Friday, May 7, 2010

Past Reviews - Neal Morse - Lifeline

I still listen to this album now and then, which is a good sign that it's good. Good? What a silly word. Goooood. I think I prefer the album he did before this one, Sola Scriptura, which is a bit more "metallic" and is about the life of Martin Luther.

It’s not that I bear any grudge toward Neal Morse for abandoning one of the best melodic progressive rock bands of the last century for a solo career. I mean, a man has to follow his muse and if for some reason he is unable to create the music in his heart with his current band then it’s time to move on. Except that this man needed that band to flesh out his music, making it more diverse and interesting. Since going solo Neal Morse has yet to create an album of the scale and grandeur that was Spock’s Beard but with Lifeline he finally comes pretty durn close.

The opening title track goes a long way toward Morse re-earning his status as one of the best writers of progressive rock. Tight breaks, complicated arrangements that remain easy on the ear, a few odd time signatures and emotional melodies rule the day, slowly starting with a pensive solo piano before slamming into a big Spock’s Beard-type instrumental overture. Four minutes into this dramatic orchestral song vocals finally see the light of day before gusty guitars and heavy riffs take over again. You’ll be amazed at how quickly these cheerful thirteen minutes fly by, a testimony to Morse’s songwriting prowess.

The other overtly progressive song is “So Many Roads”, coming in at a massive twenty-nine minutes. This dramatic masterpiece is broken into six different sections, the centerpiece being focused on the lyrics “’Cause there’s so many roads to nowhere / So many places I could try / … / Maybe it’s time for me to fly / And search for the on that will save me / That will lead me in the light.” Of course these lyrics cannot convey the melody to which they are attached, one which pulls at your heart without wallowing in maudlin emotionalism. Highlights include a five minute section of acoustic guitar and jazzy saxophone and pretty much every drum smack put to tape. As on most of his solo work the drums are handled by Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy and this recording proves why he is considered a living legend. Wowee zowee! Bass duties are compliments of Randy George of Ajalon and once again he is able to lay some pretty massive and complicated grooves while always keeping one foot firmly humbly planted in melodic phrasing.

“Leviathan” is perhaps the heaviest thing Morse has ever recorded. Opening with spooky synths and dark choir you can easily imagine the Vikings out at sea on a dark night, evoking an image that intentionally just manages to keep from teetering into Spinal Tap territory. From there rhythm section bass kicks in on this monster of a song, leading to a horn section, a stomping, playful chorus and a xylophone solo. Yes, I said “xylophone”… trust me… you’ll like it. If you’ve been wondering when you’d hear the next quirky “21st Century Schizoid Man” you need look no further.

The four remaining songs are much less progressive, often sounding like modern versions of Kansas or Styx. “The Way Home” is a passionate seeking for comfort with chiming guitars, mellotron flutes, and an eventual buildup into a lush string orchestra. Visions of Yes are found in the hopeful “God’s Love” before jumping into “Children of the Chosen,” a bright acoustic-based song with a chorus that would not seem out of place in many churches. Decent songs but not as strong as the first three mentioned or the final song, “Fly High”, a powerful and invigorating song of beautiful piano and gorgeous strings that slowly build to an amazing guitar solo by Paul Bielatowicz that is as melodic as it is technically impressive.

With Lifeline Neal Morse has been able to convey his Christian faith with a boldness and artistic integrity that is rare to find. While revisiting the power-pop prog rock that was a mainstay during his time at the helm of Spock’s Beard Morse was able to retain the song-oriented format of the many classic progressive rock bands mentioned above, forging an impressively strong album that is his best in years.


Ricky H said...

Lifeline seems to be getting a very mixed reception from NM/SB fans. Some love it. Some hate it. Still others are torn between liking the proggier numbers and disliking the more praise & worship sounding numbers.

I must confess to still not being exactly sure how much I like Neal's music (with SB and solo). Some of it I really dig, but some of it just doesn't do it for me. But some songs that I wasn't crazy about at first have grown on me - and I can't think of anything I just outright dislike. (I've just recently started checking out some Spock's Beard, so I'm not very familiar with their stuff, yet.)

I agree with you that, working within the group dynamic of SB, Neal's songs seem to have had more subtlety and nuance than his solo stuff. I don't know if that's intentional or not. I also agree that he needs to expand his lyrical palette a bit - still, it's sometimes nice to hear someone of his calibre singing so openly about his faith.

I was surprised at how many people didn't appreciate the humor of"Leviathan". I think some prog fans need to lighten up a little (or maybe even a lot).

"So Many Roads" is probably my favorite NM song. It's the first really proggy song of his that sounds like he's really having a good time doing it. The song sounds (to me) like a stylistic tip-of-the-hat to various early prog influences. When the music fully kicks in (around the 35 sec. mark) it reminds me of Styx; the part with the saxophone reminds me of something Supertramp might have done; the part that references Britney Spears brings to mind something Roger Waters might have done with Pink Floyd (it's even got some female bgvs); the dreamy part after the saxophone section kind of seminds me of Yes (Wakeman-esque piano runs, Howe-ish guitar swells); then into some Deep Purple meets Kansas Hammond organ fueled hard rock; there's bits of early Genesis sprinkled about... I could go on (I think). But what's so great is that he makes it all sound so fresh. It's a fun, bracing, powerful, invigorating ride! I ALWAYS feel energized after I listen to it (the same way I do after the 19 min. epic "The Collector" by Twelfth Night). Man, I'm a sucker for a good 20 minute song!!!

It's shame you didn't get the Lifeline with the bonus disc. A kicking version of the Osmonds' "Crazy Horses" (with Paul Gilbert on guitar); a psychedelic Bee Gees' "Lemons Never Forget"; and great versions of the Box Tops'/Joe Cocker's "The Letter" (with Neal doing an impressive Joe Cocker imitation), and Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny Bout) Peace Love And Understanding". Plus, there are a couple of more NM originals - "Sometimes He Waits" really moves and encourages me (and I need all I can get of that, right now), and the 13:30 "Set The Kingdom" has some of the subtler touches that (I think) you'd like.

By the way, what did you think of the two Proto-Kaw albums of new material that Kerry Livgren (and his resurrected bandmates) released?

Sorry this is so long. I'm like a fat kid running downhill - once I get going, it's hard to stop.

Uvulapie said...

Very thorough observations! Now I'm going to have to listen again with my spidy-senses and see if I can hear what you hear. Or maybe I'll just hum "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and think about Andy Williams.