Issue 2005-054: Morse, Neal - ? - Round Table Review
Tracklist: Temple Of The Living God (6:13), Another World (2:36), Outsider (2:21), Sweet Elation (2:32), In The Fire (7:24), Solid As The Sun (6:12), Glory Of The Lord (1:41), Outside Looking In (4:19), 12 (6:46), Deliverance (6:22), Inside His Presence (5:30), Temple Of The Living God (4:27)
Bart Cs' Review
After a summer of guesses and rumours, Neal Morse finally released his own X-files, the new prog epic mysteriously called ?. When I heard the album for the first time it grabbed me immediately and it’s been growing on me even more to this day. A devout fan or blind follower? Not so (I hope). I had my doubts when I first learned from the message boards that it would be about ‘the tabernacle in the wilderness’. I mean, how much of a concept can that be for a progressive rock album? Also, the fuss about the album being a ‘secret project’ seemed a bit corny. Come on, we’re all adults here. And even when I saw the album artwork I still wasn’t reassured. To be sure, Testimony blew me away. I think it was amazingly powerful and clever, fresh and innovative, and also sincere, moving, and convincing. Present at the recorded performance in the 013 that is now the DVD I was deeply moved and impressed. But after that I wasn’t too thrilled by One. I thought it was uneven, on the uninteresting side some of the time, even if large parts still made it one of the better albums of the year. I wondered if Neal was perhaps making too much music...
These hesitations proved unnecessary. I think it’s a fantastic album, one of my favourites already. One of the wonderful things about Neal Morse’s work is that the vocal department is always impressive. So it is on this album. Strong melody lines and choruses, great background vocals and harmonies, sensitive and heavy passages both full of passion. A new thing is a piece written for choir (The Glory Of The Lord). Very dramatic, very cool. Next to the vocals, the instrumental department is usually top-class. So it is here. The rock bottom Neal lays down on guitar and keyboard (piano, Hammond, synths) is itself excellent, but the decision to have Randy George on bass again and Mike Portnoy on drums as his rhythm sections is indeed a wise one. George’s bass groans and gnarls its way all through the album, here on the surface, there in the background, but everywhere not only complementing but also highlighting what Morse tries to do. And he really takes the spot in Solid As The sun. Portnoy, needless to say, plays tight as a nail. There are songs where he clearly rocks (Sweet Elation, Solid As The Sun, 12), but I felt he’s less in the foreground than on any other album with Neal Morse. Not subdued or less intense, far from it, but really in service of the music.
Speaking of other instruments, there are some great funky horn sections on the album (Solid As The Sun), even sound samples (I bet that’s bro. Steve Farmer on Solid As The Sun), and warm strings of course. But on top of that Morse asked a number of world-class musicians for amazing contributions. Jordan Ruddess and Al Morse shine in a really wacky guitar/synthesizer duel on In The Fire. Roine Stolt has a few signature licks and solos with his very fine guitar sounds, already in the opening bars in the album (that plus percussion and stuff). I suspect Morse doesn’t always pays as much attention to his own guitar sounds as he should, so the good thing about these guests is that he is so courteous as to give them pride of place in the mix. And the last in this impressive line-up is none other than Steve Hackett. I didn’t know what to think of his name in the credits, but his solo on 12 brought tears to my eyes. Not a flimsy routine riff, but the big fat good old chainsaw soars through this high-powered prog epic, with Portnoy wacking away with Hackett. Who’d have thunked that, huh? Without any doubt one of the greatest pieces of music of the last years. It’s a crime this stuff isn’t brought to live stages!
