|Musical Style: Progressive Rock||Produced By: The Neal Morse Band|
|Record Label: Radiant||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2016||Artist Website: The Neal Morse Band|
|Tracks: 12 /11||Rating: 95%|
|Running Time: 51:59 / 54:36|
Neal Morse is throwing another bone to those who prefer epic length concept albums with The Similitude Of A Dream, the fall of 2016 Radiant Records sophomore release of The Neal Morse Band. Morse has garnered a well-deserved reputation within hard music circles as not just the king of progressive rock but also king of the concept album, and rightly so (either way) in light of his prolific solo career. From the latter standpoint, Testimony (2003) autobiographically sketched the artist’s journey in music and words in detailing how he found salvation through God, while Testimony 2 (2011) picked up where Testimony left off by depicting his time in Spock’s Beard and his departure from the group in 2002 to pursue a solo career. In between, Morse also put out One (2004), focusing on man’s separation from God and how, through the salvation experience, man can become “One” with God again, and ? (2005), which centered around the Tabernacle that Moses and the Israelites built in the wilderness, and that Solomon later built based on the same design that came directly from God. His magnum opus might actually be Sola Scriptura (2007) and its biographical portrayal of the life of the reformer Martin Luther, whom nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.
On a side note: I included Sola Scriptura as part of an article I recently wrote in which I detail what (in my opinion) are the ten best albums released the past ten years.
True to form, The Similitude Of A Dream is conceptually related, this time drawing inspiration from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which chronicles the spiritual journey of a man named Christian as he makes his way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. First published in 1678, the book was originally entitled The Pilgrim's Progress From This World To The That Which Is To Come, Delivered Under The Similitude Of A Dream. Hence, the artists motive behind the albums title.
In terms of the former, The Similitude Of A Dream is similar to Testimony and Testimony 2 as a double CD release in featuring over 100 minutes of music. Musically, the album finds him backing off (at least somewhat) from his over the top progressive proclivities in taking a direction similar to The Grand Experiment, The Neal Morse Band February of 2015 debut full length, in covering mostly hard rock to classic rock to progressive rock territory. Unlike Sola Scriptura (featuring 4 songs and 75 minutes of music), One (8 songs and 80 minutes) and ? (a single 56 minute long track), The Similitude Of A Dream does not include any ‘mega epics’ in excess of 20 minutes, but rather it encompasses a cohesive and efficient group of songs the majority of which are in the 5 to 7 minute range with exception of a ten minute epic at the end.
It deserves note that The Similitude Of A Dream is not the initial Pilgrim’s Progress based concept album, with the first being the 2010 self-titled debut of Pilgrimsprog, the one man band project of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Scott Miller. Miller did a very fine job with his take on the subject in question (referencing the 85% Angelic Warlord review), although he does not quite bring the same levels of production and instrumental proclivity as The Neal Morse Band. That, however, might not be a fair comparison in that Miller did not have the luxury of calling up drummer Mike Portnoy (ex Dream Theater) to perform on Pilgrimsprog not to mention talented The Neal Morse Band holdovers in guitarist Eric Gillette, keyboardist Bill Hubauer and bassist Randy George (Ajalon) let alone Morse himself! The point being the high level of accomplished musicianship The Neal Morse Band brings to the table.
Due to the high volume of material inherent to The Similitude Of A Dream, I decided to forgo one of my traditional track by track breakdowns in favor of breaking things down by individual disc instead with several paragraphs devoted to each.
“Long Day” is a brief (1:42) classical flavored opener in which viola leads the way to the lone acoustic based verse at the end. Instrumental “Overture” follows and leaves little doubt as to how The Neal Morse Band is a BAND in the truest sense as Hubaeuer’s majestic keyboards and Gillette’s fusion-ish guitars dance over a backdrop of George’s rugged bass lines and Portnoy’s creative drum fills. Morse works his magic on guitar and keyboards. Things proceed to calm for “The Dream”, a relaxed two and a half minutes of acoustic guitar and orchestration that contrasts with the hard rocking edge to ensuing piece “City Of Destruction”. This one kicks in at once, with snarling guitars setting the strapping tone and the group’s vocal harmonies lending to the generous melody at hand.
TNMB exhibits its progressive side as the album transitions to “We Have To Go”, a diverse cut that opens to a single acoustic laced verse that gives way to the keyboard solo that closes out its final minute. “Makes No Sense” maintains the variations, as the ethereal keyboards at the start transition to ominous guitars and copious jam based instrumental moments. A mirthfully flowing melody tops things off. The heavier rocking mentality carries over onto “Draw The Line” with its up-tempo and bass enhanced momentum and strong sense of groove to match. Again, TNMB shines with its generous vocal melodies. Things seamlessly transition to second instrumental “The Slough”, which resides in classic rock territory with its big doses of Hammond B3 and fantastic jazzy lead guitar from Gillette.
