Vox - James Labrie

It has occurred to me since the inaugural issue of this column that it might be helpful to define some of the elements by which a vocalist's talents and contributions both to his band and to music in general can be measured.

It should be understood that personal tastes will mitigate the degree to which an individual listener holds a particular singer to these critical standards. This is the sticking point for endless debate regarding the merits of one vocalist over another. Indeed, what I personally hear when listening to  discussions about favorite singers is uneven arguments about style versus ability (not that these are mutually exclusive). For instance, Eddie Vedder might be considered a great vocal stylist, but so far as technique is concerned he simply doesn't exhibit the tools more athletic and accomplished singers possess. On the other hand, Charlie Dominici (the original vocalist for Dream Theater) had a competent level of technical skill, but left many listeners ungratified emotionally.

In this light, it is salient to evaluate a vocalist's place and performance in a band based on tone, diction, phrasing, pitch, and even interpretation. There is also the contribution of lyrics and melody; but these are not always the purview of the singer, and thus do not strictly apply. Additionally, beneath these measurements come breath support, dynamic variance, range, and perhaps such things as vibrato, the use of acciaccatura (or grace note), the grupetto or gruppo (or turn), trills, syncopation, and passing tones—to name a few. These "sub-measurements" affect the aforementioned elements and can be utilized to understand what a vocalist is trying to achieve. (We will typically not involve any discussion of stage presence or performance, as these are, in my opinion, too subjective for finding meaningful consensus.) All that said, there is also an investiture of emotion, an ineffable quality that raises some singers above the rest; but such an exploration is perhaps better suited to a philosophy or psychology article, since they cannot be quantified and remain forever debatable.

With that out of the way, most of you won't be surprised that this issue I will be looking at vocalist James LaBrie from the eminently known Dream Theater. James is one of progressive rock's premier vocalists not because he fronts DT; rather, he earned that job specifically because he exhibits expertise in the many standards I have previously mentioned.

LaBrie trained for years with a classical voice trainer. The most obvious vestige of this is the clear, powerful vibrato he typically utilizes when sustaining a note. But when I listen to James, what I hear is the effective way he places the voice in the mask of the face. You will see me returning to this important technique in the evaluation of each singer I write about in this column. It is a method that becomes critical to a vocalist with the desire for career longevity, and is the surest way to find the "sweetness" in one’s own voice. Shifting the emphasis of the sound into the cavities in the head instantly brightens the tone, likewise leading to a broadening of range upward and ease in singing over the passagio--more on that later. The difference is audible to the singer immediately, and is made more evident when compared to glottal, pre-mask singing when heard during playback on a recording device. LaBrie has found the resonance in his own voice using this technique, and utilizes it very effectively. Such phrases as "As their bodies lie still" from "Scenes from a Memory" and "I'm tired of showing desire for revenge" from "To Live Forever" are just two examples.

A little more about the technique of singing into "the mask" before we move on. It is an over-generalization to say that this is nasal or "whiny" in tone or consequence. This technique is, in fact, taught (using this very terminology) in many schools of opera. When you hear Pavarotti sing, including and particularly when he'd elevating in his range, he's in the mask. So, too, is it true that Layne Staley sings into the mask. The variance of examples is meant to demonstrate that even inside this technique, there is room for a variance of tone. To go further, singers like Steve Perry, Ann Wilson, and Geoff Tate likewise use the technique. There are a number of vocabularies--even among vocal instructors and serious vocal students--to describe how or where the voice is placed, usually relative to pitch. I personally find these often cloud the issue, sometimes even proving confusing and divisive, if only because different schools of thought and study use different language to describe the same thing. Worse, in some instances, they become didactic and exclusionary about their vocabulary and beliefs about the voice. 

Now, before I get into some specific elements, and how I view LaBrie's use of them, let me say first that I won't nearly cover everything in this one article. And secondly, I'll touch on some of the active interest fans have taken in LaBrie's voice and career a little later in the article. But as a bit of level-setting, the voice is a biological instrument. I am not a vocal apologist, and certainly not an apologist for LaBrie, specifically because no apologetic is needed. That said, barring physical injury, e.g. a guitarist breaking a finger, comparing the vocalist to the guitarist or other instrumentalists sets up a false equivalency. As a vocalist myself, I can state that a condition as remedial as the amount of (meaning lack of) sleep the night before a show can have a disproportionate affect on a vocalist's performance relative to another member of the group. 


