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Neal Morse

Momentum

Review by Grant Hill

When I first saw the official video of the title cut, I became pretty excited. I have longed for the crossover of progressive rock into pop to become more widespread, the likes of which we have not seen very often since the days of Yes, Rush, Genesis and Kansas that held some significant sway over listening preferences in the mainstream. Of course, things are different these days as more power than ever rests in the hands of the performing artist, even without the marketing dollar being dumped into promotion and touring by the major labels. This writer maintains that the small, responsive independent labels are going to drive the future marketing models that impact listeners who consume the product. No one is keenly more aware of these trends than Neal Morse, who, once again, applies his compositional and performing genius to another fine release. His own label, Radiant Records, stays true to the concept of protecting intellectual property and promoting Morse’s music the way Neal Morse sees fit. That sounds like a recipe for savvy success to me.

Morse understands his market. He knows he appeals to those who appreciate sophisticated, complex music, soloing virtuosity and epic performances. He understands that he has chosen to bring his own personal story of redemption and faith not only to his Christian brethren, but also to those who may feel lost or disaffected. He is never self-righteous or exclusive of those who don’t share his persuasion. Though his obvious self-confidence may intimidate some, he stays true to his beliefs and the personal examples that made faith a reality in his own life. Sell out audiences are a testament to the fact he is on the right track.

This remains an inclusive element in Neal Morse’s music, which always has an underlying story based on deep personal experience, and reflects both struggle and the joy of overcoming oneself and the world. And, as always, there is homage paid to his Spock’s Beard roots as well as a clear understanding and appreciation that despite common origins, Neal Morse and Spock’s Beard have musically evolved into completely different entities with a great deal of respect for one another despite last decade’s tumultuous breakup. Momentum is a triumphant collection of songs brought from Morse’s reality with a superb addition of talent from stalwarts Randy George, Mike Portnoy, and even Paul Gilbert. It’s prog rock heaven, if you will! I love this release!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Momentum

The synth opening line hits with impact, creating immediate interest, capitulating into the accented guitar chords, setting the table for the opening vocal verse. The vocals are catchy with tasty set work, syncopated bass and guitar counter phrases. The chorus is driving rock style. The well conceived melody line and chorus should be attractive to a wide audience. There is nothing insipid to this song. The synth and guitar solos speak well and fit nicely over full band power chords. Nice unison lines build into full vocal chords on the chorus repeat. I always enjoy how Morse uses the B3 to fill out the rhythm section sound. A tasty repeating piano line carries over the instrumental passage at the end.

Thoughts Part V
Spock’s Beard fans will enjoy the musical quotations from the original “Thoughts” being incorporated into the introduction. While the style is indicative of the entire “Thoughts” series of songs and retains the oft-mentioned stylistic identification with Gentle Giant, this is an entirely new song. The vocal canon approach is well represented and built upon throughout. It’s a compositional clinic for both vocal and instrumental performance, alternating the rich complexity of harmonic a cappella lines and intense instrumental sophistication. The entire ensemble ties it all together with a great Randy George bass line and lyrical guitar work dominating. This is also some of Portnoy’s most musical drumming ever. This is a five star track, no doubt, and one that should garner both critical and academic interest - superb!
Smoke & Mirrors
The song begins with an elegant acoustic guitar into a balladic vocal, dark, mysterious and introspective. “Disillusioned soul causing bloody tears / The truth masquerading with smoke and mirrors.” Don’t we all deceive ourselves in life this way? I like the grandiose bridge/ending and sensitive nuances in the main melody line. This is very, very nice work!
Weathering Sky
A syncopated, aggressive opening hooks the listener immediately. The song is edgy and has all kinds of little hook phrases to generate and maintain listener interest. There is an organizational clarity to writing. Morse grasps this well, something that eludes some otherwise very fine prog artists. This is another fine pop-like offering.
Freak
Staccatto strings back Morse’s vocal line. I like the vibe, reminiscent of Phil Keaggy, Belew or even the Beatles. This song should draw a wide audience response. It’s a good production number in the musical sense that it expands the variety of Morse’s writing. The dramatic, legato chorus contrasts the opening’s style. Everything is tasteful, including the modulation before the final chorus.
World Without End
Clocking in at 33 minutes, there is no doubt that this song will rank among Neal Morse’s epic compositions. The full thematic opening is majestic and expansive, grandiose and powerful. Tension ensues with synth building into the restated moving line via bass and guitar. Alternate musical voices speak. The overall introduction is long but presents well. Good tension builds throughout. Aggressive sixteenth and eight note patterns contrast the legato themes underneath. The players are well locked in, communicating fluently. The vocal entrance grooves well and grabs the listener immediately. This is a very carefully crafted piece and would make a wonderful soundtrack. By the time I hear the second verse I’m thinking, “Really cool stuff.” This features beautiful writing! It’s also a fantastic performance! Those who eschew Morse’s music because of its lyrical religiosity are depriving themselves of a fantastic musical experience. This is their loss, sadly. Every part of this song fits together like a perfectly written symphony. The middle section is quite expressively direct, and yes, there is an underlying honest morality as an important construct in the music. The guitar solo in the middle section is clean, transitioning to another smoother vocal section. Portnoy’s dynamic stylistic contrast is well noted here and throughout this CD. I think Portnoy has become a vastly more complete drummer while working with Morse. The following fast instrumental section is extensive and perfectly played. This piece doesn’t need to grow on me. I love it instantly. It then transitions to a lento section featuring a more minimal piano/synth section backing some serious, soulful vocals. The chorus is triumphant and full of hope and promise. Morse does such a nice job of connecting various themes with re-voiced ideas introduced at the beginning of the piece. Yes, It’s another compositional clinic. Theory mavens take note. The bass feature is brilliant. Great chops, Randy George! The bass/synth/guitar/drums unison feature is equally off the chain! This transitions to a balladic piano-vocal feature, sensitive and deep, building dramatically, even gloriously. Keys and guitar trade beautiful phrases constructed from the vocal phrase and leading to a freely phrased, slowing ending. In my opinion, Neal Morse reigns as the king of prog for good reason!
 
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