REVIEW: THE NEAL MORSE BAND – “The Great Adventure”
The recording of any new album has its challenges. And the more successful a band is the more challenges it faces, both with the actual writing and recording process, but also with a back catalogue of material that the new album will be compared to. The Neal Morse Band had an additional challenge when it came to recording their upcoming album ‘The Great Adventure’ which is due in late January 2019. They had to create the follow-up album to ‘The Similitude of a Dream,’ a work that garnered near universal praise, and is in my and many other fans’opinions Neal’s masterpiece. And instead of taking the relative easy route by making just another album, they instead made another two disk behemoth and sequel.
I was as surprised as anyone when I learned that ‘The Great Adventure’ was going to be a sequel. The first album is loosely based on the first half of the classic allegory The Pilgrims Progress, and the journey of Christian. For the new album, the band focuses on a character found in the second half of the book, the abandoned son Joseph of the first album’s protagonist. As with ‘Similitude’ it is a loose adaptation with the themes and emotions being more important than a strict narrative copying the source material. Indeed I would consider this a much looser adaptation than the first, and the narrative and story line are considerably more introspective compared to the fairly straightforward and easy to follow plot of the first.
As stated previously, this album focuses on one of the sons that Christian left behind in the first album. The son is obviously and quite understandably angered at his father for abandoning him and leaving him behind in The City of Destruction, which isn’t a very pleasant place to live at the best of times, and considerably worse after being left. The album therefore has a darker and angrier tone than the first album does. Also as the son has some exposure to the father’s journey, the religious struggles explored are as much the internal ones faced by someone familiar with living within faith as they are someone finding it for the first time. And as always Neal’s lyrical themes reflect his religious beliefs; one doesn’t have to share them to enjoy the album, but understanding them is certainly helpful in understanding the story and themes explored.
The album begins where the previous left off, with the throbbing opening and closing sounds that closed the disks of the first album, along with the final lines sung concluding with “let the great adventure now begin.” We are then briefly introduced to a main musical and lyrical theme of “the love that never dies” before launching into the “Overture” proper. As with any overture it serves the purpose of not only jump starting the album in an exciting and engaging way, but introducing the audience to the musical motifs of the first disk.
This leads into “The Dream Isn’t Over” which properly introduces the main character of the story and his situation before leading directly into the first single released “Welcome to the World.” The song is comparable to the track “City of Destruction” from the first album as it is harder rocking, and shows where the character resides compared to those around him. The world is of course a hard, often scary unfeeling place, and this is what the son finds and sees all around him. Melodically it worms itself into your ear, which is fine as the melody and variations of the lyrics are repeated a few times through both disks.
We are soon met with another song and piece that makes several appearances throughout, the heavier and considerably darker “Dark Melody,” which references the lost and dark nature of the son’s soul and life in general. Lyrical references to the dark melody appear several times afterwards on the first disk and also at crucial moments in the second, so the listener will do well to pay attention to its use and meanings in this first encounter.
The second single of the album was released a week or so ago and so should get some mention as well, it is of course the title track “The Great Adventure” which listening to its own I am pleased to see still works as an independent song. However it is much better in the proper setting of the album as a whole and its effect and power is helped considerably by knowing what has happened so far. I think the strongest parts of the song are the separated keyboard solos that tie everything together. And prog fans will likely starting tapping their fingers along with them as they pretend to play along every time they come up.
This observation makes a good point to comment on the rest of the band. Neal Morse has of course been mentioned several times by himself already, as he is the main vocalist and creative force behind the band. Little can be said about his writing and musicianship that hasn’t already been said many times over the past several decades. However after having had several years to listen and compare The Neal Morse Band to the other groups he has worked with, I really have to say this is best group of musicians he’s ever been surrounded with and a prog band whose skill, writing, and live performances would make anyone reluctant to have to follow.
Mike Portnoy is of course the most well known of the group. And this album simply reaffirms why he is one of the most widely respected and influential drummers on the planet, prog or otherwise. He also shows on “Venture in Black” that his skills as a vocalist have continued to grow and he is very memorable during the course of the song. Bassist Randy George returns as well; as someone who has been playing with Neal since 2004 his delicate, and rock steady bass is at this point as indispensable to the band’s sound as Mike’s drums.
Relative newcomers Eric Gillette and Bill Hubauer both provide lead vocals as well as their guitar and keyboard parts. I have noted in past reviews that Gillette was a rising star in progressive guitar work; well he is no longer rising and is a very powerful and intricate virtuoso on his own accord. And his guitar work and solos on this album are destined to only gain him more of the praise and notice that he so richly deserves. This, along with his excellent vocal work, makes him essential to the sound of the band. Hubauer is no less vital, his key work is easily recognized, and his key leads stick in the head of the listener for days. His distinct high ranged vocals are often the melodic and emotional glue that keeps everything together. Simply put this is one of the most talented groups of musicians in rock music today, and you need your head examined if you argue otherwise.