Now, put all that into the context of a rock/metal tour and you have just one potentially performance-mitigating factor unique to the singer, since the vocalist's instrument literally is comprised of muscle and tissue that need rest. An added nuance here is that many vocal instructors (and professional vocalists) will repeat the mantra: "Speech is the enemy to the singer." In other words, a day filled with talking, for many vocalists, places a tax on the voice before the evening's performance rolls around--think publicity engagements and the like. The reason for this has to do with the simple fact that most humans don't speak using the mask. The process of "warming up" the voice, for the vast majority of vocalists is (whether intentional or unintentional) to "move" the voice into this place; or, at the very least, to prepare the vocalist for its use as needed in the performance. (This is different than speech-level singing, which we can talk about another time.) 

Lets move on to some elements of LaBrie's singing, now, before discussing some of the specifics about his career.

When considering LaBrie's diction and enunciation, it must be said that sometimes he chooses to modify the vowel. It is a stylistic device he uses occasionally when singing high into his range to open the vowel from, say, a tight "ee" sound as in "knees" to an open "ay" sound as in "say." James does have the vocal ability and control to sing these vowels as they are written, but he deliberately chooses substitutions. While most probably a choice of style, it is also a more effortless vowel to sing, and thus allows for some conservation of stamina when singing an athletic regimen as LaBrie does. One clear example of this is on a special authorized collection of DT songs called Acoustic Dreams. Included on this CD is a rendition of "O Holy Night" with Petrucci on guitar and LaBrie, of course, singing. At the lyric "Fall on your knees," LaBrie sings "knays." The interesting thing is that many listeners, when asked about the change after the track is concluded, don't remember the variance in the vowel. In many cases, we understand the word and compensate internally. Purists dock LaBrie points on this issue. But it must be noted that on Dream Theater's latest album, James tows the line on diction and enunciation – one might assume because the lyrics are more essential to the story arc in a concept album than to self-contained themes in an individual song (if the song even has one). But I would reiterate that vowel substitutions, at least in LaBrie's case, do not typically represent anything other than stylistic or voice conservation practices--something I know because I've seen James sing both live and in warm-up. 

The issue of phrasing is another bastion of preference. Sinatra is hailed as the consummate phrasing vocalist, and it's a hard argument to beat – his timing is impeccable, often unpredictable, and always just what the lyric and melody call for. LaBrie is in an entirely different musical genre, but he is very good when it comes to phrasing. Sometimes phrasing is made easier when lyrics are written to melodies that have already been married to a composition. Rush, for example, sometimes contravened this method by penning lyrics and then writing a song to go along with the words. Certainly, either way is acceptable, but a close listen discloses those bands that follow this Rush tactic and do it badly. In such cases, the lyrics and melodies seem disjointed to what's happening in the composition rhythmically. I suspect that the music is written first in DT, with melodies coming next, and lyrics following. Or, alternately, after the music, the melodies and lyrics are written simultaneously. In either case, James has great skill in finding the "beat" of the music and drops his phrases into the mix very well. Consider "I'm sick of all you hypocrites, holding me at bay / And I don't need your sympathy to get me through the day," from "A Change of Seasons." These are good vocal rhythms that drop into the background with ease. My last point here would be that often LaBrie is finding vocal cues inside odd-meter sections. Several songs on the album "Awake" show him coming in without any musical cues, like drum fills or chordal changes. Much of Dream Theater's music is far more challenging to "seat" the vocals to than other genres of music, or even other sub-genre's of rock and metal. 

