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Neal Morse - Sola Scriptura CD (album) cover

SOLA SCRIPTURA

Neal Morse

 

Symphonic Prog

4.16 | 473 ratings

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Beastie!
5 stars If anybody needed proof that Neal Morse should rightfully be ranked alongside the great composers of the prog/prog-related field, then this album is ample proof. That is, if "V", "Snow", "Testimony, "One", "?" or even the opening moments of "The Light" didn't provide that proof already.

Many reviewers point out that this album, like most of his above-mentioned works, offers nothing new and that this is essentially Morse-by-numbers. Of course I agree to some extent. This is not progressive rock in the idealistic "abandoning the old and embracing the new" sense of the word. This is an album by a man who has found his niche (call it comfort zone if you will) and rarely ever strays beyond its boundaries. The reason Neal Morse is my favourite artist is because he has never, repeat NEVER disappointed me. I can't say the same about groups like Radiohead or Tool whose bloody-minded experimentalism often leads to albums of breathtaking highs and too many wretched lows. If you don't want to call Neal Morse's music "progressive" rock, call it "complex rock" or "symphonic rock" or whatever the hell you want. To paraphrase Bill Shakespeare: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...". Whatever you call it, this is still some of the most thrilling, well-arranged and immaculately executed music ever made.

Probably the most exciting news about the album when details were first made available in late 2006/early 2007 was the fact that it would contain three epics (by my definition anything more than 15 minutes) and that the subject matter and musical style would take a darker turn. The news that Mike Portnoy would once again occupy the drum-stool was also a great relief, especially since he had been absent from the "?" tour. In-studio footage of Portnoy recording some thunderous instrumental parts, along with studio diaries by Neal Morse and trusty bassist Randy Morse, also whetted the appetites of the faithful, who patiently anticipated the release of the album for about 5 long months (since it was recorded in about September 2006 and only released in February 2007). The resulting album was worth the wait: epic in proportion and an absolute treasure trove of melodies, time signatures, bombast and pomp that would do Styx proud. Here is my utterly biased track-by-track/section-by-section review:

THE DOOR (29:14) Introduction: an absolutely exhilarating instrumental overture. This is the antithesis of something like "The Creation" from the "One" album. Whereas that piece's introduction was uplifting, almost Disney-esque, this is 5 minutes of controlled chaos creating an atmosphere of impending doom. This sounds like "Author of Confusion" on steroids. Synth motifs and musical themes fly about your ears like Valkyries on heat. Mellotron 8- voice choirs wail amidst the feverish mélange of soaring Dennis deYoung-style synths and freight train drumming. Man, I think I need a cigarette after that. In The Name of God: a suddenly sparse musical arrangement after the busy intro takes us into the first lyrical segment. Morse's menacing vocals shift from one speaker channel to the other (very cool effect) and leads into a slow, creeping chorus with Styx/Queen-style high-pitched backing vocals. A chugging riff followed by a Ken Hensley-style organ solo leads into some startling processed vocals singing "In The Name of God you must dieeeee!" All I Ask For: this segment can be compared to "Wind At My Back" from "Snow". Only it's even better. This boasts one of the most achingly gorgeous melodies Morse has ever penned, and is sure to go down really well at live performances. Just when you think it can't get any better, it slows down for an emotional plea of "Oh God I seek the glory that's from you and from you only" followed by a lovely orchestral theme first heard on the in-studio video footage. Mercy For Sale: the mighty riff ushers in a variation on the melody from "In The Name of God" and the closest thing to a counterpoint Gentle Giant vocal segment you'll find on this album. An impressive instrumental section follows, with a solo by what sounds like an electric violin getting it on with a guitar. Keep Silent: similar in pace and sound to "California Nights" from "Testimony", this segment boasts some sleazy soloing and a chorus that is impossible to dislike. Upon The Door: after a string section revisits a theme first heard in the introduction, a beautiful mellotron chords back Neal's almost whispered and impassioned vocals. Guest musician Paul Gilbert contributes some swooning and shredding on the lead guitar. The piece ends so perfectly that, were the album to stop here, I would still be very satisfied. But there are still about 50 minutes of music left..

