s song No Holy Man in 2011. The idea of a project together was born there but it wasn’t until a chance meeting at Glasgow airport just before the pandemic, and the lockdown then gave them the time needed to work together. The only survivor from the 2013 team that put together Impermanent Resonances is guitarist Marco Sfogli (PFM) and it’s a credit to him that his musicianship still stands out in this very different music. Logue recruited Eden’s Curse keyboardist Christian Pulkkinen to lend his playing on the record, while James’s son Chance plays drums to complete the line-up.
If we leave aside the pleasant little forty-eight second a cappella Conscience Calling, there are ten tracks here, which in reality are nine since Devil In Drag both opens and closes the album. Devil In Drag is an excellent choice to bookend the album since it’s driven by an energetic funky rhythm and will get those feet tapping. It’s a rock song for sure but the guitars are mostly acoustic. Watch out for the delicious little acoustic guitar solo around the four-minute mark. The version that closes the album has the subtitle ‘Electric Version’ and is, as you might guess, a heavier version with electric guitars more prevalent. Sfogli gives us another great short solo but this time on electric guitar.
The lead single off the album is the radio friendly Give And Take. It opens with more excellent acoustic guitar work from Sfogli before LaBrie enters and delivers what is pretty much an ‘80s power ballad. It’s a good rather than a great song but it’s a fine example of how LaBrie’s magnetic voice can carry a song. Another radio friendly piece is What I Missed which starts off with ominous piano tones but leads to a bridge and catchy chorus with vocal harmonies which sounds distinctly in the style of the Bee Gees to me (I confess I do like The Bee Gees!).
Wildflower is less commercial than some here but is one of the more interesting pieces. It is another acoustically driven piece, awash with strings, characterised by an upbeat cheerful melody but it turns darker and angrier as the song progresses. Lyrically LaBrie describes this as about ‘someone who started out as a decent human being, but along the way lost touch with their roots – over time becoming self-serving, narcissistic and devoid of principles or values’. And that description also hints at the meaning of the title of the album which LaBrie reveals in this way: ‘A lot of these lyrics are dealing with the beauty of human beings, and a lot are dealing with the grey areas of the in between’.
The ballad Sunset Ruin represents a tribute to LaBrie’s brother who passed away because of cancer. It is a little predictable musically but has a gentle life-affirming chorus and not surprisingly there’s a powerful emotional vocal delivery from LaBrie. Another ballad which doesn’t quite manage to deliver the goods is Am I Right which starts off promisingly with a fine melody, but the song then frustratingly develops around the rather mundane chorus. There’s the odd inclusion of a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Ramble On. There is some logic musically to the choice since it’s acoustically driven like most of the material here and LaBrie does do a creditable impersonation of Robert Plant. There’s really no difference to the original though which is a pity since that was an opportunity missed to put a different slant on the song.
All in all, LaBrie has produced an album that is less instantaneously gratifying than previous solo efforts but overall is a more varied and satisfying listen. He’s taken a risk moving into a more mainstream AOR territory, and to be fair it doesn’t always pay off, but thanks to a handful of great melodies and some consistently fine guitar work from Marco Sfogli it is well worth listening to.