Yet, it isn’t only vocals and instruments that prove Morse is on top of his game. The way the tracks are composed and arranged is simply wonderful. The melodies and choruses are powerful and catchy, never dull, throughout the album. As a whole it’s a very coherent album musically. There are no places where the overall quality drops in any serious way, but the interesting thing is also that the melodies and choruses fit together so well, so that themes are repeated very naturally in several places. One could even say that many of the songs Morse writes are not prog at all taken separately, but that they are very proggy indeed taken together. The only thing is that the music rolls on so relentlessly that there are a few moments where I would have liked to have a breath. (I have the same after Jadis’ More Than Meets The Eye ends – you exhale and say ‘Phew!’). This high-geared energetic pace we know from Duel With The Devil and The Devil’s Got My Throat is characteristic for much of ?’s music. There are two sides to this of course: this is also where the musicianship excels.
There are a few quieter (yet dramatic) tracks on the album (The Outsider, Outside Looking In, In His Presence.) I guess some will say the album disappoints exactly here. I disagree. Not only do I think these ballad-type songs hold up better than some other of Morse’s ballads, they also have a vital role on the album as a whole. This brings me to a few closing comments on the lyrical content of the album. In the first place, the idea of the tabernacle in the wilderness turns out to be a rich and interesting concept after all. It allows for a bit of history, a bit of mystery, symbolism and metaphor, and a bit of theology. Hence, it is not one narrative but a somewhat loosely painted as a concept album. At the same time, Morse treats the subject from different perspectives: the perspective of the Israelites as a people (what is this majestic God?), but also from the perspective of an individual (do I fit in?), and lastly from our perspective as it where (what does it all mean?). And these different subjects and perspectives are illustrated precisely by different musical angles. So it is significant if a song is wild and complex, or soft and quiet. This is why the ballad Entrance is not a disappointment after all the full-throttle prog. Indeed it holds the key to the entire album. Here Morse paints the shift of the meeting place between God and man: from tabernacle to temple, from temple to the heart of man. Mysterious and strange? Sure. In this musical journey, Morse gently invites us not to ignore but to investigate life’s question marks.
How often can you repeat yourself and not become boring? This is a question Neal Morse should ask himself after bringing out another reli-rock album of the same type of albums like Testimony and One. I think that he has already repeated himself too many times. This CD is again filled with melodies, keyboard lines; choruses and bombastic musical passages that I have heard too many times already. It is again too much of the same old, same old.
Take for instance the very recognisable gospel ballad The Outsider, the orchestral dominated mini-track The Glory Of The Lord or the highly dramatic ballad Inside His Presence. Songs that could be taken from his previous two reli-rock albums, without anyone noticing it. The music is really too predictable and far too melodramatic, but songs like The Temple Of The Living God, In The Fire and 12 are however great prog rock songs. Especially these three are packed with howling and screaming guitar solos, interesting keyboard pieces, plenty of rhythm changes, also typical Morse melodies and more than enough emotional singing.
On this album Neal had musical help from Jordan Rudess, Steve Hackett, Alan Morse, Roine Stolt and of course Mike Portnoy. But even with that help from his musical friends Neal still repeats himself too often, and lyrically speaking I am really fed up with his religious "I saw the light" meaning of life. I still consider Testimony to be a great album, but if Neal carries on copycatting himself, then I think that he will loose more and more prog rock followers.
Maybe it is a time for a change, Neal?
Dave B's Review
Since leaving Spocks Beard and Transatlantic, Neal Morse has if anything become even more prolific and he predictably returns here with a new album full or great music and god-awful lyrics. Lyrically the album is based around "The Tabernacle" - the name of the house where the Christian god lives - musically it sounds like a third Transatlantic offering spattered with Spock's Beard out-takes and the occasional Morse solo effort.
There are some detractors who think Neal is constantly recycling the same material and in some ways they have a point, however, it's a fine line between straight regurgitation and having your own style. In Neal's case for sure you're never in doubt who it is, well maybe the name of the band but it's always Morse, you may even think you've heard it somewhere before such is the familiarity you feel almost from the start of the album. However, rather than repeating himself Neal is just writing and playing the way that he does it - I've never heard people ever complain that Dave Gilmour sounds too much like Pink Floyd and the same holds true here, it's Neal Morse and therefore it sounds like, err, Neal Morse.
