James LaBrie’s powerplant of players has convened once more for an album that is a rainbow of expressions stridently apart from the man’s vocal and lyrical mastery emanating from the man’s work with Dream Theater. And “Mullmuzzler 2”, as the title would suggest, is the follow-up to a debut (‘99’s “Keep It To Yourself”) that quickly became one of the most highly regarded albums ever released through the Magna Carta label.
James LaBrie’s “Mullmuzzler 2” takes some chances, chances that one would not imagine coming from a progressive rock icon such as James. LaBrie has tapped deep emotional wells within this record, expanding on the themes of communication and the lack thereof that he handled so well on “Keep It To Yourself”, while setting these sincere confrontations with the self to musical soundtracks that are lush, melodic, and wholly committed, in two cases, to the concept of ballad.
Swirling and smashing around these psychic anchors is a lively drum vibe that lives in the heart of drummer Mike Mangini. “I’m glad you noticed that,” begins LaBrie enthusiastically. “I remember when I sat down with Mike, who I think is a fantastic drummer, I said I really need you to sink into these songs and create an incredible rhythmic feel to every song, make them groove. And he was like, ‘no problem, I'll listen to the songs, I have a lot of ideas.’ So when we were recording the drum tracks he knew pretty well where he wanted to take it. And I kept that very much in mind when it came to mixing, that I wanted to keep the drums big, but not that nuclear '80s sound. I wanted them to sound grounded and natural, more like Bonham. And Mike totally freaked when he heard the mixes. He was saying 'Out of the 20 albums or whatever that I've recorded, this is the best drum sound I've ever heard!'”
As a result, the album has a panoramic, open architecture, slightly jazz fusion vibe, even though the album is ultimately comprised of remarkably torrid ballads, traditional grinding prog metal and buoyant post-prog.
“I did say to the guys, I don't want this to sounds stale or studio-like. We almost have to get it to the point where we could nail this in a live situation. Everybody really locked into their parts. When they came to the studio it wasn't something that took 20 takes. It happened immediately. And Mike Mangini set a precedent for that because he came in and he was unbelievable, frickin' smokin' (laughs). He came into the studio and I had my jaw on the floor going 'what the hell?!' I mean, he could do this thing, I kid you not, he can do a solid drum roll with one hand. And the most unbelievable thing is he can start it off, build it right up to incredibly fast and then right down. His control is ridiculous. Matt Guillory from Dali’s Dilemma is an important part of this as well because he and I wrote most of this together. I wrote two songs with Carl Cadden-James and Gary Wehrkamp from Shadow Gallery, and one song with Trent Gardner from Magellan.”
That one song with Trent is ‘Afterlife’, the album’s opener, which serves as a microcosm of the album as a whole, dancing forth with a slight spirit of funk that emanates from the rhythm section. “I sat down with Trent and said I want one really good heavy progressive track on there. The music pretty well speaks for itself. I wanted the track to feel like you're instantly part of it, that you're not struggling to get yourself into it and understand it. We were working on trying to give it an immediate groove, some sort of rhythmic attention. The lyric is about being where you are today and having a bit of an out of body look at where you've been, where you are, where you're going, trying to wrap yourself around the meaning of what this is.”
It is LaBrie’s exploration of melody on the ballad-like tracks that causes a sense of wide-eyed wonder. ‘Falling’ is the first of these, a mature, insightful, yet uptempo look at love on the rocks. “Matt and I had said ‘Let's be somewhat courageous here.’ Let's bring to the people something they would least expect. It’s a song written for the sake of song, but you can hear a lot of really cool things going on there. Lyrically, ‘Falling’ is just trying to wrap yourself around a relationship and all its idiosyncrasies and all its challenges and struggles and basically trying to make sense of it and move on. You're either going to maintain it or have it falter.”
One other immense track with a shot at smash hit-dom is ‘Listening’, which again breaks with convention, combining LaBrie’s platinum melodies with a lively, rhythmic funk-style backbone. “’Listening’ is about a person that has been in many relationships, and maybe gone through the motion and heard the words, but they're not really there. Like so many of us… you'll see so many people in relationships and you wonder why. Is it out of convenience, is it because it's comfortable at this point? But this person has met a girl that is so real and when he listens to her she seems so knowledgeable but she's also showing him a part of himself that he never knew existed. He's listening to her and it's the first time he actually feels like he's listening to somebody who is really giving him the true feeling of life, what a relationship really has to offer. This person has said so much more to him than has ever been said and he can't help but listen. And I don't mean listen just through words, but he's listening through his body and his senses.”
