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Neal Morse - Sola Gratia CD (album) cover


Neal Morse


Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 150 ratings

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4 stars Former Spock's Beard frontman Neal Morse is hardly a slacker! A constant stream of studio works and live recordings pop up every year from the talented multi-instrumentalist, and 2020's `Sola Gratia' keeps up that momentum, recorded remotely away from his regular musical collaborators and in isolation during this oh so blessed of years! Sarcasm aside, it's another superb set from the composer, especially if you're a fan, and all the punchy symphonic prog arrangements, catchy tunes, elegant orchestration, rich harmonies, dynamic instrumental passages and faith-based lyrics the artist is known for are all accounted for here.

`Sola Gratia' compliments Morse's 2007 release `Sola Scriptura', which focused on an important figure in Christian faith history, sixteenth century German theologian Martin Luther. This time, Morse goes back even further and conveys the story of the apostle Paul (Saul), who initially participated in the persecution of early followers of the Christian movement in Jerusalem, before his later spiritual awakening and conversion.

While the basic instrumental structure of the disc is comparable to his other solo works, `...Gratia', like its 2007 predecessor, frequently has heavier and more bombastic touches worked in, with several passages of tougher guitars and constantly wilder vocals from the artist. But having said that, it might also have the greatest amount of tender and gentle moments as well. Morse is in impeccable form as ever (he really is one of the finest and most versatile modern keyboardists), but the return of his frequent collaborators, particularly ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Randy George, all give the album the instrumental power and technical finesse that prog fans crave.

Between grand symphonic themes, recurring instrumental motifs and winning reprises that pop up throughout, there's crunchy rockers like `In the Name of the Lord', and `Seemingly Sincere' (dig the muscular instrumental middle section in this one!), and tenderly soulful ballads in the dreamy `Overflow' (could almost be a Transatlantic - a Morse side-project - outtake), `The Glory of the Lord' and the Pink Floyd flavoured album highlight `Never Change' that are a Morse mainstay. Morse's Beatles influences sneak into `Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones)', spirited backing vocalists are put to good use around the raucous grooves of `Building a Wall' by bringing a chanted choir response, and Gentle Giant fans will love the frantic run-around of `Warmer Than the Sunshine'.

Throughout, there are fleeting touches of call-backs to themes, lyrics and arrangements from `Sola Scriptura' to bring a sense of cohesion and continuity here, and fans will have a great time scratching their heads trying to recall what originally popped up and where on that one! Another highlight is that any prog album that prompts further research into its subject matter only enriches the work and helps the listener appreciate it on a deeper level, and `...Gratia', like its predecessor, is ripe for study and research. Believer or atheist, it's still interesting to delve into a fascinating part of history.

There is, however, a case to be made for the argument question of `How long can Neal Morse keep remaking the same album over and over?'. He has mostly followed the same blueprint described above ever since departing his former band and commencing solo duty with 2003's `Testimony', even if it is absolutely a formula that he completely excels at. If a newcomer curious about his music were to ask for a particular album recommendation, you could easily pick any one of his prog-styled solo albums from `Testimony' through to this one and they'd be rewarded with a winner, because they all sound very similar, and they are more-or-less all as superb as each-other.

So, can `Sola Gratia' be recommended? To make use of a Simpsons quote - "Yes' with an `if...', `no' with a `but..."! Yes, it's literally more of the same from the artist and won't offer any new surprises, but taken on its own merits, it's still a superb example of melodic prog-rock with a ton of the variety that Morse does so well, and despite the sixty-five minute running time, constant re-spins reveal a fairly compact set that flows together effortlessly. If you're a fan and are happy with the artist simply playing to his strengths and delivering exactly what is expected of him, or if you're a curious new listener wanting a good introduction to his approach, `Sola Gratia' proves to be just another winning example of melodic modern prog from a skilled and intelligent artist.

Four stars.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |


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