Final four songs to disc one represent some of the albums finer moments. “Back To The City” brings a slight commercial element, with resounding piano touching upon the pensive and catchy refrain allowing an accessibility that would lend to FM radio play. Understated guitars round things out. “The Ways Of A Fool” might be albums most creative. With ample doses of Queen like vocal melodies leading the way, the song maneuvers its mirthful seven minutes to a rollicking joining of moving piano, bluesy guitar and sweeping keyboards. “So Far Gone” returns the album to hard rock territory, driven by potent guitars and Portnoy’s energetic timekeeping but defined by the pristine feel to Morse’s signature vocal delivery. “Breath Of Angels” receives the power ballad treatment in gently drifting to acoustic guitars, orchestration and angelic choirs that allow a fitting Gospel feel.
The creativity carries over onto disc two opening cut “Slaves To Your Mind”. The song starts to spacey keyboards before gradually building as Hammond B3 kicks in, playing up a portent feel moving forward with its darker guitar tinctures and somber instrumental moments. Whereas ensuring piece “Shortcut To Salvation” is one of the albums mellowest with its laid back and affable disposition, “The Man In The Iron Cage” rates with the heaviest in emphasizing full on guitars and substantial doses of bottom heavy groove. Former features a closing saxophone solo and latter another great lead guitar run from Gillette. “The Road Called Home” drifts its first three minutes instrumentally to pumping bass and playful keyboards before moving on to its elegant closing verse.
Another classic ballad, “Sloth” follows with gently done keyboards at the start and warmly tinged guitars and traces of the acoustic upholding its remaining distance. The lighter leanings carry over to “Freedom Song” with its outside the box (in a positive sense) country and western flair in which steel guitar and a reserved disposition hold sway. As a heavier rocking cut, “I’m Running” comes well timed in the track listing in merging a frolicking up-tempo inclining and horn section with George’s muscular bass solo. “The Mask” highlights time signatures galore, starting with a minute and a half grand piano introduction but also includes atmospheric verses and ominous essence to its darkly shaded - and quite heavy hitting - refrain.
“The Confrontation”, first of the three closing tracks, places guitars at the front of the mix and aligns them with airy keyboards to creative a setting that has restive if not terse written all over it. Portnoy remains at the top of his game with his intense drum rolls and fills. Instrumental “The Battle” reflects an unruly impression with an almost offbeat vibe that touches upon the chaotic with its fast-paced tempo and pensive piano.
The Similitude Of A Dream ends to ten minute “Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise)” in which TNMB ties the storyline together and brings everything to its climactic close. The song follows a ballad formula, softly drifting its length to crystalline piano with Kansas like violin and keyboards signatures lending to the overriding sense of grand and stately melody. Things reach a crescendo of emotion at the end as an extended stretch of bristling lead guitar brings the album to its fitting close.
Lone complaint (and you can place this within the ‘nit-pick’ category) is that despite featuring over 100 minutes of music The Similitude Of A Dream only covers the first 75 to 80 pages of Pilgrim’s Progress (according to the groups press material). Yes, I appreciate the intense detail and effort put into the project, but I cannot help but feel that Morse and company could have tightened things up in light of how on Pilgrimsprog Scott Miller covered the books entire breadth in slightly less than 60 minutes. That being said I am also hoping that this points to a 4 to 5 disc concept series that traverses the books remaining length!
The tri-fold digi-pak packaging is a thing of beauty, particularly the multi-page mini booklet with artwork detailing the story as it is in progress. I also appreciate how each of the two discs comes with different artwork in order to help differentiate them.
Not unlike The Grand Experiment, The Similitude Of A Dream comes across as a true band effort as opposed to a Neal Morse solo project. The wealth of quality material it encompasses - how many albums in your collection feature twenty or more good songs? - unequivocally reflects how each of TNMB members offered their unique imprint in helping make it one of the top releases of the year. Musicianship shines accordingly, with Morse recruiting not just an able group of players but rather a roster that works well together and complements one another hand in glove. Fans of Neal Morse or any type of progressive rock with tendencies towards hard rock and classic rock would do themselves a favor by making The Similitude Of A Dream a necessary purchase.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing (Disc 1): “Long Day”, “Overture”, “The Dream”, “City Of Destruction”, “We Have Got To Go”, “Makes No Sense”, “Draw The Line”, “The Slough”, “Back To The City”, “The Ways Of A Fool”, “So Far Gone”, “Breath Of Angels”
Track Listing (Disc 2): “Slave To Your Mind”, “Shortcut To Salvation”, “The Man In The Iron Cage”, “The Road Called Home”, “Sloth”, “Freedom Song”, “I'm Running”, “The Mask”, “Confrontation”, “The Battle”, “Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise)”
Neal Morse - Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Guitars, Percussion & Mandolin
Eric Gillette - Guitars & Vocals
Bill Hubauer - Organ, Piano, Synthesizers & Vocals
Randy George - Bass & Bass Pedals
Mike Portnoy - Drums & Vocals
Chris Carmichael - Violin, Viola & Cello
Eric Durken - Percussion
Ann, Alfreda & Regina McCrary - Background Vocals
Sarah Hubauer - Baritone & Alto Saxophone
Spencer McKee - Marima
Dave Buzard - Stomps
Bruce Babad - Sax
Steve Herrman - Trumpets
Jim Hoke - Tenor & Bari Saxes
Rich Mouser - Pedal Steel & Extra Guitars