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 friends discuss favorite singers is uneven arguments about style and ability. For instance, Eddie Vedder might be considered a great vocal stylist, but so far as technique is concerned he fails in a host of ways. 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.) 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 nasal cavities instantly brightens the tone. The difference is audible to the singer immediately, and is made more evident when compared to glottal, pre-mask singing as 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.
When considering LaBrie's diction, it must be said that sometimes he compromises 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).
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 may not be Sinatra, 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 working to fit them to the song. 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. I suspect that melodies are written first in DT, with lyrics following. Or, alternately, they are written simultaneously. In either case, James does find 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 quite well.
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 harmonic 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. But especially in progressive rock, there is an expectation of virtuosity, and the singer is no less accountable. So, in reviewing LaBrie in his DT and solo work, there are so few notes that aren't perfectly in pitch, that I won't name them. If you can't hear them now, you never will. The reality is: LaBrie is an exceptionally fine singer for centering the pitch. This is partially a function of his ability to place the voice in the mask. Some, too, is natural musicianship – something that is inborn and then cultivated through practice.
As far as interpretation goes, it would be an exercise in futility to belabor this with respect to any singer. Interpretation is the most selective criterion. However, I will mention the use of a gruff voice in sections, especially on the Awake album, in which James conveys a powerful raw emotion by the use of a vocal rasp. In "Caught In A Web" he sings, "Try to push me 'round the world some more, and make me live in fear. I bear 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." Further, 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. But it becomes a tool LaBrie uses for expression, giving him a wider array of vocal possibilities. Likewise, James sometimes utilizes a 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 things to note 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." This device is used unwittingly by many singers. It is a 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 very well. Another noteworthy item 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 is 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.
On a personal note, I have met 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 musicianship 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 it was not by accident. LaBrie is a hard working, professional singer. He will set trends for many years to come.