Considered by many to be one of the most skilled composers and performers in today’s progressive rock scene, despite being unfairly bashed by critics in regards to his personal beliefs, Neal Morse is bar-none one of the most inexhaustible productive musicians of our time. A few years ago Neal solidified a stable lineup for his band, now referred to as The Neal Morse Band, bringing his longtime partners in crime Mike Portnoy and Randy George together with a couple of at-the-time newcomers: Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette. This quintet has embarked in a successful and staggeringly prolific ride, producing two riveting studio albums and several live releases, with their 2016’s offering The Similitude of a Dream categorized as a chef-d’oeuvre of modern prog-rock by fans and critics alike.
Having released their most celebrated recording two years ago, the Neal Morse Band were undoubtedly going to move in another direction for their follow-up and not try to compete with their own masterpiece. And that was the plan initially…until a different inspiration took hold. Several re-writes later, the band is ready to unveil The Great Adventure, which continues the original Similitude tale with a similar but unique trajectory.
Being a concept album, the best way to approach the listening experience – and this review – is as a long-form piece of 105 minutes spread over two albums. The band has decided to tell their tale in five Chapters, ranging from 13 to 31 minutes each, and comprising of 2 to 6 song titles each. Although there may be 22 total songs listed, one track flows into the next during each Chapter, at times repeating previous melodies or foreshadowing future themes.
Let’s be clear at the outset: The Great Adventure follows the mold of The Similitude of a Dream faithfully and precisely, from its opening Overtures to its closing tear-evoking grand finales. While The Great Adventure focuses on its own original themes that will be visited several times throughout the album, it also briefly reprises about 6 melodies from The Similitude of a Dream, sometimes with exquisite freshness and emotion. For example, the main opening theme from The Similitude of a Dream is arranged for solo classical guitar, touchingly delivered by Neal Morse at the very end of “To the River”. This gives all four albums a cohesive identity and flow. And to the band’s credit, the recurring themes are usually arranged in interesting ways that deepen the overall journey, rather than casting a feeling of repetitiveness. Of course, the bulk of The Great Adventure is replete with diverse and creative songwriting, so the listener is ultimately left with a sense of new discovery combined with deepening familiarity.
Sonically, the band has never sounded better. The production is flawless. Rich Mouser has long been the band’s renown mixing engineer, but this time he has really outdone himself and added some special sauce that is a wonder for the listener’s ears to behold. The drum engineering from Jerry Guidroz brings Portnoy’s kit right into your living room, while Mouser’s perfectly balanced mix ensures that every bass note from Randy George is as audible as the rest of the band. The vocal mix alone is worth the price of admission, with the band’s vocal arrangements (four of them sing) delivering an unprecedented emotional impact.
As the listener begins the journey in the opening Chapter, a mixture of harp and sound effects heralds in the opening notes (and later, seals the closing of the album) reminiscent of Close to the Edge, as a guitar figure from The Similitude of a Dream signals that the Dream is about to continue. We then begin where The Similitude of a Dream left off, with Morse emotionally delivering the closing verse from that album “…may the great adventure now begin”, his voice floating in etherically as if from the previous Dream. He then introduces the first main melodic line of the new album and we enter the next Dream. A swath of strings briefly marks the transition and the band kicks in for an eight minute instrumental “Overture” that features many of the themes that will be visited throughout the album. Drums blazing, a muted guitar riff that could be a nod to Queen’s “Keep Yourself Alive” before Eric Gillette takes off into the stratosphere, rapid bass notes adding to the pace, Hammond organ and Morse’s signature lead synth at the fore: we are off on the great adventure in prime Neal Morse Band style. The narrator then sets the stage, sung by Morse, with a bluesy edge in the guitar licks. We learn that the Dream has passed from the father to son, but that this son is jaded and bitter. His great adventure will relate his journey from a personal nightmare of abandonment to a Dream that he can claim for himself. Unlike The Similitude of a Dream which followed Pilgrim’s Progress fairly closely for inspiration, The Great Adventure sees Morse inventing many new directions for his characters, which only occasionally find their origin in the actual Pilgrim’s Progress text.