THE CONFLICT (25:00) Do You Know My Name? : Some of the chunkiest riffs heard in a Neal Morse composition since the "Hanging In The Balance" section of Transatlantic's "Stranger In Your Soul" serve as the backdrop for Paul Gilbert's frenetic shredding in this menacing opening salvo. Neal's vocals sound suitably sinister, almost otherworldly. The fact that he seems to be channeling the late Layne Staley of Alice In Chains in the chorus only adds to this notion. Something tells me Mike Portnoy particularly enjoyed recording this bit, as he always seems to prefer "balls and chunk". Party To The Lie: A swinging, Celtic-sounding instrumental section (think the Thin Lizzy twin guitar duo jamming with Genesis) leads into a richly melodic verse and chorus with lots of open spaces between the chord eruptions to allow the song to breathe following the relentless onslaught of the preceding section. At 07.07, as the chorus ends on the word "..lie", it is echoed and flung about in the right, left and center channels kind of like "Don't touch me now.now.now..now." at the end of "Welcome To NYC" on Snow. Out of this erupts one of my favourite Neal Morse moments ever: a Marillion- esque synth breaks out one of the breathless themes from the introduction, this time with monumental cascading drums and wailing choirs added for good measure. Underground: the steamtrain instrumental section screeches to a halt and makes way for this atmospheric and gently strummed section which brings to mind the similarly placed "Machine.machine messiah.mindless.search for a higher." section in "Machine Messiah by Yes. Two Down, One To Go: starts off with a serene acoustic guitar piece a la Genesis's "Blood On The Rooftops". As the tempo speeds up and the vocals enter, one realizes with glee (at least I did..) that Senor Velasco has returned! This is another one of Neal's beloved salsa bits, in which he reprises the "This is all I ask for" melody and adds some piano and percussion reminiscent of Buena Vista Social Club. Paul Gilbert features once again, providing some great flamenco guitar (which, if you think about it, is basically just shredding on an acoustic guitar) Vineyard: an instrumental segue comprising familiar themes leads into what I consider to be a relatively weak section. More wheezing organ and bubbling synths make up for the slightly flawed vocal arrangement, though. Already Home: the epic ends with this mellow section which has a very traditional verse- chorus-verse structure and not much going on in the way of instrumental dexterity, sort of like "Outside Looking In" from "?". It relies on the melody to create a lasting impression, especially at the end when the seeds are sown for another one of Neal's trademark soaring outros.

HEAVEN IN MY HEART (05:11) At 05:11 in length, this certainly sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the behemoths that comprise the remainder of the album. Much like the title track from Transatlantic's "Bridge Across Forever", this is meant to serve as a breather amidst the barrage of epics. Although it doesn't quite reach the considerable heights of "I Am Willing", "Cradle To The Grave" or "Inside His Presence", there is just something that happens when Neal gets all emotional about his faith. His is a genuine conviction which radiates through the speakers and speaks to the heart even when the music isn't exactly earth-shattering.

THE CONCLUSION (16:35) Randy's Jam: this bonkers instrumental section is named after its featured star, stalwart bassist Randy George, whose considerable chops makes its most prominent appearance on the record here. While I have always preferred Dave Meros's bass tone, Randy's prowess cannot be sniffed at. Parping synths and apocalyptic drumming accompany his dexterous bass-lines. Long Night's Journey: this section has elicited some of the most venomous accusations of self-plagiarism. The chorus (and title) sounds almost exactly like "Long Time Suffering" from Snow. This has to be intentional (or Neal at least had to have become aware of it at some stage). Whatever the case is, it's still a good tune. At times I find myself singing "Such a looong tiiiimee suffering." over the melody (sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally) Re-introduction: as the title implies, this is a reprise of the introduction from "The Door" with some variation Come Out Of Her: this revisits the "In The Name of God" melody in the verses and flows into an immense chorus with choral backing and swooning strings to flesh it out Clothed With The Sun: in another one of my favourite Neal Morse moments, the melodies from "All I Ask For" is revisited here, only this time the tempo is slower and more intense, each syllable more pronounced. This is the stuff of legend, people! Just when I thought Neal could never equal (take note: not "top") the glorious finale of "?", he spoils us with this! At 14:32 is one of the greatest moments in any Neal Morse finale, when the synth wails out the heart-wrenching melody used previously in "Introduction" and "Already Home", but never quite on this scale! This type of finale has come to define Neal's sound as much as Keith Emerson's Hammond organ defines ELP or Ian Anderson's flute defines Tull. Give the man a Nobel Prize for this! In Closing: as the final lead guitar note dies out, Neal delivers the final lines over Spartan musical backing employing the melody and lyrical theme of "Upon The Door": "God can change the world with just one willing soul/Who will stand up for the truth and give Him starring role/So come into the fullness and open up the door/Maybe it is you He's looking for/Maybe it is you He's looking for."

This is an excellent album to start off with if you're thinking of checking out Neal's music. A good alternative would be Spock's Beard's "Snow" if the epics here scare you off a little. I award this 5 stars without a second's hesitation. Dream Theater will have to deliver an absolute barnstormer to beat out this for my Album of the Year selection.

Beastie! | 5/5 |

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