THE NEAL MORSE BAND – The Great Adventure (2019)
The recording of any new album has its challenges. And the more successful a band is the more challenges it faces, both with the actual writing and recording process, but also with a back catalog of material that the new album will be compared to. THE NEAL MORSE BAND had an additional challenge when it came to recording their upcoming album “The Great Adventure” which is due in late January 2019.
They had to create the follow-up album to ‘The Similitude of a Dream,’ a work that garnered near universal praise, and is in my and many other fans’opinions Neal’s masterpiece. And instead of taking the relative easy route by making just another album, they instead made another two disk behemoth and sequel.
I was as surprised as anyone when I learned that “The Great Adventure” was going to be a sequel. The first album is loosely based on the first half of the classic allegory The Pilgrims Progress, and the journey of Christian.
For the new album, the band focuses on a character found in the second half of the book, the abandoned son Joseph of the first album’s protagonist. As with ‘Similitude’ it is a loose adaptation with the themes and emotions being more important than a strict narrative copying the source material.
The album begins where the previous left off, with the throbbing opening and closing sounds that closed the disks of the first album, along with the final lines sung concluding with “let the great adventure now begin.”
We are then briefly introduced to a main musical and lyrical theme of “the love that never dies” before launching into the “Overture” proper.
As with any overture it serves the purpose of not only jump starting the album in an exciting and engaging way, but introducing the audience to the musical motifs of the first disk.
This leads into “The Dream Isn’t Over” which properly introduces the main character of the story and his situation before leading directly into the first single released “Welcome to the World.” It’s a hard rocking song, and shows where the character resides compared to those around him. The world is of course a hard, often scary unfeeling place, and this is what the son finds and sees all around him. Melodically it worms itself into your ear, which is fine as the melody and variations of the lyrics are repeated a few times through both disks.
We are soon met with another song and piece that makes several appearances throughout, the heavier and considerably darker “Dark Melody,” which references the lost and dark nature of the son’s soul and life in general.
The second single of the album was released a week or so ago and so should get some mention as well, it is of course the title track “The Great Adventure” which listening to its own I am pleased to see still works as an independent song. The strongest parts are the separated keyboard solos that tie everything together. And prog fans will likely starting tapping their fingers along with them as they pretend to play along every time they come up.
This observation makes a good point to comment on the rest of the band. Neal Morse has of course been mentioned several times by himself already, as he is the main vocalist and creative force behind the band. Little can be said about his writing and musicianship that hasn’t already been said many times over the past several decades.
However after having had several years to listen and compare The Neal Morse Band to the other groups he has worked with, I really have to say this is best group of musicians he’s ever been surrounded with and a prog band whose skill, writing, and live performances would make anyone reluctant to have to follow.
Mike Portnoy is of course the most well known of the group. And this album simply reaffirms why he is one of the most widely respected and influential drummers on the planet, prog or otherwise. He also shows on “Venture in Black” that his skills as a vocalist have continued to grow and he is very memorable during the course of the song.
Bassist Randy George returns as well; as someone who has been playing with Neal since 2004 his delicate, and rock steady bass is at this point as indispensable to the band’s sound as Mike’s drums.
Relative newcomers Eric Gillette and Bill Hubauer both provide lead vocals as well as their guitar and keyboard parts. We loved Gillette solo album featured at this blog – well he is no longer a rising star but a very powerful and intricate virtuoso on his own accord. And his guitar work and solos on this album are destined to only gain him more of the praise and notice that he so richly deserves. This, along with his excellent vocal work, makes him essential to the sound of the band. Hubauer is no less vital, his keyboard work is easily recognized, and his leads stick in the head of the listener for days. His distinct high ranged vocals are often the melodic and emotional glue that keeps everything together. Simply put this is one of the most talented groups of musicians in rock music today, and you need your head examined if you argue otherwise.
The second disk opens with “Overture 2” which swells and drives forward in the same manner as its predecessor while serving the same purpose. The main thrust of the album comes with “Long Ago” as the son continues on his journey with a vision and longing to reach “the love that never dies.” The son is of course young and bitter, and the music and lyrics reflect the darkness of that struggle. The main thrust of it begins with the fourth track “Fighting With Destiny” and the battle of the soul rages through the rest of the disk.
Things get dark in a hurry again with “Welcome To The World 2” as Mike takes over the lead vocals for the first verse before the slightly modified chorus is brought it. The riffs are heavy and almost doomy in nature as the song continues, and is highlighted by some killer solos by Gillette.
On a whole I would consider the second disk to be the heaviest and darkest music that Neal has had a part in to date. Mike’s drumming is positively thunderous and intricate, and Randy’s bass is the pulsating heart of it all.
For some non metal fans who are strictly prog fans they may find it too much. I most certainly do not; and find that lyrically these tracks contain some of Neal’s deepest and most important observations of the struggles and reality of the spiritual and worldly life.
The Great Despair” is also noteworthy for the vocal performance of Eric Gillette. I would say it is hands down his best on any NMB album, and at times are chilling in their intensity and emotion, and the impact the band reaches on this track are some of the best on the album.
The album concludes with “Freedom Calling” and “A Love That Never Dies” and as they go together and form the final “chapter” of the album. Many of the earlier motifs are brought into it, “The Great Despair” of course, but most effectively “Dark Melody,” the voice of God being sung and presented by Bill, and it is every bit as good as Eric’s performance on the previous song, indeed it has my favorite performance of his on any album.
The biggest difficulty this album faced is similar to the son’s problem, living up to his father. The band had the near impossible task of following a masterpiece, and in the minds of most fans this album will never match up with its father because of the love and reverence they have for it.
However rather than taking it easy and delivering a single stand alone disk that bore no relation to its predecessor, they took up the quest and delivered a true sequel.
And unlike many follow-ups which were disastrous (say any Jaws movie after the first) the band have instead released a very powerful, often deep, album that is a fitting successor, and crafted a son worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with its father.
The Neal Morse Band have more than proven that they were up to the task of creating a new and masterful album. “The Great Adventure” is more than worthy of standing on its own, and as a follow-up album. Fans will do well though to give it time and look past the fact that it is a sequel and listen to it as the stand alone album that it is.
When they do they will find a lot to love, and it will ultimately I believe satisfy both long term fans, and someone new to the music.
This album is destined to be on many people’s Best Of lists at the end of next year and is setting 2019 up to be an exciting year in progressive music. And of course, “The Great Adventure” will also appeal fans of all genres, from metal to pop.
Chapter 1 (12:50)
02. The Dream Isn’t Over
Chapter 2 (23:48)
03. Welcome To The World
04. A Momentary Change
05. Dark Melody
06. I Got To Run
07. To The River
Chapter 3 (17:59)
08. The Great Adventure
09. Venture In Black
10. Hey Ho Let’s Go
11. Beyond The Borders
Chapter 4 (18:13)
01. Overture 2
02. Long Ago
03. The Dream Continues
04. Fighting With Destiny
05. Vanity Fair
Chapter 5 (30:57)
06. Welcome To The World 2
07. The Element Of Fear
08. Child Of Wonder
09. The Great Despair
10. Freedom Calling
11. A Love That Never Dies
Neal Morse – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Mike Portnoy – Drums, Vocals
Randy George – Bass
Eric Gillette – Guitar, Vocals
Bill Hubauer – Keyboards, Vocals