If Chapter 1 was a prelude, “Welcome to the World” is a perfect introduction to Chapter 2, not to mention an ideal first single. A tight rocker that combines playful lyrics (those big words…“taciturn iconoclast”), scorching guitar and the aforementioned group vocals, this is The Great Adventure ’s answer to “City of Destruction” from the last album, and then some. The next track, “A Momentary Change”, isn’t so much a song as it is another jam on various themes, including the introduction of one of the main melodic sections that keyboardist and vocalist Bill Hubauer brought to the table which appears multiple times on The Great Adventure, here sung briefly by both Morse and Hubauer. While the music all holds together beautifully and lays more foundation for things to come, the latter half of the track borders on being one-too-many instrumental preludes before we get to the actual “songs” of the album, of which there are plenty. However, this can be forgiven in the context of this being just a small part of the 24-minute Chapter 2. Moving on, “Dark Melody” offers an intense progression of agony penned by Hubauer and sung by Morse which also provides the backdrop for one of Eric Gillette’s most inspired shredding solos. Portnoy’s finesse at the drum kit brings this song to the next level, perfectly complimenting Gillette’s fluid delivery as Hammond organ drenches the chord progression. The sound of clocks ticking launches us into a highlight of Album 1 as “I Got to Run” realizes the power of Morse and Gillette trading lead vocals. Set over an intense riff with Mouser’s mix prominently on display, Morse finds a rejuvenated vocal delivery on the verse. But as Gillette’s voice explodes into the chorus, the listener may need to buckle their seatbelt even tighter. The final minutes of the track are a refrain of previous melodies and a foreshadowing of “A Love That Never Dies” with the band’s vocals already tugging at our heart’s sleeve during a revelatory chordal resolution. Pipe organ heralds in “To the River” with full Wakeman regalia as the band continues to weave in themes from past, present and future. Again, this ultimately leads to a sense of continuity and rediscovery, demonstrating what a concept album is truly all about. Although on paper it may look like the band is just repeating some melodic structures time and time again, this formula worked well on The Similitude of a Dream and it achieves the same cohesiveness on The Great Adventure . Fortunately, there is much more to come, and we are still just getting warmed up.
By the time Chapter 3 begins, our main character has reached an optimistic pace, ready to embrace the adventure of life on the album’s title track. Stylistically, this follows in the same vein as on classic Neal Morse songs like “The Grand Experiment”, “Momentum” or “Day for Night”, owing as much to classic rock as to classic prog-rock. It’s not the album’s most original moment, but the arrangement and energy are so infectious that one can’t help but jump in. Vocally and musically, the band rages through this song, which also serves as the second video from the album. “Venture in Black” brings back a sense of dread, this time in spades. The menacing vocals of Portnoy and company in the chorus, set at a slow slogging pace, turn out to be one of the most satisfying moments on The Great Adventure , as the son is taunted by an unnamed figure who looks like the walking dead. This Venture is deliciously, darkly executed. Towards the end of the song George’s bass comes to the fore and with the arrival of a character named Faithful, the vibe quickly changes into next song “Hey Ho Let’s Go”. A highlight of the album, this pop hit is an ear worm that will lodge in your head for days. Swirling key changes, inspired guitar soloing, grooving bass lines, beautifully arranged group vocals, this song is a winner through and through. Gillette’s lead vocals shine in this setting, with the band supporting in a joyous romp which culminates in an unexpected but swinging “boogie-woogie” finale. Hubauer’s vocals are then featured for the close of Album 1, delivering one of his most moving moments in “Beyond the Borders” with group backing vocals and pipe organ swirling around the listener’s head, as a church bell serenely rings in the distance during the fade (a nod to Pink Floyd‘s “High Hopes” maybe). If anything, this beautiful piece ends too quickly, but the next Chapter awaits…
“Overture 2” starts with symphonic grandeur, but shifts to satisfying hard hitting pyrotechnics from Gillette, fast bass runs from George and nasty keys from Hubauer before returning to classic Neal Morse Band arrangements. “Long Ago” and “The Dream Continues” offer well-written songs sung emotionally by Morse. Strong melodies like these never seem in short supply in the Morse camp, and it’s nice to have a more acoustic approach for a short while, with an added spectacular synth solo thrown in. Randy George brought the main groove of “Fighting with Destiny” to the band, a fantastically dark piece that hits hard with aggressive vocals and Portnoy’s relentless attack on his drum kit. Speaking of attack, one of Hubauer’s most impressive organ solos slays during the middle of the song. He returns again at the end with a killer synth solo, trading licks with Gillette’s shredding. Back to the land of pop, Morse offers another wonderfully playful diversion with “Vanity Fair”. This album’s counterpart to “The Ways of a Fool”, it may owe more to Kevin Gilbert this time around than to Queen, but of course The Beatles are always a sure bet for this band’s inspiration. Gillette again delivers big time as he sings the lead vocal spot on the chorus, while Morse takes the verses and rumor has it that even George makes a vocal cameo. With songs like this one and “Hey Ho” in their quiver, the Neal Morse Band have the goods which should break through to radio airwaves.
