|Musical Style: Rock||Produced By: Neal Morse|
|Record Label: Radiant||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2014||Artist Website: Neal Morse|
|Tracks: 11||Rating: 80%|
|Running Time: 47:45|
Occasionally in the hard music world, we come across artists who just think differently. King’s X is like that (can you say a joining of hard rock, progressive rock, funk and blues with Beatlesque vocal melodies?). Galactic Cowboys were like that (The Partridge Family meets Metallica, anyone?). So were Saviour Machine (how about theatrical Gothic rock influenced by U2, early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and David Bowie?).
Neal Morse is another artist of such note. It begins with his progressive rock solo material in which he specializes in the ‘mega-epic’, a song of extreme length (usually 20 to 30 minutes) that breaks down into several different ‘parts’. One from 2004, for instance, featured a pair of eighteen-minute tracks, “The Creation” and “The Separated Man”, made up of four parts each. The 2007 release Sola Scriptura based itself around a thirty-minute piece (“The Door”) and another in the twenty-five minute range (“The Conflict”) that both encompass six different parts, while 2012’s Momentum includes another thirty-minute track in the six-part “World Without End”.
The artists work with super group Transatlantic proves no exception in that songs within the thirty minute range are ‘par for the course’ on albums such as SMPT:e (2000), Bridge Across Forever (2001) and Kaleidoscope (2014). It is on The Whirlwind (2009) that Morse took the ‘mega epic’ to the next level in featuring a single song that spanned the albums entire length (this time 78 minutes and breaking down into 12 parts). Morse actually introduced the concept on Question Mark, his third progressive solo album from 2005, in also focusing on a single 12 part track (this time 56 minutes). Regardless, the ‘thinking differently’ aspect to Morse reveals itself in how he is not your typical three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-verse-chorus-verse type artist.
Hence, it came as somewhat of a surprise in the summer of 2014 when Morse put out his most recent solo album, Songs From November, made up of songs of normal (i.e.: three and a half to four minutes) length. Songs of normal length? Is the artist turning over a new leaf? His press material sums things up best: “Even a style as broad and accepting as progressive rock has its boundaries. Prog icon Neal Morse decided to break that mold and create a challenging new album. Songs From November may be his bravest outing to date. Musically, creatively, and production-wise, it’s like nothing he’s ever done. Can you handle it?! It’s an album of “normal” songs!”
Morse also offers his thoughts (from the same press material): “I listen to a lot of different kinds of music for various occasions… prog albums when I really want to focus on intricate music… sometimes jazz and classical. But many times I find myself attracted to 'feel good' singer-songwriter albums like a Jackson Browne or Graham Nash record. So one day I thought to myself… I'd like to make an album like that! Songs From November is that album.”
Songs From November represents quite the departure from Morse’s progressive solo material by backing away from the epic length songwriting and complex time signatures and technical intricacies that go hand in hand. You will not come across any of the heavier rocking proclivities to the artist’s previous work either (keeping in mind I have always considered Morse guitar driven progressive rock as opposed to progressive hard rock). Rather, what we have in Songs From November is a joining of catchy contemporary pop and acoustic rock with touches of classic rock and AOR. The album ultimately succeeds on strength of songwriting, which leaves little doubt as to Morse’s abilities as a composer regardless of style, form or genre. In other words, a one-dimensional progressive rock solo artist he is not!
Many of my favorite Songs From November moments are the most upbeat. It starts with opener “Whatever Days”, an uplifting feel good song with an engaging chorus hook (not to mention abundance of groove) and complementary horn and saxophone solo, but also includes “Song For The Free”, heartfelt and rich (almost worshipful) with its acoustic penchant but also albums heaviest from its crisp guitar underpinnings. “The Way Of Love” also showcases its share of verve, accented by piano and organ but with a big as it gets refrain (inspirational in form) and another jazzy horn section. Bridging the gap between the albums elevated and slower material is the semi-progressiveness of “Wear The Chains”, transitioning between moments of a light and airy capacity and others taking the more decisive tone in which keyboards play a forthright role (an orchestral feel comes to the forefront in the process).
