Following 2015’s The Grand Experiment – which saw Neal Morse and his band go into the studio to create music with no prepared material – the singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter heads in the complete opposite direction with the meticulously composed and arranged The Similitude Of A Dream.
It’s a hugely ambitious double concept album – and triple vinyl set – inspired by John Bunyan’s 17th-century Christian morality tale The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ever since he became a born-again Christian in 2002, Morse has never shied away from proselytising with his music, and while The Similitude… may not be classified as Worship Music in the same sense as Morse’s solo releases To God Be The Glory and God Won’t Give Up, there’s simply no escaping the overtly religious nature of this material.
If your favourite prog track is Freewill by Rush then move briskly along, please – there’s nothing for you here. The lyrics are full of references to angels, salvation and grace in a manner that would make God-fearing spandex-rockers Stryper blush.
In Bunyan’s allegorical adventure, his hero, the unsurprisingly named Christian, journeys out from the City Of Destruction and eventually finds his way to the Celestial City, avoiding numerous temptations and secular distractions along the way.
Morse’s approach is not exactly heavy on the allegories – ‘You’ve got to get out of the City Of Destruction’ he sings in (you guessed it) City Of Destruction, which is about as subtle as a steel-toecapped boot to the family jewels. And the line ‘Join us in our merry band’ in Shortcut To Salvation is almost unforgivably twee.
Fortunately, the musical content is much stronger than the lyrics. This is the same group of virtuosi that cut The Grand Experiment and have toured with Morse since 2012, with Bill Hubauer on keys and guitarist Eric Gillette joining long-time collaborators Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums.
As ever, there’s no lack of bombast – go big or go home seems to be Morse’s overriding musical mindset.
Morse is nothing if not a generous bandleader, giving everyone an abundance of opportunities to strut their stuff. Hubauer gets to cut loose in We Have Got To Go, and Eric Gillette cuts a surprisingly jazzy solo in Draw The Line. Portnoy, of course, is irrepressible, and his rambunctious tom/kick groove is the impetus behind Confrontation, while his nimble yet powerful playing is all over The Battle.
As ever, there’s no lack of bombast – go big or go home seems to be Morse’s overriding musical mindset – and that could be exhausting if that was all he had to offer, but over the course of this double album he draws upon a satisfyingly broad palette. The hugely catchy The Ways Of A Fool suggests Supertramp or ELO, Sloth has shades of Pink Floyd, and there’s even a dash of Americana and folk in Freedom Song.
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The Man In The Iron Cage pumps up the power with a shot of metal in the guitar riff as Habauer’s organ brings to mind vintage Jon Lord in Deep Purple, while I’m Running boasts a soulful horn section with a wicked funky bass break from Randy George.
If there’s one musical weakness, it’s Morse’s presence as a vocalist. He’s never going to compete with the mighty pipes of Ronnie James Dio, the witty style of Ian Anderson, or Jon Anderson’s lofty range. He compensates by delivering his lyrics with unflinching commitment and an inextinguishable passion for the material.
Portnoy has compared The Similitude Of A Dream to The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall – a confidence that hopefully will be backed up by public acclaim, if not mass commercial demand. Those albums were released at a time when rock was at its zenith – The Wall and Tommy both sold millions of copies, a feat precious few releases achieve today, never mind progressive rock concept albums based on 17th-century religious texts (although we can’t write off the possibility of an army of churchgoing Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic fans inhabiting the US Bible Belt).
However, while its clearly not Morse’s intention to separate the message and the medium, putting the evangelising to one side, the scale and accomplishment of The Similitude Of A Dream sets a new high-water mark in an already impressive career.