NEAL MORSE – The Dreamer: Joseph, Part One (Album Review)

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Having released Neal Morse’s rock opera “Jesus Christ The Exorcist” a few years ago, Frontiers Music came knocking again for a new concept album. They came to the right place. Although he was reportedly initially hesitant to dive into the world of concept albums, once Morse took the plunge with “Snow” over two decades ago, he has cranked out progressive rock thematic stories at an alarming pace. That most of these are somewhat Biblical in nature comes as no surprise but – miracle of miracles – many non-Christians seem to enjoy the music enough that they keep coming back for more, too. True, some have wearied of the Morse “formula” or the specific subject matter but for the faithful, Morse continues to create new melodic delights and top-tier prog. Let’s take in his latest technicolor overture.

Stylistically, “The Dreamer” sits right in between Morse’s last two “solo” prog albums: “Sola Gratia” and “Jesus Christ The Exorcist”. It’s not quite to the level of theatrical production that JCTE held but certainly points in that direction, featuring many of the same guests vocalists on several songs. However, Morse himself takes on the main character of Joseph and so this plays out a lot more like “Sola Gratia” did with Morse singing the bulk of the material. Aside from Eric Gillette lending his talents on drums and guitar on a few tracks, the Neal Morse Band is not part of this album either, so we can draw a clear distinction between Morse’s various projects. Happily, the musical guests that Morse does invite along serve the project well. If you’ve enjoyed the previous albums already mentioned, you’re bound to be happy with this one too, so dream on, dreamer.

What would a Morse concept album be without an opening “Overture”? Fear not, they decided to make Alexa’s/Siri’s task a little easier this time by naming this one “The Dreamer Overture”. Ahem…brilliant. As far as the composition goes, no matter how many times I’m tempted to think, “Neal, just give the Overture a break for once”, they still rock. Every time. We even get a little harmonica on this one courtesy of Paul Farmer. And it’s kinda cool how the sound of a buzzing fly transforms into the string section at the opening before kicking into a nasty attack that reminds of “Sola Scriptura”. Gillette hits the drums hard and fast on this one, making you think for a moment that Mike Portnoy is part of the band, too.

Okay, with that out of the way, what’s next but…a “Prelude”. Starting off in surprisingly mellow form, it builds into a classic Morse anthem, supported by a lovely string quartet and backing vocal trio. Here God is singing to Joseph, feeling a little too close to the approach on the “One” album, until Steve Morse lets loose with a characteristically soaring solo. Bring on that coat of many flying colors. The breezy “A Million Miles Away” follows, which maybe could have landed on a D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings album, boasting a strong chorus and fun groove.

“The Dreamer – Joseph: Part One”

It’s not until fourth song “Burns Like A Wheel” that the ensemble of characters start to make their entrance, heralded in by Ted Leonard’s fine tenor. The story begins taking shape in earnest as we learn that Joseph’s brothers are quite the jealous lot and would hardly blink at the thought of selling their bro off to the slave trade and pocketing the profits. The musical accompaniment will probably meet with mixed opinions from listeners, the “Liar, Liar” chorus just feels silly to these ears, as if Leonard were about to sing “pants on fire!”. By the time we reach “The Pit”, we’re clearly in theater-production-lyrics mode which feels a little at odds with what came before. And there’s the confusing rub: the album sounds like a new Morse Christian prog rock album (e.g. the Sola albums) but reads more like a theater production (e.g. JCTE), so we’re not quite sure which one we’re getting.

Onto the music. “Gold Dust City” is a great rocker by any standards, Jake Livgren delivering a fantastic vocal performance as the Slave Driver. The lyrics bring back to mind “Snow”’s experience encountering the Harlem Knight in “Welcome to NYC”. Love that sax solo from Jim Hoke who channels Dick Parry’s work on “Dark Side of the Moon”. It flows right into “Slave Boy” (“Freak Boy Pt. 3”?), a slinky and seductively rocking piece delivered with style by Talon David and the backing vox of Harmonie Hall, Devonne Fowlkes and Kim Mont.

The pacing slows down intentionally to great effect with a pair of “waiting” songs. The Sloth-like speed (yeah, the reference is intentional) of “Wait On You” gets its point across as our protagonist wastes away in the pit of solitary confinement but eventually we build up into an epic Gillette guitar solo with accompanying strings and choir. So good – a classic. But then comes something we hadn’t expected: an a cappella choral arrangement on “I Will Wait On The Lord” by the Vanderbilt Blair Children’s Chorus Chorale, directed by Mary Biddlecombe. Finally, a new musical approach in the Morse quiver and it’s a welcome one.

