REVIEW: NEAL MORSE – “Sola Gratia”
If you were to make a short list of artists that Daniel Ek can’t make asinine comments about their output, Neal Morse will most surely be on the list. Even a pandemic and remote recording won’t keep him from putting out several albums this year, and the next to arrive is ‘Sola Gratia’ (only grace) due Sept 11th. This is Neal’s first solo album since 2012 as since then he’s been functioning mostly as The Neal Morse Band. And unsurprisingly he hasn’t lost a step.
As with his earlier solo albums he is joined by Mike Portnoy and Randy George. Occasional female choral vocals and Gideon Klein on strings make up the rest of the guests; otherwise Neal plays and sings everything. ‘Sola Gratia’ is another concept album, this time dealing with the conversion of St. Paul. The title also ties it to 2007’s ‘Sola Scriptura’ both musically and thematically of a person changing the direction of their life, and starting something new. Due to the remote nature of the recordings there wasn’t as much collaboration on the writing as some other albums, so the result is uniquely Neal.
The album starts off with the short “Preface” which is just Neal and acoustic guitar; it sets up the album, and musically and lyrically connects it with the earlier ‘Sola’ album and Luther. This of course leads straight into “Overture” because it just wouldn’t be a Neal album without an overture.
The story proper begins with “In the Name of the Lord” with Paul announcing his desire, and what he thinks is his calling, to persecute Christians, and destroy it utterly in the name of God. It’s a heavy, driving, and often angry song highlighted by the Portnoy/George rhythm section. It all blends so perfectly that you’d never know they weren’t in the studio together.
The story moves forward to a pivotal point in Paul’s life, that being the trial and stoning of St. Stephen, generally considered the first Christian martyr. The trial begins with “Building A Wall,” a quirky and heavy song with plenty of literal cowbell. The female choral vocals are very pronounced throughout the song, which depending on your taste for such things will either make or kill the song. After the short, but delightfully proggy, instrumental “Sola Intermezzo” it is time to hear from Stephen himself with the album’s only real ballad “Overflow.” The song is essentially him explaining himself, and the overflow he feels from God.
It is of course all for naught, and Stephen is stoned to death. The event itself is not covered explicitly in a song, but Stephen’s vision of heaven while being killed is told in “Warmer Than the Sunshine”which is mostly instrumental, and highlighted by Neal’s signature key tone. Paul is unmoved by the sight, and proud of his part in it as is told in “Never Change,” whose title says it all regarding what he thinks his path will be.
He’s not as confident and unmoved as he thinks he is, however, and his inner thoughts about what he witnessed, and Stephen’s confidence and words, make up the vocal bulk of the album’s highlight “Seemingly Sincere.” The longest song on the album, and I think one of his best songs on any of his solo albums, the piece is a perfect example of modern prog done as only Neal and company can do it. It’s some of Neal’s best and most emotional vocal work, and Mike’s drumming during the lengthy instrumental middle section is stunning. And of course Randy’s bass locks everything down and can clearly be heard throughout. Whenever we’re allowed to go to concerts again, this song will be a highlight I have no doubt.
The album is wrapped up with “The Glory Of The Lord” and “Now I Can See/The Great Commission.” From a musical standpoint after the previously mentioned “Seemingly Sincere” they don’t match up, but I don’t think they were meant to either. Neither really go into prog territory, rather focusing on Paul’s blinding and final conversion. They have more of a “praise song” style and feel to them, which certainly works for the album and Neal’s reason for telling it. However there hasn’t been a song in that style yet written that has a guitar solo half as good as the one Neal does during the closing portion of “The Glory Of The Lord,” because he absolutely kills it. The melodies are strong in both songs, and have been floating in my head since I began listening to the album.
This pandemic and forced quarantine has by and large been a miserable experience, but Neal Morse has once again found a way to shine a light into the darkness of the world, and worked around it to produce another masterful example of progressive rock. ‘Sola Gratia’ has moments as good as any of his solo albums, and a few that more than match his current band output. If you’re already a fan chances are you’re going to love it. And if you’re looking for a beginning point with his non band output, this is a fine place to start.