The Neal Morse Band has produced what just might be their most musically and emotionally satisfying work to date
The Great Adventure
Artist: The Neal Morse Band
CD 1 – 11 tracks 54:27
CD 2 – 11 tracks 49:38
This couldn’t have been easy. As a matter of fact, The Neal Morse Band pretty much set themselves up for failure on any of a number of levels. For one thing, The Great Adventure is a sequel to the band’s last project, and we all know what usually happens with sequels – can anybody say Big Top Pee-Wee? The afore hinted-at project was already becoming known as Neal and company’s magnum-opus – a double-disc of prog magnificence that tackled a classic piece of literature and translated it into musical terms. A hard act to follow by any measure – and yet, here we are with The Great Adventure, an unplanned-for part two of what many have called the band’s finest hour.
So what could possibly go wrong? For one thing, repetition – this could have become little more than a pompous remix of Similitude of a Dream. For another, more frightening thing, it might simply have fallen short of the standard of its predecessor, producing a massive so what from their fan-base. After all, you’ve got to run out of steam at some point…
Spoiler alert – The Neal Morse Band has topped themselves once again with The Great Adventure, avoiding all of the potential pitfalls of following up a previous masterpiece.
With two CDs totaling a little over 104 minutes, Morse and company continue the story of Bunyan’s allegorical tale (popularly known as “Pilgrim’s Progress”). This time we follow the path’s found by Joseph, the abandoned son, through events found in the later parts of the book – with some story-telling liberties, of course. Each disc starts with an overture, and right off the bat we realize that we’re picking up right from where Similitude of a Dream ends. Bits of melody recall emotional themes from that project and set us up emotionally for what might be to come. The music is sweeping, powerful, very dynamic, full of promise, and slightly more hard-edged than what might be expected. Followed immediately by “The Dream Isn’t Over” we hear fresh new sounds, invigorated performances, and great, well-crafted songwriting from the combined forces of the band. A reprise of one of the main themes from Similitude, accompanied by a mournful cello (viola?) leads us into the main body of the continuing story.
To go into detail about each track would not only take way too many pages but would result in the needless frustration of knowing that the written word will not translate the power, emotion, and technical artistry of the album. Highlights, though, are many.
“A Momentary Change” features wonderful shared vocals – something that’s been a welcome feature on the band’s newer work, adding color to the overall sound. This is one of several stunning ballads and features beautiful, emotional guitar lines and some great, measured vocal moments from Bill Hubauer. The pace changes to a more robust prog-rock tempo at the end, where the whole band struts their considerable stuff. This is followed by the intense “Dark Melody,” a song with a very dramatic structure. Eric Gillette’s guitar soars and plunges the depths of a stunning solo during the powerful organ-drenched build-up that leads to the song’s climax. Since I haven’t committed to commenting on every song I won’t even mention Gillette’s explosive vocal on the title-phrase of “I’ve Got to Run.” Or his rapid-fire solo. Or Randy George’s anchoring, rock-solid bass lines…. Or even how Hubauer’s big ‘church organ’ leads us out of that song and into the massive “To the River,” where Randy and Mike deliver some big, powerful foundation.
If you’ve heard the title-track, you know that this is a band that’s firing on all cylinders. Portnoy’s drumming has taken on more finesse and taste while sacrificing none of his usual speed, power, and tech savvy. As mentioned before, the vocals – always a strong point on Neal Morse projects – have taken on a new versatility and texture, with just about everyone with the exception of Randy George stepping up for solo spots (hey, Randy – we know you can sing – when do you get your big moment?). Neal does his usual dazzling work on keyboards, guitars and vocals. Eric Gillette soars both vocally and as a lead guitarist. Bill Hubauer has really come to the fore as an emotional and flexible singer, while his keyboard work seems to be veering more and more to a Hammond / church organ sound (which is a very good thing to this Procol Harum fan). Solid-as-a-rock Randy George continues to anchor all of this great music with bass lines that are both melodic and propulsive. The Neal Morse Band is in a very good musical place right now, to say the least.
This is a band that can easily go from the ominous “Venture in Black” to the refreshingly playful “Hey Ho Let’s Go,” with its hooky riffs, bluesy guitar breaks, and fun harmonies.
Disc two starts with a grand, symphonic mini-overture that transitions into pure instrumental prog with some in-your-face-bass, fiery drumming, guitar-hero riffing, and techno synth runs. “Long Ago” follows, setting us up for the resolution both musically and lyrically. The song features some very interesting rhythms from Mike Portnoy as well as some stellar synth work from either Morse or Hubauer (see the problems you multi-instrumentalists cause?).
The ominous “Fighting With Destiny opens with some nasty, heavy bass lines and a barrage of drums – a tour de force of prog soloing ensues….. The ‘novelty number’ quality of “Vanity Fair” lightens things up a bit before the super-heavy “Welcome to the World 2” attacks like a metal thunderstorm. Things get ominous again and even a bit eerie with the very jazz/fusion-ish “The Elements of Water.”
Eventually, we get to the big, emotional “A Love That Never Dies,” a huge, super-powerful ending. This is a grand, uplifting song with a soaring melody and a superb vocal performance by Gillette backed by the full band, with gospelly back-up vocals, orchestration, and Portnoy’s best symphonic percussion attack. The chord changes are designed to transport the listener – and they certainly succeed. “To the river – I am going / Coming across the great divide / Mourn not for me, for I am entering / to a Love that never dies…” If this doesn’t get to you, nothing will. I could almost swear I heard Gillette’s guitar scream in pain at one point.
Neal, George, Mike, Bill, and Eric have produced what just might be their most musically and emotionally satisfying work. And that’s saying a lot.
4 1/5 tocks
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