REVIEW: THE NEAL MORSE BAND – “The Similitude Of A Dream”
Neal Morse has released a lot of albums in his 21-year career (over 24 studio and 14 live albums), and he’s done it as a member of a lot of bands (five as of this writing). However, it’s still exciting when he announces a new one. ‘The Similitude of a Dream’ is the ninth prog album of his solo career, and the second after forming The Neal Morse Band in 2012. The decision at the time was to form a proper band to join Neal, along with Mike Portnoy (drums) and bassist Randy George, who had been playing with him since 2004 (Mike since 2003). Two years later, they released their first album, ‘The Grand Experiment,’ and have been actively touring ever since. Their time together has culminated in ‘The Similitude of a Dream,’ which I believe to be the best album of his career. A bold opinion perhaps, but I’ve been listening to him for 15 years and follow all his bands, and I genuinely feel this way.
‘Similitude…’ is a double-disk concept album which clocks in at over 100 minutes; it’s a behemoth of an album by most people’s standards. Now I happen to love concept albums, and Neal has made a bunch of them over the years. ‘Similitude…’ is based on the book ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ (1678) by John Bunyan. It’s a classic work of Christian allegory and has become one of the most influential books of its kind over the centuries. The book tells the story (in dream form) of Christian, an everyman, and his trip from The City of Destruction (this world) to The Celestial City (the afterlife, in this case heaven). On the journey, he meets a collection of characters with allegorical names: Evangelist, Sloth, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, etc., who either aid or, more usually, hinder his journey. The album itself takes the book as a starting point that both loosely and directly follows it. There are characters in the album, and the band members sing the different parts. Can you enjoy the album without knowing the storyline or caring about it? Of course, you can. But if you want to get anything out of the album, or know why Neal wrote it the way he did, then it certainly helps and should be taken into account. And really, what’s the point of listening to a concept album if you don’t care about the concept?
The album starts off softly before kicking into high gear with “Overture” which, as the name implies, is instrumental. It’s an excellent and engaging start to what develops into a layered journey of sound and story. From the beginning, it’s obvious that all the members brought something extra this time around. The players are all well respected on their instruments, but the playing of each is elevated throughout the album. The guitar work of both Neal and Eric Gillette is more fierce and on-point than ever before, Neal’s keyboard work, which he’s famous for, goes even higher with the aid of Bill Hubauer, and Randy George’s bass is fat and thunderous when appropriate, and melodic and dancing when it needs to be. From the album’s initial announcement, Mike Portnoy has been proclaiming this album the best of his career, and a defining moment for his playing. Fans of his former band Dream Theater will of course be rather wary of such a proclamation, as Mike is well known for his enthusiasm for his current projects and has often said similar things in the past. But he plays out of his mind on this album, and Mike’s metal roots are put on display here more than ever, and their influence is felt because musically, parts of this are the heaviest and darkest things that Neal has done to date. Granted, it’s not heavy on a metal level, so don’t expect that. But put into the context of his solo work, and his work with Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard, much of this album is heavier and in a darker vein.
This is not at all to say that the entire album is heavy. Neal has never worked that way. Plenty of it is soft and we’re even treated to a bit of bluegrass on “Freedom Song,” which feels like a throwback and nod to ‘Testimony,’ his first solo album after becoming a Christian, and Neal’s love for vocal harmonizing is represented once again as well. The greatest example for me, though, of everyone playing at the top of their game is the vocals that Neal doesn’t sing. Gillette sings on a significant number of the tracks, something he did on their last album as well, and his vocals are spot-on for every character he plays and every harmony he sings. I don’t think he needs to take over vocal duties for a new band, but as a second vocalist he’s excellent. The biggest surprise for me was Portnoy’s vocals. Now he’s been singing on albums for a while, both in his earlier bands and with Neal as well, and to be honest, I’ve never thought much of it when he did. This time out, though, his vocals positively shine, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write. They are highlighted at the end of the album on “Confrontation”, where he (if I’m listening and figuring correctly) plays the character Apollyon, or the Destroyer: a demonic, reptilian creature slayed by Christian. This song, along with the following instrumental, “The Battle,” highlight the previously mentioned heaviness and Mike’s drums drive it all forward, the two pieces are “Dark Eternal Night” (from Dream Theater’s ‘Systematic Chaos’) heavy and driving, and are pretty much perfect and exhilarating prog rock.
Lyrically, ‘Similitude…’ is also some of Neal’s best work. Although it tells a story based on a book, the lyrics still feel very personal, perhaps mirroring Neal’s own spiritual journey. That he covered extensively with the two ‘Testimony’ albums, but this album feels equally personal and real. The lyrics are very honest, all the struggles, doubts, and pains that are part of a journey of faith (or life) are dealt with seriously and in a real way. Neal’s message of perseverance through struggles, there being no shortcuts in life (highlighted by “Shortcut to Salvation” a stinging critique of certain sects of modern Christianity) comes through clearly, and one doesn’t have to share his faith or his beliefs to take it to heart or acknowledge its relevance in a modern world. And through the whole album the lyrics and the music mesh perfectly and keep a constant movement. The journey is felt with the music as well as the story itself, and although the running length is staggering, the album never drags, even when it slows down and gets quiet. This is certainly more than can be said for a certain other double disk concept prog album that was released this year by Portnoy’s former band. As comparisons between the two are inevitable I’ll simply say that I have no doubt that Mike takes some satisfaction in the fact that the album he was such a big part of crushes the other on pretty much every level.
‘The Similitude of a Dream’ is, in my opinion, the best album of the year (sorry, Opeth and Nick Cave) and the best album of Neal Morse’s career. It’s a lengthy, complex, emotional, and pretty much perfect example of modern progressive rock, with occasional flashes of driving metal. Every member of The Neal Morse Band excels on it, both instrumentally and vocally as well. Accuse me wrongly of hype (what’s in it for me to hype an album?) all you want, but this is a phenomenal album and one that every prog fan should add to their collection. Fans of Neal and Mike Portnoy’s considerable amount of work together will find a lot to love on it, and non-fans, you’re probably not reading this, and would be better off not bothering. For the uninitiated, start here, you’re in for a treat. I’ll be pre-ordering this one for sure.