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Neal Morse - Sola Scriptura CD (album) cover

SOLA SCRIPTURA

Neal Morse

 

Symphonic Prog

4.18 | 458 ratings

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Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer
2 stars A word of caution to oversensitive theists: it can be hard for a freethinking Proghead to review a Neal Morse album without a little tongue-in-cheek cynicism. But at the same time his musical sermons present an irresistible challenge to any halfway decent critic, and nowhere in his solo discography was that gauntlet flung down with more force than in this year 2007 concept album: an Arena Rock interpretation of Martin Luther's 16th century Protestant Reformation.

To recap, for those of you who slept through high school: Luther was a Catholic priest in late medieval Germany who famously nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of All Saint's Church in Wittenberg, challenging the omnipotent Papal hierarchy and its mercantile practice of selling 'indulgences' to contrite sinners shopping for inexpensive penance. In today's vernacular, as explained by Father Guido Sarducci, "stealing a hubcap might cost you $100. Masturbation is 35-cents...it's a small sin, but it adds up."

The ex-SPOCK'S BEARD leader is of course no stranger to blockbuster Prog Rock mega- productions, and it's nice to hear him attempting something with real narrative ambition. But I'm not sure Luther makes the best role model, in life or in music. And Morse's take on the subject is predictably shallow, bringing anachronistic 21st century attitudes to a far more complex historical record. "There is truth that I'm feeling / Love full of healing" says his protagonist in the song "Already Home", but that's Neal Morse singing, not Martin Luther. He's putting Sunday School platitudes into the mouth of a bigot who once wrote "To be a Christian, you must pluck out the eye of reason." And I won't even repeat what he said about Jews and their "wanton blasphemy".

To his credit, Morse actually considered scrapping the project after learning about his subject's rabid anti-Semitism. But he was able to avoid that ethical roadblock by simplifying the facts to fit his own rosy superstitions, and expressing them in poetry more consistent with Dr. Seuss: "God can change the world with just one willing soul / Who will stand up for the truth and give him starring role...Maybe it's you he's looking for!"

Neal's Divine Plan is uncomplicated: believe, and be saved...so long as it's his own narrow brand of Protestantism. Hence the need to protest "false religions" (his own words, in the CD notes). That not-so-hidden agenda prompted a lot of mildly entertaining religious pillow-fighting in the nerdier corners of the blogosphere, all of which underlines a point I'm sure Morse didn't intend to make: dogma is always man-made, never divine. To paraphrase another Prog Rock apostle (C of E skeptic Ian Anderson): God created Man in his own image...and Man, being polite, merely returned the compliment.

I've rambled on at length about the insecure concept behind the album to suggest that its author was out of his depth and treading rough theological waters: surely a moot point if the music itself reached as high as his idealism. And fortunately the trio of main players is on more comfortable ground, albeit trying a little too hard, as always. A composer this gifted and prolific sometimes doesn't know when to restrain himself, and here the results only reinforce every unfair knee-jerk bias ever brought against Progressive Rock: gratuitous virtuosity; performance overkill; arbitrary 30- minute suites; you name it. From the busy GENTLE GIANT syncopation to the big symphonic crescendos, it's business as usual for the workaholic Morse. Expect yet another sappy ballad ("Heaven in my Heart"), one more recycled Spanish interlude ("One Down, Two to Go"), and the same jazzy piano solo from Transatlantic's "All of the Above", copied almost verbatim.

Additional anti-Prog ammo is supplied in the epic musical arrangements, presented with all the ersatz flash and dazzle of a Sin City stage extravaganza, minus only the topless showgirls (alas). But I might have liked it even less without the Technicolor bombast and pomposity, a saving grace when applied like gaudy wallpaper over the album's obvious thematic shortcomings. Musically, Neal Morse is the Thomas Kinkaid of Prog Rock. And if you don't know the late, self- promoting 'Painter of Light', here's a passage from writer Joan Didion that might have been describing a typical Morse album: "A Kinkaid painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire." Hallmark card sentiments and heavy power chords...not exactly the most compatible blend, but hard to resist as a guilty pleasure.

You don't have to share his beliefs to recognize that Neal Morse has expressed them more effectively elsewhere in his career. Ten years earlier, while still in Spock's Beard, he penned a song clairvoyantly named "The Doorway". But that open invitation ("You are the doorway", he sang at the time) was replaced here by the object itself, now locked tight against incursion and bluntly titled "The Door", upon which Mr. Morse would try to nail his own musical theses. Unlike Martin Luther's Reformation it wasn't, however, a purely spiritual epiphany: quite the opposite, one could argue. What he's selling is only a new form of indulgence: 76-minutes of Prog Rock redemption, available with a nopCommerce account direct from his own on-line store.

Too bad there isn't a name-your-own-price option. The album is certainly worth the small mercy of Father Sarducci's 35-cent fee.

Neu!mann | 2/5 |

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