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Neal Morse Band - Great Adventure - 3CD -

Price per Unit (stuk): €26.95

Considered by many to be one of the most skilled composers and performers in today’s progressive rock scene, despite being unfairly bashed by critics in regards to his personal beliefs, Neal Morse is bar-none one of the most inexhaustible productive musicians of our time. A few years ago Neal solidified a stable lineup for his band, now referred to as The Neal Morse Band, bringing his longtime partners in crime Mike Portnoy and Randy George together with a couple of at-the-time newcomers: Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette. This quintet has embarked in a successful and staggeringly prolific ride, producing two riveting studio albums and several live releases, with their 2016’s offering The Similitude of a Dream categorized as a chef-d’oeuvre of modern prog-rock by fans and critics alike.

Having released their most celebrated recording two years ago, the Neal Morse Band were undoubtedly going to move in another direction for their follow-up and not try to compete with their own masterpiece. And that was the plan initially…until a different inspiration took hold. Several re-writes later, the band is ready to unveil The Great Adventure, which continues the original Similitude tale with a similar but unique trajectory.

Being a concept album, the best way to approach the listening experience – and this review – is as a long-form piece of 105 minutes spread over two albums. The band has decided to tell their tale in five Chapters, ranging from 13 to 31 minutes each, and comprising of 2 to 6 song titles each. Although there may be 22 total songs listed, one track flows into the next during each Chapter, at times repeating previous melodies or foreshadowing future themes.

Let’s be clear at the outset: The Great Adventure follows the mold of The Similitude of a Dream faithfully and precisely, from its opening Overtures to its closing tear-evoking grand finales. While The Great Adventure focuses on its own original themes that will be visited several times throughout the album, it also briefly reprises about 6 melodies from The Similitude of a Dream, sometimes with exquisite freshness and emotion. For example, the main opening theme from The Similitude of a Dream is arranged for solo classical guitar, touchingly delivered by Neal Morse at the very end of “To the River”. This gives all four albums a cohesive identity and flow. And to the band’s credit, the recurring themes are usually arranged in interesting ways that deepen the overall journey, rather than casting a feeling of repetitiveness. Of course, the bulk of The Great Adventure is replete with diverse and creative songwriting, so the listener is ultimately left with a sense of new discovery combined with deepening familiarity.

Sonically, the band has never sounded better. The production is flawless. Rich Mouser has long been the band’s renown mixing engineer, but this time he has really outdone himself and added some special sauce that is a wonder for the listener’s ears to behold. The drum engineering from Jerry Guidroz brings Portnoy’s kit right into your living room, while Mouser’s perfectly balanced mix ensures that every bass note from Randy George is as audible as the rest of the band. The vocal mix alone is worth the price of admission, with the band’s vocal arrangements (four of them sing) delivering an unprecedented emotional impact.

As the listener begins the journey in the opening Chapter, a mixture of harp and sound effects heralds in the opening notes (and later, seals the closing of the album) reminiscent of Close to the Edge, as a guitar figure from The Similitude of a Dream signals that the Dream is about to continue. We then begin where The Similitude of a Dream left off, with Morse emotionally delivering the closing verse from that album “…may the great adventure now begin”, his voice floating in etherically as if from the previous Dream. He then introduces the first main melodic line of the new album and we enter the next Dream. A swath of strings briefly marks the transition and the band kicks in for an eight minute instrumental “Overture” that features many of the themes that will be visited throughout the album. Drums blazing, a muted guitar riff that could be a nod to Queen’s “Keep Yourself Alive” before Eric Gillette takes off into the stratosphere, rapid bass notes adding to the pace, Hammond organ and Morse’s signature lead synth at the fore: we are off on the great adventure in prime Neal Morse Band style. The narrator then sets the stage, sung by Morse, with a bluesy edge in the guitar licks. We learn that the Dream has passed from the father to son, but that this son is jaded and bitter. His great adventure will relate his journey from a personal nightmare of abandonment to a Dream that he can claim for himself. Unlike The Similitude of a Dream  which followed Pilgrim’s Progress fairly closely for inspiration, The Great Adventure sees Morse inventing many new directions for his characters, which only occasionally find their origin in the actual Pilgrim’s Progress text.

If Chapter 1 was a prelude, “Welcome to the World” is a perfect introduction to Chapter 2, not to mention an ideal first single. A tight rocker that combines playful lyrics (those big words…“taciturn iconoclast”), scorching guitar and the aforementioned group vocals, this is The Great Adventure ’s answer to “City of Destruction” from the last album, and then some. The next track, “A Momentary Change”, isn’t so much a song as it is another jam on various themes, including the introduction of one of the main melodic sections that keyboardist and vocalist Bill Hubauer brought to the table which appears multiple times on The Great Adventure, here sung briefly by both Morse and Hubauer. While the music all holds together beautifully and lays more foundation for things to come, the latter half of the track borders on being one-too-many instrumental preludes before we get to the actual “songs” of the album, of which there are plenty. However, this can be forgiven in the context of this being just a small part of the 24-minute Chapter 2. Moving on, “Dark Melody” offers an intense progression of agony penned by Hubauer and sung by Morse which also provides the backdrop for one of Eric Gillette’s most inspired shredding solos. Portnoy’s finesse at the drum kit brings this song to the next level, perfectly complimenting Gillette’s fluid delivery as Hammond organ drenches the chord progression. The sound of clocks ticking launches us into a highlight of Album 1 as “I Got to Run” realizes the power of Morse and Gillette trading lead vocals. Set over an intense riff with Mouser’s mix prominently on display, Morse finds a rejuvenated vocal delivery on the verse. But as Gillette’s voice explodes into the chorus, the listener may need to buckle their seatbelt even tighter. The final minutes of the track are a refrain of previous melodies and a foreshadowing of “A Love That Never Dies” with the band’s vocals already tugging at our heart’s sleeve during a revelatory chordal resolution. Pipe organ heralds in “To the River” with full Wakeman regalia as the band continues to weave in themes from past, present and future. Again, this ultimately leads to a sense of continuity and rediscovery, demonstrating what a concept album is truly all about. Although on paper it may look like the band is just repeating some melodic structures time and time again, this formula worked well on The Similitude of a Dream and it achieves the same cohesiveness on The Great Adventure . Fortunately, there is much more to come, and we are still just getting warmed up.

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