Outside of his time with Dream Theater, vocalist James LaBrie has had a relatively fruitful and well-received solo career. It’s easy to see why, too, since—despite what some naysayers, well, say—he still sings quite well, and by stepping away from his main band, he’s able to collaborate with new musicians and explore some new musical territories.
Case in point: his newest collection, Beautiful Shade of Grey, which carries on that tradition. Less abrasive and more approachable than 2013’s Impermanent Resonance, its songwriting and lyricism can be a bit hackneyed at times. However, for the most part, it’s a gratifying sequence full of attractive hooks and lively timbres.
As the official press release points out, the LP may’ve begun gestating back in 2020, but the foundation was laid over ten years ago. You see, LaBrie met Eden’s Curse bassist Paul Logue when he was asked to sing on “No Holy Man” (from Eden's Curse’s 2011 record, Trinity). Over the next decade, the two stayed in contact, and a chance encounter at an airport in 2020 led to them seriously thinking about working together again. Shortly thereafter, they started writing material.
In addition to Logue (who plays acoustic bass and multiple kinds of guitars), Beautiful Shade of Grey features LaBrie’s longtime guitarist—Marco Sfogli—as well as Eden’s Curse keyboardist Christian Pulkkinen and LaBrie’s son—Chance—on drums.
Regarding the title, songwriting, and musical direction of the album, LaBrie explains: “A lot of these lyrics are dealing with the beauty of human beings, and a lot are dealing with grey areas of the in-between. You’re not exactly happy, but you’re not exactly sad, either.” Elsewhere, he reflects that he and Logue looked to “the acoustic end of [Led] Zeppelin and their organic approach to their songs” for inspiration. He continues: “[It] was still beautiful, it was still powerful, extremely melodic, and it just kind of reached deep within.” Naturally, those stylistic and thematic sentiments permeated Beautiful Shade of Grey.
In fact, those looking for a heavy and petulant turn from LaBrie will find little of it here. Instead, much of the runtime is gentle, vibrant, and reflective, with just about every element exuding poetic contemplation and delivery. Among the best instances of that balance is “Give and Take,” an engagingly urgent plea ripe with lovely guitar playing and piano notes. Later, both “Wildflower” and “Am I Right” offer warmly multilayered and earnest narratives that evoke the life-affirming radiance of Dream Theater’s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” suite.
There’s also the compelling acapella interlude, “Conscience Calling,” which works well as a prelude to the classical drama of “What I Missed.” Even the LP’s heaviest track—opener “Devil in Drag”—recalls LaBrie’s prog metal history in its attitude and sophistication more than it does in its ferocity and pacing. In other words, it’s comparatively forceful and elaborate, but also highly soothing and sunny, so it certainly appeals to fans of more commercial rock music (which isn’t meant in a pejorative way, mind you). Conversely, the bonus electric version is a significantly fiercer prospect.
That said, there are a few inclusions that are a little less enticing, such as the overly idealistic and formulaic "SuperNova Girl." It's catchy enough, but its immaculately pleasant arrangement and decrees ("Let's just run away / Leave the world behind / Come what may / Nothing can get in our way / Like two shining stars shooting across the Milky Way") are too saccharine.
On the other hand, “Hit Me Like a Brick” undermines its own refined allure each time LaBrie sings, “It hit me like a brick / I never saw it coming / And it knocked me on my ass.” Such an adolescent lyric can’t help but take you out of the moment. As for the band’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” it’s a common case of emulation without innovation. LaBrie and company certainly copy the original faithfully, but that’s about it, so it doesn’t do much to feel distinctive or needed.
To be fair, those are negligible complaints considering how much Beautiful Shade of Grey impresses and delights. While not a complete departure from LaBrie's prior work (not that it should be), its acoustic underpinning and introspective/inspirational songwriting help it stand out quite a bit. Honestly, even people who've not been entirely enthusiastic about LaBrie in recent years may be converted by just how majestic and harmonious it is. Here's hoping that Beautiful Shade of Grey earns the group a lot of acclaim and that LaBrie keeps the rest of the band intact for his next solo outing.