Pitch is seemingly an easy thing to discuss when analyzing a singer's performance. So much more so in live recordings. And surely we all know that software exists to correct pitch discrepancies once a track is laid down. Extremely critical listeners will pour over an album to note any intonation mistakes in the vocal tracking, somehow holding the vocalist to a higher standard – an interestingly anal hobby and one that fails to acknowledge the biological nature of the vocal instrument (as we've covered above). But especially in progressive rock, there is often an expectation of virtuosity, and the singer is seemingly no less accountable. So, in reviewing LaBrie in his DT and solo work, I can honestly say that where intonation and pitch are concerned, he's quite masterful. Does that mean he never misses a note? Of course not. I have never watched a live performance, in particular, that didn't exhibit some pitch discrepancies. For my part, I find them a meaningful part of the live experience, a human experience vs. album playback. All of that said, I've also seen my favorite vocalists--who sing the most vocally athletic material I know--perform near flawlessly on-stage; mind you, this is recently, too, not some nostalgic concert from twenty or thirty years ago. And this includes LaBrie. The burden of the vocalist, unfortunately, even in a band like Dream Theater, is that he or she will received a disproportionate amount of attention during a live performance, thus accentuating miscues. I've had this very conversation with many instrumentalists, including members of DT, all of who gracefully acknowledge that during live shows they miss their share of notes. Thing is, instrumentalists don't, for whatever reason, bear the same scrutiny as the vocalist. In other words, for the instrumentalist, a great many of those "bad" notes are simply never perceived.

As far as interpretation goes, it would be an exercise in futility to belabor this with respect to any singer. Interpretation is, perhaps, the most selective criterion. However, I will mention a few techniques LaBrie makes use of to great effect. The first is the use of what is often called "fry"--a gruff or rasping in the voice often associated with rock music in general (again, we touched on this above). As many rock and metal fans know, this approach exists across a continuum--from light use to color a word or phrase for emotional impact (usually echoing the music and/or lyrical content) , to an "always on" usage sometimes disparagingly referred to as "cookie monster" vocals. Where LaBrie is concerned, he does possess the use of fry, first really seen on their studio album Awake. In concert, LaBrie incorporates the technique more frequently. Regardless, what's remarkable is that deep into his range, James has significant control, while singing with power, of his use of fry. More than this, I would add that in his case, the sound he achieves using fry rings more powerfully authentic to me than many rock/metal vocalists using the same technique. The song "Caught in a Web" has a passage that is a good indication of what I'm describing, "Try to push me 'round / the world some more / And make me live in fear / I bare all that I am / made of now, Attractive I don't care ..." In this example, the baring of the soul is heard in what may be compared to Walt Whitman's "Barbaric Yawp."


On the other end of technique, LaBrie often falls to a soft, lush tone that is part whisper, part submission. "To Rise, To Fall, To Hurt, To Hate, To Want, To Wait, To Heal, To Save" is an example of this from the track "Scarred" on Awake. This low and vulnerable tone creates an intimacy most singers simply can't duplicate. Indeed, some would not want to--because they either aren't interested in the effect creatively, or because they operate under the belief that it's somehow harmful to the voice. The later idea is akin to a vocalist's aversion to whispering, which (like talking) is not naturally song-like. I don't doubt that this may be true for some singers, but the sheer number of counter-examples make this a debatable point. Regardless, it is a tool LaBrie uses for expression, giving him a wider array of vocal possibilities. (For comparison, I've heard "legitimate" vocal coaches decry the use of falsetto--a technique successfully employed by any number of vocalists.) 


So then, the last technique I'll mention (as this is not an exhaustive list of LaBrie's interpretive tools), is James' utilization of falsetto as in "Lifting shadows off a dream once broken," where "dream" is sung in falsetto. This is a refined touch and lends an ethereal quality to the phrase which the very word describes.

Other elements I'll mention in passing are: moments where James uses the grupetto as in the first immense wail most of us heard him utter on "Pull Me Under" – "All I can do is to set it right" and similarly on "Another Day" where he sings "Whoa oh" at the height of the song's written vocal pitch. This device is used unwittingly by many singers, meaning they may not cite the musical term, which honestly is no big deal. But in the interest of clarity, the term describes the use of the notes both above and below a certain pitch in a tight group. It is often utilized around a chord change to resolve to the next step in the progression. Done right, it is a great technique. Again, LaBrie performs this with expert skill. Another noteworthy item that I'll briefly restate is the facility with which James sings over odd meter as in "Dreams are shaking set sirens waking up tired eyes" from the song "Surrounded" on Images and Words – the part is in 9/8. Lesser singers trip over how to vocalize to songs in meter that deviates from the standard 4/4.

