Issue 2004-064: Neal Morse - One - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Creation (18:23) : (i) One Mind (ii) In A Perfect Light (iii) Where Are You? (iv) Reaching From The Heart; The Man's Gone (2:51), Author Of Confusion (9:31), The Separated Man (18:00) : (i) I'm In A Cage (ii) I Am The Man (iii) The Man's Gone [Reprise] (iv) Something Within Me Remembers; Cradle To The Grave (4:56), Help Me / The Spirit And The Flesh (11:15), Father Of Forgiveness (5:48), Reunion (9:11) : (i) No Separation (ii) Grand Finale (iii) Make Us One
The time when it looked like Neal Morse was retiring from music now seems like a very distant memory, despite being only two years ago. Since then we’ve had the full-on double CD Testimony, a tour and live DVD, and now, following in short order, comes Morse’s latest opus, One.
I wouldn’t normally start off a review by talking about the concept and lyrics, but here I’ll make an exception, especially as many (potential) fans seemed turned away from Morse by the (some would say overtly) religious message running throughout Testimony. Well, whilst One is still heavily influenced by Morse’s conversion to Christianity, it has a more universal message (the separation and eventual reunification of God and mankind), and is couched in much more general terms than the very personal message being advocated in its predecessor. Yes, occasionally those who aren’t that religious may feel a little uncomfortable, but I think that those with an open mind should be able to enjoy the album even if they don’t necessarily buy in to Morse’s worldview.
So, what of the music contained on One? Well, although Morse has managed to confine himself to a single disc here, he’s used almost all the available space on the CD, and has once against produced a progressive rock concept album that will no doubt have many of those who loved his work with Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic in rapture. Much attention will undoubtedly be paid to the two eighteen minute epics, The Creation and The Separated Man, which form the centrepieces of the album. Of these, the symphonic epic The Creation is in my mind the stronger piece, and in fact is the highlight of the album. All the elements that Morse is known and liked for in the prog world are present here – memorable melodies, quirky time signatures, vocal hooks a-plenty and virtuoso instrumental work are all here in abundance, and the piece flows extremely well, with barely a dull moment. The Creation also sees the main themes that will crop up later in the album established, much in the way that the overture section did for Testimony (in fact, the main musical themes of Testimony and One are not that dissimilar). The Separated Man is not as strong, as it contains a few dull stretches, and a couple of the tempo changes seeming rather forced, but once again has much to recommend it – a particular highlight being the slow, moody section which kicks in after three or four minutes, and sees Morse going for a darker style than he’s known for. There is also some strong solo guitar work which crops up throughout the track.
In common with previous works, Morse has included some short ballads here which are no doubt at least partly intended to act as breathing spaces between the epics. Of these, both The Man’s Gone and Father of Forgiveness are pleasant enough, if undemanding, whilst Cradle To The Grave, which has a country music feel, is rather saccharine for my tastes.
More interesting are the three medium-length pieces which complete the album. Author of Confusion is being touted as Morse’s heaviest track ever – this may well be true, although this is hardly going to have anyone but the softest music fans reaching for the earplugs. Morse comes up with some interesting riffs here, and the section where there is a trade-off between these and a spiralling keyboard motif works well, and brings to mind King Crimson’s Red. The track also features an a cappella section which, whilst technically impressive, seems a bit forced and unnecessary, having been done better on the likes of Spock’s Beard’s Gibberish. Help Me / The Spirit And The Flesh bounces along for the first half of its length on an upbeat, almost dancehall-esque melody, first played by piano then Spanish guitar, which contrasts with the somewhat despairing lyrics which Morse sings on this piece. The song does however get a little stodgy in its latter stages. Better is the final track, the joyful Reunion. In contrast to Testimony, which dragged quite a lot in its final section, this ends things on a high, with brass and honky tonk piano flavouring an up-tempo, rocky piece which sees Morse really going for it vocally. The track ends on a suitably grand, symphonic flourish at its conclusion, meaning that the album ends in a far more satisfying manner than its predecessor does.
Before concluding, it’s worth saying a few words about the musicians Morse uses here. As well as himself (on guitar, keys and vocals), Morse has once again called in the services of the seemingly omni-present Mike Portnoy on drums – the man gives his usual sterling performance, as expected. Joining the pair is the bassist who played on the Testimony tour, Randy George. I always thought that the bass on Testimony (played by Morse himself) was a little weak, and its certainly better here, with George employing a nice, fat sound reminiscent of the bass sound Dave Meros employed on the Morse-era Spock’s Beard albums.
