NEAL MORSE ? (Radiant)
“And then after all with our backs against the wall/We seek the temple of the living God/And now that it’s done, the heart of every one can be the temple of the living God.”
Let us begin at the end shall we?
At the beginning of 2005, I had no idea who Neal Morse even was. Since that time, through my writing for the Christian music reviews site the Phantom Tollbooth, I have come across rave assessments of Morse’s first two solo albums (after leaving premier progressive rock outfit, Spock’s Beard) viz. Testimony & One. Intrigued, I sought out and obtained Morse’s new album, ?, and after having given it a couple of spins am thoroughly convicted that it is my choice as the album of 2005.
Perhaps because a musician would either be very courageous or insane to work within that misfit genre called ‘progressive’ rock. Not the progressive metal of popular bands like Dream Theater or Tool, mind you but prog that is faithful to its original 70s roots. Not only that, but Morse is a born-again Christian and has produced a concept album about the tabernacle i.e. the temple of God. Now, how marginalized does Morse want to be in these intolerant & ignorant times?
Arguably, if you wanted to write about concepts dealing in depth about the Old Testament sacrificial worship system, the mystery of the presence of God, the separation between God and man due to sin and God’s ultimate plan for man’s redemption then… I suppose prog rock is the perfect medium. Neal Morse has proved it conclusively with ?.
Morse has described ? as one song with 12 parts and it does pan out exactly that way, each part standing up well alone and yet only fully realized when seen as a coherent whole. This is one album that you must listen to completely at one sitting – all 56:28 minutes of it!
As an exercise in prog rock, ? is one of the best of its kind, blending Morse’s obvious references points i.e. Genesis, Kansas, Pink Floyd, Yes, Jethro Tull et al with well-placed pop allusions eg. The Beatles (“Solid As The Sun”). Morse – himself a top-notch technical guitar and keyboard player – has recruited some of the best to collaborate, with drummer Mike (Dream Theatre) Portnoy, bassist Randy (Ajalon) George, keyboard player Jordan (Dream Theater) Rudess and guitarists Roine (Flower Kings) Stolt, Alan (Spock’s Beard) Morse and Steve (Genesis) Hackett pulling out all the stops for an astonishing musical experience.
And unlike many concept albums, ? does indeed pay off at its conclusion and in fact is at its strongest in the last three parts. Actually, it begins with the instrumental passage in “12” on which Hackett guests with much aplomb before segueing into “Entrance” where Morse begins the denouement of his piece – an affecting piano ballad that introduces Christ into the equation and leads smoothly into the exhilarating “Inside His Presence” where Morse sings – “When he died and was born/The temple walls were torn/And God’s Spirit poured out to all the ones without/Now, the temple of the living God is you/The temple of the living God is you.” I am not ashamed to confess that as a Christian that this song reduced me to tears. Hallelujah!
What more can I say? If there is such a thing as a perfect album then ? is. At so many levels, it satisfies overwhelmingly and even if the spiritual context does not move you, then treat it in the same way you would a prog concept album about Tolkeinesque characters, deaf dumb and blind pinball wizards or psychotic musicians who live life behind an emotional wall – and recognize it for the masterpiece that it is.