Tuesday 7 June 2022

James LaBrie - Beautiful Shade of Grey (2022)

Country: Canada
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 May 2022
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If you don't know the name, James LaBrie is best known as the lead singer for Dream Theater, the day job he's had for only three decades now. What you need to know right now is the sound you're automatically think of is not the sound of this fourth solo album. Sure, LaBrie sings prog metal in a prog metal band, but he also used to be in a glam metal band called Winter Rose (as did Sebastian Bach of Skid Row) and he's cited a diverse set of influences, from Freddie Mercury to Jeff Buckley, via a whole slew of major names from elsewhere in the rock genres, like Robert Plant, Lou Gramm and Steven Tyler.

And, quite frankly, he runs the gamut of all of that here. Devil in Drag, which bookends the album in two different versions, is the closest to prog metal, I think, though it's much lighter in a number of ways than Dream Theater. It's not as heavy for a start, but it's not as reliant on an instrumental aspect either; LaBrie's voice is definitely the centerpiece, though there's a neat riff and sections for swirling keyboards to take over. It's not light years away from Dream Theater in a commercial vein. It's the logical opener, of course, to make fans of that band feel at home here.

SuperNova Girl, however, starts the variety. I can't quite decide if it's a Styx ballad heavied up just a little or a glam metal power ballad softened up. Either way, it's the point at which we notice the similarities between LaBrie's voice and Tommy Shaw's, much more than Dennis DeYoung's. And if we don't, then Am I Right makes it unmissable. That's much later on the album, but it's even more of a Styx ballad, as covered by a contemporary singer/songwriter. It starts out breathy, as if LaBrie is perched on a stool in a coffee bar trying (and presumably) to grab customers' attention for tips. As it escalates a little and the breathiness decreases, the Tommy Shaw kicks in and this becomes a perfect audition for a genre shift. What's more, it builds almost into a gospel number, courtesy of some notable backing vocals.

I do like this attempt to channel another band's sound without actually covering a song of theirs. It's far more successful than the next song, which is a cover of Led Zeppelin's Ramble On. LaBrie is a fan of Zeppelin, which shouldn't surprise anyone, and he's said that he took the acoustic side of that band as a key inspiration here, because of "their organic approach to their songs". It's not a poor cover, let alone a bad one, but it doesn't add anything to the original and it was never going to surpass it, so the point is lost. It works best here as a key to what happens in other songs.

It's there in the rich cello of Sunset Ruin and the careful use of repetition in building a verse. It's a gimme in how these songs develop, because most have a clear arc to follow. It's in the interplay of vocals and guitar in Wildflower, enhanced by the additional presence of a violin. It doesn't take a lot of digging to find a Robert Plant influence here and not much more to find Zep in other forms. The more I listened through, the more I caught, even if it was just a background guitar rhythm.

It certainly isn't all Styx or Zep, though, just as it isn't often Dream Theater. It's often a mix of the three, along with other styles entirely. Heck, Conscience Calling ditches instrumentation entirely, going entirely a cappella, even if it's only for forty-eight seconds. The best song here, which to my thinking is What I Missed, almost has a sassy pop diva sensibility to it, even if it's phrased as a rock song. It isn't hard to imagine that chorus delivered by a scantily clad singer leading a synchronised dance routine. However, there's also some neat folkiness in the changes and good orchestration.

I wasn't anywhere near as fond of this album after a first listen as I was after three or four more. I would call it a real grower that rewards further listens. And it makes me want to locate the three solo albums LaBrie put out before this (and the two before that with NullMuzzler as the credited name), but I have a feeling from some basic googling that they're heavier and closer to the Dream Theater mould of prog metal.

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