The Neal Morse Band live in concert at the Crofoot Ballroom, Pontiac, Michigan, February 24, 2019. Thanks to Paula Pasma for the great pic!

Prog Past, Present, and Yet To Come

One of Robert Fripp’s “devil bugs” caught up with the Krueger household on February 24 — the same day a “bomb cyclone” hit West Michigan, causing a 30-degree temperature drop in 24 hours, along with whiteout snowstorms.  It’s taken this long for us (and the region) to emerge from hibernation  — but through the depths of winter to the cusp of spring, music has taken sad songs and made them better.

That very day late last month, I trekked across the state to catch The Neal Morse Band’s Great Adventour stop in suburban Detroit; Neal and his merry crew (including son Will and daughter Jayda at the merch table) didn’t disappoint.   As I anticipatedThe NMB’s live take on The Great Adventure was even tighter, more driven and more finely honed than the fine studio album (first half glitches to Morse’s keyboard rig notwithstanding).

Hearing all of TGA in one go brought home how thoroughly integrated the new effort is.  The key musical themes (as well as flashbacks to The Similitude of A Dream) aren’t just repeated, they’re developed in near-symphonic ways: transposed, transformed rhythmically and harmonically, recapped in unexpected contexts throughout the work.  Kaleidoscopic contrasts of rhythm, instrumental color, vocal textures (mainly from Morse, guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer) and tonality meshed smoothly with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy’s George’s badass forward propulsion, ably mirroring the lyrical highs and lows of another journey to the Celestial City.

In sum, TGA is a genuinely impressive concept work, marked by ambition, intelligence, technique and sentiment in just the right proportions.  The result at the end of each set (and the encore medley that covered Morse’s entire solo career, ending the night where it began) was sustained, extended, unforced ecstasy in the audience — a feeling that, I believe, couldn’t have been manufactured or manipulated into existence.  I couldn’t help think that, consciously or not,  Morse’s recent work fully embodies the ongoing ideal of American revivalist religion — an ideal, whatever its flaws, that’s been a cultural constant from the Puritan theologizing of Jonathan Edwards to the rough-hewn democratic juggernaut of today’s Pentecostalism.

And, in the inspired, paradoxically complex simplicity of its drive to the finish, The Great Adventure live reminded me of nothing so much as Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler, Morse and band embraced everything that came to hand, running the risk of grandiosity to shape a new musical world — a payoff acknowledged by the heartfelt, fervent applause of the 300 souls in attendance.

Continue reading “Prog Past, Present, and Yet To Come”

Eric Gillette: The Best A Prog Fan Can Get

Gillette's first album.
Gillette’s first album.

As Brad Birzer mentioned in another post, Eric Gillette is the lead guitarist for The Neal Morse Band, having contributed to their album The Grand Experiment and currently touring with them. Before he hooked up with Neal, Eric released a self-produced album, Afterthought, which certainly deserves to be recognized in its own right for the excellent slab of prog it is.

It begins with three very heavy guitar-based instrumentals, “Afterthought”, “Change”, and “You’re Full Of It”. Fans of Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson will eat these up, as they showcase Eric’s phenomenal guitar skills. Eric’s gift is his ever-present melodicism, regardless of how crunching the riffs are underneath.

The fourth track, “Lost” (featuring long-time Neal Morse collaborator Randy George on bass), is something very special. A 22 minute epic that begins with a fast Crimson-like guitar intro soon settles into a keyboard section reminiscent of classic Todd Rundgren while Eric sings, “Can you hear me? Is there anyone out there? I could use a helping hand…I will find my way; I won’t be afraid. I can feel you next to me.” After three blistering instrumentals, it is a startling and inspiring moment to hear his pure and strong vocals. “Lost” is a tremendous track, with not a note wasted during its entire length.

“Rising” is another instrumental, this time featuring fellow NMB member Bill Hubauer on keyboards. “Bring You Down” is another heavy track with excellent vocals. It brings to mind Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor at his best. Unlike NIN, though, Gillete’s lyrics are more positive: “You don’t have to face it alone/Don’t let it bring you down.”

“Out Of Control” is another guitar showcase that would give Jeff Beck a run for his money. As a matter of fact, if you miss those classic Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer jams, then “Stagger”, “Blue Sky” and “Miles Away” will satisfy. The latter song, in particular, is simply gorgeous, and I am sure it was no accident that the title suggests Miles Davis’ balladry.

