NEAL MORSE — The Similitude of a Dream (review)

NEAL MORSE — The Similitude of a Dream album cover Album · 2016 · Metal Related Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
Hallelujah! And praise the Lord! As brother NEAL MORSE races into the new phase of his career as THE NEAL MORSE BAND like a renegade choir boy eschewing all the gospel and Christian rock norms, he once again joins his brother in salvation Mike Portnoy (master of percussive fecundity from Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, OSI and much more) along with regular band members Randy George (bassist from Ajalon), Bill Haubauer (organs, pianos, synth) and Eric Gillette (lead and rhythm guitars). This is the second album released by the band and they all contribute vocals to some degree with Brother MORSE picking up the lead spotlight. If that’s not enough there are also a whopping ten extra helping hands offering a cornucopia of sounds including violin, viola, cello, saxes, marimba, trumpets, pedal steel guitar and various other forms of percussion. The result of this smorgasbord of musical maestrohood is THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM. A walloping double album that takes the worship of all things retro, cleverly crafts them with Brother MORSE’s signature sound and unleashes one of his most ambitious musical experiences to date.

Lyrically speaking THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is a concept album that is loosely based on the 1678 Christian allegory written by John Bunyan. The full title of the original book was “The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come; Delivered Under THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.” The actual 17th century publication contained an astounding 108,260 words and written in narrative form in two major parts. And like the basic plot, this massive double album focuses on MORSE’s spiritual practices that recounts a story in a dream sequence that is presented by a narrator that tells the story of a man named Christian who after a life of spiritually unfulfilling anguish is told he must leave the evils of the City Of Destruction and make a pilgrimage to the Celestial City to find peace and ultimate salvation. The album much like the book contains two parts with each part creating a separate mood and culmination of the adventures that unfold. Granted, a loose concept based on a massive double volume tome proves to be a nebulous and grainy representation of the greater writings from the past, but manages to create a coherent albeit simplified account based on brother MORSE’s personal interpretations.

Beginning with a melancholic violin and viola intro it first appears that this is a symphonic chamber rock album with Brother MORSE singing in his usual mode making the listener think they’re in store for a long, mellow drawn out and boring album. But all of a sudden, Brother MORSE, as if summoning up a miracle transmogrifies the super sappy sonicity into an Area inspired jazz-fusion riff that gives way to an energetic symphonic Yes infused guitar solo sequence that then jumps into a never ending changing-it-up of Keith Emerson keyboard gymnastics, bombastic heavy rock riffing and melodic meanderings punctuated by quick slaps of proggy time sig surprises. Whew! And that’s just the first short intro “Long Day” and the longer “Overature!” When we finally get to “The Dream” it begins as a Pink Floyd acoustic guitar ballad that brings another double album “The Wall” to mind in musical structure along with those familiar echoes heard in “Comfortably Numb” which pops in from time to time throughout the album. Luckily none of these influences overshadow the overall musical mission but still screams retro-prog in every fashion. “City Of Destruction” takes the harder edged road that brings the whacky 70s world of Joe Walsh to mind slightly as the guitar riff stomps along like an angry child having a tantrum after not getting its way. The chorus for this track finds a reprise at the end of the second disc.

The retro-rock and prog celebration continues with more Pink Floyd (all throughout), The Beatles (“The Ways Of A Fool”), Peter Gabriel (“Slave To Your Mind”), Led Zeppelin (“The Man In The Iron Cage”) and The Who (“I’m Running”) finding their way into that familiar MORSE packaging that is ubiquitous on his myriad band projects. Also interspersed throughout the 100 minute plus listening experience are ample jazz-fusion segments, American country (“Freedom Song”), Chopin-esque classical piano (“The Mask”) as well as heavy doses of prog metal (“Confrontation.”) As far as going crazy and really delivering the prog goods, greatness is displayed on tracks like “City Of Destruction” but it really doesn’t get any better than the workouts on the closing instrumental “The Battle” which effectively takes on the most challenging aspects of the progressive rock universe and unapologetically nails them to the wall. Highly turbulent rhythms that spasmodically intermingle with sagacious melodies, choral climaxing, unrestrained and uncompromising musical ascensions that end and trade off with other similarly structured runs in a complex tug of war between tension building theatrical antics is the stuff prog dreams are made of! The visions of a higher prog heaven in full interplay and by far the most challenging and adrenaline inducing track of the entire album experience.

Brother MORSE has stated that THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is the 18th album that he has recorded together with Mike Portney and that this is the one that represents an absolute pinnacle of their musical symbiosis and after just one listen it is hard to deny that the creative juices were flowing on this one with one strong track after another changing things up just enough to keep that old attention span peaked all the while delivering familiar hooks and influences that triumphantly scoured the vast vaults of the hard rock and prog universe. While i would tend to agree with many that this is indeed one of Brother MORSE’s strongest offerings to date, i do find the usual flaws that are ubiquitous on the entirety of the NEIL MORSE canon. Firstly is his limited vocal style. Yes, i simply find his range insufficient to fit in with the intensity and dynamics in the sheer scope of styles that the music meander throughout. While i don’t find this to be a hindrance in my listening pleasure, i do find it detracts enough from the overall experience and dethrones any possibilities of this ever becoming a true classic in my world.

And then there are those overly sentimental sappy pieces that seem to haunt every MORSE album whether it be Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic or the solo releases. In this case it’s the last songs on each disc “Breath Of Angels” and “Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise)” which find Brother MORSE entering AOR territory strutting around on easy listening autopilot and IMHO completely derailing all the momentum that each side of the album so masterfully accrues although there are segments of these light passages that do effectively mix and meld with the other styles on many tracks dispersed throughout that work quite well. While this album could not rightfully be deemed significantly dissimilar from Brother MORSE’s previous strong albums such as “?” or “Sola Scriptura,” it does pack a healthy dose of plentiful punches that will guarantee to hook the retro-prog fanatic from the get go. After several spins of this one, i’m still enthralled minus the minor quips that prevent the five star crown. All in all an excellent release and even more so considering it’s a double album release.

Lastly, this is an album that is meant to be experienced as a continuous listen. It doesn’t seem to be nearly as effective just sampling a track here and there, therefore is very much the sum of the parts that makes this a compelling cognitive workout. While brother MORSE’s vocal limitation may dissuade me from becoming the most hardcore of fans, i readily concede that he is the master of delivering some of the most compelling Christian themed prog rock (and rock in general) in the music biz. While certainly on the pop side of the prog universe, great care is laid out in every little aspect of this album with the crystal clear production bringing the musical concept to fully realized vivaciousness. Retro-prog yes ,but an exciting slice of it’s immortal calling. Music so compelling and animistic that it just refuses to be put to rest. While this album could not possibly be qualified as the most original of the lot, it nonetheless delivers many aspects of the past in the most equanimous, fastidious and efficacious ways possible along with the sheer stridency of brother MORSE’s didactic prose backed up by his most eager and devoted musical followers. Let us give thanks for the music bestowed upon us today. Amen.
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