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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Neal Morse

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Review by Josh Turner

He did everything I would have asked of him and a whole lot more. This is his best album out of his most recent batches and one that rivals all the best from the year. I didn't think anybody would dethrone Tomas Bodin's I Am for my choice of album of the year. While I wouldn't go so far as to say he has surpassed it, this is right up there with it. It's far better than One and it even edges out Testimony and Snow. The only downside is that it's one disc and you'll be wanting more long after it's done. However, it's in his most complicated format yet. In some ways, it's one long song and yet it's not. Each track fluently translates into the next better than anything he's ever done. Additionally, this is, for the most part, a dozen separate songs that play alone just fine. If you ask me, that's an impressive feat by itself. A lot of the songs are short, but they're cut and pasted in such a way as to completely overlap one another. You'll have trouble knowing where one ends and the next one begins. If you thought of Testimony or Snow as one song, you'll find it increasingly more difficult to differentiate between these pieces. This is a huge strength of the album. It keeps its hold on the listener and doesn't give you a chance to sneak away. It's merely a matter of convenience to break it up into these twelve separate tracks. It's all good and I doubt that many will find themselves skipping tracks, jumping into the middle, or abandoning ship without taking it to its creative climax. Even though Neal is guilty of sticking to a certain style, you'll never be bored by sameness or lack of originality. I found myself stuck to the contents as if it were covered in a sticky shellac of Elmer's glue.

There are two additional improvements over his previous album also worthy of mention: The first has to do with the lyrics. He is in touch with his spiritual side, but also open-minded and sensitive to the diversity that would be found among the different sects of people. It doesn't matter your denomination or beliefs, these words can reach just about anybody. In my opinion, this is the greatest accomplishment of the album as this sort of message is seldom if ever done so well. It's about religion, but at the same time, it's about the enlightenment he's experienced over the years. The whole world could learn from his message. Many people, even those who are agnostic, will welcome these insightful expressions. Second, the instrumentals are superior to his previous engagements. The guitars are significantly better than they were on One. This can be attributed to Al Morse, Roine Stolt, and Steve Hackett who each make exceptional guest appearances. Neal needs no help on the keyboards, yet we are treated to contributions from Jordan Rudess. Where else do you see all these musicians on the same release? As if this weren't impressive enough, we bear witness to an unbelievable extravagance, these maestros trading licks. These parts will certainly wow you. In addition to these gracious gifts from these instrumental gods, Mike Portnoy is back at it again on the drums. It's not Transatlantic exactly, because Pete Trewavas is absent. Instead, there is a new bassist on the block and his name is Randy George. He's not altogether new as Neal has featured him on his latest endeavors. In any case, he's a more than suitable replacement for the missing Pete and able to provide his own melodic wonder. Together, these musicians make a winning combination and cook up sweet symphonic treats that hearken back to the recent times of the relatively-retro, but positively-progressive Transatlantic.