The album closes on a gentle note with a piano-based acoustic tour de force, “Above The Sky”. Eric’s multitracked harmonies sing a song of hope and redemption: “Darkness turns to light/Now you can finally see what this all meant/ No more questions why/The answer’s right in front of you, so open your eyes/Above the sky”.

It is an extraordinary achievement for a young musician to produce a debut album of such high quality. It’s no surprise Neal Morse included him in his new band – Eric Gillette is the real deal, and we will be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.

The Neal Morse Band – Alive Again and On Tour

Alive Again

Last Night in Nashville, TN, The Neal Morse Band kicked off their tour in support of their new album, The Grand Experiment. Performing in the intimate confines of Rocketown to a very enthusiastic audience, Neal and his cohorts tore through an energetic set that lasted more than 2 hours and included some surprises in the set list.

They got things started with the a cappella opening to “The Call”, with every band member nailing his vocal part perfectly. Eric Gillette, a veteran from the Momentum tour, is on lead guitar, while Bill Hubauer (another Momentum vet) plays keyboards, clarinet, and sax. Of course, no Morse band would be complete without longtime collaborators Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums. I brought a friend with me to the show, and he was blown away by Mike’s performance, saying, “I haven’t seen anyone play drums like that since Keith Moon!” Eric was incredible throughout the show, singing occasional lead vocals and playing some absolutely shredding guitar. Bill’s instrumental and vocal versatility give the band almost two musicians in one person, and Randy George holds it all together with his fluid bass runs. As Neal proclaimed at one point, “Randy with the bass pedal solo – how prog is that!”

The band played every song from The Grand Experiment except (surprisingly) “Agenda”. Highlights included Neal playing a beautiful instrumental on acoustic guitar that led into “Waterfall”, as well as the Kings-X-sounding title track. They also played “Into the Fire” from ?, “The Creation” from One, and they got a roar of approval when the intro to “In Harm’s Way” (from Neal’s Spock’s Beard days!) boomed out.

This being the first gig of the tour, there were some inevitable glitches, but Neal took them in stride – even stopping “The Grand Experiment” to restart a tricky vocal section. The audience loved it, and once they were back on track, they never looked back.

There are few performers who can connect with their audience the way Neal does – conducting them during singalongs, raising his arms in appreciation, and even jumping off the stage to sing and play among them. He and the entire band gave all they had, every minute. As my friend exclaimed to me in the middle of a song, “It sure is nice to see a band just having a great time playing together!”

Neal asked if we could handle “one more epic” (of course we could), and then launched into “Alive Again”. Neal has written many, many epics, and this one is near the top. It rocks, it soars, it ebbs, and just when you think it’s over, it comes roaring back for an incredible finale.

As far as the encores, I won’t be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there are some really fun surprises, both in terms of performance and song selection!

It’s been said (I have no idea if it’s true) that Keith Richards was once asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest rock and roll band. He replied that on any given night, there was a band playing in a club, somewhere, and for that night they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Last night, Rocketown hosted the world’s greatest.

You can get details of the rest of the Alive Again Tour at Radiant Records. Don’t miss this one.

Update: I mentioned above that “Alive Again” is one of Neal’s best epics. Actually, all of the songs on The Grand Experiment are a group effort, and Neal, Mike, Randy, Eric, and Bill all deserve credit for them.

 

My favorite Album of 2014, Redux

flyingcolors_2ndnaturecoverAt risk of annoying those who waded through my New Year’s Day post on my favorite prog/rock albums of 2014, I’m (re)posting my #1 pick from that list, as I think it stands alone just fine as a review. And because I think so highly of this album. Oh, and because I don’t post nearly enough on this fine blog, so maybe this can count toward my post total! By the way, a recent issue of PROG magazine (Issue 51 2014) raved about this album—but didn’t get into the lyrical content as I do below.

“Second Nature” by Flying Colors. Every once in a while—perhaps once every few years—I hear an album that I listen to again and again…and again: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, and Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” come to mind. I’ve now listened to this album 75 times or so (according to my iTunes), and I’ve not tired of it at all. Not even close. If anything, I like it more than ever, and I’m confident I’ll be listening to it for years to come. There are numerous reasons for my obsession with “Second Nature,” but I’ll note just a couple of big ones. It begins with the album title, “Second Nature,” which certainly references that this is the group’s second studio album and the fact that making music, for these five masters, is second nature.