One of the strengths of an album this diverse is how quickly it changes mood. No sooner does “Vanity Fair” end in a carousel twister of cotton candy mayhem, than Gillette’s guitar hits a hard riff to open “Welcome to the World 2” and we launch into the final Chapter of our journey. Portnoy gets to sing lead on several of the more menacing songs on The Great Adventure, but usually doubled with one of the other singers (unlike “Draw the Line” where he sings solo) to rewarding results, such as on this track. More lightening playing from Gillette, Hubauer and Portnoy, as George holds down the low end admirably, make this just as rewarding a track as “WTTW part 1”, if not more so. The brief “The Element of Fear” features quirky arrangements, brilliant precision from Portnoy and a fantastic vocal line from Hubauer before segueing into one of the album’s most poignant melodies in “Child of Wonder”, sung by Hubauer and Morse. There is something about the emotion conveyed in Morse’s vocal tone that consistently moves the listener’s heart, and this song is a fine example. One of the pinnacles of Album 2 is the climactic eruption at the end of “Child of Wonder” into “The Great Despair” (perhaps not coincidentally reminiscent of a similar moment in Spock’s Beard’s “The Great Nothing”). Eric Gillette again takes the lead vocal spot for this pounding track which starts with a menacing aural riff, accentuated by slide guitar and mellotron before culminating in a guitar hero solo. It’s one of Album 2’s finest moments, amongst much competition, and certainly a personal favorite.
Like “Confrontation” offered on The Similitude of a Dream , “Freedom Calling” takes the opportunity to reprise several of the album’s themes, but with an added intensity which most prominently features Portnoy. With plenty of bass, keys and guitar jamming, this will likely be a fan favorite in concert as a culmination leading up to the final anthem “A Love That Never Dies”. As has been the case in the previous two Neal Morse Band releases, Eric Gillette is bestowed the honor of singing lead vocals during the pivotal emotional climaxes, for which his clear tenor voice is aptly suited. He again delivers with this triumphant ending, complimented by the usual fanfare – added choir, strings and majestic melody lines – as we close Chapter 5 and the album with a glorious finale, the bombast fading away with a very Yes-influenced farewell. The Dream is complete and once again, love reigns supreme for the final curtain call.
So, was it all worth it? For fans of Morse’s previous body of work, the answer will almost universally be a resounding YES! The collective known as The Neal Morse Band rises to the formidable task of matching their most celebrated work, The Similitude of a Dream, proving they continue to grow and heighten the quality of their musical output. If you approach this record hoping for a change of direction – perhaps a completely new songwriting approach or a return to long epics – this is not that album. Furthermore, if you are growing weary of Morse’s tales of the great journey, conflict and redemption, self-doubt and revelation, The Great Adventure is unlikely stand out in your book. Although this album is crafted dangerously close to its predecessor, the band is able to turn this potential liability into an asset, ultimately achieving a four-sided epic concept album that contains both diversity and cohesiveness, enhanced with spiritually inspirational lyrics. Yet another remarkable display of modern musical storytelling, whether you were left wanting for more after The Similitude of a Dream, or if you appreciate perfectly executed progressive-rock played by some of the finest players in the genre, this great adventure delivers the goods and it’s an engaging musical ride that deserves your undivided attention.
Released By: Radiant Records / Metal Blade Records
Release Date: January 25th, 2018
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
- Chris Carmichael / strings
- Amy Pippin, Debbie Bresee, April Zachary and Julie Harrison / background vocals on “A Love that Never Dies”
“The Great Adventure” track-list:
Chapter 1 (12:50)
- The Dream Isn’t Over
Chapter 2 (23:48)
- Welcome To The World
- A Momentary Change
- Dark Melody
- I Got To Run
- To The River
Chapter 3 (17:59)
- The Great Adventure
- Venture In Black
- Hey Ho Let’s Go
- Beyond The Borders
Chapter 4 (18:13)
- Overture 2
- Long Ago
- The Dream Continues
- Fighting With Destiny
- Vanity Fair
Chapter 5 (30:57)
- Welcome To The World 2
- The Element Of Fear
- Child Of Wonder
- The Great Despair
- Freedom Calling
- A Love That Never Dies
A companion double-album set in the same mold as "The Similitude of a Dream", the Neal Morse Band dazzles with epic songwriting, musicianship and production. While it doesn’t color outside the lines much from its predecessor, this Great Adventure will deliver for fans of Morse and progressive rock at its best.