One gets the sense listening to James Labrie sing that he takes his work very seriously. Not so much the pinpoint-focused craftsman, nor the humorless artisan, but just that he lets no sung note hit the record unless it’s come directly from his heart. It’s the quality of character that has set him atop the hierarchy for many prog metal fans, even those who may not otherwise find appeal in his particular tone and style. Like his longtime bandmates, Labrie takes time to make his own records while between those for Dream Theater and these are where he gets to work beyond his talents, making the music he finds gratifying on a more personal note. Static Impulse is the second solo record to bear his name, though his Mullmuzzler albums are de facto solo efforts.
The point of a side/solo project ought to be to explore and cross boundaries and Static Impulse is no doubt new territory for James Labrie. Like most of his work, this is prog metal at its core, with bright, evocative melodies spun through catchy verses and rousing choruses. This time around, however, the driving force of the record draws from a melodeath dynamo. The unwitting fan sitting down for their first spin of Static Impulse will first find themselves mildly surprised at the heaviness that launches the record, then likely shocked at the harshness of the vocals. That’s not Labrie, though. The burly bellows come courtesy of Darkane’s Peter Wildoer, who also handles the kit here. So the riffs and drumming are stout and punctuated in familiar Gothenburg style, while the melodies still very much reflect the modern prog aesthetic of accessible grandiosity. In fact, there are a few moments that draw directly from the Dream Theater wellspring (e.g., most of “Just Watch Me”). Labrie never abandons the prog metal mold, but the addition of the melodeath elements provides a punch that is often missing from like-minded projects.
Of course, every upside has its down, and on Static Impulse the down is two-fold. First, the pieces of this album that garner the “progressive” tag lie much closer to “prog” than to anything truly progressive; that is, the music reflects the gleam of what has come to be recognized as hallmarks of progressive metal, but there are no attempts at paradigm shifting here. (It could be argued that this is true for most of what is considered progressive in music today, but that is a topic for another time.) Second, the catchiness of these melodies – they are damn catchy – and their layering over frequently basic riffs imparts a radio-friendly vibe at times that will not sit well with some. That said, Static Impulse is really fun on the whole and very well-executed.
The songs are relatively short at three to five minutes and run a pretty straightforward compositional course. This is a well-paced record through eleven tracks, excepting the final track (more on that later), that draws significant power from slick but aggressive modern production. “One More Time” leaves smoke and the smell of burnt rubber at the starting gate, and the following tracks generally have no trouble keeping up.
“Mislead” is the standout track. It strikes a fine balance of hefty and lofty, breadth and extent, and compels via organic urgency from both Labrie’s vocals and the battery beneath them. The vocal transition from verse to chorus is particularly potent and “Mislead” also features outstanding overlapping solos from guitarist Marco Sfogli and Labrie’s longtime collaborator and keyboardist Matt Guillory. “Euphoric” is a slower drive, but its expansive chorus makes it another winner, whereas “Over the Edge” completes the record’s strongest stretch with a bouncy, swaggering, borderline sleaze rock vibe that slips seamlessly into more of that emotive chorus. It’s cool to see Labrie step back and let his partners reveal their shine, too, as “This is War” is a ripper that lets up only momentarily for the chorus (and a brief bridge) from Labrie, who is otherwise not featured on the track.
Static Impulse‘s only major flaw comes with closer, “Coming Home,” a softly spoken ballad that calls to mind Labrie’s earlier solo work and is unfortunately underdeveloped. Its slow pace, spacious composition and melancholic disposition really set it outside the boundaries established by the other songs and make it feel like it just doesn’t belong here.
Labrie’s fourth solo effort represents his desire to flex a little muscle while on break from the headier endeavors over at the Dream Theater studio, and he has obviously had a lot of fun with it. There’s no shortage of heart and soul here. Static Impulse is by no means a groundbreaker, but it is engaging and surprisingly convincing. Fans of Labrie should find considerable reward here, as should those of modern melodic heavy metal generally.