|Musical Style: Progressive Rock||Produced By: Neal Morse|
|Record Label: Radiant||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2011||Artist Website: Neal Morse|
|Tracks: 16||Rating: 85%|
|Running Time: 114:44|
For the past several decades the name Neal Morse has been synonymous with excellent in the progressive rock scene. Most are familiar with the artists work in Spock’s Beard, having recorded 6 CDs and 2DVDs with the quirkily named band between 1995 and 2002, and the super group Transatlantic, which encompasses an additional 6 CDs and 3 DVDs. However, it is his solo albums in which he has gained the most acclaim. Releasing his first solo album, Testimony, in 2003, Morse followed up with 4 others over the next 5 years: One (2004), Question Mark (2005), Sola Scriptura (2007) and Lifeline (2008).
How do I rank them?
Sola Scriptura is by far my favorite. A concept album concentrating on the life of the reformer Martin Luther who nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Sola Scrptura is a 75 minute work that breaks down into just 4 songs. It is also one of the artists heaviest, a particular that can be directly attributed to the work of guest guitarist Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X).
Question Mark (also known as Question or simply ?) rates a close second. Another concept album, this one focuses on the Tabernacle that Moses and the Israelites built in the wilderness and that was later built by Solomon based on the same design that came directly from God. Question Mark maintains the epic progressive based focus in featuring a single 56 minute song that breaks into 12 “sub-tracks”.
One and Lifeline are “neck and neck”. One, also conceptually related in detailing man’s separation from God and how, through the salvation experience, man can become “One” with God again, is also sweeping in capacity with only 8 songs but 80 minutes of music. Lifeline is the only Morse solo release to not be based around a concept, but that does not mean it is any less progressive in coming in at 70 minutes and 7 songs.
Testimony is my least favorite from the artist. The album proves autobiographical in concept in chronicling the artist’s spiritual journey in music and words and culminating with how he found salvation through God. Unfortunately, my attention tends to wander in that the album is a bit long (it features 5 “Parts” that break down into 2 CDs and over 2 hours of music) while heading in too much of a pop-based direction for my taste.
This leads us to the most recent offering from Morse, Testimony 2. Lyrically, the album picks up where Testimony leaves off in detailing the artists time in Spock’s Beard, including the group’s unexpected success and his departure to pursue a solo career in 2002. In between, topics covered range from his daughter’s birth and miraculous healing from a heart defect to his ultimate spiritual transformation.
It also picks up where Testimony leaves off musically in that it features the next three parts to the story, “Part 6”, “Part 7” and “Part 8”, which combine for over 78 minutes of music. A second disc includes three more songs (and an additional 37 minutes). At this point it must be noted that each “Part” is not one long meandering song but rather - similar to the artists past efforts - breaks down into several “sub-tracks” intertwined to form a complementary whole (Part 6 is actually made up of 4 songs, Part 7 also features 4 and Part 8 includes 5).
Testimony 2 stays true to the progressive roots of Morse’s previous solo efforts but with an added element of accessibility thrown in. Now, by accessible I do not mean commercial or watered down but rather listenable in terms of recognizable melodies that will pull you in on first listen. Morse, for instance, proves brilliant in crafting songs that are intense and moving while stretching the progressive boundaries at the same time. So while labeling the album progressive would be accurate, there is much more going on here in terms of style classification that I do not wish to be limiting either. In other words, Testimony 2 is a very diverse album.
Testimony 2 is not without its progressive moments, such as “Time Changer” (with its layered vocal arrangements), “The Truth Will Set You Free” (symphonic elements) and “It’s For You” (inspirational milieu). But you will also find a couple of heavier rock tracks, “Nighttime Collectors” and “Road Dog Blues”, in addition to the melodic “Mercy Street” and bluesy “Jesus’ Blood”. A technical instrumental is includes as well, “Overture No. 4”, along with a pair of ballads, “Jayda” and “Jesus Bring Me Home”.
This covers just the songs on the first disc in that the second includes two more in the 5 to 6 minute range, “Absolute Beginner” and “Supernatural” and the 25 minute mega-epic “Seeds Of Gold”.
Yes, a great deal of material is presented here, but fortunately there is sufficient substance to warrant such great length. Some might say the album is too long winded; I say we marvel at the artist’s prolific songwriting abilities instead!
Morse continues to contribute a clean and silky smooth vocal style touched with heart and emotion. “Time Has Come Today” is a good example of his poignant abilities. He also remains a multi-instrumental virtuoso in handling keyboards, percussions and majority of the guitar duties. Returning are long term stalwarts bassist Randy George (Ajalon) and drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater). The two anchor the low end with the type of top flight performance one would expect of them: George shines with his precise bass lines (see “Overture No. 4”) while Portnoy proves every bit as deft behind the drum kit (check out his work on “It’s For You”).
As with past Morse solo releases, you will find your share of guest appearances here. Standing out are guitarists Paul Bielatowicz (Morse’s touring guitarist) and the legendary Steve Morse (no relation). Morse pulls out all the stops with his inspirational playing on “Seeds Of Gold” while Bielatowicz nails some fiery leads on “Overture No. 4”. The artist’s former band mates in Spock’s Beard, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Meros and Alan Morse, make an appearance as well in lending their multi-faceted backing vocals to “Time Changer”.
Please note that due to the extreme length of the album I did not feel that one of my standard track by track breakdowns would be practical. Instead, I thought it would work best to break things down by individual “Part” for the first disc and do an abbreviated analysis of the 3 songs for the second.
