James LaBrie's Mullmuzzler 2 (Magna Carta) Hearing this right after LaBrie's wonderful work on Trent Gardner's pseudo-musical Leonardo: The Absolute Man, I must say I was a little disappointed with the second Mullmuzzler album. Of course, it's a style that I enjoy somewhat less than that work - 2 is more like an album of the poppier Dream Theater songs (the ones I usually skip past). But, that aside, this is a pretty decent collection of songs that seem to occur at the intersection of power metal, hard rock, pop, and progressive rock. Of course, LaBrie/Mullmuzzler seem to incorporate the more accessible elements of these styles, which could irk some listeners. However, the personnel LaBrie has assembled can't be faulted. The core of the band is keyboardists Trent Gardner (Magellan) and Matt Guillory, guitarists Mike Keneally (ex-Zappa, sure to increase LaBrie's street cred with hard-core proggers) and Mike Borkosky, bassist Bryan Beller and percussionist Mike Mangini (egad -- three "Mikes" in the band, how do they communicate in rehearsal?). The instrumentalists are as tight and precise as you'd expect in any prog-related release, and LaBrie's vocals are strong and high-pitched, although he seems to strain a couple times over the course of the disc. As for the compositions, Mullmuzzler seems to succeed most when they stick to the formula they know best -- Dream Theater-esque rockers with heavy guitars, anthemic choruses, and tricky rhythms (although none of these songs approach the complexity of typical Dream Theater's material). Such tracks include "Venice Burning," which I still suspect contains parts of DT's "Home" though I can't verify it, "Confronting the Devil," "Stranger." Elsewhere, significant departures from this style seem clumsy -- the emotional but musically mediocre "Afterlife" and "Listening" -- or completely misguided -- the mid-tempo acoustic pop of "Falling" or the cheesy, seemingly unending ballad "Believe." Some tracks seem to develop an uneasy alliance between the straight pop and DT-like sounds, and on tracks like "Simple Man" they just don't seem to work. However, the last track, "Tell Me," seems to suggest that the group can put their own spin on the Dream Theater sound, and remains the highlight of the disc. Nothing here is a complete embarrassment, but I don't think it's a good sign for the band when their most successful moments come from aping their frontman's other band. Still, fans of LaBrie will probably enjoy hearing their hero's voice in his own compositions, no matter how derivative they are. And fans of poppish, metallish prog will probably enjoy this release just as well. For others, I'd recommend approaching with caution. ~Jon Murphree~
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