As they entered the studio to record their fourth album, the Neal Morse Band agreed on two objectives: 1 – Not to make a concept album (especially not a third Pilgrim’s Progress installment), and 2 – Not to make a double album. Much to their chagrin, they only hit the 50% mark, which sounds disappointing until one hears the reasons why. The reasons, of course, are the songs themselves. Given the ultimate results, the decision to go with a double album wasn’t hard to accept (aside, perhaps, for the record label) and it’s unlikely many fans will complain of padding or excessive noodling considering the quality herein. To the contrary, the band proves that there is no lack of creativity or inspiration flowing through their hands. It almost seems…”divinely” inspired. Not to worry, however, for those who are weary of Neal Morse’s favorite subject matter…“Innocence & Danger” is, shall we say, one of the most secular albums that Morse has been involved with since leaving Spock’s Beard two decades ago. Indeed, there’s an edge to his voice and aspects of the songwriting that seem to harken back to those early days more than in recent memory, too. So, read on with high hopes.
We should mention that the band has ironically experienced something of an identity crisis. With the trio of Morse, Mike Portnoy and Randy George already solidified as the core band during Morse’s solo career, the decision to add two more full-time musicians to the fold 6 years ago seemed to warrant the official title of The Neal Morse Band as countless others have done (e.g. Steve Morse Band, Dave Matthews Band, Jimi Hendrix Experience). However, given the extent of creative input from all five band members over the course of their subsequent three Band albums (all hailed as some of the best in Morse’s career), it has become a little misleading to highlight only one member’s name on the marquee. But it’s obviously too late to re-name the band. Thus, the refinement on this fourth release is to slightly rebrand the name to focus on the abbreviation NMB, somewhat as Electric Light Orchestra is better known as ELO. Not a perfect solution, but at least it offers a slight nod to the collective contributions of the entire band. Increasingly, NMB’s albums sound more diverse than a straight-forward “Neal Morse” album, which comes as good news for those who enjoy Morse but find some of his albums treading similar waters too often. In the case of “Innocence & Danger”, much of the material was collectively written by the band in-the-moment in the studio with Morse himself arriving with zero demo ideas ahead of time, which was a first for him. So let’s dig into the album itself and find out if 100 minutes of music was really essential or not for NMB IV.
Lead-off track “Do It All Again” feels like a companion piece to NMB’s first song from “The Grand Experiment” – “The Call”. An uplifting anthemic group effort, these opening nine minutes encapsulate the essence of the group’s magic. Although Genesis’ “Dance On a Volcano” plays heavily into the intro, the band’s occasional references here and there are part of their charm and don’t usually diminish the impact of their own creativity. A clear strength of the band is the trading off of lead vocals, a technique which is employed more on “Innocence & Danger” than ever before. While other bands like Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and The Eagles are known for multiple lead vocalists, NMB are carving a unique and powerful niche in their ability to engage three (or at times, even four) vocalists in the same song, “Do It All Again” being a leading example. Follow-up “Bird On a Wire” is another case in point: Morse’s driving vocals on the verse are surpassed by Eric Gillette’s subsequent “I have a fire burning deep inside” chorus, and then reaching even higher as Bill Hubauer’s bridge is simply transcendent: ”I’m alive, with love sublime I’m not too blind to see.” Often the other vocalists support in the background with layered “Ahhh”’s, a potent technique the band increasingly employs. The same collaborative spirit is true in the songwriting: George brought in the core rocking theme of the song, while Hubauer wrote the chorus and bridge, with Portnoy usually charting out the different sections on a whiteboard in the writing sessions. Speaking of Portnoy, his drumming is totally unleashed during “Bird” with a relentless pounding, quite unlike many other prog bands out there, supporting blistering solos traded out amongst the other guys. It’s an adrenaline-pumping one-two punch to open the album, proving the band has plenty of life yet to unleash.
A couple of shorter, poppier songs are welcome follow-ups – the breezy “Your Place In the Sun” taking us to that ELO/Beatles place these guys love so much (and Portnoy getting to sing a verse in with the rest of the guys), while “Another Story To Tell” has the vibe of an edgy Billy Joel and some of Morse’s singer-songwriter leanings, even as Hubauer shares the writing credit. Both songs are worthy additions but to some degree get lost amongst the other highlights of the album, one of which is subsequent track “The Way It Had To Be”. Left over from “The Great Adventure” sessions, this atmospheric piece is utterly spellbinding. Hubauer’s lead slide “guitar” playing on Jordan Rudess’ Geo Shred app lends an intoxicating opening to the piece before Gillette’s smooth solo vocal spot takes center stage. The impeccable production (as usual courtesy of Rich Mouser) and arrangements of well-placed keys, guitar and fretless bass add to the song’s etheric nature. Include another uplifting Hubauer bridge, an emotional guitar solo and some mesmerizing piano during an ambient close, and you have one of the best NMB ballads yet.
The proceedings get more acoustic next with a short guitar solo-piece from Morse which reminds us of his impressive skill on…well, just about every instrument. It’s not quite as composed as his previous solo “Chautauqua”, seeming more like a number of runs, hammer-ons and pull-offs, but serves as an acoustic breather to balance out the keyboard-heavy ensemble pieces. It also is a well-placed intro to “Not Afraid, Part 1”, this album’s answer to previous CSN-flavored ballad “Waterfall”, or Spock’s classic “June”. The simpler arrangement highlights the vocal strengths of the band yet again, with strong melodies that continue to stay with the listener.