“Ultraviolet Dreams” proves to be a late-entry highlight on the album. Aside from the female backing vocals, this is a true Morse solo piece where he plays everything. It’s a great bluesy number, with an almost-obnoxiously addictive chorus that feels like a guilty pleasure and a heart-felt guitar solo laid down by the man himself. For all the guests on the album, sometimes it’s best to get out of the way and just let Morse have at it.

The conclusion of Part One approaches as “Heaven In Charge of Hell” offers several tasty riffs with a scorching guitar solo from Andre Madatian before we come to the finale of “Why Have You Forsaken Me?”. Thematically it’s an appropriate pause until Part Two comes out next year but musically the final mellow duet of piano and French horn makes for a unremarkable parting moment – though the final gong hit does help. Had “Wait On You” made sequential sense, that would have been a more fitting finale, a la “Breath of Angels”.

It’s not a perfect album. The tug of war between prog rock album and Broadway show is never resolved: the guest vocalists aren’t utilized as much as one would expect, yet it’s clearly not just another Morse solo album. Further still, the guests who ARE used were almost all on his previous full-on rock opera JCTE, which binds these projects together in ways that don’t always feel entirely unique or beneficial to creating their own identity. We’ll see if Part Two offers any new directions while tying together the story and musical approach. Still, taken by itself, “The Dreamer” offers plenty of quality material to satisfy Morse fans and sounds sublime with Jerry Guidroz’ mix. Eat ‘em and smile.

Released By: Frontiers Music SRL
Release Date: August 11th, 2023
Genre:  Progressive Rock

Musicians:

Cast of singers:

  • Joseph – Neal Morse
  • Judah – Ted Leonard
  • Reuben – Matt Smith
  • Potiphar’s Wife – Talon David
  • Slave Driver – Jake Livgren
  • Simeon – Wil Morse
  • Jacob – Mark Pogue
  • Warden and Prison Guards – Matt Smith, Mark Pogue, Wil Morse, Gabe Klein, Chris Riley

Instrumentalists:

  • Neal Morse / Guitars, keyboards and percussion | Bass on 1, 2, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16 | Drums on 14
  • Eric Gillette / Drums on 1, 2, 13 | Guitar solo on 11
  • Steve Morse / Guitar solo on 2
  • Gabe Klein / Drums on 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16 | Keyboards on 4, 5, 6, 7 | Background vocals on 7
  • Gideon Klein / Bass, guitars on 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 | Background vocals on 7
  • Sam Hunter / Guitars on 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  • Mark Leniger / Saxophone on 1, 15
  • Paul Farmer / Harmonica on 1
  • Jim Hoke / Saxophone on 8
  • Andre Madatian / Guitar solo on 15
  • Hunter Keeran / French horn on 16
  • Harmonie Hall, Devonne Fowlkes and Kim Mont / Background vocals on 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14
  • Josee Klein, Hannah Tyler, Carl Larson and Gideon Klein / String Quartet on 1, 2, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16
  • Vanderbilt Blair Children’s Chorus Chorale – Directed by Mary Biddlecombe on 12
  • April Zachary, Julie Harrison, Amy Pippin and Debbie Bressee / Background Vocals on 16

“The Dreamer – Joseph: Part One” track-listing:

  1. Overture
  2. Prologue/Before The World Was
  3. A Million Miles Away
  4. Burns Like A Wheel
  5. Liar, Liar
  6. The Pit
  7. Like A Wall
  8. Gold Dust City
  9. Slave Boy
  10. Wait On You
  11. I Will Wait On The Lord
  12. Ultra-Violet Dreams
  13. Heaven In Charge Of Hell (Eat ‘Em And Smile)
  14. Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Order The Dreamer: Joseph, Part One HERE.

8.9 Excellent

Christian progressive rock concept albums? Neal Morse is no stranger to this land, so it’s hardly surprising that the multicolored tale of Joseph is next on deck and that there’s not One but Two Parts in store for the telling. Part rock opera and part straight-ahead prog album, there’s a little something for everyone in Morse’s latest creation. While the guest artists offer plenty of sweet icing on this cake, it’s Morse who is front and center on this diverse collection of material

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 7
  • Production 10
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