JAMES LABRIE – Grey Matters: “This Album Is A Tribute To What Really Were My Formative Years
June 21, 2022, a week ago
Canada-born vocalist James LaBrie has made a name for himself as the frontman for US prog metal legends Dream Theater, a position he's held since 1991. He is an integral part of the band's success, but the accolades that come with being a member of such an influential act haven't made him complacent. If anything, LaBrie's success with Dream Theater has pushed him to explore new avenues as a solo artist and continues to do so. It was a slow start, however, as his Mullmuzzler solo band's two outings - Keep It To Yourself (1999) and Mullmuzzler 2 (2001) - didn't stray very far from the tried and true prog formula. LaBrie came into his own with Elements Of Persuasion in 2006, his third collaboration with keyboardist / songwriter Matt Guillory and the world's introduction to Italian guitar virtuoso Marco Sfogli. From there all bets were off, with LaBrie taking things in an unexpectedly heavier direction on Static Impulse (2010) and Impermanent Resonance (2013), effectively leaving the door wide open for him to throw as many musical curveballs as his heart desired in the future.
He has done just that on his latest solo outing, Beautiful Shade Of Grey.
Unlike his previous two albums, which featured a wild and welcome death metal thread, the new record is an acoustic-based tribute to the classic rock bands that made LaBrie want to become a musician. Make no mistake, with the exception of a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On", Beautiful Shade Of Grey is a volume of original music inspired by LaBrie's heroes.
"For me personally, I knew deep down inside that I'm at a point in my career where I've been tried and true and played it safe," says LaBrie. "If I had gone in that direction, it would have been a killer album because we would have been true to form. But for me... I needed to experiment. I need to push boundaries, I need to challenge myself, I need to achieve something. That's a part of growing as an artist; your maturation is only gauged in what you continue to do and where you take it. I knew deep down inside that I wanted to make a change. I knew the album was going to be acoustically and organically inclined, and I knew that I wanted to work with someone else and try something completely different, because doing that pulls out undiscovered things about yourself."
"Working with someone different is always and amazing experience," he continues, "and in this case I'm talking about Paul Logue (Eden's Curse). The timing for us was perfect when it came to having a window of opportunity, and Paul is such an amazing and talented songsmith, so I knew that our ideas would connect."
Some fans may be surprised that LaBrie chose not to work with Matt Guillory again given they've had a successful partnership, but LaBrie has no regrets about changing things up.
"I'm not kidding when I say this - and it's not that I haven't had a lot of fun writing with other people - but this was on a whole new level. Paul is very deep as a musician, and he's an incredibly smart guy who is so dedicated to his instrument. Bass is his forté, but he plays beautifully on six and 12-string acoustic guitar. I would throw ideas at him, whether it was a riff or a melody, and he would come back to me the next day with something like the gorgeous chordal progression in 'Am I Right'. It was very prolific, and just to watch the way that Paul works opened my mind to the way other musicians might work."
Admittedly, a new James LaBrie album in the vein of Static Impulse and Impermanent Resonance would have been more than welcome, but it has to be said that Beautiful Shade Of Grey has its own charm and definite appeal.
"I think that's what a lot of people are saying," LaBrie agrees. "Some people have said they love the album because it's much deeper than just an acoustic album with a full ensemble. The songs are rich and emotionally moving, and for something like this album to hit you, it's not only unexpected, it's welcome because it's so different from everything else out there. Some people have said this album is daring and brave, and I've been asked if I was worried about backlash from my fanbase. If any artist isn't willing to take a risk.... come on, gimme a break; look at the band I've been in for 30 years (laughs). Dream Theater is all about the unexpected and the unpredictable, and we're not part of any sort of conformity whatsoever."
"Doing Beautiful Shade Of Grey was a natural evolution for me," he adds. "I'm staying true to my roots as a musician, and this album is a tribute and a nod to what really were my formative years. When I was growing up as a child, I was listening to all of these classic bands: Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Queen, Rush, Yes. You listen to that stuff now and it's timeless. It's blues-based, it's heavy rock, amazing melodies, great lyrics. These were bands that were not scared to say 'We're doing it our way. If you don't like it, take the frickin' highway.' Because of that, they were able to achieve things that most people didn't because they didn't want to go down that road out of fear or trepidation. If people come back at me and ask 'What the hell is this?' My response is too bad if you don't like it because you're completely missing the point."
One would assume (correctly) that songwriting outside the Dream Theater bubble was a far less complicated endeavour for LaBrie, particularly given the simpler, more traditional song arrangements found on the new record.
"It was very natural because it’s a big part of who I am," says LaBrie. "I've always loved this kind of music, I've always loved this direction. Dream Theater is very rewarding and I'm in a very privileged position because the music is so eclectic. Because it is so diverse, it allows me to sing is so many different styles. That's the beauty of Dream Theater. For me to go and write something like Beautiful Shade Of Grey, which I guess you can say is more straightforward, I'm still very dedicated to craft of songwriting. A lot of people don't understand that when you write a so-called 'simple' song, it's not simple. It's the exact opposite. The parts might be simple, but it's the arrangement and building of the pieces - the melodies, the lyrics, everything - and what they convey emotionally, that's where the magic lies."
LaBrie considers Beautiful Shade Of Grey a triumph on several levels, including that it features his son Chance on drums for the full album. Looking back on the recording process, with Chance deeply involved in the production, LaBrie calls it a surreal experience.
"He was fully engaged, fully involved, he recorded all my vocals, and he became so involved in the music end of things that he became co-producer on the album. Like any father in the same position that I am, I was and I am as proud as a frickin' peacock to have worked with him. It was surreal at times when I was recording my vocals, and I would say to Chance that it was freaking me out having him on the other side of the vocal booth (laughs). And he told me that he was feeling the same way."
"The other great thing about Chance's inclusion is that it wasn't suggested by me, it was Paul. He said Chance was a terrific drummer and very musical individual, and he wanted Chance to play drums on the album. And it was better coming from him than me because if I had said anything it would have seemed forced. Chance rose to the occasion and played magnificently, because we'd have conversations and I would say 'Look, you know the nature of this album, so I don't need you to be Mr. Flash In The Pan and go crazy.' As fantastic as John Bonham was, he knew how to keep the groove, sit in the pocket and make a song hit you like a bullet. Larry Mullen from U2 is another example of that. Chance did his homework; he would listen to these guys, and he understood where I was coming from. It was such an amazing experience, and to see him contribute all that he had was so gratifying. I didn't realize he was such a mature musician, and Paul did."
With the world getting back to some semblance of order, fans can expect to see LaBrie on the stage at some point in 2022 - 2023 in support of the new album. He promises it will be something special.
"We're talking about it right now. I'm trying to get a fix on the Dream Theater tour window, where I can have six or eight weeks to get out there even if the Dream Theater world tour isn't done yet. I would love to take this band out and do three weeks in Europe, three weeks in North America, and possibly Japan. I can guarantee you that there will be a tour. I'm speaking to a promoter now and what he has in mind would be very intimate and exclusive. When I announce this it will be so exciting."
(Photos – Thomas Ewerhard)