Neal Morse, Superstar: The Similitude of a Dream

nmb-album
Radiant Records, 2016

Here’s the best way to sum up the new Neal Morse Band album.

  • If you loved SNOW, you might or might not love THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.
  • If you loved SOLA SCRIPTURA, you’ll definitely love THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.
  • If you loved THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, you’ll think THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is good, but not great.
  • If you have not heard of any of the albums mentioned above, but you’d like to try some of Neal Morse’s music, you definitely DO NOT want to start with THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.

Every one of Neal Morse’s post-Spock’s Beard album seemed to get better and better: TESTIMONY; ONE; ?; LIFELINE; TESTIMONY 2; and MOMENTUM.  With the exception of SOLA SCRIPTURA, Morse seemed incapable of making a mistake.  Though I dislike SOLA SCRIPTURA not only for its themes and lyrics and for its music being over-the-top bombast, I was certainly willing to forgive these problems — especially given the honest spirit in which the album was written, produced, and performed.

What about THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, then?

If you look at all the reviews that have come out about the brand-new Neal Morse album, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, you’ll notice that they are not only each positive, but that they also overwhelmingly gush over this two-CD set album.  Most have given it perfect reviews (or very nearly perfect).

How you hear this album and judge it will be determined by how much you loved SNOW and and how much you loved SOLA SCRIPTURA. If you  were taken with the long form of SNOW and the deeply religious themes of SOLA SCRIPTURA, you’ll absolutely love the new album, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, an album based on the famous early-modern Christian masterpiece, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS (1676), by John Bunyan, a proto-evangelical who fought against the established Church of England.  The story—a dream—follows in the humanist tradition of Thomas More and Erasmus from a century and a half earlier.  As such, it presents an extremely complicated story with a number of allegorical figures and imaginary places, coming in and out of the narrative.

Somewhat like the new album, SNOW also possessed an extremely complicated, nuanced, artful and moving tale of a man who found himself a prophet.  SOLA SCRIPTURA, however, was an over-the-top exercise in beating Reformation theology (much of it simply wrong from a historical standpoint) into its listeners.

When Morse keeps his Christianity as art, he’s extraordinary.  When, however, he sets out to write a Christian album, he’s much less successful. The difference is that an album such as THE GRAND EXPERIMENT is a gorgeous work of Christian art, while SOLA SCRIPTURA is a piece of Christian propaganda. One could make a similar comparison, for example, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, a gorgeous work of Christian art, with CS Lewis’s THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, a piece of Christian propaganda. In the former, Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf, each represent the three offices of Christ: priest, king, and prophet. In the latter, Aslan is simply a feline Jesus. The former trilogy is layered, nuanced, and interesting. The latter, however, is blatant and in-your-face.  Both offer wonderful stories, with some preferring Tolkien and others Lewis, while many of us love both for a variety of different reasons.

As art, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is somewhere between SNOW and SOLA SCRIPTURA in its themes as well as in its flow.  Morse very ably uses the various original characters and places of Bunyon’s work to introduce music that reflects every pop and rock style from The Beatles, to the Moody Blues, to XTC, to Deep Purple, to Kansas, and to ELP.  Indeed, at times, there’s even a bit of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR thrown in.

Additionally, having seen live the current lineup of Morse’s band three times now, I know how incredible each of the players is.  Gillette has to be one of the finest young guitarists in the world, while Portnoy is the best drummer, now that Peart has retired.  Frankly, Portnoy just gets better and better as he ages.

Morse is not capable of doing anything that’s not excellent. But when it comes to him, his art ranges from what is either over the top to what is subtle and voluptuous. As such, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is far closer to SOLA SCRIPTURA than it is to any other Neal Morse solo album.

If you’re new to Morse, do NOT start here.  Start with THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, his finest by far.