This album of “Innocence” closes unexpectedly with a rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s legendary “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. At its core, what Yes did for Paul Simon’s song “America” is what NMB have achieved with “Bridge”, transforming a relatively simple folk song into a prog masterpiece of epic proportions. The opening arrangement is simply glorious, a full two minutes of NMB magic which sneakily incorporates some of the song’s melody lines. The song proper begins with Morse’s voice but it is the second verse where Hubauer enters with his Garfunkel-tinged tone and the emotion really starts getting stirred. A middle section guitar solo and orchestration build the energy a step higher, a perfect setup for Gillette to take things home with the triumphant closing verse and chorus. It’s all very familiar and wonderfully new at the same time; a timeless classic imbued with the NMB signature sound. Guaranteed to be a show-stopper in concert as well.
As if one impressive 50-minute album of “Innocence” wasn’t enough, the “Danger” album offers up another 50 minutes of NMB excellence, this time divided into two epics. Of the two, “Not Afraid, Part 2” follows more along the traditional Morse long-form blueprint, yet manages to be one of his better epics. The opening theme is first played vulnerably on piano before repeating with a full band onslaught for a powerful beginning. Unfortunately, the ensuing bass/drum break is perhaps too formulaic at this point, having been utilized in so many previous albums’ “Overtures”, but this is soon overlooked as Morse takes the vocal reins, delivering a strong emotional performance through multiple sections. The middle part of the song is replete with Styx, Supertramp and Spock’s Beard influences, but perhaps most noteworthy is when the vibe is brought down low and LESS notes are played for an extended section. Here NMB takes a path less traveled, working the dynamics to climactic effect. Gillette gets the nod once again to reprise Morse’s melodic vocal lines for the close, and who can argue? The kid can sing. Come on.
Considering all of the above, it’s remarkable that the best has been saved for last. The 31-minute “Beyond the Years” is a triumph for NMB, much in the same way their epic “Alive Again” was the focal point for their first album together. Much of the material was brought in by Hubauer and thus has a slightly different approach than the numerous other Morse and Transatlantic epics. The highlight of the album comes halfway through, during Hubauer’s haunting drifting-through-the-years section, the electric guitar playing off his moody vocals and then opening up into the most sizzling keyboard solo imaginable, only to be followed by Gillette’s impeccable shredding. Chills. If the song has a flaw, it’s that it has to continue another 10 minutes after this crescendo, which seems almost unfair. Still, NMB has plenty of jamming in store, featuring George’s fluid bass fills and Portnoy’s precise percussive grooves. The last word belongs to Hubauer this time, and as his final emotive vocals give way to the orchestration it’s hard to keep a dry eye. A cool trick is the closing hypnotic effect of the repeating symphonic lines which feel like they could continue forever beyond the years…until being rudely cut off, pulling the listener out of their reverie with a jolt. Danger.
It’s a ballsy move to pair the two epics on their own disc, which works thematically but not necessarily as well for the listener. It’s a lot to take in, one epic after the other, although it’s a subjective preference whether that was the right call or not. In addition, when listened to in the sequential running order of 10 total tracks, it seems an oversight that the powerful ending on “Bridge” – with its symphonic fanfare and Portnoy drum rolls – is exactly replicated at the end of the very next track “Not Afraid Pt. II”. These are minor critiques for sure but there isn’t a much else to mention as far as room for improvement. NMB’s 4-album track record is astoundingly consistent, even in its diversity. With “Innocence & Danger” they have delivered something for everyone and perhaps even nudged the bar a little higher. As always, Rich Mouser’s production ensures that everyone comes out sounding their best. The scary part is that the 100 minutes herein resulted from the band convening for just one week at the beginning of the year. Imagine what might result if they decided to meet more than once in a year’s time. Good thing these guys have other projects to keep their attention, otherwise NMB would take up half your album collection within a few years.
Released by: Inside Out Music / Sony Music
Released on: August 27th, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Neal Morse / Vocals, keyboards, and guitars
- Bill Hubauer / Organ, piano, synthesizers, vocals
- Eric Gillette / Lead and rhythm electric guitar, vocals
- Randy George / Bass, bass pedals and vocals
- Mike Portnoy / Drums and vocals
“Innocence & Danger” Track-listing:
CD 1 (Innocence):
1.Do It All Again 08:55
2.Bird On A Wire 07:22
3.Your Place In The Sun 04:12
4.Another Story To Tell 04:50
5.The Way It Had To Be 07:14
7.Not Afraid Pt. 1 04:53
8.Bridge Over Troubled Water 08:08
CD 2 (Danger):
1.Not Afraid Pt. 2 19:32
2.Beyond The Years 31:22
The album will be released as a Limited 2CD+DVD Digipak (featuring a Making Of documentary), 3LP+2CD Boxset, Standard 2CD jewel case & Digital Album, featuring artwork by Thomas Ewerhard (Transatlantic). Pre-orders have started today, with Radiant Records offering an exclusive tri-colored variant. To sweeten the deal even more, Radiant Records is exclusively also releasing the long-awaited 4CD/2 Blu Ray set for the Morsefest 2019 event, and fans can save $10 by picking a bundle of both releases.
Pre-order them here.
As Zeppelin, Rush and Foreigner can all attest, album 4 is a magic number. NMB’s fourth album could be called the best of their career, were it not for the deserved accolades received during their previous three releases. Rankings aside, these five master musicians have woven one week’s worth of songwriting into a treasure trove of pure gold for their audience which will take months to fully digest. From half-hour epics to pop feel-good tunes to acoustic solos to fiery musical muscle, there’s something here for everyone. Bountiful contributions from the entire band lead this to be perhaps the most diverse and accessible release Neal Morse has been involved with in decades.