I was skeptical when I heard about the Neal Morse Band’s new project. A concept album that’s a sequel to their previous concept album? Might Neal, Eric Gillette, Bill Hubauer, Randy George and the ever-prolific Mike Portnoy have finally taken this “epic of epic epicness” thing too far?
But then, I was skeptical about 2016’s The Similitude of a Dream, too. A double album based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress sounded like a disaster in the making to me. (Yes, this lifelong Lutheran still bore psychological scars from Morse’s Sola Scriptura.) But, to my ears, Morse and crew rose to the challenge, unreeling Bunyan’s basic narrative with an enticing flow of steady invention, high style, and hearty commitment. And on the evidence of the Similitude of a Dream Live and Morsefest 2017 videos, the work got sharper, more dramatic and more engrossing the more the NMB played it. At this point, along with the two Testimony sets and ?, Similitude is firmly ensconced in my Top Ten of Morse-led albums. (Which Transatlantic still rules. But I digress.)
So I gave The Great Adventure a chance — and I’m glad I did. It’s got enough continuity with Similitude to feel like a genuine sequel, but also enough musical and lyrical freshness to stand on its own merits. On initial hearings, I think it’s a smashing success that will reward repeated listens.
Different reviewers have different ideas of when Neal Morse is at his best. For me, his projects are most enjoyable and successful when:
- he collaborates on the music with others instead of writing and performing it by himself, or with a rhythm section and special guests. Morse has a million ideas, and working with others seems to help him choose and refine the best ones;
- he and those collaborators aren’t afraid to go crazy musically– all over the map, over the top, all the way;
- he works in longer suite forms instead of unconnected shorter songs; and last but not least,
- he minimizes the ultra-mellow ballads that frequently stop his albums’ momentum dead in their tracks.
I’d also argue that these aesthetic choices tend to work best with an overarching story, which Morse tends to draw from Biblical history (One, ?), his own Christian conversion narrative (Testimony and Testimony 2) — or, as on Similitude, Bunyan’s Puritan allegory. (One of my beefs with Sola Scriptura is that Morse thoroughly botched Martin Luther’s biography. And gave Rome all the cool metal riffs. But I digress again.)
So, how does The Great Adventure stack up to my admittedly self-selected criteria?
1. The Neal Morse Band is easily the man’s most collaborative effort since Transatlantic. While he’s unmistakably the leader, lyricist and frontman, Morse opens the creative process to everyone (George contributes riffs and arranging ideas, Hubauer brings in fine completed songs, and Portnoy’s obsessive work on album structure is legendary), parcels out solos so everybody gets to shine, and shares the lead vocals with Gillette, Hubauer and Portnoy. Plus the top-to-bottom harmony blend of Hubauer, Gillette and Morse is consistently excellent here.
2. Musical daring? Let’s see… along with the usual moments of majestical mightiness, classic prog callbacks and retro-Beatle whimsy, I hear lashings of sinister psychedelia (“Welcome to the World”), Supertramp blithely blaspheming the Ramones (“Hey Ho, Let’s Go”) a driving Deep Purplish groove laced with talkbox and Mellotron (“Fighting with Destiny”), an earthy mid-tempo Zeppelin stomp (“The Great Despair”), and a garguantuan heap of growling sludge in odd time signatures (“The Element of Fear”). Not to mention the speed metal/howling Hammond/electronica/djent mashup of “I Got to Run” …
… the appealing uptempo AOR of the title track, stuffed with exciting solos on its extended playout …
… the 7/4 “Stand By Me” tribute that is “Vanity Fair”, complete with spoken mid-song tag a la “Supper’s Ready” and double time silent-movie coda …
… and the full-on punky thrash of “Welcome to the World 2”.
3. All of the above may sound like a shapeless mess in my description — but disciplined by Bunyan’s narrative, (loosely adapted so that the Pilgrim’s alienated son Joseph is the focus this time) and the Band’s collaborative aesthetic, the album grooves along smoothly, picking up cumulative power as it goes. The flow between genres is both seamless and surprising, quieter acoustic interludes are well placed for welcome contrast, and themes from Similitude are recalled often enough to highlight the parallels of the two journeys, as Joseph follows his father’s path through renewal, distraction, darkness, delight, opposition and despair.
4. Which all leads to the grand finale (pre-quoted in the opening track and referenced throughout), “A Love That Never Dies”. Yep, the Big Ultramellow Ballad finally shows up, but it’s got a tough, gospel-flavored underpinning that drives it forward. Morse starts the vocal on the low end, then hands off to Gillette, who sends the melody soaring and (as on Similitude) knocks it out of the park. Even the Barry Manilow-trademarked upward modulations work — and bring the shivers, doggone it! (Gillette’s arpeggiated shredding and Morse’s usual Giant Orchestra & Choir Pads don’t hurt either.) It’s true, Morse has done this before. Multiple times. OK, almost every time. But like the closing chorale of a Bach cantata — or like the David Gilmour solo over a Pink Floyd fade — it works. Every. Time. At least for me. And it doesn’t stop there — not until the final final string reprise of the theme and George’s bass solo over the celestial atmospherics that started the album.
Is The Great Adventure up to the standard the Neal Morse Band set with The Similitude of a Dream? Time will tell. But in my book, Similitude succeeded and earned Morse and his cohorts the chance to try, try again — and The Great Adventure is stellar both in and out of that context, working as a sequel, but also as its own entity. So much so that I’m genuinely excited to hear the Neal Morse Band play the whole thing live in Pontiac, Michigan on February 24. Concert review to follow …
— Rick Krueger