|Musical Style: Progressive Rock||Produced By: Neal Morse|
|Record Label: Radiant||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2006||Artist Website: Neal Morse|
|Tracks: 12||Rating: 90%|
|Running Time: 56:28|
Neal Morse got his start in the early nineties while a member of the critically acclaimed but oddly named progressive rock band Spock’s Beard, recording 10 CDs and 2 DVDs with the group in addition to 6 CDs and 3 DVDs with the progressive rock super group Transatlantic. Leaving both bands after becoming a Christian in 2000, Morse proceeded to put together a two CD solo album entitled Testimony that chronicled his spiritual journey in both music and words. His 2002 solo effort One, however, is a concept album detailing man’s separation from God and how, through the salvation experience, man can become “One” with God again. Morse returns in 2005 with a new solo release simply entitled ?. Another concept album, ? focuses on the Tabernacle that Moses and the Israelites built in the wilderness and that was later built by Solomon based on the same design that came directly from God. Ultimately, the album asks several questions: How can we have the presence of God in our lives on a daily basis today? Where is the tabernacle today? Hence, its title.
While the best way to describe ? would be a single 56 minute song broken down into 12 separate tracks, the album seamlessly flows from one piece to the next in coming across as one continuous epic. And epic would be the correct word to describe the progressive music here in that it harkens back to his former bands Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic while reflecting the vibe of Kansas, old Genesis, Yes or even Dream Theater. Sometimes jazzy and at other bordering on hard rock, ? does not include a single dull moment as it combines an abundance of memorable choruses and melodies with musical passages of a sublime and bombastic variety. In the end, the dramatic music here serves as the perfect vehicle to communicate a concept album based around the Old Testament place of worship and the New Testament themes of our great High Priest.
Morse, for all practical purposes, remains a multi-instrumental virtuoso who ranks with the likes of Kerry Livgren (Proto-Kaw, Kansas) and Matt Smith (Theocracy) in terms of versatility. Putting forth a skillful display of musicianship on both keyboards and guitar, Morse continues to impress with a smooth sounding lead vocal style echoing with emotion and vitality. The decision to bring in the rhythm section that performed on One – bassist Randy George (Ajalon) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) – was a wise one. George’s substantial bass lines stand in perfect complement to Portnoy’s technical and tight as a nail performance. Morse has employed the talents of many guest musicians as well, the likes of keyboardist Jordan Rudess (also Dream Theater), guitarists Steve Hackett (Genesis), Alan Morse (Spock’s Beard) and Roine Stolt (Transatlantic) and saxophonist Mark Leninger all helping to round out the project.
Production values, as one would expect, are near flawless in allowing all the instrumentation to evenly stand out in a clean and crisp sounding manner.
“The Temple Of The Living God” is a highly complex progressive rock album opener that begins as a piano underscores a whispered voice in the distant background. Transitioning to a blend of acoustic guitar and bluesy guitar harmony, the song slowly moves ahead as Morse’s smooth sounding voice takes over and helps lead the way to a lengthy keyboard driven instrumental passage with an almost jazz-like feel. After the built up momentum just as suddenly decelerates when the piano briefly returns, the pace picks back up to a crunchy rhythm guitar that gives way to a beautiful and flowing chorus accentuated by just the right amount of acoustic guitar. “The Temple Of The Living God” talks about man’s desire to enter into the Holy Presence to encounter God:
And then after all, with our backs against the wall
We seek the temple of the living God
And outside the gate the cripples sit and wait
To see the temple of the living God
To see the temple of the living God
As “The Temple Of The Living God” comes to a close it evenly transitions to the more straightforward melodic hard rock of “Another World”. Following a symphonic based introduction, a piano carries the song through its first verse and the start of the chorus that follows until a touch of rhythm guitar fades into the mix and increases the pace and emotion of the scene exponentially.
One of the albums quieter tracks, the ballad “The Outsider” reflects an almost gospel-like influence as it slowly advances to an acoustic guitar exquisitely blended with a flute. After a touch of guitar harmony interweaves with the acoustic guitar, the two combine to carry the song over its final minute. As its title implies, the focus of “The Outsider” is on what it feels like to be left outside the gate feeling empty:
But I am lonely
And dead inside
Clearly God doesn’t love me
So I’ll just wait outside
Watching the procession pass
The glory streams to earth at last
The emotional “Sweet Elation” conveys an inspirational feel as it progresses in an acoustic laced manner. The rhythm guitar exponentially expands its place in the mix until the song ends to a lengthy instrumental passage driven by a near perfect blend of keyboards and guitar.
“In The Fire” is a monster of a progressive hard rock masterpiece. Lush vocal harmonies slowly lead the way through the songs first verse until a metal laced rhythm guitar briefly kicks in and gives way to a smooth sounding chorus with an immaculate and melodic based feel. The extensive instrumental passage that follows is carried by a frenzied over-the-top guitar solo backed by an organ – one of the albums highlights – while over its final three minutes the song satisfyingly breaks for several more intermittent but lengthy jam sessions.