Lastly, while it is not necessarily the mark of a great vocalist, I must mention LaBrie's range. It can be a difficult thing to cultivate as a vocalist, and while it is not the single most important element of good singing – if indeed an element at all – it represents another tool available to the diligent vocalist in conveying the emotion and power a song sometimes calls for. James LaBrie has excellent range, with wonderful mastery of every note, even across the passagio – natural breaks between vocal registers in the voice. For you vocal students, yes, I've heard James "pull chest" on occasion, meaning he'll get some notes without using the mask technique. There are reasons LaBrie, or any singer, would do this. Vocal purists can take a position on this, and many do. But the honest reality of live singing, on a tour that will stretch months with few days off, and having to tackle a set derived from a catalog like Dream Theater's, is not for the faint of heart. Frankly, there are nights every professional rock/metal singer I know has had to take the stage--and these are conversations I've had with some of the best most recognizable voices in the game--that the voice just isn't "there." 

Before I knew LaBrie, many years ago, I was a part of a list-serve for DT fandom known affectionately as Ytsejam. I recall one particularly toxic thread tearing LaBrie down. I was in the midst of my own fledgling years of vocal training with David Kyle--the man who trained Geoff Tate (Queensryche), Ann Wilson (Heart), Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), and Warrel Dane (Sanctuary, Nevermore), among many others. One of the techniques David taught was the mask technique, coming at it from a classical perspective, and so I was also learning a bit about Opera and other genres outside my personal favorites. The relevance to this article is that in the context of that learning, I came across some architectural understanding that standard male opera parts will most usually hit 6-8 high C's in a night, and opera singers are careful about being over-scheduled across a run of shows. That made what James was being asked to do at every DT show pretty remarkable to me. So, I shared as much on Ytsejam. Again, it wasn't an apologetic; it was trying to provide some context for an exceptionally challenging vocal regimen that is undertaken by a biological instrument with a unique set of needs that just simply isn't shared by other instrumentalists. And the pertinence to my article series is that, by and large, the vocalists I chose to profile are pushing these vocal limits in service of their art. LaBrie sits in good company here, and it's something he's earned.

LaBrie has also spoken openly about one particular period of his career where he struggled through vocal challenges. I don't need to repeat in detail what these are--they're easy to find if you're interested. My own thoughts have more to do with the speculation that has surrounded all that and the grace with which he's handled it all. 

There is no end of experts willing to try and explain the voice and particular vocalists, and LaBrie often finds himself the subject of their expertise, such as it is; and I respect that we are entitled to our opinions and preferences. But the reality is, every voice has it's own set of needs. Of course there are enough commonalities that speculation regarding a vocalist's performance or career-stage often seems as tenable as it is inevitable. But this is unfortunately too reductive to be equally true for every singer. All of which is to say, I won't speculate about LaBrie's voice. I'll take him at his word when he's worked through challenging shows or tours--and this because there is an abundance of counter-evidence to the "theories" I've seen offered about him. More than that, I'm impressed by the grace with which he's met the challenges he's faced. To put a stamp on that, I will tell you that the last two shows I saw him sing, he was vocally "on," which comes after a thirty plus year career, working through his own vocal process, and standing up in front of discerning crowds. I don't offer it as an endorsement; I state it having watched and listened to these shows objectively, with some measure of my own vocal understanding. 

On a personal note, I have over the years had the opportunity to meet LaBrie and correspond with him from time to time. I was drawn to his music because of the work ethic I hear demonstrated in his singing. One of the ineffable qualities of being a musician is character and personality. Some artists have it and some do not. LaBrie is doubly impressive in this regard. There have been times when upon meeting a vocalist whose work I admire I find a bitter taste in my mouth for the lack of warmth in the person himself. My experience with James is quite the opposite. He's been supportive of my own vocal career, and continues to set standards of excellence for others to reach toward. He has defined himself in a difficult musical genre as a model of excellence, and has become a yardarm by which others measure themselves. He has proven himself capable of change and growth, and inhabits the sonic memory of many who have heard him find that "sweet spot" in his voice. Know that none of this was by accident. LaBrie is a hard working, professional, and inspiring singer. And perhaps more than all this, he's also a decent man.

© 2020 by Peter Orullian