‘Listening’ also marks the location of one of the guitar sweet spots on the record, Keneally turning in a lighter than air solo that is the extreme opposite of his genius Pagey twang at the four minute mark of ‘Venice Burning’. Keneally is indeed yet another weapon on “Mullmuzzler 2”, matching LaBrie’s versatility with a bewildering selection of styles, aggressions and seldom heard guitar tones, underscoring the record’s fierce creativity, a work ethic that bubbles and boils and roils beneath these elegant wide-angled tracks.
‘Believe’ is another relationship song, which they all are to some extent,” notes James, on perhaps the album’s most delicate track. “This is more about a relationship with the opposite sex, just trying to resolve something that is in its last stages, on the verge of collapsing. I don't mean to be so literal, but it's when couples bring children into the picture and have to deal with that whole change and still not lose themselves to the responsibilities that you have once you start a family.” ‘Believe’ is another example of the band’s astonishingly soft touch, the arrangement drumless except for some background percussion, vocals front and centre, LaBrie proving his mastery of songs drenched with emotion.
‘Venice Burning’ and ‘Confronting The Devil’ form a two-part tale of tragedy, once more underscoring the complexity and variety of relationship matters that make “Mullmuzzler 2” such a mature, brave piece of work. “Those are the tracks I did with Carl Cadden-James and Gary Wehrkamp,” explains LaBrie. “They pretty much put the music together themselves down in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. What I was looking for was something in a Led Zeppelin vein, a rock vein with a lot of power, smack people over the heads with it. Lyrically, I left these to Carl to write. The concept I gave him is basically this: A father, with a child; has a best friend who he’s been friends with since they were children. And he horrifically finds out, just by knowing his friend so well, just by the look at the guy's face, that he's been molesting his son. And when he finds this out he takes his best friend's life. And while in prison he thinks that he should have found another way to resolve the whole situation, that it would be better for his friend to be sitting in prison all his life instead of him, because here he is, sitting in prison, and he's even done more injustice to his son because he can't be with him. So basically it's a very dark, dark couple of songs lyrically. Musically, it’s aggressive and dynamic to match the storyline and Mike’s guitar work is brilliant. He just goes crazy with it.”
The album’s intense creativity ultimately pours into a swirling cauldron of sounds and textures come dark, grinding closer ‘Tell Me’, which is about “getting caught up in what you're seeing around you, being bombarded with all the things we have nowadays, the media, the computers, television, radio, but being in a situation where you're actually seeing yourself in a light, because of all this, that you don't want to be seen in. Everything is remote and you're almost robotic. You're doing things and becoming something you detest when you see it elsewhere.” Each member of LaBrie’s esteemed rock army shines through measured subtlety here. There are a variety of vocal personae, there are soft splashy cymbals, a quirky collection of keyboard and piano tones, massive guitars against jazzy chordings, pounding drums against counterpoint rhythms. All in all, it is a bombastic and almost mysterious, foreboding way to close the album, LaBrie enigmatically pointing to a future fraught with tech tension and quiet desperation, summing up the unease within the album’s diverse characters with an impassioned, almost prophetic “I don’t want to know how the story goes. Tell me how it ends.’
“I'm going to let people see that I can be very versatile and expressive as far as vocals go. I consciously kept the vocals somewhat clean to show the range and power. There are a couple songs where I gave it a bit of a rasp. In terms of the wider canvas of the album, I wanted something that was obviously rock, but had a lot of groove, feel and expression. And I wanted the songs to be accessible without selling out, something you could grab onto immediately, but still make them very interesting, intricate and complex at times, especially with something like ‘Afterlife’ or ‘Save Me’. I think there’s a little more diversity and it's very colorful. I wanted to offer a wider perspective individually, totally separate from Dream Theater. It doesn't make sense for me to do this if it’s going to sound exactly like another Dream Theater album. That has its own chemistry. I just wanted to show people some other styles of music that I find exciting, take them down a different road.”
released September 11, 2001
James LaBrie – lead and background vocals
Matt Guillory– keyboards/piano
Trent Gardner – keyboards/piano
Mike Mangini – drums
Mike Keneally– guitars
Mike Borkosky – guitars
Brian Beller – bass