With more group involvement than ever before and eschewing the big topics, this set of two halves is broad enough to appeal to both tentative newcomers and long-time progheads.

Label:    InsideOut Music / Sony Music
Time:    CD1 – 8 tracks / 49 minutes
           CD2 – 2 tracks / 51 minutes

One of the great strengths of the Neal Morse Band (now NMB) is that there are four more contributors to the music than when Morse creates solo projects. The multi-instrumentalist is so prolific – with this outfit, solo work and his two prog supergroups Transatlantic and Flying Colors – that such a band effort spreads out the sounds and keeps Morse’s own contributions from becoming too samey.

So Morse coming to this project without any of his ideas ready for submission means that it is probably the most diverse of all the band’s albums – which is both a strength and a weakness; more variety, but also some less impressive pieces.

CD1: The first two tracks get the collection off at a great pace. The opening to “Do It All Again” screams Genesis’ “Dance on a Volcano” and Morse has admitted it. Undergirded by some rich, emphatic organ, with a big chorus and the beauties of 7/8 time, this is as good a mid-length track as any they have recorded. “Bird on a Wire” continues the energy, with some impassioned soloing – and some short bursts of gratuitous shredding by Gillette, who produces most of the emotional power in this disc.

Then the mood changes as “Place in the Sun” starts a few songs initiated by keys player Bill Hubauer. Here we hit a mid-70s mid-tempo, piano-led AOR feel – Billy Joel is not far out as a reference point, and there are shades of George Harrison in the middle. This is where those who baulk at full-on prog can find their way into the band. “Another Story to Tell” continues the piano-based shorter songs with echoes of Supertramp, before turning in another of those big choruses.

“The Way it Had to Be,” from whose lyrics the title comes, is a chilled, bluesy piece that beautifully sets off the louder tracks. It suits Gillette to the ground. If that more spacious track weren’t enough, “Emergence” is a solo acoustic guitar piece that works as a sorbet between courses. Think Steve Howe’s “The Clap.”

Then “Not Afraid, Pt 1” (not related to Part 2 in any way other than the title) brings the acoustic mood into its intro. Lyrically, this one takes one of the band’s main themes of life turning around and growing forwards, and is where faith forms its bedrock, even if it is implicit. The piece has real dynamism and some strong melody. When you hit the quiet spell some fourteen minutes in (yes, there is an epic track on this side as well) you just know that it will build and build to a rousing finale.

Anyone who has enjoyed Morse’s Covers series – or even the Beatles tribute band Yellow Matter Custard, both also featuring Portnoy on drums – knows just how comfortably they can handle great tracks. In just the same way that Yes took Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” and made it their own expanded piece without losing the song’s integrity, NMB treat the duo’s classic “Bridge Over Trouble Water” with great respect, including all its main features, while completely re-designing its clothing. There are definite shades of both Steve Howe and Chris Squire in a prelude that features proggy arpeggios and jazzy moments. The track more than justifies its last-minute inclusion to fill the space available once the album’s music wouldn’t fit on one disc. When it gets to “Sail on silver girl,” they slow it right down, ramp up the harmonies and build towards the final orchestral ending. They push it right up to the ‘almost overblown’ mark without quite going past it.

CD2: For those wanting more epics, just two tracks fill this disc, starting with “Not Afraid, Pt 2.”  It is twenty minutes of the classic Morse approach to tracks. It starts with nods to Refugee and Dream Theater, then moves into several tunes, which gives Gillette plenty of material to bud his solos on. At several points, Morse’s synth adds terrific emphasis between lines. Like Part 1, it also quietens down to build up again from around fourteen minutes in.  

While faith is often understated in this album, it gets more explicit here, where the water is a main lyrical metaphor:
“Come on all you sons and daughters, make your way kids in this rising tide.
  Come find love that has no borders, the gathering Son, you will be his bride,
  And it’s alright now, I’m coming home.”

While “Not Afraid” is a fairly comfortable amalgamation of typical Morse elements, “Beyond the Years” is on another level right from its orchestral start. There is a slow, almost climactic, feel inside the first of its 31 minutes.  From there it develops new ground, such as a section reminiscent of medieval dance music, some shredding, a Gentle Giant type of vocal interplay, some very powerful synth and guitar solos, a drum and bass duet, and an instrumental section that begins in Bach style and develops into a laid-back backing that echoes, well, Floyd’s “Echoes.” There are epic tracks and EPIC tracks. This is the latter.

Our reviews of this band have often remarked on their multi-instrumental talents, but not only can the members play each other’s instruments (and play their own impeccably), their vocals combine in so many ways. That means that harmonies can always kick in for the emotional high spots, and individually Gillette’s higher register often takes over from Morse’s as a song builds. Hubauer’s vocals complement these, his voice not as strong, but distinctive in its timbre.

It hardly needs to be said any more, but the sound is impeccable, and Rich Mauser’s exemplary production (as on the recent Transatlantic album) again brings out details that really enhance the experience. If this were released in 1974, it would have made them millionaires.

Derek Walker