But it finally points to the intertwining, overarching theme of the album, which is that of spiritual awakening, ascent, and transformation, the movement from putting off the “old nature” and putting on the “new nature,” spoken of by Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians (4:22-24). The arch can be seen in the opening and closing lyrics. “Open Up Your Eyes” is a song of self-examination and spiritual assessment:

Dream, empty and grey
A story waiting for a place to begin
Hands, laying all the best laid plans
But where do we leave our mark
In this life?

There is reference to original sin, echoing Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “Torn, wearing the disease you mourn/Like a deep freeze it burns.” And then the promise and the hope is proffered: “Open up your eyes and come awake/You will be created now”—itself a reference, I’m quite certain, to the Apostle Paul’s various exhortations to rouse oneself from spiritual slumber and to be made a “new creation.” The language of redemption and salvation are shot through the entire album; in many ways, this is the most open and covert Christian album I’ve ever heard (up there with early King’s X), and the approach is perfectly balanced and executed.

“Mask Machine” laments the layers of deception inherent in the dominant, de-sacralized culture, “With love for sale and gold for dirt/I’ll worship every fleeting aching.” The song “Bombs Away” furthers the lament and confesses the sad state of the first and fallen nature: “Run by my instincts/I’m high on the freeway/And I’m scared I’ll come down.” But there is a recognition of the vocation to transcendence: “I’d love to be found” and, “I need to find a way beyond.”

The next four songs, “The Fury of My Love”, “A Place In Your World”, “Lost Without You”, and “One Love Forever” are love songs—but for whom? Or Whom? There is a certainly ambiguity in the first two, as if nodding to the face that earthly love is itself a reflection of heavenly love: “Singing I surrender/I surrender/Tearing all the walls away/I’m giving you a place.” but by “One Love Forever” the ambiguity is gone, replace by clarity and knowledge of the God-sized hole in the human heart: “One love forever/For one consuming hole inside/One love forever/… One love for all time/Is calling/Our eyes contain eternity.”

The final two songs, “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”, mark the apex of the redemptive ascent: arrival and contemplation. And the music, amazingly, more than matches the rather mystical topic at hand. “Peaceful Harbor” is a soaring, ecstatic hymn: “I’ll look beyond/With this bedlam behind me/And I embrace the sky/My soul will cry/May your wind ever find me.” The final song is both prog heaven and, well, a hopeful glimpse of heaven: “I’m searchin’ for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground … And when I get to walk the streets/Without this burden on my feet/I know I’ve been called home…”

The monumental final, three-part track, “Cosmic Symphony,” is deeply emotional but resolute in nature. Once again, Eliot comes to mind (“Preludes” and “The Hollow Men” in particular), with references to scarecrows and cigarettes, with descriptions both abstract and apocalyptic: “Shrinking violet wounded by her mother/Old men sleep while porcelain screams take over/And the wolf disguises her undying lover.” There is a recognition, it seems, that redemption comes through acknowledging our limits in this temporal realm: “I’m searching for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground now…” But the conclusion, again, is one of hope in the world beyond: “And when I get to walk these streets/Without a burden on these feet/I’ll know I’ve been called home…”

Secondly, as indicated, the music perfectly carries and conveys the rich lyrical content. We all know that these guys can play anything; what is especially striking to me is how they play as a band, for the sake of the music. There are no solos for the sake of solos; everything is at the service of the songs. Steve Morse, who I’ve been listening to for 30 years now, continues to amaze with his ability to play with such precision and economy, yet with such soulfulness. See, for example, his solos in “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”. Morse is always distinctly Steve Morse, and yet he has an uncanny—humble, really—ability to serve the music at hand (I also think of his masterful work on Kansas’ criminally underrated “In the Spirit of Things”). Neal Morse and Carey McPherson have apparently mind-melded as vocalists; at times it is hard to say who is singing, nor does it matter. The amount of energy and love they have poured into this album is obvious. Dave LaRue is the epitome of virtuoso bass playing that is rooted and melodic; his brief solo near the beginning of “Cosmic Symphony” is a piece of sheer beauty—again, at the service of the song. And Mike Portnoy’s playing is so very tasteful, with all sorts of meticulous detail.

In short, this is, for me, a magical album. Thank you, Flying Colors!

The Making of Neal Morse’s “?”