 

 

10 thoughts on “Neal Morse, Superstar: The Similitude of a Dream

  1. carleolson

    “When Morse keeps his Christianity as art, he’s extraordinary. When, however, he sets out to write a Christian album, he’s much less successful.” Nailed it. Thanks, Brad, for the very thoughtful review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bryan Morey

    I’ve felt that the songs “The Grand Experiment” and “Agenda” spoiled what would have been a perfect album in The Grand Experiment. “The Call,” “Waterfall,” “Alive Again,” and “The New Jerusalem” are all Morse and company at perfection, though.

    I’m still on the fence about TSOAD. The Reformation theology of his albums has never bothered me since I’m as Protestant as they come. What bothers me about TSOAD isn’t the story so much as the vocals. I love Eric Gillette’s voice – he’s brilliant. Morse, though, is so hit or miss. Sometimes he’s fine, particularly when he’s singing backing vocals (like in Flying Colors), but when he’s doing his signature screeching, it makes me cringe to no end. Hubauer’s voice does nothing for me – Portnoy’s voice accomplishes the same task (similar in tone), but his voice is so much better and less nasally. We need more Portnoy. Their vocal harmonies are absolutely stunning – I could listen to that all day.

    The story is fine, but to me it just doesn’t work as a rock opera the way they did it. I listened to an Ayreon album yesterday, and I couldn’t help but notice how Lucassen is so much better at creating a story that you can follow along while listening. Tommy, The Wall, and Scenes From a Memory this isn’t, despite Portnoy’s insistence. Does it have its stellar moments? Ya, it really does. But this isn’t the 10/10 that absolutely EVERYBODY else is giving it, although it is 100 times better than a certain recent DT release.

    I can’t compare it to Snow, since I’ve still yet to hear that album. At $20 plus shipping, it’s too damn expensive over at Radiant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I respect and admire Neal Morse as a musician. Technically he is brilliant both on keyboards and guitar and he is a superb songwriter, but here lies the problem. He seems to my ears to be writing the same song over and over again. This album, good as it is, is the same old themes and chord changes that he has used many times before. For anyone who has heard most of his albums, there is nothing new here. Having said that, I wish I had one percent of his talent.

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    1. Are you kidding, Dave!?!?! You are incredibly talented. As to Morse–I think when he feels pressure, he goes back to his familiar template. This is why–at least to my mind–THE GRAND EXPERIMENT is so strong. It’s clearly Morse taking immense chances and succeeding.

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  4. Wow, so many things I disagree with in this review ;-). It doesn’t help some opinions are phrased as presumed common opinions, which triggers me.
    Sola Scriptura is imho an awesome album, good riffing – quite heavy which I love, good lyrics, can’t find fails. I love The Grand Experiment. AND I love Similude, I must be a bit off track after reading this review :D. The difference between Grand Exp/Similtude – LotR/Narnia is not entirely fair. I think the way christianity appears in Similitude is still art, as is in Narnia. Pilgrims Progress has so many imaginary language, it would be strange to pack it in more layers. Narnia… well, it was written for children. Taken from that perspective, I think it’s definitely art.
    And, where to start? Similitude could be a good start, as any album in fact. If you’re into metal, I’d say begin with Sola or One, if you’re more into pop, I guess Testimony or Similitude are good starts. If you like prog, start anywhere 😉

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    1. Thanks so much, Marc. This was actually my second review–the first was really nasty! Anyway, I’ve come to agree with you. I posted my top 6 albums of the year last night, and SIMILITUDE was there, with an explanation and and apology of and for my earlier reviews. Yours, Brad

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Now I’m a bit curious about the first one… or maybe I shouldn’t ;-). I still have to write my review for a dutch christian online mag… I guess it’ll be hard to be objective, though I have to watch out no to be too enthusiastic 😀

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      2. Ha, ha! No, I think I’ll keep the first one well hidden, Marc. And, please know I’m a HUGE Neal Morse fan. For better or worse, I wanted him to go more toward what he did with Waterfall and Freedom is Coming from the previous album. A return to SNOW… not what I wanted. But, who am I? He has to write the album he has to write. I very much understand that. Is your review in Dutch or English? I’d love to read it. I used to read Dutch–but that was 20 years ago.

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  5. Pingback: Bryan’s Best of 2016 | Progarchy

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