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Neal Morse - NMB: Innocence & Danger CD (album) cover


Neal Morse


Symphonic Prog

3.96 | 168 ratings

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4 stars Back in February, Neal Morse (ex-Spock's Beard) and Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) brought you the new Transatlantic record, 150 minutes of prog extravaganza divided across two, differently arranged versions of the same album. Since then, the prog wonder pair did not waste any time, and on August 27th they hit the shelves again with a new The Neal Morse Band's album, Innocence & Danger, a double-disc release that clocks in at nearly 100 minutes of music. This is supposed to be a "simpler", more spontaneous release compared to the band's previous three records, which is probably the case considering how their two prior LPs where a pair of interconnected, double-disc concept albums sprawling across 200 minutes of music in total. Instead, Innocence & Danger is a self-contained, song-based affair, written without a specific overarching theme in mind and with a more relaxed, "let's have fun in the studio" attitude that certainly transpires through the fresh and diverse material of the album.

This is not to say that the 10 songs of Innocence & Danger fall very far from the tree of metallic prog rock that has characterized a great deal of Neal Morse's discography, especially since he joined forces with Portnoy back in the early 2000s. On the contrary, the new songs are still very much anchored in Morse-Portnoy's trademark sound: a blend of prog rock intricacies, robust rhythmical acrobatics, grandiose melodies, and madly skilful playing. Yet, some of the material opens up to new and unexpected influences, like the 80s pop vibes of "Another Story to Tell" and the otherwise Beatles-esque "Your Place in the Sun". Meanwhile, "The Way It Had to Be" is a great bluesy ballad that brings to mind Pink Floyd as well as some of the singer-songwriter material one can find on Neal Morse's solo albums. And then there is "Bridge over Troubled Water", an incredible prog adaptation of Simon & Garfunkel's classic piece. This is actually one of the highlights of the album. The complex instrumental histrionics added to the song structure are absolutely spot on and the vocal arrangements are superb too.

These injections of new and diverse influences give the album a freshness and levity that a lot of contemporary prog rock/metal records lack. However, this does not come at all at the expense of depth and substance: Innocence & Danger contains some extremely rich prog material, that is structurally complex and thoughtfully arranged. Miraculously, however, the music does not feel complex or studied, even when one faces multi-part mammoth pieces like the 31-minute long "Beyond the Years" or the nearly 20 minutes of "Not Afraid Pt 2" (both contained on the second CD). These compositions are so well-thought out and so tastefully arranged that time literally flies by while one listens to these songs. The flow of these tracks is nearly perfect and the songs contain so many moments of melodic brilliance that verses and choruses stick with you only after a couple of listens.

Still, 100 minutes of music ask a considerable time investment to the listener, so the inevitable question is: is all the material consistently high-quality, or could have they slimmed down the album by leaving out some of the weaker songs? To these ears, the opening four tracks of the first CD ("Do It All Again", "Bird on a Wire", "Your Place in the Sun" and "Another Story to Tell") do not quite match the level of quality of the rest of the material, especially of the two long pieces of the second CD. Although these four songs have all some interesting moments, the melodies are somewhat weaker and, despite listening to each piece multiple times, I still cannot remember any specific vocal line or instrumental passage from any of these tracks. The rest of the songs on the first CD are more memorable, but overall I cannot help but feel that there is a slight imbalance between the two discs: the stronger material, the "meat" of the album so to speak, is clearly on disc 2, while disc 1 feels almost like a looser collection of "bonus" tracks, and I notice that I inevitably tend to gravitate towards the second disc in my repeated listens, often skipping altogether the first disc. It's a pity because some songs from disc 1 are truly excellent, like the aforementioned cover of "Bridge over Troubled Water" and the ballad "The Way It Had to Be". I feel that a little more quality control could have make this excellent album, a real masterpiece.

One aspect of the album that initially took me by surprise is the alternation between three vocalists: Morse, guitarist Eric Gilette and keyboard player Bill Hubauer. In nearly all tracks, the three singers swap vocal lines continuously throughout a song, which at first I found slightly unsettling, also in part because they each have slightly peculiar, "acquired taste" voices that takes some time getting used to. But I quickly got into the groove and after a few listens it is actually fun to have three vocalists instead of one in each song. Speaking about things that require getting used to, since the early 2000s a lot of Morse's lyrics revolve around strongly Christian religious themes, and this album is no exception. It's nothing overly preachy and I personally do not care too much about lyrics, but it is something that some people may not find to their liking, so be warned.

Overall, Innocence & Danger may not be perfect, but it is still a great album that will no doubt satisfy progressive rock fans. The main strength of the album are its freshness and diversity. There is something for every taste, from the whimsical corners of prog-pop, to bluesy Floydian ballads, to harder-edged rockers, to full-blown, multipart prog epics. The metallic undertones of much of the material contained on this LP will also appeal prog metal lovers, especially fans of bands like Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Pain of Salvation or Threshold. If you are prog-inclined, give this one a try, you won't be disappointed.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

lukretio | 4/5 |


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