Hello all,

Greetings from Team Radiant! We’re excited to share today the first ever Inner Circle release promo video! Get a sneak peek of what’s to come for members of the Neal Morse Inner Circle this month! Randy George has created a great behind the scenes time capsule video from the Question Mark Recording sessions that you all are going to love! See Mike killing it on “THE TEMPLE OF THE LIVING GOD,” Randy riffing out, and Neal spontaneously creating in this very special DVD experience. If you were ever wondering if you should join the Inner Circle, now is the time! Become a member of the Neal Morse Inner Circle by January 21st to receive this great DVD.

There are classics and then there are classics! In 2005, Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, and Randy George got together to create what would become the legendary Question Mark album. What was once shrouded in mystery is now revealed in The Making of “?” DVD!

Blessings,

Megan Batista, Radiant Records

Peaceful Harbor by Flying Colors

And, this is probably album cover of 2014.  Hugh Syme.
And, this is probably album cover of 2014. Hugh Syme.

I don’t want to get in the habit of quoting myself (a sure sign of descent either into senility or sociopathism), but I wrote this about a month ago:

In a world of true justice, Flying Colors would be blaring from every car stereo tuned to album rock radio across North America.  Not only does SECOND NATURE have the single best album cover of the year, but the album is absolutely riveting.  It’s not quite prog, though, as with the best of AOR, it contains great prog elements.  Everything fits perfectly here.  The lyrics are solid, the vocals are superior.  The final two songs—Peaceful Harbor and Cosmic Symphony (sort of a gospel prog)—alone are worth the entire album.  But, the entire album is, thankfully, worth the entire album.  For me, every time I listen to this album, I’m transported back to 1985.  This would have sounded great next to Power Windows.  And, unquestionably, Peaceful Harbor would easily outdo almost any contemporary worship song should churches look for some good new music.

It’s not strong enough.  The more I listen to this wonderful album, the more I realize just how very prog and how very good it is.  I think the first album–which I admire and listen to frequently (it’s also my oldest son’s favorite album, which doesn’t hurt!)–tainted my view on this new one too much.  That is, I was too willing to dismiss SECOND NATURE as AOR.  Really, really, really good AOR, but still AOR.

May I please revise what I wrote so definitively in 2014?  Please?  SECOND NATURE is way too complicated and deep for AOR.

For some reason, I’ve spent the last three days with SECOND NATURE as my sound track, especially as I prepare for the new semester.  On Tuesday, I had the grand privilege of meeting a Facebook friend, Geddy Lee Israel.  We had a wonderful time, but that’s a different story.  As we said goodbye to one another under very sunny but crisp Colorado skies, we started talking about Flying Colors.  When i told him I thought it was the best AOR album of the year, he corrected me–no, it’s prog. Straight up prog.  He was right.

Now, I know that labels reek, but Geddy’s comment got me to thinking.  What it allowed was for me to see this album for what it probably is rather than what I’d wanted or I’d assumed it would be.

Whether you already like the album or not, I’d encourage you to listen to it again–but, this time, with headphones on and the lyrics in front of you.   Imagine a deeply spiritual Neil Peart or an equally reasonable Kansas–you might come close to the lyrics of Flying Colors.  I really had no idea how beautifully written these lyrics are until my brief goodbye with Geddy.  Holy Moses, these are gorgeous in every way.  Deep, yet ethereal.  Truly poetic.

I hope I’m not violating copyright, but let me just offer this.  This is the best song on the album, Peaceful Harbor.

And, here are the lyrics.

Born into the wind
It makes its way
To the lost and the hollow
Life begins again
Sometimes we lead
Sometimes we follow
Where we do not know
No sky can hold
No end, no border
The wind will fill the sails
And push you through to peaceful harbor
Love, like Heaven’s wind
No eye can see
How it blows in the darkness
Fear may freeze our steps
Loss and regret, every scar turning scarlet
Help to set your course
Through sightless days and violent waters
Love will fill your sails
And bring you through, to peaceful harbor
Chase this rising wind
anchor released
No want of landing
All in deep despair
Come feel the air
In its full finale
And yes, the chase is on
I’ll look beyond
With the bedlam behind me
And i embrace the sky
My soul will cry
May your wind ever find me

Source: Flying Colors – Peaceful Harbor Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Like “Dust in the Wind,” this is the kind of song that makes me wonder if. . . just if. . . a song really could change the world.

May peace reign in this world of sorrows.