The lush acoustic based “Mercy Street” combines equal parts uplifting proclivity and melody on the compelling side of things. The best way to describe this one would be smooth sounding AOR. The two that follow head in the heavier rock direction, with “Overture No. 4” a bass heavy instrumental highlighting symphonic keyboards and hard rocking guitars and “Time Changer” an aptly entitled progressive excursion with multi-layered backing vocals and tempo variations galore. Momentum, however, slows for the tranquil ballad “Jayda” in which keyboards, acoustic guitar and orchestration lead the way.
“Time Changer” talks about Morse’s time in Spock’s Beard:
Spock's was taking off and we took what we could grab
The retrograde applause gave us more than we had planned
Just crank up the tron and I sang with all that I had
With all that I had!
Never were we so surprised
To seize the day from where we had come
Sun and moon both crystallized
It was better late
Our date with the sun
“Jayda” focuses on his daughter being born with a heart defect:
Lord make her whole
Your mommy knows she has to let you go
The testers kept testing for very long
With no word to console
They searched and they searched
But found nothing wrong
'Cause they couldn't find the hole
Powerful and vibrant, “Nighttime Collectors” rollicks its distance to a live audience track in the backdrop while touched up with occasional traces of organ. Things evenly transition to “Time Has Come Today”, a two part piece that evenly breaks down between its jazz-fusion based instrumental opening and joining of upbeat verses and vibrant chorus that follows. “Jesus’ Blood” slows things to a bluesy romp. This one proves dark and haunting, highlighting ethereal keyboards that hint of Pink Floyd and a bluesy stretch of lead guitar. With its symphonic progressiveness, “The Truth Will Set You Free” brings an up-tempo merging of sublime keyboards, resounding drums and several tasteful instrumental runs.
“Nighttime Collectors” details her miraculous healing:
The first thing I said is "I don't believe it"
Then fear gripped my heart and held on
I'd rather just grieve than start to believe and be wrong
"Well, all I can tell you is what they told me"
My wife said and said it once more
Her heart looks alright
They've seen nothing like it before
And “Jesus’ Blood” Morse’s spiritual transformation:
For years I had no peace
Every day was filled with dread
I wished that I could sleep
And awake when I was dead
And so I prayed to God in the midst of all my shame
Take this wasted life and wash away my pain
And I know, yes I know
Jesus' blood can make the vilest sinner clean
“Chance Of Lifetime” transitions from a fusion-ish instrumental opening to the melodic rock of its remaining distance with saxophones and gritty soloing. The palatial “Jesus Bring Me Home”, approaching ballad territory with its acoustic guitar and piano emphasis, gives way to “Road Dog Blues”, a shorter (3:06) piece that starts as a lively rocker but makes an abrupt left turn to a slower keyboard based direction at the end. The tranquil setting continues into “It’s For You”, as a piano leads the way until things gradually build into a power rocker with an inspirational milieu. The album culminates with “Crossing Over”, ending the storyline in richly orchestration fashion to an uplifting melody and reprise of “Mercy Street”.
“It’s For You” expands upon the theme of “Jesus’ Blood”:
It's for you
I'll give you what this world
Could never give
What I have
Goes far beyond the life
That you now live
Take my hand
Trade everything you are
For everything I am
The God of the whole universe
Sent his son to lift the curse
And live His holy life through me and you
The God of the whole universe
Sent his son to lift the curse
And live His holy life through me and you
What will you do?
On “Crossing Over” Morse leaves Spock’s Beard:
And so he brought me to a life I never knew
He's leading me to the bridge across forever
He saved the saddest one
Who thought his life was done
He gave me a new heart just like my daughter
And he's blessed me more than I can tell
And now all that I desire…
But I must say goodbye
To go on I must cross over
A voice says deep inside
“Absolute Beginner” gets the second disc going to an upbeat tempo and some radio friendly sensibilities. “Supernatural”, in contrast, takes the slower heading with its acoustic leanings and use of keyboards and vocal harmonies.
The twenty-five minute “Seeds Of Gold” is a true mega-epic in that it does not consist of several songs strung together, but rather is one long flowing piece distinguished by the artists equal emphasis on melody and technical proclivity. Without going into too much detail, you will encounter several lengthy instrumental portions mixed with quieter moments, symphonic elements, keyboards and organ to taste and Steve Morse’s riveting lead guitar work. Fans of Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic - not to mention Theocracy’s “Mirror Of Souls” - will find a lot to like here.
Deciding on a final grade for Testimony 2 proves problematic due to the plethora of material here. The first disc I graded at 90% and the second 80%. Adding everything together, I decided to meet in the middle at 85%.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing (Part 6): “Mercy Street” (5:12), “Overture No. 4” (5:25), “Time Changer” (6:08), “Jayda” (6:05)
Track Listing (Part 7): “Nighttime Collectors” (4:25), “Time Has Come Today” (4:55), “Jesus’ Blood” (5:26), “The Truth Will Set You Free” (8:07)
Track Listing (Part 8): “Chance Of A Lifetime” (7:02), “Jesus Bring Me Home” (4:59), ”Road Dog Blues” (3”:06), “It’s For You” (5:42), “Crossing Over/Mercy Street Reprise” (11:46)
Track Listing (Disc 2): “Absolute Beginner” (4:39), “Supernatural” (6:11), “Seeds Of Gold” (25:59)
Neal Morse - Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Guitars & Percussion
Randy George - Bass
Mike Portnoy – Drums
Steve Morse - Guitars
Paul Bielatowicz - Guitars
Jim Hoke - Saxophone
Mark Leniger - Saxophone
Kenny Barnd - Violin
Chris Carmichael - Violin, Viola & Cello
Eric Brenton - Electric Violin
Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Meros and Alan Morse - Backing Vocals