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Neal Morse - Testimony 2 CD (album) cover


Neal Morse


Symphonic Prog

4.00 | 628 ratings

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4 stars Testimony 2, like the original Testimony album, is a prog-oriented solo release by Neal Morse which comes at an interesting point in his career. The original Testimony wasn't quite his solo debut - he'd put out some non-prog singer-songwriter stuff before that - but it was the first prog material he'd put out since his departure from Spock's Beard, and was essential in establishing Neal as a viable solo artist who could still speak to the prog fanbase he'd cultivated despite his shift into overtly religious subject matter.

This turned out to be unusually successful, because whilst Neal might have felt a religious calling to do more music about his spiritual perspective, he hadn't given up on his former musical and lyrical approach so much as he'd evolved it. In particular, most of Neal's prog solo albums from Testimony to Testimony 2 would be unabashed concept albums, tackling meaty subjects like autobiography, Christian parables, Old Testament Scripture, and Church history. Of course, promoting a particular religious viewpoint and hyping up Christ was part of the deal, but the albums were never simplistic collections of praise songs or unsubtle, repetitive calls to conversion. (Neal would put out his Worship Sessions series of more conventionally Christian-themed music, of course, but they aren't prog releases and don't pretend to be.)

However, I found that his 2008 release, Lifeline, found the prog side of his work slipping; unusually for his prog solo releases, it wasn't a concept album, just a collection of songs about how awesome God is, and as well as lyrically slipping back towards his worship music output it musically speaking kept drifting in a fairly generic Christian rock direction. It felt like Neal's prog batteries were low - and then came the surprising twist of his return to Transatlantic, which he'd left at the same time as his departure from Spock's Beard, with the new album The Whirlwind being a good step up from Lifeline (perhaps benefitting from a wider range of compositional hands at the helm).

If the first Testimony was Neal explaining his perspective of things at the time when he'd just given up on being part of his various band projects, then, Testimony 2 finds him giving an autobiographical snapshot of where he's at immediately after he'd not only come back to one of those bands, but taken up the keyboard player's duties in another project (Flying Colors). Inevitably, this involves going over some territory again - he's not stopped being keen on Jesus, after all - but in some respects this is a good thing, because it allows Neal to touch on subject matter which he had avoided on the previous album.

On the first Testimony, and in public, Neal's departure from his various band projects was presented as solely being about him wanting to put more of a focus on religious music, and not wanting to drag those projects in that direction. (Notably, whilst his reunion album with Transatlantic isn't without mild religious themes, these are nowhere near as front-and-centre as they are in his solo work.) Privately, however, Neal's family was undergoing a crisis: his daughter Jayda had been born with a heart condition, but thankfully it seemed to spontaneously resolve itself.

It's understandable why Neal might have felt he owed God a thing or two after that - and doubly understandable why he would want to take more control of his schedule, stepping away from the Spock's Beard and Transatlantic touring grind so as to spend as much time as possible with his family, and triply understandable why he wouldn't have wanted to make a big deal of that on the first Testimony - both because the matter was so raw at the time, and because the classy thing to do when you've got a song about someone's birth condition is to wait until they're a little older and can form views on whether they want their medical history turned into a song!

Happily, Jayda's recovery appears to have stuck - and so Testimony 2 includes Jayda, a song focused on her story; this is perhaps the simplest and most direct song on the album, a heartfelt tune vividly describing the agony the family were going through and their joy at her recovery - all the sort of thing you can get behind and enjoy whether or not you subscribe to Neal's particular religious conclusions, because regardless of that there's still an interesting autobiographical story being told here. This added dimension to the story means that Testimony 2 doesn't feel redundant next to Testimony so much as it's giving a different slant on the same story, which both makes Testimony 2 a richer album by itself and helps put a new spin on the original album in retrospect.

So much for the lyrical themes: what about the music? Well, thankfully Neal's back on top after the misstep of Lifeline; it's not that his approach is radically different from the sort of work he's done since the early Spock's Beard (his prog songwriting has always been gradually evolving rather than undergoing sudden revolutions), but there's a pep to the music's step which wasn't there on Lifeline. You've got big Broadway musical moments, torch songs, Gentle Giant-esque intertwined vocal harmonies, Pink Floyd-inspired guitar work, and all sorts of prog treats crammed into 100-odd minutes of music.

Notably, though, only 70-ish of those minutes relate to the main concept - the second CD has two shorter, self-contained songs and a nice self-contained prog epic, Seeds of Gold. Interestingly, all three songs can absolutely be interpreted from a religious perspective, or could be secular songs about love and peace - much as was the case with Transatlantic's The Whirlwind - suggesting that as well as being open to working in more secular band projects (Flying Colors is not overtly Jesus-y, for instance) and in addition to playing covers of secular songs, Neal was now open to broadening the lyrical scope of his solo compositions.

Look, this deep into his solo career Neal Morse has told us exactly who he is and what he's about; if anything, he did that on the original Testimony, so despite his sensible decision to keep some of the most personal and painful aspects of that story quiet until this release you can at least say he was open and honest about the parts he did lay out. There's not a whole lot that's going on with Testimony 2 which is enormously new - indeed, even the core musical team of Neal, Mike Portnoy, and Randy George is the same trio that's been the backbone of his pro solo albums since One - but when it comes to examples of what Neal does on his prog solo albums, Testimony 2 is right there in the top tier next to Sola Scriptura.

Warthur | 4/5 |


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