As you would expect, strong sing-along melodies permeate throughout, Neal seems to have a bottomless well of inspiration when it comes to writing a nice tune. This is underpinned by some great instrumentation - typically quirky and far more pacey than Testimonyt (I haven't heard One so can't compare), full of great themes, bombastic, melodramatic and grandiose. I don't think there's a bad track on the CD, Sweet Elation particularly grabbed me sounding so much like Transatlantic that I had to check what I was listening to at times. In The Fire has fantastic guitar and bass along with a wonderful Mellotron chord progression half-way through and 12 is a fast instrumental with great keyboard work.
Mike Portnoy is once again providing some great drumming with the other 'band' musician, Randy George, playing bass. Guests include Mark Leniger, Alan Morse, Roine Stolt, Steve Hackett and Jordan Rudess - that's quite some line-up and it shows in the immaculate and dynamic playing. A shame that Pete Trewavas isn't involved but there's certainly some very tasty bass in there and a great solo in Solid As The Sun although the preacher's voice talking over the top is rather annoying; which leads us nicely to the lyrical content...
Without engaging in a religious debate can I just say that I find the lyrics irritating and at times shockingly bad - lines like "Outside the gate the cripples sit and wait to see the temple of the living god" make me cringe. I can only imagine that these lyrics are appreciated by a very small percentage of the listening audience, namely the prog-rock, Christian fundamentalists - all three of them. I don't really know what Neal is trying to get across with these CD's - he won't be converting too many people to Christianity as a result, the message comes is too draconian and judgmental, if anything people will be driven away. I would suspect that a lot of fans are put off by this but continue to buy Neal's CD's because of a certain loyalty towards him - whether that will continue forever I couldn't say.
Regardless of the religious content though this really is a great CD and if you're prepared to grit your teeth a little you'll be rewarded with a very listenable experience. Perhaps you won't hear anything particularly new but for sure those pining for a new Transatlantic CD can get some satisfaction from this release.
If a progressive rock artist can be said to have a "boom generation" among their fan demographic, Neal Morse's fan boom came with his association with Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy during the Transatlantic years. It was Portnoy, more than Radiant Records, prog festivals, or God, who was responsible for the huge surge in Spock's Beard's popularity in 2000. I am a member of that "boom," and when I learned of Spock's Beard and The Flower Kings, they supplanted Dream Theater as my favourite bands. (Thanks, Mike!) Then when Neal was called by God to leave Spock's Beard and start clean - something that baffled a lot of fans, including this agnostic - his association with Mike Portnoy continued beyond Transatlantic through to this, the third of his Christian-oriented prog releases.
? is clearly the best of Neal's post-Spock's Beard work. After Testimony and One, I am not certain whether the religious lyrics are really not quite so in-yer-face, or if I am only getting used to it. One thing IS certain: The production quality, musical focus, and range of guest talent has improved beyond those already-respectable works. All the trademarks of Morse's powerful song-craft are here in spades: the hooks, the change-ups, the accessible but not simple harmonic structures, the delayed and layered theme epiphanies that make prog music feel like a drug to addicts like us. Some call it a formula - I was not the only one a bit fatigued with the predictability of One - but as formulas go, this is about as good as it gets. Adding to that: Neal's electric guitar prowess has developed to the same high level as his keyboard and vocal capabilities, making him perhaps the single most talented multi-instrumentalist in the world right now. "All of this in one man," indeed! Guest contributions from Steve Hackett, Jordan Ruddess, and Roine Stolt add an Ayreon-like quality where their particular talents are framed and showcased. About the only flaw in this work that keeps it from being a 10 for me is the lyrics - not that they are Christian, but that they seem a little forced in places, like Neal couldn't find the right line - and end up sounding clumsy. This is mostly concentrated in track 10.
For fans of Spock's Beard, Neal's previous Christian releases, and especially Transatlantic, this one is a no-brainer. It's really hard to top the classic tracks in those predecessors but I think Neal has at least achieved the same level once again with this CD.