In contrast to James LaBrie’s 2013 solo outing ‘Impermanent Resonance’, which found the Dream Theater singer treading musically heavy and tempestuous waters, ‘Beautiful Shade of Grey’ finds him gazing deeply into the stillness of the reflecting pool (and potentially nodding off).
The keyboard-heavy lead-off track “Devil in Drag” finds LaBrie and company mining late-seventies/early-eighties sounds to good effect. The nimble shuffle of LaBrie’s son Chance’s drums is locked in tight with principal album collaborator Paul Logue’s bass, as Logue’s Eden’s Curse bandmate keyboardist Christian Pulkinnen, deftly splatters the track with layered Fender Rhodes piano, Hammond organ, and Moog synthesizer.
“Hit Me Like a Brick” with its progressive overtones is cut from the same cloth as “Devil in Drag.” On a tune where Pulkinnen’s keyboards and longtime collaborator Marco Sfogli’s excellent lead guitar work elevates an otherwise straightforward pop song, it becomes clear that the record is at its best when LaBrie and Logue aim at Styx and Toto territory.
On “Give and Take”, LaBrie’s drawn-out minor-key melodies underscore a taut groove adorned with acoustic guitars, subtle organ, piano, and synthetic strings. The bittersweet “Am I Right” reimagines LaBrie as an alternative rock troubadour peddling soft rock to the masses. And the lightweight “SuperNova Girl” succeeds despite itself on the strength of the earnest delivery of its infectious melodies and Sfogli’s fleet-fingered yacht-rock lead breaks.
In general, this set of tunes does LaBrie’s voice justice. An ill-advised cover of “Ramble On” aside, most songs highlight the uniqueness of his tone and delivery without the musical distractions of his day job collaborators. The Led Zeppelin cover is seemingly meant to reflect the loose acoustic nature of the record, but the ultra-precise playing and big production values belie any notions that this was a “tossed off” endeavor.
The cheery “strummy” stylings of record standout “Wildflower” with its close harmonies and breezy rhythms give way to an intriguing minor-key coda that finds the song’s resolute protagonist “deeper down the hole.” Frankly, darker indulgences of this sort are too few and far between on this record. When they do pop up as they do here and in the “Beatlesque” acapella intro and first lead-break of “Conscience Calling,” they add a depth of character to a record that spends a large portion of its runtime on the sunny side of the street.
Thick with syrupy-sweet melodies and shimmering acoustic guitars, the impeccably produced ‘Beautiful Shade of Grey’ finds Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie abandoning progressive metal in favor of an approach that falls somewhere between eighties album-oriented and nineties adult-oriented rock.