Magna Carta Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Matthew Turk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/10/2001
I like Dream Theater - I've got all the albums, a couple singles, and everything put out on solo (except all those miscellaneous Jordan Ruddess albums.) I even have Winter Rose, that little known James La Brie vehicle from the 80's.
I'll be honest here - I hated Keep It To Yourself, the first album from LaBrie's latest side project Mullmuzzler. I found it to be an uninspired attempt at sounding like corporate rock. It had some of my favorite musicians - Mike Mangini, Mike Keneally, and LaBrie, but it didn't work. This time around they've added another guitar player - and though I love Keneally to death, I have to admit that I can never be sure when it's him and when it's Mike Borkosky.
This album, however, is not exactly the same as the predecessor. We get unusual vocal lines, not just bellowing, as is evident from the leading track, the oddly-phrased "Afterlife." LaBrie spreads his vocals wings, which in his case doesn't mean the standardly amazing delivery, but rather a set of lines that interest us in more than a "Wow, a rock vocalist who can sing!" The underlying music (is that a violin?) fits nicely with the descending intensity toward the end.
"Venice Burning" is a standout track, if a bit Dream Theater-esque at times. The guitar is very Petrucci-ian - lots of scales, up and down. The chorus, too, is reminiscient of Dream Theater, but less-obviously. That's not to say that it's derivative; it's just reminiscient - as are the descending, atmospheric keyboards. These are all forgivable sins, because we find LaBrie to be doing things with his voice that he doesn't during Dream Theater. (Plus, some funk-guitar gets tossed in occasionally.)
It's almost difficult to tell when "Venice Burning" ends and "Confronting The Devil" begins, which is a bit indicative of the track as a whole. The music pretty much sounds the same as the previous track; it's up in the air which is "better," although it's worth nothing that "Confronting The Devil" does drop in some accoustic guitar at places that liven up the experience.
Lots of other interesting things are tossed in, but because this is, essentially, a vocalist's album, they end up sounding more like samples than like musical ideas of their own, which is unfortunate. The up-tempo "Falling" is a stand-out track. It revolves around an elaborately orchestrated, yet altogether simple guitar melody that repeats itself through out. It's a raw song, emotionally, with LaBrie almost whispering the verses. I like it.
"Stranger" is a bit ominous at the outset, and then returns us to familiar territory. It harkens back, very strongly, to Awake-era Dream Theater, in the style of the guitar solo, the sound of the keys, the places where you just know Kevin Moore would have slipped in samples, and numerous other aspects. If not for the Spanish-sounding guitar and vocal effects, it would have fit right in just after "Scarred."
"A Simple Man" is another emotionally honest appeal, with only a few shortcomings. I know it's important to the feeling they wanted, but I don't care for the deep-bass lines during every verse. "Save Me" has a hook-y chorus, but more of the Dream Theater-sounding music. The keys are very much similar to that "Other Band" LaBrie works with.
Occasionally, vocalists on solo albums allow in songs that are blatant attempts at syrupy emotional goo (cough - Steve Perry - cough). LaBrie and crew walk this line a few times, but manage to avoid it for the most part, although they come close with "Believe," a song that faintly reminds me of Guster. "Listening" is another slower, less Metal-ish song with some heavy, oppressive drum sounds - which all combine to create a rich atmosphere. The album is rounded out with "Tell Me," which seems like another long song based around a riff or two and expanded. It's a very interesting song, and even musically well-structured, but while the music speaks to me, the vocals do not.
Ok, I'll be honest. I like Mullmuzzler 2, but I'm not sure why. It sounds like Dream Theater, pure and simple. There is more musical variance, yes, but it sounds forced, as though there was a great big shadow they wanted to avoid. Only two songs really show that Mullmuzzler can completely escape from Dream Theater - "Falling" and "Believe" are very far from their counterparts on Falling Into Infinityand Awake.
I find it interesting that Mangini, Keneally and Beller aren't mentioned when LaBrie discusses the composition phase on his website - the remainder of the artists are all staples of the Magna Carta catalog; Trent Gardner, Matt Guillory and others have been repeatedly criticized for "ripping off" Dream Theater. Magna Carta, in general, has been (wrongly) accused of pumping out DT clones. This album does not help that case at all. It's a bit repetitive in places, it's heavily influenced by only a couple styles, and while he is more creative here than elsewhere, LaBrie's vocals are very much what we've come to expect. At the risk of this review turning into a novel, I think perhaps LaBrie has been wrongfully stereotyped, and while he tries to break out of it every now and then - with this album, for instance - he doesn't quite know how.