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Neal Morse

 

Symphonic Prog

4.20 | 479 ratings

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Anthony H.
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Neal Morse: ? [2005]

Rating: 8/10

For me, one of the coolest consequences of modern methods of music production is the artist's increased ability to structure their music in ways that were once impossible. Albums are no longer limited to large pieces of black plastic that can only hold 25 minutes of music per side. Progressive rock has probably benefited more from this liberation more than any other genre of music; fewer limits yield a more adventurous attitude. In recent years, this adventure has manifested itself in what I like to call the 'super epic.' Compositions don't have to be split into 20-minute increments anymore. Pieces can go on for 80 minutes on CDs, and purely digital albums can be as long as theoretically possible. Prog bands have not been hesitant to take advantage of this, as evidenced by momentous suites such as The Flower Kings' 'Garden of Dreams' and Dream Theater's 'Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.'

If anyone is qualified to tackle one of these symph-rock monoliths, it is Neal Morse. Whether or not you enjoy the man's music, it's hard to deny his affinity for all things epic. ?, his third prog-rock solo album, is a 56-minute suite of absolute grandiosity. It is a concept album based on Christian themes of the 'tabernacle in the wilderness.' These religious motifs are nothing new for Neal. Anybody who knows the slightest thing about him is aware that his religion is a major part of his persona. The religious lyrics, while slightly irritating at times, are always tastefully done, not to mention the fact that the music is usually so good that even a staunch atheist such as me cannot help but feel a little giddy while listening to it.

All of Neal's normal compositional strategies are at full play here. At this point in his career, Neal pretty much knew what he was good at musically, and he sticks to it. This is not to say that this album is generic or formulaic in the slightest, though. We get the standard 'epic' structure: bombastic overture, energetic instrumental sections, low-key vocal segments, momentous climax. However, Neal is such a skilled composer that any musical format can be made interesting when placed in his hands. ? is no exception. The album opens triumphantly with 'Temple of the Living God.' It starts with quiet guitar and piano chords, but quickly jumps into high-energy instrumental interplay. The main instrumental hooks form a wonderful overture. A few short mellow sections follow. These few minutes are some the less interesting parts of the suite, but things quickly pick up with the two best songs (or 'movements', if you will) on the album: 'Into the Fire' and 'Solid as the Sun.' The former is an intricate cornucopia of heavy symph-prog with an absolutely fantastic synth solo from Jordan Rudess, while the latter is a jazzy piece with catchy vocal melodies and mesmerizing piano/sax lines. This is Neal Morse at his best.

Although there are no full tracks here that I dislike, there are certain sections that detract from the piece as a whole. There are points here when Neal fully embraces the cheesier side of his musical personality. Theatricality always plays a part in music like this, but it goes a bit far at points. I refer specifically to 'Outside Looking In' and the first few minutes of '12.' I kind of feel like I'm at some sort of jaunty church concert when I listen to these segments. Don't get me wrong, though; these sections aren't bad. Rather, they just don't live up to the rest of the album. Fortunately, Neal is able to end this piece in the most bombastically awesome manner imaginable. Both 'Entrance' and 'Inside His Presence' form an incredible conclusion that gets me every time. This is one of those 'throw your hands up in air' types of musical moments that really manage to stick with you.

Unfortunately, I don't feel like there are quite enough moments like that on ?. Neal has a rare ability to create awe-inspiring and dumbfounding music, but I feel less of that here than on later masterpieces such as Sola Scriptura. Regardless, judging Neal Morse albums in terms of relative quality is like trying to determine different carats of solid gold. At the end of the day (no pun intended), you still have amazing music on your hands.

If you hate Neal Morse, nothing about ? is going to change your mind. However, anybody with an affinity for epic symphonic rock with good dose of theatricality is sure to enjoy this monumental album.

Anthony H. | 4/5 |

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