The slower Songs From November material prove no less able. “My Time Of Dying” stands out with its exquisite melding of acoustic guitar and violin to create an emotional effect hinting of the Kansas classic “Dust In The Wind”. Also acoustic based is “Heaven Smiled”, albums most tempered (and classy) in effortlessly flowing to organ and Gospel flavored backing vocals, and “Flowers In A Vase”, laid back and reserved from its use of steel guitar and orchestration (not to mention over the top melody). From a ballad standpoint, “Love Shot An Arrow” shines with piano and orchestration combining for an atmospheric effect as does “Tell Me Annabelle” with tranquil keyboards and breathing bass establishing an ethereal setting. Also, note how the slower compositions find Morse in top poignant form with his trademark smooth and crystalline vocal abilities.
Lone complaint is that Songs From November is a bit heavy in terms of slower tracks. “When Things Slow Down (aptly entitled with acoustic leanings mixed with more steel guitar) and “Daddy’s Daughter” (another piano ballad with a soft touch) might not rank with the albums best (in my opinion) but do not represent skip buttons either. I would have appreciated a bit more variety therein. Perhaps including another guitar heavy piece along the lines of “Song For The Free” or one with a progressive slant such as “Wear The Chains” might have lent to the more varied listen.
Morse’s faith cannot help but come through in the lyrics. This stands out best on “Song For The Free” (Anywhere You call. I will go/If our God, He is for us. Who can stand against us?) and “My Time Of Dying” (I just pray that I’ll be ready. And leave no sorrow in my wake. I hope the Lord will take me quickly. And I’ve given more than I could take). “The Way Of Love” talks about exactly that: There is a way you never see. There is a way it has to be. There is a place that is enough. There is a sacred state of mind. There is a Light that always shines. You’ve got to find the way of love
Other topics covered include the pain and growth that go hand in hand with personal loss on “Love Shot An Arrow”: There’s a pain that I feel. It’s like I’m bleeding. But it’s beautiful like when the wind cries. There’s an ecstasy rush, excruciating. And it’s there when I look into your eyes). Morse has also composed a tribute to his daughter on “Daddy’s Daughter”: You are daddy’s daughter. My precious little girl. Like all is black and white ‘til you bring color to my world. Every moment were together).
Every artist is entitled to have an ‘outside the box album’. Most often it works, as it did on Liberty N’ Justice’s acoustic rock release Independence Day from 2007. Occasionally, however, it does not: Consider the number of eighties hair metal bands that thought it would be a good idea to record a ‘modern’ rock album. Fortunately, in the case of Morse and his ‘outside the box’ release Songs From November it is the former that applies. And works it does, particularly when factoring how the album could not reside farther from hard rock territory but shines all the same with (once more) overall strength to songwriting. The corresponding feel is that Songs From November might not be progressive but is far from simple at the same time, with Morse’s gifts as a musician standing out accordingly. Fans of the artists previous work (regardless of style) or those looking for something softer with a pop basis (anything from Billy Joel to The Beatles) would be well served by checking this out.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Whatever Days” (4:47), “Heaven Smiled” (4:15), “Flowers In A Vase” (4:16), “Love Shot An Arrow” (4:18), “Song For The Free” (4:27), “Tell Me Annabelle” (4:22), “My Time Of Dying” (4:37), “When Things Slow Down” (3:24), “Daddy’s Daughter” (4:44), “Wear The Chains” (4:04), “The Way Of Love” (4:31)
Neal Morse - Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Guitars, Bass, Percussion & Drums
Chris Carmichael - Strings
Jim Hoke - Saxophone
Steve Herman - Trumpet
Eric Darken - Percussion
Gabe Klein - Drums