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Neal Morse - One CD (album) cover

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Neal Morse

 

Symphonic Prog

4.11 | 363 ratings

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Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer
3 stars The challenge here is to offer an impartial judgement of something that amounts to little more than a musical sermon, wielding its superstitious Christian faith with sincere but starry-eyed fanaticism...and already it seems I'm not off to a very good start. Oh, well: the path to hell is paved with good intentions, as Samuel Johnson famously didn't say...

Let's try it again. For a lapsed Episcopalian any album by Neal Morse probably can't help being a definitive guilty pleasure. And this year 2004 solo effort is no exception, highlighting some of the best and worst music yet written by the erstwhile SPOCK'S BEARD frontman.

First, the good news (not The Good News, please take note!)...Morse is, as always, an incredibly talented songwriter, with a prolific gift for epic musical arrangements, an ear for memorable song hooks, and a laudable appreciation for golden age Progressive Rock superseded only by his (sadly) dogmatic religious beliefs. His skills are in fact great enough to make it very easy to overlook the inconvenient fact that his copycat Prog aesthetics haven't advanced much in the fifteen years since the debut of SPOCK'S BEARD (more about that below).

Ignoring his strident evangelism for the moment, there's some good stuff here. "The Man's Gone" is one of the more evocative ballads in a catalogue already overstuffed with gems, ending in a delicate acoustic guitar filigree that foreshadows an energetic solo spot two songs later, a good example of Morse's affection for leitmotifs and large-scale album structure. "Author of Confusion" is a convoluted macho rocker with ties to the verbal and instrumental eclecticism of GENTLE GIANT.

(...a quick digression: why do so many outspoken Prog Rock bible-thumpers -- think of AJALON's "Lullaby in Bedlam", or "Circus Brimstone" by THE FLOWER KINGS, or TRANSATLANTIC's "Duel With the Devil" -- seem to draw their strongest musical inspiration from none other than Old Scratch?)

And the eighteen-minute, four-part epic "The Separated Man" may be the zenith of his career thus far. This is a Prog Rock suite of real ambition and scope, with moments of genuine emotional power, proving a point that Morse too often overlooks these days: the music itself is always the best message, not the other way around...

...Which leads us, inevitably, to the bad news about the album. Lyric writing has never been Morse's strongest attribute. And his vocal delivery can sometimes tend toward hyper- emotional melodrama. Combine those two unfortunate traits alongside a lot of over- earnest, artless proselytizing and the results can be like hearing fingernails scraped down a stained glass window, with lyrics rarely straying beyond the superficial level of lines like, "We live to praise His name!" (Don't presume, Neal: a lot of us don't subscribe to the idea of a supernatural patriarch who micromanages the lives of every creature on Earth according to some primitive system of eternal rewards and punishments.)

Songs like "Father of Forgiveness" and "Cradle to the Grave" exhibit these tendencies at their absolutely lowest common denominator, each one (and elsewhere) dripping with enough sanctimonious bathos to baptize an entire congregation of sinners. And the supposedly joyous epiphany of the climactic "Reunion" sounds conspicuously forced, not unlike a slap-dash Hollywood happy ending tacked onto a film by a nervous producer worried about the weekend box office. "I love it!" shouts Neal at one point, apparently trying to generate some spontaneous enthusiasm.

Another gripe, as mentioned earlier, is the way Morse's Neo-Prog conservatism too often leads him to repeat familiar motifs and musical themes from earlier efforts. To cite just one example: the eighteen-plus minute album opener "The Creation" shows a striking resemblance to the early TRANSATLANTIC epic "All of the Above", right down to the same jazzy keyboard improvisation and slow, melodic mid-section. It all leads, of course, to a stately grand-finale, like every Neo Prog suite repeating the opening song at a slower tempo, with bass pedals for emphasis (a trick borrowed from the blueprint of the GENESIS classic "Supper's Ready").

Memo to Neal: in the early 1970s the best Progressive Rock actually progressed. Turning back the clock with your medieval religious convictions doesn't mean you need to do the same with your songwriting.

But in the end the music itself, minus all the lyrical soul-searching, is what finally redeems the album. It's too bad that Morse insists on alienating much of his fan base by using the recording studio as a pulpit: nobody was ever converted to monotheism by listening to a rock album, even such a well played, well produced one as this . It was, by the way, my own first exposure to the music of Neal Morse beyond SPOCK'S BEARD, and I'm happy to say I'm still an atheist, thank God.

He's singing from his heart, which is what any true musician needs to do. But it's hard to imagine any lasting reward to be gained from preaching to the choir.

Neu!mann | 3/5 |

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