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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Neal Morse
Label: Radiant Records/Metal Blade
Length: 12 Tracks/56.28 Minutes
And then after allNeal Morseís third solo release ? is jaw-droppingly good; a mind-blowing 56-plus-minute pure, powerful, progressive rock roller coaster ride that touches thematically on the great mystery of God (hence the title ?), and the yearning of the human heart to be known, loved, and accepted.
? is a work of art that the listener needs to absorb and process. It is broken up into twelve tracks, but ? works best as a whole. Morse builds to a dramatic crescendo several times during the CD, and to experience the full effect of the dizzying highs and gentle lows you need to listen to the entire project. I checked out the CD twice this week on a two hour round trip and alternately was reduced to tears, experienced chills running down my spine, and popped goosebumps (there and back again!) as I "got" the vivid & creative message that Morse portrays on ?.
Joining Morse on this CD with an amazing turn on drums is the inimitable Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), and rounding out the rhythm section with booming and scintillating thunder is the nimble-fingered Randy George (Ajalon) on bass. Both of these excellent musicians add depth and color to the broad musical picture pained by Morse on ?. And ? features some stellar guests on fascinating instrumental peformancesóincluding Steve Hackett (Genesis), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), Morseís brother Al on guitar, and Mark Leniger with his mighty saxophone. Just who plays what and where they play it is a mystery, however (in keeping with the ? theme!). Morse promises the answer to those questions is "hidden in the art work!" Listeners take note: the blistering instrumentals on "Into the Fire" are simply stunning, and they mesh perfectly with this songís theme of fiery sacrifice. I felt like I needed to run for cover while listening to this song!
Musically, comparisons to Dream Theater, King's X, Genesis, The Beatles, Utopia, and (of course) Spock's Beard, and Transatlantic can be heard. This is not entirely fair though, because Morse has succeeded in creating a style that is uniquely his while managing to evolve and progress on his latest project. ? is one of the hardest/heaviest rocking epics Morse has ever written, but it also has some breathtaking poignant slower moments as well. And I would be hard pressed to name an album that features as many powerful highs, epic swells, and gentle lulls as ?.
Lyrically ? is a theatrical story about the Tabernacle (the portable place of worship in the wilderness). Morse captures in stunning detail the celebration that takes place as Godís people pierce the veil to the Ultimate Reality. As I listened to "The Temple of the Living God" I found myself transported to that place in the wilderness as Godís people rejoice with unbridled enthusiasm. The sights and sounds of the Tent of Meeting pass before your mindís eye as you listen. Morse brings the story to a personal level as those who are "Outside Looking In" search for an "Entrance." I donít want to spoil the storyline for you, but suffice it to say Morse manages to bring to vivid life the Old Testament place of worship, while touching on the longings of the human heart, and tying all of this in to New Testament themes of our great High Priest. And he manages to do so without sounding preachy or trite. Iíd love to quote a bunch of the lyrics, but that would kindaí spoil the treasure the listener finds in ?.
This one is a must have folks, and Neal Morse fans (whether Christian or not) will love it. ? features a message of celebration, acceptance, and reconciliation that resonates deeply, managing to touch mind, soul, and the heart. Man, between the phenomenal ?, and new releases by Glass Hammer, Ajalon, Salem Hill (coming in November!), and the Christian Prog project CPR 2 2005 is shaping up to be a banner year for progressive rock fans young and old!
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Barry Nothstine hosts Soul Frequency ( http://www.soulfrequency.com) a weekly FM radio show showcasing progressive rock, instrumental rock, power-pop, psychedelic rock, rock classics and moreógreat rock for the ages!
Christian Progressive (Cprog) artist, Neal Morse exposed his soul and Christ-journey with the 2003 release of Testimony put man's struggle to rejoin with God in the 2004 release of One, and has once again outdone himself with his latest release, ?. ? is a progressive rock masterwork that is fixed hard in both prose and musical content. What ceases to amaze me is Morse's ability to present extensive Christian themes without sounding like any CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) artist I have ever heard. I believe it is the marriage of progressive rock music with the subject matter and Morse's perceptive insight to the "everyman" approach to presenting his message.
The CD is really one continuous song (don't worry, it is time segregated so you can navigate the tracks) that subtly flows without notice. The "?" title helps to establish the entire feel to the CD using the biblical Tabernacle as the hub of his subject matter. Morse keeps his stable of musicians that helped to make his previous works their best - Randy George (Ajalon) on Bass and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, OSI) on drums while adding a bevy of guest prog artists both old and new. Veteran Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett delivers an absolutely haunting solo on the track, "12." It conjures up his signature sound from his early solo work - "Voyage of the Acolyte." On "Into the Fire", Alan Morse (Spock's Beard) and Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) turn in simpatico guitar solos that ebb and flow as if human. "Solid As the Sun" features three exciting sections: guest saxophonist Mark Leniger solos, Neal's Church Pastor delivering a poignant sermon backed by Randy George's inventive and tasty bass solo. The pinnacle of the CD is in the track "Outside Looking In." - a gentle tune that reverberates the very cage around my heart. This is the "everyman" hook that will illuminate everything Morse is conveying. This tune beautifully builds to an emotional crescendo that will deliver "goosebumpery" on your arms and neck. The capper for this CD is in the lyrics for "12" cataloging the mysterious "numerology" that riddles the bible. Simply stated passages that get your noggin a buzzing.
Morse left the progressive rock band Spock's Beard some while back to fulfill his calling to God. Fans remain divided as to whether or not they will accept his new direction. As I have stated before, his delivery of his spiritual point of view does not put off. His musical direction hasn't really changed much from Spock's Beard; in fact much of it is the same. I would challenge those who remain "outside looking in" to suspend their disbelief for a moment and give "?" a listen - I promise that you will not be disappointed. One of the best CDs I have heard this year.
Jon Rice 10/20/2005