Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie’s fourth solo album comes out in a few weeks, and it’s surprisingly nothing that I expected. Now, to be honest I haven’t kept up with Dream Theater much since the early 2000s, just not huge on lengthy modern prog concept albums and pieces, I guess. But Beautiful Shades Of Grey is far from that. It is a collaboration with Paul Logue of UK band Eden’s Curse (I will have to check them out next), and features 11 tracks, with no heavy concepts, no long numbers, and no real heavy rockers. There’s plenty of acoustics, piano, synths, harmonies,… Sure, most of it would be classified as ballads, but it’s not too soft by any means, plenty of well crafted and performed tracks, They’re all pretty different, and there’s some nice use of strings and different guitars, piano… particularly on faves like “Give And Take” and “Sunset Ruin”. Strong acoustic cuts in “Wildflower”, “What I Missed”, and a cool take of Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” – which is pretty fitting, as this album has a good ’70s vibe to it all. Lead off number “Devil In Drag” comes in an acoustic and electric version, the stand-out track for me – an instantly likeable track, with a great melody, love the synths. The electric version, which ends this album is the only rocker here, but that’s OK. A very enjoyable album, just in time for summer! Cool cover, btw! Check out the first 2 videos from Beautiful Shades Of Grey below, and read the press info below.
James LaBrie, known internationally as the vocalist for progressive metal icons Dream Theater, embarks on uncharted waters with his fourth solo album, titled ‘Beautiful Shade of Grey’. The new endeavor sees him traverse personal maturation, loss, a myriad of complex relationships, and most importantly – LaBrie’s burning passion for music. On paper, the latest studio offering from the Canadian singer first took shape shortly after the global pandemic began to emerge. But in reality, LaBrie formed a bond with his fellow collaborator, bassist Paul Logue, nearly a decade earlier.
The two first met in 2011, when James would lend his voice to a feature for Logue’s band, UK melodic metal outfit Eden’s Curse, on the song “No Holy Man”. As years went by the two remained in touch, occasionally kicking the tires on the idea of working together on another project. But when Dream Theater performed in Glasgow during the late winter of 2020, LaBrie and Logue would run into each other at the airport – once again asking the question. But this time, armed with the knowledge that a drastic change in the world was all but imminent, LaBrie made the decision to set things in motion.
“I said, ‘Let’s touch base as soon as I get home. Let’s start talking about it.’ So then, March 15th (less than a month later) the whole world shut down, and Paul reached out to me and said ‘Hey, do you have time now?” LaBrie’s response was simple and definitive “Wow, yeah. Let’s go for it.”
On the album, Logue plays acoustic rhythm guitar (both six & twelve string) and acoustic bass, while guitarist Marco Sfogli, who’s contributed on all of LaBrie’s solo albums since 2005’s ‘Elements of Persuasion’, handled the leads and solos. Logue recruited Eden’s Curse keyboardist Christian Pulkkinen to lend his playing on the record, while the suggestion to recruit James’s son Chance to play drums would also come from Paul. ‘Beautiful Shade of Grey’, as LaBrie describes it, was a title that only came to him once he identified the record’s two core themes throughout its track list. “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. You’re not exactly happy, but you’re not exactly sad, either.”
The record starts off (and ends) with the track “Devil In Drag”, which emerges as a wall of synthesizers and acoustic strumming before exploding into a full-blown ensemble. LaBrie, who wrote all the lyrics on the album except for “Wildflower”, expresses that the song was written about “someone who started out as a decent human being, but along the way lost touch with their roots – overtime becoming self-serving, narcissistic and devoid of principles or values.” Going on to say, “’Devil In Drag’ is written from the perspective of someone who’s known them all their life and, seeing them now, asking ‘what happened?’”
Other early tracks like the adventurous and lovelorn “SuperNova Girl” and the uproarious self-revelation of “Hit Me Like A Brick” are eager to come to blows with false pretenses, be they felt with a romantic interest or from within. On the enduring melancholy of “Sunset Ruin”, LaBrie pays remembrance to his late brother, who passed from pancreatic cancer in 2016.
Going beyond the thematic and personal elements, for James, ‘Beautiful Shade of Grey’ presented an opportunity to capture the love and enthusiasm he feels for great songwriting through a vehicle that wasn’t tied to the same rules and archetypes of his other projects. Reflecting on artists that he’s been drawn to over the years, ranging from Journey, Foreigner, and Gino Vannelli to Chevelle, Big Wreck and Prince, the common thread that’s kept him coming back to them was their eclectic, unpredictable output. “All these artists had versatility, and I think it’s primarily because of this that they maintained my attention. They always, I believe, pushed themselves to ask, ‘what else can I do?’”
The biggest homage on the album is paid to Led Zeppelin via a faithful and spirited cover of the song “Ramble On”. The mix on the track perfectly captures what LaBrie has established throughout the record with its “acoustic + full band” approach – that, sometimes, it’s best to give each instrument and instrumentalist the space to roam and harmonize, rather than obfuscate or gussy up. On ‘Beautiful Shade of Grey’, the end goal isn’t creating something that meets a certain genre characterization, but rather being informed by decades of finding beautiful expression across a wide swath of musical artists, and knowing that veering away from familiar habits is a part of creative growth.
1. Devil In Drag
2. SuperNova Girl
3. Give And Take
4. Sunset Ruin
5. Hit Me Like A Brick
7. Conscience Calling
8. What I Missed
9. Am I Right
10. Ramble On
11. Devil In Drag (Electric Version)
*Available on CD, as well as black And yellow vinyl!