The only downside is that as mentioned, there is a certain similarity to all his past pieces. This goes with the territory, but not so much as usual. We do get many of the same solos, the Latin licks, and much of the same orchestrations from the string and brass sections. To paraphrase Andy Tillison of The Tangent, who really cares when he does it so well? I wholeheartedly agree, but we're fortunate enough to get new themes on top of the material we've already grown to fancy. I will take this album as is and whatever else he puts out regardless of how far (or near) he ventures from the familiar path. Not only is it a trip you'll take to its completion, it's one you'll take often and in some cases one you'll return to right away. The repeat button was engineered to endure frequent clicks. This album has been designed to put it to the test. For those who can't wait (or have the album and want a different perspective) a couple single versions are available for download at Neal's site - these are quite different from the renditions on the disc.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
The Temple of the God
Though it has a similar name, it is not the song from Transatlantic's Suite Charlotte Pike (that would be "Temple of the Gods"). After whispers direct us through a dark and windy tunnel, we bump into a beginning that rivals Testimony and Snow. This intro may be a tad bit better than both as it gradually builds and works in a whirlwind of ideas. The magnificent theme that dominates this track will return many times later on.
Another World
This short ditty works incredibly well. The passages are unique, yet have an early Spock's Beard vibe about them. This one is so catchy; it might beat the regrettable Red Sox fan to that game-winning ball.
The Outsider
This takes two successful mixes and blends them together to form one frothy beverage. It's a combination of Testimony and The Light, which results in melodies flowing fluidly from the tapper. He's gotten quite good at telling a story without detracting from the music. He takes elements from the sad outro of the first side of Testimony and combines them with the uplifting intro found on the second. Eventually it brings in the happiest of beats. It's carried upwards by an acoustic guitar. It's also sprinkled by the ringing of regal bells not too unlike the chimes typically found coming from The Flower Kings. It's a powerful statement to have this pleasurable piece emerge so early on.
Sweet Elation
There is a smooth transaction between the controlling parties. The operator switches lines without the slightest interruption in service. I've never heard a transitional piece that binds the parts together so well. Not a single seam is showing and no static can be heard. It's almost impossible to pick up the receiver before the call has been forwarded on. I can hear Transatlantic's "Duel with the Devil" and "All of the Above" in the instrumentals. Randy's bass parts sound suspiciously similar to Dave Meros. It's another clue that Randy can keep pace with all the great bassists.
In The Fire
This starts with a strange, but alluring beginning that revolves around a wailing guitar. This was definitely born from the ashes of Snow. I hear "Devil's Got My Throat" and "Snow's Night Out." Randy's bass is wild and outrageous in this wickedly ostentatious number. This catches fire like a moth to a flame. The keyboards remind me of the solo infernos lit up by Richard Andersson on Karmakanic, Time Requiem, and Space Odyssey. This may have the best moments on the album and it's some of Neal's best keyboard-playing ever. This fact alone should say a lot about the kind of symphonics you'll stumble upon in this song. It sounds a lot like Ryo Okumoto, but I suspect Jordan Rudess has had a hand in this one. After being hit by these extraordinary instrumentals, we get incredible licks from the guitar and bass. Before it finishes, we get some vocals that are so amazing, they are sure to sound the alarm. Then, the keyboards hit us again and this time, they swap the seeds of Derek Sherinan for Kansas-inspired crops. There is even a sax situated within these sonic gateways. Neal does it all, carefully coordinates his crew, and puts together an incredibly entertaining cut. This song is reluctant to quit. Between the blistering devil and the frostbitten snow, this burns both hot and cold. As a result, it easily qualifies itself among my favorite cuts of the album.
Solid As The Sun
This song is solid as a rock and sizzles like a raisin in the sun. It sounds a lot like Ajalon especially in the singing and the bass. There's an interesting monologue in the middle. At the heart of it, we encounter another great solo on the sax. This one would impress the likes of masters such as David Jackson or Theo Travis from The Tangent.
The Glory of the Lord
It's as if you entered Sunday Service when we come upon this sophisticated sermon. The parishioners stand up and chant a divine prayer. On this Day of Atonement, you will find a congregation filled with inspiration and emotion.
Outside Looking In
This is a sad and sullen song reminiscent of some of Snow's more downtrodden tunes. Like Scrooge, we are outside looking in. We can see warmth and light a few footsteps away. All it takes is a simple twist of a door handle to escape this chilly domain. It's a beautiful ballad, that's well sung, and with subtly elegant instrumentals.
12
This song features a piano piece that competes with the one found in "All of the Above." Like its predecessor, it comes at just the right time and each note is navigated in the most skillful manner. If that's not enough, we get an incredible guitar solo. This is the track that showcases the talents of Steve Hackett. Mike Portnoy and Randy George fill out the lineup here. They run like gazelles on the prairie with passion, poise, and grace. We might be observing them from above in a chopper; even so we have a hard time keeping up with them. We can't help, but be in awe of their refined and synchronized movements. This could be where you'll find the album's most heavenly highlights. It's a bit of everything he's ever done, plus passages influenced by the Middle East and Russia. This may very well be his greatest track ever.
Entrance
After taking on the high hills, we decelerate and take it in for a cushy landing. We take this portion of the trip on foot. Isolated in a remote region, we get a chance to walk and talk with Neal. We get his complete and undivided attention as he recites the most personal parts of this tale. It's almost like another prayer. He continues to combine music and story together in an unusually cohesive manner. This tape won't be hitting the cutting floor. Once this is screened to viewers, you can bet it becomes part of the special edition. It has the first of false endings (hint), but what's cleverest is how he ties in the earlier themes from "Sweet Elation" and "The Temple of the Living God."
Inside His Presence
In this Broadway ballad, I can picture Josh Groban alone on stage under a bright and balmy light. He's confident as all eyes watch his striking display. Out there by himself, he is under pressure to perform; yet his experience and talent create awe in his audience. Bagpipes actually appear at some point onto the scene. While this would normally seem out of place, it is right at home on this track. Towards the end, we get bombastic and booming instrumentals that scale a staircase to the highest summit. It almost feels like the album is wrapping up here and it'll trick you every time. There is more to come and it never stalls. He stays in the driving seat as he slickly shifts into the subsequent song.
The Temple of the Living God (Reprise)
This commences in the most cunning manner as it picks up cleanly from the previous piece. I'm totally infatuated with this exchange. Then after many elated parts, it ends in much the same manner as the album begun (hence, why it shares the same name as the opening song). Rather than start with the sound clips we heard when this rocking rocket took off, he has the format flipped. Before the album fades off into the heavens, the soft-spoken murmurs from the beginning become the final noises to resonate in this recording. Then, there are only two options to follow. One being silence from the speakers, the other would be a gasp or sigh coming from your lips. That's how it was for me. I was that stunned by this accomplishment. After giving it some time to absorb, I was back to playing it again. I doubt the repeat button will break. Before that ever gets a chance to happen, I'm sure this disc will have worn out its plastic shell. It's great the technology was made to last, because this one will keep on spinning right up until his next release. Before signing out, I must leave you with one final warning. This album is so staggering; listening to it runs the risk of breaching a very vital commandment. Which one would that be might you ask? Well, when playing it, don't be surprised if you happen to use the Lord's name in vain.
 
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