Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde serves as an apt description of James LaBrie's vocal cords: The guy alternately sounds like the most evil and the most friendly person in the world - whether he's fronting Dream Theater or performing his solo material. Mullmuzzler 2, the less traditionally progressive yet more dynamic follow up to 1999's Mullmuzzler debut, Keep It To Yourself, rides an emotional roller-coaster, both lyrically and musically, that seldom relies on Dream Theater's influence.
"Falling" is a pleasant four-minute acoustic pop song, and both "Believe" and "Listening" feature dominant piano melodies that blend well with LaBrie's trusting voice. In fact, about half of the 10 tracks here showcase a softer, gentler LaBrie. The singer also uses his soaring voice to spew bile and venom on tracks like "Venice Burning" and "Confronting the Devil" (both written by LaBrie with Shadow Gallery's Gary Wehrkamp and Carl Cadden-James). The songs depict a two-part tale of tragedy about a father who discovers that his best friend has been molesting the father's son ("Familiar hands fanned the flames/That would burn baptismal tears," from "Venice Burning"). To right the wrong, the father murders his friend, is sentenced to life in prison and realizes that he's done his son an even greater injustice than his late friend did, because he is depriving his son of a father ("I look as though I've died/I loathe my life/I can't believe my mind/Oh the pain," from "Confronting the Devil"). Gut-wrenching? You bet. Brave as hell? No doubt. But extremely catchy and worthy of an air-guitar solo or two? Absolutely.
In some ways, Mullmuzzler 2 - chiefly written by LaBrie and Dali's Dilemma keyboard player Matt Guillory - rivals or even surpasses a Dream Theater album on emotion alone. Drummer Mike Mangini displays more subtlety but no less drama than DT's Mike Portnoy, and lead guitarist Mike Keneally, while not as technically proficient as DT's John Petrucci, flawlessly conveys the importance of these songs without engaging in self-indulgence.
New York's Magna Carta label continues to support artists eager to stretch the boundaries of whatever defines progressive metal these days. James LaBrie's Mullmuzzler 2 is another brilliant example of what an artist can do when given the freedom to redefine himself.