The creative “Solid As The Sun” moves forward to interplay between its slower and more laid back verse portions and a metal laced rhythm guitar that fades away as quickly as it arrives. After evenly flowing to a catchy chorus that comes across almost worshipful in its capacity, the rhythm guitar again briefly returns hard and heavy. George’s substantial bass lines proceed to take center stage to back of minute of narration before Morse and company launch into an instrumental passage featuring a jazzy saxophone that sticks around and interweaves with the chorus that follows. The message to “Solid As The Sun” is self-explanatory:
In a world filled with people
There was only One
Who could stand in the presence
Solid as the sun
“The Glory Of The Lord” is a dramatic mini-track (1:41) carried its extent by orchestration and a huge gospel-like choir.
The acoustic guitar closing out “The Glory Of The Lord” segues into “Outside Looking In”. Continuing in an acoustic based direction over its first and second verse, “Outside Looking In” picks up in pace upon reaching a chorus backed by vocal harmonies and a splash of keyboards. A nice bluesy guitar solo closes out one of the albums softer tracks.
The best way to describe “12” would be a six minute progressive rock jam session. The song opens quietly as Morse’s emotional vocal delivery is carried over an acoustic guitar and a hint of guitar harmony. As “12” gradually builds in momentum, it briefly segues back to the chorus of “The Temple Of The Living God” prior to closing out its final five minutes to a powerful instrumental passage: The jazzy piano that gets things going gives way to another extended display of expertly played fluid lead guitar work. “12” deals with God’s numerological history with the number 12:
Twelve groups of stars
Surrounding God’s heaven
Same as the tribes
The twelve tribes of Israel
Christ built His church
Upon twelve apostles
And three thousand souls
Were added at Pentecost
Introduced to a blend of piano and flute, “Entrance” moves through its first verse to a jazz-like piano until an acoustic guitar helps carry the second. The sweeping and emotionally charged chorus that ensues ranks with the albums best. Once the song picks up in pace for its second chorus, the rhythm guitar steps forward hard and heavy and helps take the song to its close in a commanding manner. Once again, as “Entrance” reaches its conclusion it repeats the chorus to “The Temple Of The Living God” Portnoy puts in a stellar performance on drums on this track. “Entrance” points to the person of Christ:
I see a man with hair as white as wool
Whose tongue’s a sharp-edged tool
With feel like burning brass
For the unclean ones to come into the gate
To the weakest ones I will give my strength
And the lowest ones, they will be brought higher
Let the unclean ones be washed in the fire
The piano closing out “Entrance” leads the way to the power ballad “Inside His Presence”. Slowly and quietly advancing through its first and second verse, "Inside His Presence" effortlessly flows to a chorus standing out as a result of Morse’s emotional vocal delivery. Just a touch of rhythm guitar enters the mix as the song picks up in pace for its second chorus, while a bluesy guitar solo closes out the songs final minute. Beautiful. “Inside His Presence” focuses on the way that was finally made to enter into the presence of the Living God:
From a list of laws seeing all our flaws
To the blind, the lame, we are all the same
Our High Priest has come to make us all as one in Him
When He died and was born the temple walls were torn
And God’s Spirit poured out to all the ones without
Now the temple of the living God is You
The temple of the living God is You
The momentum closing out “Inside His Presence” carries over into the opening to the reprise of “The Temple Of The Living God”. Introduced to a guitar driven instrumental passage, the song moves on to the albums emotional conclusion as its chorus is repeated one final time. The same type of distant whispering opening the album closes things out.
As a progressive rock concept album, ? proves a solid work of art in blending Morse’s creative songwriting skills with an abundance of top flight musicianship and a solid production job. A well rounded effort from front to back, I find it difficult to pinpoint any glaring weaknesses here. Once more, if you are a fan of high quality progressive rock – think Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Yes, early Kansas or even Dream Theater – then I cannot give an album a stronger recommendation.
Review by: Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “The Temple Of The Living God” (6:13), “Another World” (2:36), “The Outsider” (2:21), “Sweet Elation” (2:32), “In The Fire” (7:24), “Solid As The Sun” (6:12), “The Glory Of The Lord” (1:41), “Outside Looking In” (4:19), “12” (6:46), “Entrance” (6:22), “Inside His Presence” (5:30), “The Temple Of The Living God (Reprise)” (4:27)
Neal Morse – Lead Vocals, Guitars & Keyboards
Randy George – Bass
Mike Portnoy – Drums
Steve Hackett, Alan Morse & Roine Stolt - Guitars
Jordan Rudess – Keyboards
Mark Leninger – Roine Stolt
Chris Carmichael – Violin & Cello
Michael Thurman – French Horn
Rachel Rigdon – Violin
Jim Hoke – Saxophone
Jay Dawson – Bagpipes