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Morse, Neal: ?

Neal Morse's new solo album ? embarks on excellent songwriting as always. It is rich in progressive rock elements reminiscent of his former bands Spock's Beard and Transatlantic; as well as his previous solo works, in that it is a continuation of his spiritual and musical journey. ? is a single long-form composition divided into twelve tracks. Other than that, the flow from one piece to another is so seamless and natural that some parts of the melodies actually bleed into the following track without the listener noticing it. Furthermore, there are certain themes, melodies or subtle lyrical references used in more than one song to tie each piece together and suggest a sense of wholeness.

Arguably Morse's most progressive solo work, this album features an incredibly impressive list of guests, added to his long-time rhythm section consisting of Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums. Alan Morse, Neal's brother from Spock's Beard, returns to the fold to offer his guitar talents along with Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings (Morse also appears on Stolt's upcoming solo album by the way). However, the biggest surprise for me was the addition of Genesis mastermind Steve Hackett, whose unique and easily identifiable phrasing and tone set him apart from pretty much everyone else out there. Last but not the least, Dream Theater's keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess also graces ? with timeless synth solos that duel with both Alan Morse and Roine Stolt's lead guitars. As usual, there are a good dose of cellos, violins, horn sections, bag pipes, and Mark Leniger's trademark saxophone sounds to enrich the compositional qualities of the songs, interwoven into the mix thanks to Neal Morse's amazing skill for song arrangement and production.

The album starts and ends with a piece titled "The Temple of the God", giving a good explanation of the concept underlying it, and both pieces share some common lyrics and musical ideas. For instance, while the opener begins with soft wind effects and indiscernible whispers; the last track ends exactly in the same way. However, the body of the songs are filled with hugely varying elements. A distant blues guitar harmony starts the album off, followed by Neal's unique vocals where he sings over a lengthy piano melody. His voice is full, strong and incredibly expressive. There is just something in his timbre that makes up for any technical inefficiency he may possess. All of a sudden, the piece breaks into a full-blown prog rock piece as keys and swirls of jazz motifs are introduced to define the song, while a classic Spock's Beard type of guitar theme produces immortal melodies that go on and on until they segue into the following track "Another World", only to develop a stronger character and become more intense. Neal effectively delivers a repeated chorus in a capella style, while in the closing track things are executed completely differently. The same chorus doesn't kick in until the last two minutes because of a huge wall of sound created by a hybrid of symphonic rock, multi-track guitars (two of them harmonise with each other, while the third one returns to play the same theme heard on the first two pieces) and massive vocal harmonies delivering the same chorus. It is beautiful.

Every track has its own trait. From the strummed acoustic chords and Mellotron sounds on "Another World" to the flutes and bells on "The Outsider" (given the percussion work here it is easy to tell Portnoy had a finger in co-writing this one) to the amazing solo trade between Alan Morse and Jordan Rudess on "Sweet Elation", the whole album is also laced with dramatic passages of piano, saxophone, and lush string work. Moreover, fans of Transatlantic will rejoice when they hear the Zappa-like "In the Fire", featuring a mix of everything that ranges from both a bass and drum solo, harmony vocals, a fantastic lead guitar solo what seems to be Roine Stolt, blues rock meets 70's Hammond sounds, another crazy synth lead by Rudess, and finally a funky bass figure to wrap things up. Strings and a big orchestral arrangement form the brief piece "The Glory of the Lord", while on the acoustic guitar and piano-driven ballad "Outside Looking In", we have an ethereal Steve Hackett solo that is simply out of this world. "12" is another ballad displaying Morse's vocals at their most fragile yet also emotive state together with jazz piano, counterpoint vocals and glistening cymbals from Mike Portnoy. The piece ends with a cutting instrumental break where I believe Alan Morse and Roine Stolt first solo individually and then meet Rudess' keys as he enters the scene. The multi-guitar leads are also amazing on "Inside His Presence" where Neal Morse lets out a fantastic scream towards the end.

? is another addition to Morse's ever-growing back catalog. While he still continues his quest to find God, he also proceeds to write amazing music with moving melodies and numerous dynamics. I personally believe bashing the guy for the religious imagery he uses in his songs has been done to death. No one is forcing you to analyze his lyrics. I'm not even Christian and his lyrics don't bother me at all. His music is simply too strong and clever to distract from the listening experience.

Track Listing

  1. The Temple of the Living God
  2. Another World
  3. The Outsider
  4. Sweet Elation
  5. In the Fire
  6. Solid As the Sun
  7. The Glory of the Lord
  8. Outside Looking In
  9. 12
  10. Deliverance
  11. Inside His Presence
  12. The Temple of the Living God

Added: February 26th 2006
Reviewer: Murat Batmaz
Related Link: Neal Morse website
Hits: 8050
Language: english

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Morse, Neal: ?
Posted by Pete Pardo, SoT Staff Writer on 2006-02-26 19:10:47
My Score:

Is there anything that Neal Morse touches that doesn't turn to gold? The former leader of Spock's Beard once again strikes it big with his latest Christian themed progressive rock opus ?. In fact, this one might be out of all his solo albums the most vintage prog sounding album of his career. With a who's who guest list that includes legendary Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings, Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess, bassist Randy George, Neal's brother and current Spock's Beard guitarist Alan Morse, ? manages to impress on many levels, even before you have pushed the play button on your CD player.

While I'm not going to get into the lyrical content of the album, as we all know that Morse if conveying a very serious religious message these days, the music is stellar and highly ambitious. Plenty of vintage sounding keyboards adorn each song, thanks to the talents of Morse and Rudess, the latter delivers plenty of blazing synth runs that rival anything he has done with Dream Theater or on his solo albums. Just check out his jaw dropping runs on "In the Fire" if you don't believe me... just stunning stuff. Throughout the twelve songs you get loads of complex arrangements and amazing solo sections, plus Neal's penchant for melodies are always evident. The guy has a very addicting vocal style, and can write a memorable tune, plain and simple. The rhythm section of Portnoy and George provide a rock solid foundation for Alan Morse, Stolt, and Hackett to add their unique guitar styles over, and on occasions the music gets pretty heavy.

In summary, ? is a wonderful prog rock opus, and it's amazing to think that when Morse split from Spock's Beard most people thought he would veer away from the genre that made him a household name. As it turns out, his former Band is moving farther away from the progressive rock world into more mainstream rock sounds, and Morse is succeeding at it perhaps better than he ever has. Go figure.

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