So, to summarise, this is a strong progressive rock album, which most if not all existing fans of Neal Morse will surely take to immediately. I wouldn’t say I rate it as highly as some of his previous work, but then at the same time it’s better than others. The concept works well and provides a unifying theme that, like Testimony, holds throughout. There is sometimes the feeling that Morse is going through the motions a little here, and his trademark sound obviously isn’t as fresh now as it once was, but there is real energy and enthusiasm on show over large patches of the disc, and in The Creation Morse has certainly come up with a cracking epic to rival some of his previous classics. Overall, this won’t be in my ‘best of the year’ list, but then its been a year of very high quality releases, and this is certainly another strong showing by Morse which, as I said, is bound to find favour amongst his (many) fans.
After leaving Spock's Beard all eyes were on Neal Morse and people wanted to know what he would sound like without his musical friends. Even more so because Spock's Beard changed their musical direction (a little). Testimony was well received probably because it followed closely the Spock's Beard's sound people came to love. This time, however, the fact that Morse is able to create the same sound and music like in the 'old days' does not come as a surprise anymore. And at what moment does one's trademark becomes just plagiarizing oneself? Even before Neal Morse's departure there was talk that Spock's Beard were repeating themselves and many have argued that Neal's leaving, although a great shock, was one of the best things to happen to the band.
Neal Morse's One is a good album and all the ingredients of his previous albums, and even a touch of the Transatlantic sound, are there. So why is it then that this record sounds old, almost boring, so soon? Because there is no improvement or development of any sort. One might argue that a musician on such a high level needs no improvement, but to keep my attention an amount of development is certainly needed.
An 18 minute track like The Creation should make prog-lover's hearts beat faster and if this is the first time you hear of Neal Morse it probably even will. But I find lots of Transatlantic and Spock's Beard loops and references in it. It's not that it's in the Transatlantic 'vein', certain parts are almost exact copies of that music. The Man's Gone is a mellow song with a strange bell sound (also found in the M.A.S.H. theme). Author of Confusion starts of nice and heavy, up tempo and a bit heavier than Neal Morse is used to, but one third into the song this these heavier ingredients are gone and the auto-pilot takes over again. The beginning of The Separated Man is a remanufactured beginning of Spock's Beard's Flow. Cradle To The Grave, is almost too sweet a sound, but I kind of like this song and the second voice in this track is very good. Help Me / The Spirit And The Flesh is also a track that I like a lot because of the nice beat in it, combined with the guitar wandering off doing little loops. Another track I very much enjoy is Reunion, with a complete brass section making it a very American, very swinging and uplifting song - is there some light at the horizon? But compare the end of this song to Transatlantic's Duel With The Devil and you know you have heard it before. I skipped Father of Forgiveness: it is a simple piano based song that just changes into something with musical-like features but then ends in a real Neal Morse track again.
So I have a very ambivalent feeling, some of it is brilliant like most of Neal Morse's previous music but then again all of this album is like Neal Morse's previous music. Good exceptions are the three songs I have mentioned but these are not enough to rid the album of the "been there, done that feeling". So I am left with a not too bad but not too new either feeling. Now I realize that I would rather have a band with real progression that I don't like anymore (say Marillion) than what Neal Morse is doing - no progression and losing me as a fan all the same.
It is preaching time again; Neal Morse’s second solo album One, of course deals with religion again. Testimony was Neal’s story; this new album deals with the story of all mankind. It tells the story of the lost son: God and man are together – man leaves him – he will be separated from him and thus getting more unhappy. God sends his son to lead mankind back to him, and in the end there is a wonderful reunification; where have I heard that story before??? But actually I am not really interested in the lyrics, they are too religious for me anyway and just as on Testimony the lyrics get on my nerves most of the time ...
So, let’s talk about the music on One then. Neal plays most of the instruments himself and he is assisted by Mike Portnoy (drums), Randy George (bass guitar) and the legendary guitar player Phil Keaggy, who did most of the amazing guitar solos on this CD. Let me start with the three rather mediocre and poor songs, which are: The Man’s Gone, Cradle To The Grave and Father Of Forgiveness. The first one is a boring, average acoustic song, while Cradle is again an acoustic ballad, which can be best described as dull and horribly sweet; need I say more??? Father of Forgiveness is again (yawn, yawn…) a ballad, a typical Neal Morse song, with dramatic, religious lyrics that make me want to scream. Even the “heavenly” (maybe the wrong choice of word, here?) guitar solo cannot “save” that one in the end ...
Fortunately there are also some great progressive songs on this album, namely the two long epic tracks The Creation and The Separated Man; THE highlights of this CD. The Creation, divided into four parts, starts with a great instrumental section and especially the guitar solos and melodies in that part are “delicious”. Later on the song evolves into a typical Spock’s Beard/Transatlantic progressive epic with Beatles-like vocal parts and familiar melodies that give you a deja-vu feeling during the rest of this song. The second “blockbuster” is called The Separated Man and here Neal actually plays with complex riffs that bring back memories of great “old” progressive rock bands like Gentle Giant and Yes. This song also features a lot of folkloristic musical elements and lots of spherical, rather quiet passages. However again when I listened to this song for the very first time, it was as if I had already heard this one before ...