The second disk opens with “Overture 2” which swells and drives forward in the same manner as its predecessor while serving the same purpose. The main thrust of the album comes with “Long Ago” as the son continues on his journey with a vision and longing to reach “the love that never dies.” As this longing and quest is the key to the entire album and this disk in particular it probably needn’t be mentioned that it is repeated throughout, both in darkness and hope. As hope and carrying on is difficult in both the physical and spiritual life, the honesty and genuineness that Neal and company deal with these themes and struggles is of great importance and critical to the story. The son is of course young and bitter, and the music and lyrics reflect the darkness of that struggle. The main thrust of it begins with the fourth track “Fighting With Destiny” and the battle of the soul rages through the rest of the disk.
Such things are at times a bit more lighthearted as is evident in “Vanity Fair” and its images of cardboard people and a fashion show. Vanity Fair is a city in the book, but is also a rather obnoxious highly materialistic magazine in the modern world. The kinds of people infatuated with such things are lightly and amusingly skewered throughout the song and the song has a quite catchy chorus so is quite memorable as a result.
Things get dark in a hurry again with “Welcome To The World 2” as Mike takes over the lead vocals for the first verse before the slightly modified chorus is brought it. The riffs are heavy and almost doomy in nature as the song continues, and is highlighted by some killer solos by Gillette. This dark and heavy character continues and grows through the next few songs and highlighted especially in “The Element of Fear” and “The Great Despair.” On a whole I would consider the second disk to be the heaviest and darkest music that Neal has had a part in to date. Mike’s drumming is positively thunderous and intricate, and Randy’s bass is the pulsating heart of it all. For some non metal fans who are strictly prog fans they may find it too much. I most certainly do not; and find that lyrically these tracks contain some of Neal’s deepest and most important observations of the struggles and reality of the spiritual and worldly life. Anyone who has ever struggled with depression or grieved through a loss will recognize themselves through these songs. How they will view his solution for overcoming them will differ depending on one’s religious outlook, but the honesty in dealing with it cannot be denied.
“The Great Despair” is also noteworthy for the vocal performance of Eric Gillette. I would say it is hands down his best on any NMB album, and at times are chilling in their intensity and emotion, and the impact the band reaches on this track are some of the best on the album.
The album concludes with “Freedom Calling” and “A Love That Never Dies” and as they go together and form the final “chapter” of the album they must be talked about together. “Freedom Calling” is very much a transitional piece, bridging the darkness and pain of the world with the freedom and peace of embracing “the love that never dies” and the hope and salvation that it entails. Many of the earlier motifs are brought into it, “The Great Despair” of course, but most effectively “Dark Melody,” the voice of God being sung and presented by Bill, and it is every bit as good as Eric’s performance on the previous song, indeed it has my favorite performance of his on any album.
“A Love That Never Dies” is vocally dominated by Eric, and the song works quite well. It reaches and soars upwards both musically and performance wise. It is clearly trying to recapture the feeling and power of “Broken Sky/Long Day” which close out ‘Similitude.’ Unfortunately I think it tried too hard to get that feeling, and too hard to be “glorious and uplifting.” The transition between the dark and light is quite quick. On the first listen I would have said it was too quick. But on the dozen and more spins I’ve given this since I think there are enough clues and moments that make the transition potentially be effective. The album suffers from following a classic, and the closing of the last album was perfect. It had a lot to live up to and I think it falls short, in part from trying a bit too hard to not. There are powerful moments in it and the music is lovely and the emotions strong. And to be honest the chorus and guitar solos have played in my head constantly the past couple weeks. But it gets a bit too close to being cheesy in its quest for grandness for my liking. I do expect however that it will prove to be memorable in a live setting.
The biggest difficulty this album faced is similar to the son’s problem, living up to his father. The band had the near impossible task of following a masterpiece, and in the minds of most fans this album will never match up with its father because of the love and reverence they have for it. However rather than taking it easy and delivering a single stand alone disk that bore no relation to its predecessor, they took up the quest and delivered a true sequel. And unlike many follow-ups which were disastrous (say any Jaws movie after the first) the band have instead released a very powerful, often deep, album that is a fitting successor, and crafted a son worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with its father.
The Neal Morse Band have more than proven that they were up to the task of creating a new and masterful album. ‘The Great Adventure’ is more than worthy of standing on its own, and as a follow-up album. Fans will do well though to give it time and look past the fact that it is a sequel and listen to it as the stand alone album that it is. When they do they will find a lot to love, and it will ultimately I believe satisfy both long term fans, and someone new to the music. This album is destined to be on many people’s best of lists at the end of next year and is setting 2019 up to be an exciting year in progressive music. Highly recommended.