Monday, October 31, 2016

Album Review: Neal Morse Band - The Similitude Of A Dream

Over the last twenty years, I can't think of anyone who has made more, and better, music than Neal Morse. Between Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, and his solo work, Neal has made more albums than I can count, and all of them are in their own way excellent. On his last album, there was a subtle shift, as it moved from being Neal Morse, to being The Neal Morse Band. It wasn't just a semantic difference, as the inclusion of the rest of the band in the writing and singing did make for a very different record. With the band gelling through the process of writing/recording/touring that album, the question would arise for how they would move forward.

The answer is that they have moved in two directions simultaneously. "The Similitude Of A Dream" is prog at its most bombastic. The band has pulled out all the stops by writing a one-hundred minute double concept album based on the book "A Pilgrim's Promise". Over more than twenty tracks, the band throws all the prog staples into the mix. There are lengthy instrumental breaks, intricate playing, reprisals of themes from earlier tracks, and a story that tries to tie all this together. It's a sprawling prog epic that demands your attention.

At the same time, however, it's also a more immediate album than "The Grand Experiment" was. Along the way of these two albums, we get a collection of songs that are punchier, catchier, and more inclined to join the canon of Morse classics than anything from the previous album. That's not a knock on that album, but more a reflection that it was clearly the product of a band that was figuring out how to integrate new writers and voices.

That isn't a problem on this album, which feels like a more fully fleshed-out project, as you would expect from an album with a precise focus. "City Of Destruction", which you might have already heard, showcases the best of what the album has to offer. It's a heavy, swinging prog rock song buoyed by big hooks and swirling harmonies. It works on its own as a fantastic song, but it also fits in as a piece of the larger whole. The strongest tracks on the album, including "So Far Gone" and "Breath Of Angels", serve that dual purpose to perfection.

Of course, any album of this length is going to invite the question of whether it needed to extend so long. There are a few moments here and there where the instrumental breaks feel a tad overlong, since they can't communicate the story being told. And then there's the case of "Freedom Song", which borrows heavily from a track off Neal's "Songs From November" solo pop album. I love the original track, and the derivative is also excellent, but I'm distracted by hearing what sounds to my ears to be something he's already done.

But let's get back to the main point. There is a lot of music to digest on this album, and once you do, you'll realize that there is also a lot of great music here. There is more, and stronger, material than "The Grand Experiment" had to offer. The only problem is that by virtue of its length, it's a difficult album to sit down and listen to. I know I struggled to focus on it for the entire running time. Broken down into smaller segments, I can't find anything to complain about. It's a heck of a good record. I just feel bad doing that, because the concept doesn't hold together if the entire work isn't absorbed at once.

Basically, the conclusion is that if you've ever liked anything Neal Morse has been involved in, there will be plenty for you to enjoy about this album. I don't agree with Mike Portnoy that this is "the album of [his] career", but it's another excellent album from a group of musicians who can't seem to make anything that isn't.

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