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Neal Morse - Lifeline CD (album) cover


Neal Morse


Symphonic Prog

3.13 | 284 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars I figure that if you've got an aversion to anything pertaining to the Christian persuasion then you have as many Neal Morse CDs in your collection as I have albums by Madonna. I understand. It's quite alright. But, having been born and raised in the church eons ago, the spiritual content of his material caters to and fulfills a part of me that I've ignored all too often throughout my many adult years. Having said that, I'm enough of a prog snob to assure you that if his music wasn't challenging and intriguing I wouldn't give him a second listen. So I'm no Neal Morse Kool-Aid drinker if that's what you're thinking. Each of his offerings stands or slumps on its own merits.

This is the album I was hoping he'd make at this juncture of his career. His output (for the most part) since leaving Spock's Beard and Transatlantic has consisted of lengthy, involved projects that dealt with one central concept whether it was man's estrangement from God or Luther's revolution. And, with talented cohorts Mike Portnoy and Randy George (not to mention a bevy of guest artists like Steve Hackett and Phil Keaggy), he has produced some of the best symphonic progressive rock I've ever heard. Now, while his approach has great appeal for me, the size and scope of those CDs probably overwhelms the majority of the non-prog audience and discourages their investments in his music. In essence, they are prog albums with a heavy emphasis on religion whereas "Lifeline" is a religious work that draws generously from the prog reservoir. Had he released another 80-minute-long project based on a single idea I would have joined those who are saying that he's in a rut. But here he has switched gears and delivered seven individual pieces that have little to do with one another (other than proclaiming his beliefs) while the quality of the work remains unimpeachable. On rare occasions I dial in local Christian radio stations in my area just to see what's going on in that realm and, believe me, there's no genre more in need of a progressive movement within its ranks. Morse has made his art more accessible to fans of praise music without betraying or compromising his prog pedigree and I heartily applaud him for that.

"Lifeline" begins with a piano intro, then the fantastic rhythm section of Portnoy & George join Neal in a driving prog pattern that kicks serious tail for over four minutes before the verses and choruses arrive. Morse writes better lyrics when he's not restricted to staying within a particular story line and, therefore, all the songs on this CD benefit from an upgrade in that department. Here he harkens back to his conversion as he recalls how Jesus saved him when "suffering was nothing new/my days were few without a letdown/something down there deep inside/dissatisfied with everything I'd find." A hot synthesizer solo and some spirited guitar work appear midway through and things never get boring as the trio adds invigorating accents and punches all the way to the grand finale. This is no fluff piece and it's an excellent example of what these guys do best.

If you're familiar with Neal's solo albums you know he usually includes one or two standard-sounding tunes along the way. The problem is that they're imbedded within extended movements and the average Joe never gets a chance to hear them. On "Lifeline" Morse has presented four numbers of that ilk as stand-alone cuts. Beautiful acoustic guitars usher in "The Way Home," accompanying Neal's pristine vocals as he discloses that one's religious faith, no matter how strong, doesn't always translate into a life without dilemmas. "I may never find that place where I feel like I belong/I know that when I find it I'll have known it all along/I feel like a dark cold night that's reaching for the dawn," he sings. Lush strings give the track depth and the song builds to an emotional crest before ending quietly.

You can't keep these boisterous musicians caged up for long and the brute force of "Leviathan" lets them free their inner (sea) monsters. Ominous, scary synthesizer lines lead to a barrage of guest Jim Hoke's zippy Horns from Hell as this heavy rocker blazes through an odd chord structure for six minutes of metal fun. In the 2nd part Morse pulls up an interesting vibraphone/steel drum effect on his keyboard to turn your head and then Portnoy slays with his ferocious drumming right up until the abrupt end. Don't look for anything meaningful in the lyrics, they just needed a platform to drive hard and fast and a ditty about Godzilla had already been done. On "God's Love" Neal once again employs acoustic guitars to strum under his soothing voice and he avoids complicating a song that doesn't need complications. "You promised yourself you never would love again/and you tried hiding out but your heart just can't stay shut in/but there's a love that is real/that won't turn on you/just reach out and you'll feel/what He said is true." he assures. Morse is a master of melody and this one will stick inside your head for weeks.

Dense keyboard chords add color to the opening of the powerful "Children of the Chosen," an uplifting tune that features a "walking" beat and a fine nylon-string acoustic guitar ride to provide a change of pace at this point. The words describe being a part of something glorious and not of this world. "Aren't you tired of the rules they made?/the bondage on your backs they laid?/shake it off, you've got liberty/there is more than we can see/God loves you and he wants you to be free," Morse announces. The deeply-stacked vocals and Portnoy's finely-tuned toms rolling during the fadeout are highlights.

No Neal Morse CD would be complete without at least one large epic and "So Many Roads" doesn't take a back seat to any in his catalogue. It's a six-part journey about being unsure of which path to take in one's life and most everyone on the planet can relate. After a piano/vocal outset, the central musical theme skyrockets brilliantly into the heavens overhead before settling back into a straight-ahead tempo. "Star for a Day" is a metal-tinged, motoring track with a sizzling synth break in which Neal warns that, while obviously enticing, fame is a shooting star that burns out quickly and will ultimately drain your soul. "The Humdrum Life" is a charming, jazzy ditty with tricky time signatures and Jim Hoke supplies something I don't recall hearing on a Morse album previously. A soprano sax. It's delicious, too. Neal speaks of the pitfalls in taking the risk-free trail of creative denial, the safe and unadventurous route. "Give up your silly dreams, living life fully/come down the surest road, you can be happy/while you work your life away." he sings sarcastically. After a half-time section filled with soaring guitar lines they segue into "All the Way to the Grave," another forceful pile-driver of a song with tight riffs, Hammond organ growls and a bass solo from Randy that'd make John Entwistle proud. Morse brings up the easiest option, that of dropping out completely. "Forget it, you can party every day/Live it up! You can be stoned all the way." he warbles. Things take a mellow turn at the beginning of "The Eyes of the Savior" with its gorgeous, floating guitars and a very effective tremolo bass effect undulating below. It builds steadily to a magnificent chorus that completely captivates the symphonic prog lover in me. He offers a simple solution. "Behind door number two there is another life/one that will satisfy more than you'll ever know," he sings and I don't have to tell you what it is. The final segment is a big-time reprise of the epic's opening song and it lives up to its promise in spectacular fashion. Anyone who didn't know what high-quality prog rock was before will know after experiencing this cut.

Over the years Neal has composed many wonderful ballads and "Fly High" is one of his most sublime. Few tunes can send chills up my spine like this one does and it includes one of his best phrases ever. "Give up everything you have/for what you could never buy." he urges. Gets me every time. I adore the backing strings and the overall wall-of-sound production but the eye-opening "Wow!" moment arrives when guest guitarist Paul Bielatowicz unleashes a solo that is "GET OUTA HERE!" amazing. I dare say there's not a fledgling guitarist alive that doesn't wish he could crank out one of these babies and my jaw still drops to the floor with every listen. Don't miss it. The angels themselves couldn't have shredded any better.

The true test of an album's worth for me comes when, after a dozen or so spins, I still look forward to hearing it. "Lifeline" is one of those special albums. Is every song prog? No, but there's plenty of progressive ideas to indulge in and the musicianship, arrangements and undeniable enthusiasm involved is of the highest caliber so I have no reservation in recommending it. It's not a masterpiece if you go by the strict definition but to give it any less than a five-star rating would be a travesty. It's that good.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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