Every few months on Facebook, when i run out of albums, i ask for recommendations. This last young i got a bunch that i bought, including the very awesome Ghost Quartet, but we’re here to day to discuss the recently released prog rock epic Similitude of a Dream by the Neal Morse Band.
I should state at the outset that i’m having a shockingly good time listening to this album. Like, really, really enjoying it. The reason that’s surprising is twofold:
- I know Neal Morse from a number of places, most notably Spock’s Beard. But here’s the thing, (and what i’m about to say is considered heresy in some circles) i like Spock’s Beard better after he left. X is an awesome album, awesome, and none of the albums he headed thrill me like that. A huge reason is frankly, lyrics and vocals.I love Neal’s harmonies, but his vocals don’t really do it for me. I could look past that (i used to be obsessed with Phish for heaven’s sake. Trust me, looking past the vocals is an art i am ninja level skilled in), but the lyrics… sad to say his lyrics are not my cup of tea. They’re earnest, they are discussing deeper topics, and yet they completely rub me the wrong way. In an over earnest Kansas kind of way. I don’t want to go into too much complaining, but it’s been a deal breaker for me. I have turned several of Spock’s Beard albums off because the lyrics just annoyed me to no end.
- This is a very Christian, and i mean evangelical Christian album. Not soul filled gospel goodness, this is firmly evangelical Christian. Some friends i used to know would explode with joy over the full out Christianess of this. I am not at all opposed to music that reflects religious beliefs, the issues is that evangelical music is… rarely very good. To be honest. It is always so obsessed with keeping on point of its endlessly regurgitated message that it never reaches to be great art. It’s usually derivative, never artistically visionary or daring, and is only really interested in hammering its belabored point over and over and over again.
And yet here we are with an album i am enjoying tremendously. Its lyrics will never be my favorite, its vocals will never be my favorite but i can forgive them and look past them as well as other issues and flaws because a the end of the day, the sum of the whole utterly transcends these qualms. It is a 90 minutes, fully committed, balls out old school prog concept album that tells a modern update of the first half of The Pilgrim’s Progress. (A classic work of English literature that itself is rooted in heavy handed metaphor.)
Here’s the thing: A big problem with evangelical art is there are few truly great evangelical artists. Here we have Neal Morse, who is a fantastic musician, an amazing composer, and by allowing his band to also contribute, he is able to gather and harness enough material to fill this 90 minutes with an avalanche of incredibly enjoyable music.
His goal here is not to go off on extended prog journey’s into the ethersphere. There is a lot of great instrumental passages, tons, (you cannot have a prog masterpiece without them) but they exist in step with the songs and the story. So no 20 minute flights of fancy, but most songs have wonderful contained middle sections and segues. And it works. The ratio between vocal part of the song and instrumental part of the song is excellent. I never get bored by the instrumentals. (I am surprisingly okay with the vocal sections too, but as said earlier, in the parts where i have some issues, it’s some of the vocals. But i’ve made this point, no need to belabor it.)
The story in a nutshell: In a dream (we couldv’e skipped the dream framing device) a man named Christian decides to leave the City he lives in, the City of Destruction, in pursuit of something “more”. And by more, we more spiritual obviously. His journey is fraught with trials and many characters who embody spiritual pitfalls.
There you go. Those trials and metaphoric characters could easily be over the top, and even if they are at times, i gotta say, it all works in the context of the prog rock music. I’m telling you, i can’t emphasize this enough, however the parts alone may seem at a glance, the sum of the parts transcends to greatness.
Drummer Mike Portnoy (you know, Dream Theater, Scenes From a Memory 2, another modern prog rock masterpiece) has been freaking out about this album, calling it THE album of his career, and who am i to argue? I love Scenes From A Memory (as an example) and as far as musical complexity it’s hard to beat, but that album is also turned up to eleven 97% of the time and the never ending onslaught can be a bit much. (For me. I know some Dream Theater fans who will tar and feather me for that comment.) Dynamically this is more satisfying and the songs are catchier. Even songs i start off rolling my eyes at (Breath Of Angels for instance. I audible groan during the first few verses of it) by the end i am, despite myself, smiling and swaying to. And you like odd time signatures? They love 5s and 7s here. Nicely blended too.
I lover (LOVE) the instrumental bits, some of the songs are really catchy, and piecing together the story and metaphors is, frankly, really good fun. The album as a whole is freacking great. It really is. You have to like prog rock Instrumentally it’s not breaking any new ground, it’s not operating in any newer genres, but it is like someone released a classic album you never heard, with surprisingly modern mixing technology.