The “heaviest” song on this album, probably Neal’s heaviest song ever, is Author Of Confusion. Complex riffs dominate this song, metal guitar sounds and steaming drums, as well as a cappella vocal parts and swinging keyboard passages. The four minute instrumental section is a true delight for my ears. The two remaining tracks on this album are rather “experimental”; Help Me/The Spirit And The Flesh has some jazzy and oriental components. However this song is also so typical Morse that it could have been on his previous album as well; just check out the very recognizable vocal lines and melodies in this song! The album ends with Reunion, a rather jazz-rock like track with lots of horns and trumpets and a very dramatic hymn like ending. Again this is a song where the lyrics are really too much for me….Conclusion: a good progressive rock album, although I found Testimony more to my liking, as Neal tends to repeat himself too much, musically speaking that is. As for the lyrics, I will never get used to that religious overkill, although the word God was used more often on his previous solo album…..
Since most of the things you need to know about One have already been said in the three reviews above, I will limit myself to some things I want to emphasize or points where I disagree with the other reviewers.
First of all, I don't agree with Martien that Cradle to the Grave is a poor song. As a matter of fact it is one of the highlights for me. Not only is it a beautiful, almost heart wrenching ballad and a splendid duet with Phil Keaggy, who is equipped with a marvellous voice which reminds me of Graham Dye, who sang with Alan Parsons (a.o. One Day to Fly and Light of the World). Also, it is one of the few times that Neal drops the standard rehashed progginess we've been hearing for ten years now and actually makes something more mainstream that would have fitted well on one of his first two solo albums. As such it actually feels as a bit of relief while listening to this album. Horribly sweet ? Maybe, but then again I like sweets every now and then. Also, I don't think that The Man's Gone is that bad. Nothing special, but enjoyable in the same way as e.g. Lay it Down or some of the more mellow pieces on Snow and Testimony.
I might agree with Martien on Father of Forgiveness, but mainly because the lyrics of all songs following Help Me really turn me off. I mean, I could live with the symbolism of Snow, I've learned to listen to Testimony's first four parts not trying to pay too much attention on the religious themes and I even find the first half of One, where Neal presents the story of creation and Adam and Eve in a rather playful way quite fascinating. Not that I believe in it, being a Darwinist Atheist, but I consider this to be a myth (!) which earns the same sort of respect and literary attention as e.g. the Greek myths. However, as with Part 5 of Testimony the last 1/3rd of One is just too preachy and "Hallelujah" for me. All this stuff about Jesus coming to save humanity is just not my cup of tea. As such I don't like those last 2,5 songs on the album (approximately 20 minutes of music).
Now, looking at the more proggy songs on the album, that's where my other disappointment lies. Sure, it's all quite enjoyable to listen to for the same reason why you like your favourite drink or meal. It's the kind of music we like, with all of the recurring themes, weird time signatures, influences from folk, Latin and classical music and majestic instrumental passages, featuring brass and string orchestration, plus the obligatory Gentle Giant vocal extravaganza (think Thoughts, Gibberish, etc). As such it is great stuff. But it's also stuff which we have heard too many times by now. And you know what happens if you only get your favourite meal for dinner every evening.
I think it was around the V album by Spock's Beard when I first started to complain that the band wasn't really evolving anymore and was only rehashing old ideas. Now, while I found Snow a bit of a nice diversion into a slightly different direction, this same argument also goes for the Transatlantic albums and Testimony. That certain thing I have since called the 'Morse Code'. And the Morse Code is all over this album. And this time it goes to the extent of edging on self-plagiarism. I agree with fellow reviewer BJ, who did not participate in this Round Table Review since he found this album dramatically uninteresting, that almost all of the songs and sections remind you of other songs from the Morse catalogue. I especially hear a lot of stuff that could have been pulled right of the Beware of Darkness and Kindness of Strangers albums. I'm sure that there's a lot of Beard and Morse fans out there that will not really mind, but for me this has become almost as embarrassing as the need to try and spread Christianity through music.
To conclude, I completely agree with Dries that this album is 'not too bad and not too new' and I'm echoing his rating of 7 out of 10. I also fully agree with Dries that bands that try something different every now and then, without losing their own sound, deserve a whole lot more respect than those rehashing the same stuff over and over again. Neal Morse has shown to be able to do that with his first two solo albums. Unfortunately he's gone back to write and arrange in the same way he's done with Spock's Beard and Transatlantic for so many years.
Fortunately the album does have some really fine moments, among which Cradle to the Grave, the Latin influence of Help Me (only to be spoiled by The Spirit And The Flesh), the almost Irish folk section in The Separated Man and several others mentioned by my fellow reviewers. This keeps the rating from reflecting a further 'punishment' for plagiarism. But be warned ! If the next one is again mor(s)e of the same, I will drop the rating even further.