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Neal Morse - ? [Aka: Question Mark] CD (album) cover


Neal Morse


Symphonic Prog

4.19 | 601 ratings

From, the ultimate progressive rock music website

5 stars I have been open about my enthusiasm for Neal Morse's music (SB, TA, and the solo series). Although some of strong Chrisitian lyrics can be quite off-putting some time (think Testimony, Lifeline and a handful of sections in One), this is not the case with this 'mysterious' release.

As far as progressive rock goes, this '?' is his third solo album after the highly acclaimed Testimony and funtastic' One. In Prog history this album would one day serve as a springboard for the much hyped 'the Whirlwind' that sees Transatlantic united in a one-maga-epic songwriting format, which was experimented and excelled in this 12-song cycle. How did this one fare? In comparison with the rest of those perhaps better-known works, including the brilliant Snow of Spock's Beard and the first two Transatlantic albums, it does NOT pale in comparison to those work. Although this is a signfiicantly shorter album, the listening experience is just perfect.

The album starts out in an attempt to mystify the audience, with a mimalist piano notes and Neal's whispering of 'Jerusalem' something. Then the first verse kicks in with acoustic guitar strumming very beautifully. Those who have listened to this album know by now how this part 'And then after all, with the backs against the wall...' will keep reprising and serves as the main chorus part of the whole 58 minute long 12-part epic. The melody of this part is brilliant and haunting.

Everybody knows how a strong chorus is vital to an ordinary song. A prog epic, on the other hand, have been without a good chorus part that keeps the whole track cohesive. In my opinion, tracks that are between 7 - 15 minute long can get by relatively easily. Tracks that are longer tend to get more loosely connected and can be considered more of several 'songs' with a continuous flow. Think 'Dark Side of the Moon' or PT's 'The Incident'. In the case with this album, this is executed perfectly and can set a high standard for wrting a long epic track.

From that point on, the music is exploded into many territories, and they are great music here! Partly it's thanks to the contributing musicians including TA bandmate Roine Stolt, Alan Morse, Jordan Rudess, and STEVE HACKETT. What could possibly go wrong when these masters are at work? It's a shame the guests are not given the credits for their exact contribution like who has played which part. In one of the interviews, for example, I learn that Roine Stolt contributed percussion to the first track and this information was quite revealing.

Of serious remark in this album is the bass by Randy George. His contribution to Neal Morse music has been improving with every release. This album and the next (Sola Scriptura) should get him to the same rank as many dominant prog bassists. At certain points he plays with certain ferociousness that only be heard from Chris Squire. Pete Trawavas (my fav bassist since Fish-era Marrillion) at his height displayed in all Transatlantic albums may be more consistent. But in certain moments in these two discs Randy would easily outshine Pete.

On the other hand, Portnoy in this album is a bit more restraint than "One" and "Sola Scriptura" that bookend this album. I believe with proper control he could be a much better drummer than the metal-wise double-bass drum fest he usually display in current line-up DT. In this album, he is obviously in control. Although there are quite a number of odd time signatures and suden changes here in this album, the drums are played with perfection and restraint. He wouldn't be able to top his drumming easily.

Finally and most significantly I am addressing Mr Neal Morse, who is Mr Pefect in this album. His vocal performance is great, with great dynamics tool; the lows are very rich and the highs are pleasing, not annoying at all. Since he doesn't say which part of the music is contributed by which musician, I will hold him responsible for producing most of these keyboards and guitars (and yes we've seen that he could play all these notes in his Sola Scriptura concert). Man, the guy is unbelieveable. The keyboard solos are rapid fire (some parts sound more like Rudess, but the DVDs show us that he could play those notes too). Most importantly, these notes are quite memorable, not a speedy shred fest other technical bands would go for.

In general, the '?' album offers all that Neal Morse is well-known for (or notorious, to some point of view). Long-musical structures, reprising themes, religious lyrics, counterpoint vocals, majerstic finale, pop sensibilities for good (even sing-along) melodies, instrument duals. The difference is, this time he is excellent in all these elements. Certain sections no doubt reminded me of some other unworldly bands, such as the freaky jam in Solid as the Sun sound typical to Kansas, and I guess Kerry Livgren guested in this part. It is hard to pinpoint the best moments in this disc, as the entire 58 minutes are pure gold. Not a second of the music is filler.

The lyrics, although ultimately Christian, are well constructed. If you are reading this, you probably know about the tabernacle and how one can find God. The way the story is narrated and a sense of suspense is not at a level that belongs to music industry. This is almost a long form of poetry or at least trying to be a novel. I think Neal Morse has done a monumentous job to create the lyrics for this wonderful epic. I am not saying Neal is a Khalil Gibran, but that his lyrics for this album progress beyond the realm of music. I am not a Christian or beliver in any faith myself, and his lyric here, unlike some parts in Testimony and Lifeline, doesn't offend me at all. There's nothing downright preachy about it. All in all, this is essential for progheads. I am rating this five stars against any pop-up warning by Progarchives, because Neal Morse and co just deserve it.

terryl | 5/5 |


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